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Introduction to Church Modes

Cynthia J. Cyrus

Last modified on June 18, 2003

The eight modes (sometimes called church modes or ecclesiastical modes to distinguish them from the rhythmic modes) were defined through a combination of range and final (the final is the note on which a melody ends). If melodies were consistently above the final, they were in an authentic mode; if they ranged both above and below the final, they were in a plagal mode. In medieval theory, there were only four appropriate final pitches: D, E, F, and G. In the Renaissance, theorists added modes on A and C.

Mode had melodic implications: each mode had characteristic intervals and musical gestures. For instance, the placement of the half-step within the mode (and its distance from the final) was a defining characteristic for the sound of that mode, especially since the actual pitch of the melody was determined by the singer rather than being standardized. Similarly, the melody in a given mode would naturally gravitate towards its final, the pitch on which it would end. Interim cadences, for instance, might be on the final, or might be left inconclusively on another pitch to lead forward into the next phrase. Melodies in a particular mode could also reflect the reciting tone or tenor usually found a fifth above the final, though the more elaborate chants might seem to emphasize it only at medial cadences. Modes also had certain moods associated with them, although which moods could vary from author to author. Finally, mode was thought to have the power to change people--to encourage morality or licentiousness, for instance; this quality was known as modal ethos.

Mode first began as a method for classifying existing melodies, perhaps as an aid to memorization. In particular, mode was useful for determining which psalm tone to use with a given antiphon. Some melodies can be hard to classify and likely pre-date the Western modal system; they may have a range larger or smaller than the octave or ninth that theorists specify, or they may shift tonal center over the course of the piece. Later genres of chant (such as the trope and the sequence), however, frequently make "textbook use" of the modal system.

The modes can be named in a variety of ways:

  • by Greek tribal name ("dorian," "phrygian," etc.)
  • by number (modes 1 and 2 end on D, modes 3 and 4 end on E, etc.). In some modern chant books, the number of the mode will appear over the first letter of the text.
  • by reference to the final ("D-mode," "E-mode," etc.)
  • by pairs with each final represented by a Greek number as well as a designation of the range: protus authenticus, protus plagalis, deuterus autheticus, deuterus plagalis, tritus authenticus, tritus plagalis, tetrardus authenticus, tetrardus plagalis. Though this system was among the earliest to be developed, it is rarely used by modern speakers

Summary of Information on the Ecclesiastical Modes

Final Range Tenor Authentic or plagal Mode number Greek name
d d-d' a authentic 1 dorian
A-a f plagal 2 hypodorian
e e-e' c' authentic 3 phrygian
B-b a plagal 4 hypophrygian
f f-f' c' authentic 5 lydian
c-c' a plagal 6 hypolydian
g g-g' d' authentic 7 mixolydian
d-d' c' plagal 8 hypomixolydian

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Copyright (C) 1997-2003, Cynthia J. Cyrus. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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Last revised Friday, July 18, 2003