Posted in Project 2: New Harmonic Fields

Research point 4.2: ‘Greek’ modes

The task of this research point is to look into the so-called ‘Greek’ modes, investigate how they are structured and find musical examples containing them, altogether writing around 400 words on the findings.

To begin, what is known today as ‘Greek’ modes are actually medieval church modes. What brought about this confusion is that the knowledge of the ancient Greek musical system was available to medieval theorists mainly through the Latin translations of the Roman senator and philosopher, Boethius (Mariani, 2017: 62-3). The actual misinterpretation occurred in Alia Musica – a compendium of theoretical treatments applying Greek concepts of octave species and modes from Boethius to Carolingian church music (Bjork, 2010), which profoundly affected later music theory.

In the Renaissance, with the advent of polyphony, although the rule was to keep to the notes of the mode of the cantus firmus, certain melodic alterations appeared, such as cadences and internal cadences with tones raised to form a leading-tone or certain pitches being flattened or raised to avoid tritone or augmented second (Knud, 1992). In this way, modes came to slowly resemble our modern major and minor scales. This was reflected in music theory as well, as the medieval system of eight modes was expanded to twelve in the 16th century by a Swiss humanist, poet and music theorist, Glarean, whose treatise Dodecachordon added the Ionian (major) and Aeolian (natural minor) modes (Britannica, 2020). It is important to mention that at the time, there was no modulation and so while there could be a transposed mode, it is the same mode throughout a piece and with the same final. In addition, the modes were also classified their range and where the final (tonic) is in relation to the ambitus, resulting in the differentiation between the authentic (range of an octave from the finalis) and related plagal mode (range spans from the fourth below the finalis to the fifth above), latter prefixed with hypo-.

Interestingly, by 1800 practicing musicians had come to believe that the major and minor modes had resulted from the historical reduction of earlier diverse modes to their essential features. For example, Koch’s Musikalisches Lexikon (1802) observed that “our two modern modes are the descendants of the old Ionian and Aeolian” (cited in Porter, 2001), even though they were clearly conceptualized much later and didn’t exist in the actual ancient Greek or medieval theories. On the other hand, modes also existed in popular traditions from generalized types of melodic movement in different cultures before the abstract theories of ancient Greece or the medieval Church. As such, in the early 20th century modal procedures became a compositional resource evolved from regional styles based on the collection of European folk tunes, and later tunes from Africa, Americas and Asia, the latter, for instance being an important influence to Ravel and Debussy via the orientalism.

Another aspect of the modes to mention is that from ancient Greece to medieval times, there existed an idea of the modes’ ethos in terms of the emotional characteristics they evoke, though as Cochrane (2013: 5) denotes, “the rise of polyphonic music… providing pressure on the requirements for musical expression … ultimately undermined the authority of the ethos of modes.” Nonetheless, the correlation between modes and feelings they suggest never got fully abandoned. For example in the 17th century under the prevailing Baroque Doctrine of the Affections, Espinosa is yet another theorist to group modes in relation to the affective states they express, while the vestige of the mode’s ethos is still retained in the widespread associations of the major scale as happy and minor scale as sad (Grimshaw and Garner, 2015: 55).

With all that said, I will now list the so-called ‘Greek’ modes, with exception to the Ionian and Aeolian because they are widely used in the Western contexts, which I have been studying since childhood. As such, I found it more important to focus on the other five in this post, especially since I have also encountered other modes in composing 1 unit in more detail, but somehow missed these. Following that, although I have initially listed their order in relation to the traditional classification evolving around shifting starting tones on the white piano keys, I actually found arranging them comparing to major/minor scales starting on the same notes much easier in terms of noticing each mode’s structure. Lastly, I have also included the ‘ethos’ each mode might evoke both in the historical/philosophical sense and in the current popular opinions.

  1. Dorian mode

Structure: Traditionally, in relation to the white keys, Dorian mode spans from D to D. It is very similar to the modern minor scale, however with the sixth note constituting major 6th instead of a minor sixth.

Fig. 1. Dorian mode compared to a minor

Feeling: Interestingly, Guido D’Arezzo in 11th century described it as ‘serious’, Adam of Fulda in 15th century as ‘any feeling’, while Espinosa in 17th century as ‘happy, taming the passions’. On the other hand, the plagal hypo-Dorian mode has been denoted as ‘sad’, ‘serious and tearful’ by the three theorists. Without considering the differing functions of the Dorian mode in the music of the theorists’ particular time, I would argue that this duality of evoked emotions arises from the tension between the mode’s minor construction that leans slightly to gloominess against the brightness emanating from the major sixth. Because of the brightness Dorian mode is often used in blues and gospel music, though it is still considered darker than Mixolydian because of its minor leanings. In jazz, it is used both for its lightness and coolness.

Examples: One surprising example I found is Bach’s Dorian Toccata and Fugue (c. 1708-17) in d minor (notated with no key signature). However, this epithet was first introduced in 1845, and furthermore there are reasons to suggest that it was not originally in D minor, nor written for the organ but for violin or harpsichord, and some scholars believe it’s too crude a piece to have been written by Bach in the first place (ClassicFm, n.d.). Another, much less surprising example is ‘Et incarnatus est’ in the Credo movement of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (c. 1819-23). Outside of the church/religious connotations, there are multiple folksongs, like Scarborough Fair, set in the mode, while the ‘Royal March of the Lions’ from Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals (1886) suite uses Dorian mode to evoke a kind of oriental, Persian style. Large portions of the Symphony No. 6 (1923) by Jean Sibelius is also in the Dorian mode. In jazz, I found ‘So What’ by Miles Davis with the A sections in D Dorian and the B section in E-flat Dorian. In popular music, examples include ‘Billie Jean’ (1983) by Michael Jackson and ‘Smoke on the Water’ (1973) by Deep Purple.

  1. Phrygian mode

Structure: When played on white keys, the range spans from E to E. It is similar to the modern natural minor scale. The only difference is in the second note, which is a minor second instead of a major.

Fig. 2. Phrygian mode compare to a minor

Feeling: Guido names it as ‘mystic’ mode, Fulda ‘vehement’ and Espinosa as ‘inciting anger’. In this ominous and eerie context owed to the tension brought by the minor 2nd, it is often used by metal music and film scores to achieve darker, heavier and otherworldly sounds. However, in the Spanish/flamenco/gypsy connotations, it can often provide liveliness and unique impetus to the music. In a curious way, the ‘happier’ connotation is also given to the plagal variant – the hypophrygian mode, which is described by Guido, Fulda and Espinosa as ‘harmonious’, ‘tender’ and ‘inciting delights, tempering fierceness’.

Examples: When I wrote about the history of bolero for Composing 1 unit, I have referred to Scarlatti’s use of the Phrygian mode, which was largely alien to the European art music of the time. Drawing from the oriental connotations, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 (1851), the slow, second movement of Brahms’s Symphony in E minor op. 98 (1885), Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade (1885), Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910) and the final aria of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (1979), all contain the Phrygian mode. Interestingly, I found a video of Bach’s French Suite (c. 1722-25) in E-flat major being played on an inverted piano, whereby the key becomes a descending Phrygian scale:

  1. Lydian mode

Structure: F to F on white keys. It is similar a major scale, but with the fourth note being sharpened to constitute augmented 4th from the tonic.

Fig. 3. Lydian mode compared to C major

Feeling: It’s called ‘happy’ by D’Arezzo, Fulda and Espinosa alike. In film scoring it is considered to be very airy, up and open. However, because of the augmented fourth it can also have a bit of an unsettling, sharp and slightly chilly feeling, what I would describe as more ‘acidic’ sound comparing to the major scale. I found it very peculiar that in its plagal form, the hypolydian is the same as the major scale, yet called ‘tearful and pious’ by the three theorists.

Examples: Used in relation to the folk tradition, the mode can be found in the slow movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor op. 132 (1825), in the “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode” and also Chopin’s Mazurka No. 15 (1834-5) – both of these relying on the openness of the mode. Contrasting to this, the theme tune to The Simpsons (1989-present) really pronounces the acidy feeling of the augmented 4th, creating the catchy and memorable sound.

  1. Mixolydian mode

Structure: In the traditional classification in relation to white keys, myxolydian mode spans from G to G. What differentiates it from the major scale is its seventh note, which is a flattened, constituting minor seventh rather than a major seventh.

Fig. 4. Myxolydian mode compared to C major

Feeling: Guido described the Mixolydian mode as ‘angelical’, Fulda ‘of youth’ and Epinosa as ‘uniting pleasure and sadness’, while its plagal form – the hypomixolydian, is described similarly as ‘perfect’, ‘of knowledge’ and very ‘happy’. Along these lines, it is often used in spiritually uplifting music, including gospel music. Because of it’s minor 7th, it is also slightly cooler and funkier than a major scale, which is why it is often used in blues. Interestingly, The Beatles made the mode sound pseudo-Indian in their songs.

Examples: In classical music, Bach retains the modal implications of the mixolydian cantus firmi “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ” and “Dies sind die heiligen zehn Gebot” in his settings BWV 314, 91 No. 6 (1724). I also found the use in Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral (1910) and Concerto in the Mixolydian Mode ( 1925 ) for piano by the post-Romantic Italian composer Respighi. The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ (1965) is an example of the aforementioned pseudo-Indian feeling of the mode that is characteristic to the band, while the theme of the TV series Star Trek (1966-9) uses the mode to evoke space.

  1. Locrian mode

Structure: On white keys, the Locrian mode spans from B to B. It is a half-diminished mode, which comparing to a minor scale has the second note and fifth flattened to constitute minor second and diminished fifth from the tonic.

Fig. 5. Locrian mode compared to A minor

Feeling: Curiously, I couldn’t find any descriptions by D’Arezzo, Fulda or Espinosa, probably because of the mode’s scarcity in the practical usage due to its strange, unstable construction without resolving as in other modes. Because of this unhinged nature, it is often used to evoke the sensations of weirdness, eeriness, drama and conflictedness in film music and metal songs.

Examples: In popular music, I’ve found the example in Bjork’s ‘Army of Me’ (1995), The Strokes’ ‘Juice Box’ (2005) and Metallica’s ‘Seek and Destroy’ (1982), mostly in the dramatic looped hooks. What truly shocked me is Berlioz’s use of the mode in the Act 2 scene ii of his opera Les Troyens (1858), in which a chorus of Trojan women sing a prayer to the goddess Cybele. It produces a very haunting sound that lies in contrast to the rest of the opera set in the standard major/minor tonality. Programmatically, however, it reminded me of Lasso’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum (1550-52), which I’ve mentioned in composing 1 unit here. I also found passages of the Locrian mode in works by Rachmaninov, for example the Prelude in B minor, op. 32, no. 10 (1910), and in Sibelius’s Symphony no. 4 in A minor (1910-1).

To conclude this post, I really enjoyed exploring the Church or popularly called, ‘Greek’ modes, especially since I used to mention them in my music theory classes, but didn’t have a chance to properly look at their use up until now. I only remember torturously putting the modes together counting steps and half-steps, instead of considering the feelings they evoke comparing to major and minor scales. As such, I found it easier to construct them in relation to major and minor scales, so I believe I can now confidently recognise the modes, without having to adhere to strict counting of the steps. This was also another great chance to expand my tonal vocabulary, as the modes really offer unique brightness and darkness even comparing to other modes I explored in composing 1 unit. However, I should also mention that the feelings modes evoke also depends on the function of the music, for example, a piece in a major key played slowly and quietly can at least melancholy or reflective, while a composition in a minor key played fast can have vibrant energy and intensity. This is true even of instrumentation, for instance, a Phrygian or Locrian piece on ukulele or banjo will probably not sound so “doomy”. Regardless, I trust this post will be a great reference point when analyzing different pieces or composing any future works.


ClassicFm (n.d.) ‘Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D minor’ At: (Accessed on 8th September 2020)

Cochrane, T. (2013) ‘Section Introduction.’ In: Cochrane, T., Fantini, B. and Scherer, K. R. The Emotional Power of Music: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Musical Arousal, Expression, and Social Control. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bjork, R. E. (ed.) (2010) The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (10th September 2020)

Britannica (2020) ‘Henricus Glareanus’ In: Humanities, Britannica. [Online] At: (Accessed 9th September 2020)

Grimshaw, M. and Garner, T. (2015) Sonic Virtuality: Sound as Emergent Perception. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Knud, J. (1992) Counterpoint: The Polyphonic Vocal Style of the 16th Century. New York: Dover.

Mariani, A. (2017) Improvisation and Inventio in the Performance of Medieval Music: A Practical Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Porter, J. (2001) ‘Modal scales as a new musical resource.’ In: Grove Music Online. At: (Accessed 10th September 2020)

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