Rights of Freedom

Bust of Plato, a classical Greek philosopher and mathematician.

Origin of modes

  • May 2004
  • by Steve Sabz
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"Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful." - Plato (427-347 B.C.) in The Republic

Before we get into the origin of modes, let us read what the Greek philosophers, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and Plato (427-347 B.C.), had to say about their effects on human behavior and their role in education.

Aristotle, who studied under Plato, was keenly aware of music's power over the individual, as it would no doubt influence both culture and State. He advised that certain modes were better suited for specific age groups. For example, he said that the Dorian mode "is the most steadfast and has most of all a courageous character. It is appropriate for younger persons to be educated particularly in Dorian tunes." Regarding children, he noted that due to "its capacity to involve simultaneously both order and play," the Lydian was among the best harmonies for the child. Aristotle even observed similarities exhibited by particular musical instruments and the modes when he declared that "the Phrygian has the same power among the harmonies as the flute among the instruments: both are characteristically frenzied and passionate."1

Plato, a pupil of Socrates (469-399 B.C.), was deeply concerned about keeping an individual's spirit strong, rather than soft. To this end, he required that all songs of mourning, and the modes used for their composition, be eliminated. This included the Syntonolydian (the high-pitched Lydian) mode. He also objected to modes that lent themselves toward relaxation and irresponsibility, as was the case with the Ionian. The one mode that Plato was particularly fond of was the Dorian, as it is "the courageous mode, suitable for warriors in conflict or in adversity of any kind."2

The modal scales of our present-day actually originated from the Gregorian modes of medieval Church music devised in the 8th century A.D. By the mid-17th century, only the Ionian and Aeolian modes persisted. Their diatonic patterns represented the major and minor scales respectively. It was not until the late-19th century that the other five modes and their corresponding Greek names resurfaced again. Unfortunately, we have yet to discover any firm evidence linking which pattern of intervals implemented in the church modes belonged to any particular Greek mode of ancient times. Thus, we cannot assume that today's Dorian mode (or any other present-day mode) will invoke the same emotion or behavior described by Plato or Aristotle. Nonetheless, we can learn some interesting facts about the Ancient Greek cities from which these modes are named.2

Peoples from the ancient region of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Ionia was established as a colony before 1000 B.C. Known for its fertility, rich harbors, and immense contribution to Greek art. They are said to have fled to Asia Minor from Greece to escape the invading Dorians. Unfortunately, their culture was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century A.D.4

People of ancient Greece whose name originates from the mythological Dorus, son of Hellen. They migrated through central Greece around 950 B.C. The Dorians contributed to Greek culture in the forms of drama, poetry, and huge stone buildings that marked the beginning of the Doric style of architecture. The Dorians also established colonies in Italy, Sicily, and Asia Minor.4

Peoples from the Balkans who settled in central Asia Minor in 1200 B.C. A flourishing city known to the Greeks as a source of slaves and the center of the cult Cybele, the fertility goddess. It eventually became dominated by Lydia. Troy, the ancient city of Homer's Trojan War (a.k.a. Ilium) was in fact a Phrygian city. The Romans believed that they were descendants of the Trojans.4

Ancient country of west Asian Minor which began as a small kingdom that grew into a rich empire. It survived from about 700 B.C. to 550 B.C. until it was absorbed into the Persian Empire. Lydian rulers in the 7th century B.C. are credited with the first use of coined money.4

Mixolydian (the mixed Lydian):
This mode does not bare the name of any Greek city. Plato described the Mixolydian mode as "combining (hence the prefix, Mixo) the emotional quality of the Lydian with the nobility of the Dorian, and therefore being suitable for tragedy." 2 An analysis of today's Mixolydian mode reveals that it has the same key signature as the major scale located a perfect 4th above (e.g., G Mixolydian contains the same notes as C major). Similarly, the Lydian mode has the same key signature as the major scale located a perfect 4th below (e.g., F Lydian contains the same notes as C major).3

A branch of the Hellenic peoples found in the west coast of Asia Minor. Also the name of a volcanic island group located north east of Sicily, Italy in the Tyrrhenian Sea which was colonized by the Greeks in the 6th century B.C. The name comes from the mythical wind god, Aeolus, who is said to reside on the island.4

From Locris, the region of Central Greece whose people, the Locrians, founded one of the earliest Greek colonies in southern Italy in 700 B.C. In fact, the earliest written legal code in all of Europe was used there.4

1. Aristotle. The Politics. Translated by Carnes Lord. London: University of Chicago Press, Ltd., 1984, p. 241
2. Landels, John G. Music in Ancient Greece and Rome. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001, pp. 86, 96, 101.
3. Middlebrook, Ron. Scales and Modes in the Beginning (Created Especially for Guitarists). Fullerton, CA: Centerstream Publications, 1982, pp. 45, 47.
4. History Channel