mode, in music

mode, in music. 1 A grouping or arrangement of notes in a scale with respect to a most important note (in the pretonal modes of Western music, this note is called the final or finalis), and the patterns of larger and smaller steps (in Western music, whole and half steps) which these notes form. In the Middle Ages eight modes were developed as a theoretical foundation for plainsong performance, notation, and composition. These modes, derived from church practice, and explained either in their own terms, or using terms drawn from ancient Greek music theory, were grouped in pairs, each pair containing an authentic mode and a plagal mode, which are distinguished by the difference in the position of their ranges with respect to the final. The range of each mode was an octave. The “authentic” mode has its final at the bottom (and top) of its octave, the “plagal” mode ranges from the fourth below the final to the fifth above it. Although Greek names came to be used for these modes—Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, mixolydian, hypophrygian, etc.—there is no proof of direct relation to Greek theory. These eight modes were the basis for 11 centuries of musical composition. Freely treated, they have reappeared in the works of some 20th-century composers such as Vaughan Williams. In the late Middle Ages and during the Renaissance certain other modes were adopted, and in 1547 the Swiss theorist Glareanus described 12 as useful for composition. In the late 16th cent. and early 17th cent. the series was condensed in the major and minor modes in use today. The use of medieval modes by later composers is called modality in contrast to tonality. An extension of the term mode allows its application to the tonal systems of Hindu music, Arabian music, and Byzantine music.

See G. Reese, Music in the Middle Ages (1940); E. A. Wienandt, Choral Music of the Church (1965).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Music: Theory, Forms, and Instruments