Before you ask, I have no idea why I did this and no I don't expect that anyone will read it.

Somehow I leave for a month and the forum becomes obsessed with goddamned modes again. This is so 2011 you guys get it together. However, since this is the case and there’s so much misinformation about what modes are regarding definitions and historical context I thought I’d make a thread that addresses some of these things.

I’m not trying to write anything about application or use or how to think about modes or anything else. This thread is just a collection of definitions and a bit LOT of the evolution of modal thinking into tonal thinking. I will never once reference the guitar or guitar techniques because I don’t play it

My intent is not to end discussions about modes because that would obviously never happen. My only hope is [Obi-Wan Kenobi] that some people find this interesting and a tad enlightening.

Little of this is my own. These are not my ideas or opinions. I am not an expert on this (except on the parts that I am). This is information drawn primarily from two sources: a theory textbook (Harmony Through Melody) and a history textbook (Oxford History of Western Music) with some shading from some other sources. I have no agenda. You want to talk about modes, let’s talk about fuckin modes.

This thread got soooooo long and way out of hand. The worst part is I barely scratch the surface of the developments that take place and I've conflated or ignored a lot. It got to the point where I was more writing for myself than you guys because once I started to refresh myself on this stuff I found it really interesting. Anyway, read if you dare.

Here are some definitions that may rustle a couple jimmies. (It’s 2011, remember?)

A scale is a tonal collection. It’s a collection of tones that comprise a given melody arranged from lowest to highest. Different cultures used different scales at different time periods, but Western music is primarily concerned with the diatonic scale and its variations through much of its history. Today our definition is a little wider, but fundamentally the idea that a scale is a tonal collection is still accurate.

Keys are a system of freely transposable diatonic scales paired with a mode.

Modes are a harmonic context. While a scale is a tonal collection, a mode is a tonal context. F Dorian, for example, is both a scale and a mode. It tells us the collection of notes that are going to be used in a passage and it also tells us the tonal center. Much the same as E major is both a scale and a mode. It tells us the collection of notes that are going to be used in a passage and it also tells us the tonal center. This combination of scale + mode is effectively what the key system is. Each key (scale) can carry two modes (major or minor). The scale tells us which notes will be used and the mode tells us the harmony and where the tonic is.

It makes literally no sense to say the key of F Dorian (or any other church mode). Keys exclusively refer to a scale and either the major or minor mode. Nothing else. Why? History. If you want to go against that I don’t care, but that’s how it is. On the other hand, saying the major mode or minor mode to refer to pieces in the key system makes perfect sense.

Tonal definition #1. Broadly speaking the word “tonal” simply means having a tonal center (a pitch to which a melody resolves). Most of the world’s music is tonal. In fact, I’d venture to say all of it is outside of a small portion of the music created in the tradition of Western European art music of the last 115 years (i.e., the good stuff). Here we contrast the word tonal with the word atonal (meaning not having a pitch to which a melody resolves).

Tonal definition #2. Within the context of Western music tonality can have a narrower definition. Here we contrast tonality with modality. This is a contrast in a system of harmony. Both tonality and modality are tonal according to tonal definition #1. In modality we call the note the melody resolves to the modal final and in tonality we call that note the tonic. They are just different versions of the same thing. This distinction is what we’re worried about right now and where all of the confusion and bickering about semantics boils down to.

And some short ones:

Monophony is a single line

Polyphony is multiple lines simultaneously sounding.
Last edited by jazz_rock_feel at Nov 2, 2014,

Already I want to enter into an aside with some quotes.

… there is no point in inquiring about the historical origins of the diatonic pitch set, our most fundamental musical possession. We will never know them.
… these deductions are all long after the fact and have nothing to do with history. They are rationalizations, designed to show that our familiar musical system is “natural.” (Efforts to deduce the diatonic pitch set from the so-called natural harmonics, or “overtones,” are especially ahistorical, because the overtone series was not discovered and described until the eighteenth century.)

So shut up about it. We don’t know where the diatonic scale came from. The only thing we know is “that people have evidently internalized the diatonic pitch set—carried it around in their heads as a means of organizing, receiving, and reproducing meaningful sound patterns—as far back as what is as of now the very beginning of recorded musical history, some three and a half millennia ago.” That’s way cooler than some super inelegant attempt at stacking fifths or using the overtone series. Don’t ruin it.

Back to the show.


There’s over 1000 years of history from the earliest chants of the Catholic Church to just the very beginning of tonal music. It’s complicated and much of it is wrapped up in the development of the church as much as the development of musical practice. Just know that this is going to be a mega crib notes version of what actually happened because, you know, I’m trying to condense 1000 years into a reasonably readable forum post (like anyone’s gonna read this lol). Also I’m pretty much only going to follow the developments in the Church up until the 17th century. There was popular music and folk music throughout all of this time, but to include that practice as well as the church practice would be absurd (even more absurd than what I’ve already done). Just know that there was strong cross influence between sacred and secular music.

The first thing to know is that for the first five hundred years or so Western music was a purely oral/aural tradition (from around 500-1000 CE). Nothing was written down and even when it started to be written down it was not with the same detail and accuracy of even the most basic notation today. It was more of a refresher for people who traditionally memorized hundreds and hundreds and chant melodies. As we’ll see, harmonic developments that start to happen are rooted in an oral/aural tradition, as well (embellishing a melody with rule based intervallic relationships that singers could perform off the cuff).

Why is it important to know that? Because modes are kind of like spiderman out of fucking nowhere when people started cataloguing all of this music. The theory of modes as a collection of tonal contexts that could be used to define different chants only had to exist once people wanted to start classifying different chants based on their finals and psalm tones. The original Roman chants were in a way poorly represented by our idea of mode (scale + final) and were shoehorned to fit in the style (but not content) of the Greek treatises that Frankish theorists in the 10th century wanted to mimic. So in the end what we get isn’t Roman or Greek, but Frankish. They were a synthesis more than an organic observation. With that knowledge let’s fast-forward to these Frankish dudes who first started defining what we think of as modes.

A dude wanted to classify chants into different books (tonaries). In doing this he invented musical analysis. There are two words you need to know. The final is the final note of a chant, the reciting tone or psalm tone is the note that the chant intones on. He looked at a bunch of chants and analysed how the interval was filled between their ending note (which would come to be known as the final) and reciting tone (usually a perfect fifth above the final). There are four ways to do this: TSTT STTT TTTS TTST. These are called intervallic species and each one is called a pentachord (spanning a fifth).

In Frankish theory D E F and G were dubbed as the four finals (they were actually called Protus, Deuterus, Tritus and Tetradus, but fuck that shit). Each of these four finals had two modes. When the final was at the bottom of the range of the chant they were called authentic and when the final was in the middle of the range of the chant they were called plagal. To complete these scales a conjunct tetrachord (spanning a fourth) was added. When it’s added above the pentachord you already have you get an authentic mode and when it’s added below you get a plagal mode. This creates seven scales but eight modes. These modes were given numbers and Greek names that were passed down to the Franks from the Greeks through a fellow named Boethius. The prefix hypo- indicates a plagal mode.

Notice that Dorian and Hypomixolydian are the same scale (tonal collection) but different modes (tonal context). Also notice that these are all magically just reordering the diatonic scale. Triple notice that these scales don’t refer to absolute pitches like you think they do, they simply represent interval patterns. It wasn’t until the 17th century when instrumental music started to have a large repertory that there was a need to have precisely transposed scales (instrumentalists have certain physical actions associated with specific pitches, unlike singers). This is part of the reason why keys became a thing.

Here’s the consequence of this:
Instead of being a formula-family, a set of concrete, characteristic turns and cadences arising out of long oral tradition [from the Byzantines], a mode was now conceived abstractly in terms of a scale, and analytically in terms of functional relationships (chiefly range and finishing note or final) [eight different relationships to vaguely coincide with the number of psalms tones from Roman chant].

That’s p cool. Here’s the first example we’ll come across of theory outpacing compositional practice. Although it is a system of classification of prior composition, it’s a very abstract one that led to composition that was wholly new. Which is to say, practice does not always come before theory. Which is to say, people who say “theory is descriptive not prescriptive” are at best annoying and at worst completely wrong.
Polyphony is Born?

Up to now this has been essentially all about monophony. Purely melodic. Polyphony was not a mystery to people at any point in the recorded history of music, but it wasn’t until the 12th century that it became a real thing in the church.
we can still identify the extraordinary twelfth century as the one in which European musical practice took a decisive turn toward polyphonic composition. And if we are interested in isolating the fundamental distinguishing feature of what may be called “Western” music, this might as well be it. After this turning point, polyphonic composition in the West (not just polyphonic performance practice) would be indisputably, increasingly, and uniquely the norm. From now on, stylistic development and change would essentially mean the development and refinement of techniques for polyphonic composition.

The most basic example of polyphony is droning. Singing a chant while someone else drones the final. Pretty obvious.

A little more complicated is parallel doubling. In theory it’s simple: take a chant and double it at a consonant pitch (in the case of early music, a fourth, fifth or octave, the perfect intervals). Here’s the problem: tritones. If sing parallel fourths or fifths you'll eventually run into harmonic tritones unless you leave the mode you're in. The problem and solution for tritones is actually pretty complicated and I won’t get into it. The solution is effectively a whole shitload of artfully placed accidentals (specifically B flats) and cheating on the strict parallel thing, often using droned notes to correct getting too far out of mode. In doing this what happens is a true counterpoint where perfect (4ths/5ths) and imperfect (3rds/6ths) consonances and even dissonances (2nds/7ths) can arise. This is called organum or descant. In organum we get our first cadences. The thing that would define cadence until kingdom come. 7-8 and 2-1 (no raised leading tone just yet).

I must quote Taruskin again, because he’s simply the epitome of goodness.
The art of counterpoint (and of harmony as well, which is just counterpoint slowed down) is most economically defined as the art of balancing normative harmonies (“consonances&rdquo and subordinate ones (“dissonances&rdquo, and elaborating rules for “handling” the latter. The quotes around the terms are a reminder that criteria of consonance and dissonance are culture-bound, hence relative and changeable, and are best described not on the basis of their sound as such but on the basis of how they function within a style. The styles we all assimilate today in the process of acculturation (otherwise known as “growing up&rdquo teach us to hear—hence use—intervals a different way. We have all been trained to “hear” thirds as consonances and fourths as dissonances [the opposite of the above description].

There are so many more details here that I’ll just cut out. You can look up melismatic organum if you want more.

When three-voice counterpoint first arose they did the same principle thing as organum (parallelism) by using octave-filled-by-fifth. This created a harmony of all three perfect consonances in parallel (again, with a lot of cheating). This cheating is where we get our first taste of triads (strategically placed before perfect consonances and resolving by contrary motion because at this point they were still dissonant). Note that there is no concept of chord yet and certainly not chord progression. This was still simply a melody being harmonized with parallel melodies.

The Notre Dame School

Fast forward a hundred years or so and on a cold blustery day in France we find something called organum cum alio (organum with another voice). The Notre Dame School was the first widely proliferated collection of three and four voice counterpoint in Europe. Here we have a chant melody called a tenor (from the Latin tenere or to hold) in long held notes with three voices decorating around it (the same as melismatic organum and the opposite of original organum). The Notre Dame School is actually more important for it’s development of rhythmic notation than anything harmonic, but we’re talking about modes and apparently the history of harmony as well so we’ll just skip it.

The normative harmony that we’re working with here is still the octave-filled-by-fifth, but remember at this point it would have been understood as a combination of all perfect intervals (unison, fourth, fifth, octave) at once. This harmony reigned supreme over music for the next 400 years or so. What is also notable about the Notre Dame School is extraordinarily cavalier dissonance. It sounds exquisite, but check out this piece and you’ll hear chords like Bbadd9 in second inversion (which contains a tritone between voices ) and Fadd11 in first inversion (voiced in close position no less). Of course they had no concept of that at all. To them the melodies flowed a certain way and were harmonized a certain way. If the voices that carry those dissonances lead to the normative consonance we talked about then almost anything goes. There is still no concept of chord root, triads or chord progression. It was a melody being harmonized with other voices and purely intervallic in concept. Also notice the number of parallel perfect intervals. Tasty stuff.
The Ars Nova

A bunch more super interesting rhythmic things happened in the next couple hundred years, but fundamentally the concept of harmony remained the same. Suffice to say that rhythmic notation became more advanced and thus the rhythm of music became more advanced. This leads to an evolution of counterpoint where the voices can be more strongly independent of one another. This development is wrapped up in the 13th and 14th century motet and is called Ars Nova. It may be the most significant example of theory advancing beyond composers and influencing the way music was written and conceived.

Idea doesn’t change though. It’s still melodies being stacked with intervallic concerns. There is no concept of chord or progression. The normative harmony (octave-filled-by-fifth) remains. It’s important to remember that vertical structures were still important and were carefully constructed by composers at this time. It’s not as if they were just layering melodies slapdash and hoping for the best. It’s just more important to understand that the idea of chord progression and chord function did not exist, even though voiceleading and intervallic function did.

The Ars Nova also did something remarkable with harmony/melody/modes and that is that they greatly expanded the idea of accidentals. Up to this point we’ve already had the concept of using a Bb to correct the tritone against F. The Ars Nova took this idea much further and called it Musica Ficta (false music). Essentially this just meant that the notes weren’t of the standard Guidonian hexachord (look it up if you care). Notice, for example, that when you use a Bb to correct a tritone you create a new tritone (E-Bb) that wasn’t there before. To correct this again you’d have to use an Eb. These adjustments were automatic and viewed as being diatonic. There was typically no indication of their existence singers just knew when to make them. One of these rules effectively turned the Dorian scale into the minor scale (lowering the B to Bb constantly). Which is to say that much of the time when Dorian was used the sixth was flattened and the notes were the exact same as what we now call the minor scale. A similar rule allowed for the raising of the leading tone in Dorian to create a stronger close at cadence. Behold the harmonic and melodic minor scales in action (way before they were ever a thing).

Composers would also make less necessary adjustments, like using a G# to lead to A in Dorian (creating a parallel double tendency tone resolution of C#-G# resolving D-A). This cadence (along with E falling to D) became standard practice in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Why did I just talk about accidentals so much? Because modal music uses a shit ton of accidentals. Modality has nothing to do with the allowance or prohibition of accidentals. Scratch that off the list of potential differences between modal and tonal music.

You can see in the score for this one the first shading of formal chord function. The first section’s first ending is on the supertonic (second scale degree) and the second ending is on the final. This is a sort of half cadence-full cadence pair like we’ll see much later in tonality. Tonality defining form.
Mode, in this style, still means more than a scale and a final. It is still to some extent a formula family. The chief formula, of course, is the cadence…

This takes us to the edge of Medieval music and the brink of the Renaissance (if there even was such a thing in music).

The Renaissance? Nah, not quite.
…there was no musical Renaissance, and therefore no “Renaissance music.” The latter term will only appear in this book surrounded by ironic quotation marks (“scare quotes&rdquo as if to say that although one may use it occasionally for convenience to designate music of a certain age, one should not take it as really descriptive of anything in particular.

Let's back track a bit anyway. Meanwhile, in England in the 13th/14th centuries there is a lot more use of thirds. In English descant (organum) their parallelism was with triads. With the chant melody in the middle harmonized by either a third below and fourth above or fifth below and sixth above (i.e. triads in either root position or first inversion in our terminology). The English also (likely) give us our very first V-I cadence. Coming about of course strictly through counterpoint and harmonization of melody. Remember the standard double leading tone cadence from before? The penultimate chord is the same as a first inversion triad (third below and fourth above). This is all over English music as well as French and Italian, but the English also had that fifth below and sixth above harmonization that wasn’t typical of the French or Italians at cadence. If we assume F as our final, G would be our second that leads back to the final. Here are two ways that G could be used in cadence (with the typical harmonization). This is largely an aside, but it’s interesting to see the first stirrings of a more functional concept of harmony. This is also the beginning of imperfect consonances taking over from perfects.

There’s way more to learn here, but I’ve done a decent job of not getting caught up in minutiae to this point (lol). Look up fauxbourdon/faburden to learn more.

Jumping back over to the continent we can see this style of imperfect consonances growing in popularity by the early 15th century.

Before we progress let’s check back in on our old friends the modes. At this point in history modes have collapsed pretty significantly. There isn’t really the concept of plagal and authentic anymore so we’ve moved from 8 modes down to 4. In England, Lydian (the mode on F) is very commonly written entirely with B flats, effectively giving it the same tonal content as the major scale. Initially in folk/popular melodies and eventually in church music as well, the modes on C and A, while not officially recognized until the 16th century, were certainly in use in a practical sense. We’ve already seen Dorian behaving in the exact same way as Aeolian, for example. This is the beginning of a de facto reduction down to just two modes, the major and minor modes, called such because of the third lying above their final. The rest of the mode was so often altered that eventually it made little sense to have distinctions between Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian and Dorian, Phyrgian, and Aeolian. We’re not there yet, but over the next couple hundred years this will become reality.

So you might be thinking, ah ha! Surely this is where modality becomes tonality. You said tonality is about major/minor keys and you just said major and minor. Alas, it isn’t the whole story because the development of tonality is not just a simplification of the modal system; it’s a change in harmonic behaviour, the beginnings of which lie in the mass of the 15th Century. *slow dissolve*
Now It’s the Renaissance

The mass making a comeback is important (it’s not really a comeback it’s been there for years ). It’s important because as we progress into the 15th century this is the genre where we get our very first taste of true four-part harmony. Up to this point even organum quadruplum is largely three voice textures with a fourth voice amplifying one of the other voices. Now all of a sudden in a piece called Missa Caput we have a true bass voice. This bass voice works the way contratenors (lines that supplement the chant line or tenor) have always worked except that now it has a new role at cadence. That role, you might have guessed, is to move from the fifth modal degree to the modal final: a V-I cadence. Although we’ve seen it before in English music (and indeed Missa Caput was by an anonymous English composer) here we have it in full force. The last voice, by the way, would double the bass and remain on the modal fifth, which meant that the final chord was still the normative harmony of octave-filled-by-fifth. Of course there are many alterations to that (including some inner cadences ending on full triads), but I don’t know them well and won’t get into it. This is also the start of the chord spacing that becomes so common in four part writing with the bass substantially lower than its adjacent voice.

And here we go. From this example in the mid 15th century to the mid 17th century we have a very gradual shift where this thinking of V-I bass motion defining the tonic becomes more and more significant to the way music is structured until we have what we call tonal music. At this point though it’s just a “contrapuntally mandated supporting role” subservient to the clausula vera (7-8 and 2-1). A borderline inconvenience and the only satisfactory way to harmonize that close in four voices without doubling the voiceleading. The shift from clausula vera to V-I cadences is the fundamental shift in thinking (happening over a couple hundred years) that you might say defines the difference between modal and tonal thinking. Clausula vera vs V-I. Linear voice leading vs harmonic bass.

Although I can’t find the original Missa Caput, there are a couple of masses that use it as a model, including one by Obrecht so here’s that. It’s a generation or three later so there’s quite a stylistic jump from last mass we listened to.

The Triad Comes of Age

As per usual, Taruskin says it best:

All theory we have studied up to now has been discant theory, in which two voices (the “structural pair&rdquo define harmonic norms and in which only perfect consonances enjoy full freedom of use. If nowhere else, composers of written music still honored this ranking of consonances at final cadences, where as we have seen, triads had to be purged of their thirds for full cadential finality.

But we are now at the point (the 16th century for those still keeping track) where the triad becomes, according to Zarlino, harmonia perfetta or the perfect harmony. (As an aside, check out this other quote by Zarlino: “when [in a triad] the major third is below [the minor] the harmony is gay, and when it is above, the harmony is sad.” He’s saying major = happy minor = sad so people who say that aren’t stupid, they actually have a long historical precedent to fall back on). Even though it’s totally tangential, Zarlino’s justification for this is pretty funny.

So we have the perfect intervals, which when represented as ratios between frequencies look like this:
Octave = 2:1
Perfect fifth = 3:2
Perfect fourth = 4:3

But he didn’t think you should stop at 4 because 4 isn’t a cool number. 6 on the other hand, 6 is a great number because it’s the first number where the sum and product of its multiples (other than itself) equal itself. 1+ 2 +3 = 6 and 1 * 2 * 3 = 6. So we need to get up to 6:
Minor third = 5:4
Major third = 6:5

And there we go. The triad is a representation of perfection. Music is math qed.

This theory is an example of practice coming before justification. Composers were doing this and using this very “perfect” spacing many years before Zarlino saw fit to rationalize it. You’ll also notice this reflects the harmonic series, which people have been using to rationalize triads since it was invented in the 17th century.

The Ars Perfecta

In terms of harmony this is what defined the Ars Perfecta. There were other elements of the style, such as specific treatment of dissonance and insane amounts of imitation. The Ars Perfecta is what most people think when they think modal counterpoint. This is what Fux is trying to teach you with his species counterpoint in Gradus Ad Parnassum. It’s important to note that at this point chord root was still not the dominating factor in harmony. In fact these two chords would be considered equivalent:

Even though we would label them as different because the root is different, to a Renaissance composer the only difference is that the counterpoint didn’t work and they needed to add a sixth above the bass instead of a third to make the voiceleading acceptable. The concept of chord root still doesn’t really exist even though we clearly have what we would consider to be proper chords now. Often these would be interchanged to avoid parallel perfect intervals, which by this time have fallen out of fashion and were considered “mistakes.” The independence of the voices was better maintained with imperfect consonances. However, also notice that we’re now talking about building chords up from a bass, which is pretty new. We’re no longer talking about harmonizing a chant melody that lies in the middle of the texture (as in descant).

Here are some examples.

I mean, this truly does sound like a perfected art. It’s immaculate and exquisite and what it feels like we’ve been working towards these past 800 years. Or when you go in for revisionist history it feels like that anyway.

This Taruskin quote gave me a touch of chills while listening to these pieces.
For indeed, the perfected art had an end, and it was near at hand. It had to be, for anything perfect, in this world, is doomed. Perfection cannot change, yet nothing in human history stands still. The only way to preserve the perfected art was to seal it off from history. This was done, but the price was high. The ars perfecta, as we shall see, still exists, but not in a way that matters anymore. In the sixteenth century it claimed all the greatest musical minds in Catholic Christendom. Later, it harbored nonentities, and the church that maintained its artificial life-support system gradually lost its significance as a creative site for music. The sixteenth century was the last in which the music of the Catholic church made history. From then on it was history.

And this marks the beginning of the end for “purely” modal music. Already Palestrina is giving us hierarchical harmonies, teasing us with things that sound suspiciously like circle of fifths progressions and tonal imitation (as opposed to literal imitation). There is thinking in terms of roots beyond just the modal final. We can start looking at V-I as V-I instead of reciting tone to modal final. By the time we come to the 17th century the secular visionaries working in brand new media pressed onwards past this perfection and gave us new ways of hearing music.

Let’s check in on some of this secular music of the late 16th century.


This piece has such aggressive chromaticism some historians have actually (weirdly) described it as atonal. If you listen to nothing else in this whole thread listen to this. It begins with a complete chromatic ascent of more than an octave.

Much more heavily chromatic, but why? Literary reasons. Composers of popular genres like the above wanted to represent the emotions of their text in their music through their harmonies. That was something that Church composers did a little bit, but their text painting was more through form and melodic design. Fundamentally though, the harmonic practice remained largely the same. But what this led to… hooo boy.
The Hard Part

This part is now difficult. There are so many people to talk about and so many developments that it’s hard to distil it down to just the highlights, which up until this point, believe it or not, I’ve done. We’ve arrived at a time in history where the core of the issue lies: the true shift between modal and tonal thinking that occurs during the 17th century, becoming fully codified by around 1690. I don’t really know how to approach this, which is really funny because this era was the entire point of this. I’m going to skip ahead right to the late 17th century so we can look at the contrast between it and the 16th century. If I didn’t I would have to write as much as I’ve already written again just to get there. I’ll trust that you can understand that these developments didn’t happen overnight, but slowly over the course of 100 years from where we left off.

The extreme crib notes version of what happened:
1) Instrumental music became literate (written down) and popularized. This is important for a lot of reasons, not least of which was the ability to write lines that weren’t particularly singable and leapt a lot more.
2) Monody. Monody is very much not like the Renaissance polyphony that we’ve encountered. It’s basically melody and chords. There’s a solo singer and an instrument underneath that is providing harmonic support. This is an extreme verticalization of thought. We’ve moved from thinking exclusively in linear voiceleading to thinking in terms of chords (although not functional harmony just yet).
3) Cross influence from monody back to instrumental music. This allowed instruments to contrast between a vocal style and instrumental style and helped establish idiomatic instrumental writing.

We go to Italian string music, specifically Corelli, where there is (not really) all of a sudden an extraordinary momentum to the music. The reason is harmony, specifically tonal harmony. First though, let’s stop off in the early Baroque. At this point we’ve moved beyond the idea of purely linear voiceleading. We can see that in works by any number of composers of the early Baroque, but since we’re in Italian string mode we’ll look at Marini.


Clearly the idea of chords at this point (1629) is well established. However they still don’t have function per se. Or at least, not specific functions like the way we think of them. There are lots of sequences though and chord progressions moving down the circle of fifths and even tonal centers that are on scale degrees other than the tonic. On the other hand there is still a lot of movement up the circle of fifths (down in fourths) and movement that doesn’t reflect the circle of fifths at all, which is much more modal than it is tonal in concept. So we’re kind of in between where we have a much more chordal way of thinking, but not the extreme focus of tonality just yet. Also remember that by this time we’re talking about major and minor, just not tonality. The church modes are largely gone.

As an aside this piece is also an excellent example of vocal vs instrumental writing. The violin effectively alternates between the two styles here.

The Harmonic Bass


Fast-forwarding again we get to Corelli. Corelli has the lucky role in history of being the first composer that we think of as truly tonal. What was so significant was the establishment of the idea of I-V-I. Not just V-I. Not just moving down the circle of fifths, but moving outwards from I to V and then returning to I. And more than just on the microscopic level, we have it on the macroscopic level. Waaaay back I mentioned tonality defining form when talking about Machaut first cadencing on the modal second and then the modal final. Here’s the end result of that development except now we’re talking about the first phrase of a piece moving out towards the dominant and the second phrase of a piece moving back towards the tonic. This is the basis of binary structure. Later we could look at even larger structures such as the sonata form, which has a bipartite exposition, the first theme in the tonic and the second in the dominant. When the themes recapitulate at the end of the piece after moving through many other key areas, both of them are in the tonic. Tonality defining form.

But the circle of fifths is still very important. In fact, the forward momentum that’s created by circle of fifths progressions and melodic sequences (seen in abundance in the Corelli and what would come to be called the sequence and cadence model) are what makes chord progressions a thing. Up to now chords haven’t really progressed so much as they’ve existed. Now we’re finally talking about harmonic root movement defining polyphony, not linear voice leading.

When we think of the circle of fifths we think of the chromatic circle of fifths. But the key to tonality was when the diatonic circle of fifths was theorized, which defined the function of each scale degree. Basically they just added a diminished fifth to the string of perfect fifths so that it would close at the octave.

The progression by fifths thus became the definer of “tonality” as we now know it: a model for relating all the degrees of a scale not only melodically but also harmonically to the tonic, and measuring the harmonic “distance” both among the degrees within a single scale and between scales. When the diatonic circle of fifths became the basis of harmonic practice, the major–minor tonal system (or “key system&rdquo can be said to have achieved its full elaboration.

So here we are. All of that for this one pithy observation: the difference between modality and tonality is the difference between linear voiceleading and harmonic root movement. 1000 years of music for that. We can talk about clausula vera vs V-I or chord succession vs chord progression, but the real meat of it is simply no concept of root movement vs strong concept of root movement.

Some Conclusions and a Bit of a Rant

Do you see how fucking stupid mode arguments are now? Like do you honestly feel bad about yourselves? The difference between modality and tonality is stark, but organic. To say there is no difference or to mewl about how modes exist in a tonal context is irrelevant. It’s not a greater than or less than thing it’s a complete change in thinking. At the same time, modality exists in everything tonal because it’s the root of Western harmony. To say that they’re entirely distinct is also foolish.

Here’s the thing. This is the crux. The endgame. The final gambit.

We simply do not hear music modally anymore.

We are so conditioned to hearing things in relation to chordal movement and a harmonic bass that the very idea of modality even existing in the most literal of senses is kind of funny. So what is modality today? To me we can go back and look at the definitions I put forward about scale vs mode. Tonal content vs tonal context. The way I see it modes are now about their content. We use them because their notes are different than the ones we’re accustomed to hearing or we use them because they help us solo over chord changes. Neither of these things is particularly modal. Sometimes people attempt to explain modality with the idea of vamps. And then they’ll say something like a i-ii vamp in D is dorian. The thing is you’re still fundamentally talking about root movement. Yes you’re maintaining the core of what Dorian sounds like, but even composers writing modally didn’t do that. It’s not the point. It’s not what makes modal music modal. Not that I think anyone has read what I’ve written or is even reading what I’m writing right now, but if you have and are I hope to the absolute baby Jesus that you know that by now.

So what is the point? The point is it doesn’t matter. Music theory is a rationalization. It’s abstract. It’s not one solid thing. There is no “the theory of music.” So if however you understand modes is an aid in how you understand music then it doesn’t matter. Yeah that’s right. I just wrote more than 6000 words on the difference between modality and tonality to prove that the difference is irrelevant. Fight me.

As if that just happened.

Now that’s linguistics.
Quote by Baby Joel
could you condense this into about five words please

Modes are bad don't use
Quote by Baby Joel
could you condense this into about five words please


Linear voiceleading vs harmonic bass
This is one of the best treatises on modes, their context historically, and relationship to tonal harmony I have ever read.

Unfortunately, 5 bucks says it changes nothing around here
hahaha thanks man.

And I know. I just relish being able to post a link to this in every modes thread.

O u lyk modes? Well here.
Quote by Jet Penguin
This is one of the best treatises on modes, their context historically, and relationship to tonal harmony I have ever read.

Unfortunately, 5 bucks says it changes nothing around here

jet..I'll see your 5 and raise you 10..

Jazz..you the man...now..I purport that every time the "m" word is used on this forum..regardless of context..the poster M U S T read your post..100 times..

I feel a sudden lack of interest in proving a point of view on the subject will prevail.
Comprehension check: Modality became tonality through the perception of 'chord'?
In a way yes. Slowly the idea of chords began to develop and then eventually (and more importantly) the idea of chord function began to take hold. The idea that each chord in a key/mode has a specific role to play (essentially to lead to the chord a fifth below it). Once that concept became codified we start to call music tonal.

So yes, the way chords are perceived and treated in counterpoint is the difference.
Did you read a Taruskin article or book? Because that guy writes word stew and I feel for you either way. Also, I'm surprised you didn't bring up Rammeau at all, seeing as he is generally blamed for most of undergraduate theory.
Yeah I used his book to remind myself of everything and draw examples from. I originally studied from Burkholder so it wasn't any worse. Taruskin's verbal dalliances can be fun

And Rameau was later (and it's such a shame his ideas became so foundational for so many theory texts). Once I got to the point of what I wanted to talk about, which Corelli illustrates just fine, I stopped. I was going to go on for a bit and even talk about the "modal revival" in the late Romantics and early 20th century, but it was just too much.
On the subject of too much information,

I volunteer myself to do a version of this (A future JTJ probably) on the usage of modal frameworks in a contemporary popular music (not concert music) setting.

That plus this thread here should drop the proverbial atom bomb on the mode war.

I had a vague sense of the history and knew that something about how chord are used is the main difference between modal and tonal music, but it was all half-assed ideas from my own half-assed research and hearsay around the forum.

As long of a read as that was, I'm surprised you managed to keep it so short while still covering such a long history. Well done.

I can't wait til Jet does his on the modern usage of modes.
Thanks chief I'm glad you enjoyed it. The hardest part definitely k was knowing what I could leave out our conflate to keep it manageable. It's a shame I had to leave out some cool stuff.

I'm also excited for the jet thread.
Applause for tackling this, JRF. It’s impossible to understand the issue without knowing the history. I have a few nits to pick about some things, and I don’t care for the diatribe-delivery of the information, but basically I like what you wrote here
Which nits? I'll admit to not knowing as much about this as I should to have done this . And it's tough to make a diatribe not sound like a diatribe lol. I originally didn't think it was going to turn out like this but then it did and it was too late.
I'm actually intrigued by the potential nits as well. I didn't notice any readily apparent ones.

Granted, my expertise is NOT in the field of pre-Bach music at all. My knowledge base is probably similar to JRF's, so consider my curiosity piqued.
OK, here are the nits because you asked. Bear in mind that none of this changes your main points.

Quote by jazz_rock_feel
Keys are a system of freely transposable diatonic scales paired with a mode.

I think that this definition is lacking the harmonic aspect (which you then go to great lengths to substantiate!) I would like to see something more like: "Key tonality may be defined as a system of chordal relationships based on the attraction of a tonal center, the tonic chord, whose root gives the key its pitch name. Though each of the chords within the system is a self-contained entity, each chord has a functional relationship to the others, and, more especially, to the tonic chord." K. Marie Stolba, The Development of Western Music. p. 231

So shut up about it. We don’t know where the diatonic scale came from. The only thing we know is “that people have evidently internalized the diatonic pitch set—carried it around in their heads as a means of organizing, receiving, and reproducing meaningful sound patterns—as far back as what is as of now the very beginning of recorded musical history, some three and a half millennia ago.” That’s way cooler than some super inelegant attempt at stacking fifths or using the overtone series. Don’t ruin it

Ok, there is nothing inelegant about the harmonic series; it's actually quite elegant. But, my main point here is that we might actually know where the diatonic scale comes from. History is a written narrative of events, and historians need written documents - either primary (extant) or secondary sources (and, to a lesser extent, artifacts and cultural traditions). The quote you supplied is very clear about the ahistoricity of the overtone series as the basis of the diatonic scale, but that is not to be taken as proof of non-existence. Lack of historical evidence is not the same thing as lack of any evidence. We have physical evidence in the form of the harmonic series itself. All we're missing is the cuneiform tablet chronicling the Anunnaki revealing the harmonic series to the ancient Sumerians. We don't have that, but that doesn't prove that it didn't happen. So, we can't say that the overtone series is the basis of the diatonic scale as a matter of historical record, but we can say that the overtone series may be the basis with a high degree of probability. The historian and the physicist do not necessarily share the same point of view. I'm trying to convey that the requirements of history do not preclude non-historical reality (or what may, in fact, be reality).

The most basic example of polyphony is droning. Singing a chant while someone else drones the final. Pretty obvious.

A literal drone with a melody on top is not polyphony because the drone is not a melody. You can’t really argue that a note droning on the tonic or dominant is somehow an independent line. Some would call this biphonic, rather than polyphonic. You're probably thinking of chant with discant-style organum duplum (where the chant progresses so slow it sounds almost like a drone).

Why did I just talk about accidentals so much? Because modal music uses a shit ton of accidentals. Modality has nothing to do with the allowance or prohibition of accidentals. Scratch that off the list of potential differences between modal and tonal music.

Well, this isn't entirely true. Accidentals are a feature of the transitional area between modality and tonality. Modality really is dependent on there being no, or very few, accidentals.

“(3) Added accidentals; whether used in a functional, tonal sense for true modulation, or in an expressive, modal, melodic sense. Actually, this statement borders on redundancy, since the introduction (whether explicitly, implicitly or improvisationally) of added accidentals in an expressive sense destroys modality. What is meant is that it does not necessarily therefore produce tonality.

“There is another curious condition which is a part of the problem of added accidentals. Their use by no means moves a composition into the tonal area, even though it may effectually remove it from the modal.”

Robert W. Wienpahl, "Modality, Monality and Tonality in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth
Centuries," Music and Letters 52 (1971): 409-416; 53 (1972): 52-73.
The first three truly are nits Don't really have anything to say, except for the first maybe, for which I'd say that you can draw a distinction between the definition of "keys" and the definition of tonality.

The only thing I really disagree with is the last bit. I don't see how accidentals destroy modality. I mean this: "Their use by no means moves a composition into the tonal area, even though it may effectually remove it from the modal,” to me is the height of pedantry. Like is the implication that there is some third alternative like Modatonality or something? Obviously not, but I don't understand the contention otherwise. Maybe I'm just misunderstanding his point.
Are you kidding? This whole issue is pedantic. The third alternative in Wienpahl's article is "monal" (not joking). And he's speaking of that transitional period mid-16th century to mid-17th century. "The implication is not one of mixed keys, but only of a composition which proceeds now tonally and now modally or both simultaneous."