For as long as there has been music, there have been persons worried about
its ability to influence behavior. The ancient Greeks were convinced,
anecdotally, that a certain king had been stirred to arms by the sound of a
flute playing a tune in the Phrygian mode. Plato was certain that the mixolydian mode would
make young men "effeminate."
So what were these modes that had such power over men?
We don't know for sure what each mode sounded like in its native
environment. Very little Greek music survives, and it is mostly fragments. Among
the surviving documents there is a great deal more writing about the nature of
music than the music itself. One of the ancient Greek's preoccupations had to do
with the patterns of notes used to create a melody. These modes might be
considered roughly equivalent to the major and minor scales that young musicians
struggle to master today. From about 1600 until the start of the
twentieth century the modes disappeared from our musical lexicon, so that only
patterns of major
and minor were
considered acceptable to western ears. But there was a time before that when
Europe took an interest in these relics of ancient Greece.
During the later Middle Ages the writings of
men like Plato and Aristotle, so long forgotten
when Rome fell, were
rediscovered, which led to a renewed interest in modes. It now appears that the
theorists of that day got all of the Greek modes mixed up, but here is how they
have come down to us.
There are seven:
To give a sense of what the choice of mode can do for a piece, let's take a
familiar tune that is just old enough that it probably was originally a modal
tune. It has become a popular Christmas Carol, and comes to us from England, in the 16th century, which was just
about the time that the modes were starting to lose their appeal--but they
weren't finished just yet. The tune is Greensleeves, and here is what it
would sound like in the
Since more modern ears found that too alien, the tune has been translated
into our more modern minor. Some notes have been changed to fit,
particularly the ones at the end, so that there is a greater lean toward the
keynote, something we've all gotten used to for the past 300 years.
However, the battle is not over. Very often, one will hear a
combination of both Dorian and minor mode, keeping
the strongest elements of the minor key we are so accustomed to, but preserving
that "wild" high note in the first part.
Plato would not have been amused.
Mixing, matching, and borrowing from one mode in the middle of a piece which
seems principally composed in another represented an impure conjunction of moods
and states of mind that ought to be kept separate, he warned.
In passing, let us note that he would not have enjoyed the music of Schubert,
who liked to write melodies filled with such joyous grief that seem to be in
both major and minor at once, or the modal flights of the ambiguous Brahms.
Tragedy was one thing, he opined. Comedy was another. And never should they
be mixed together. But of course, artists have been doing that for centuries,
and, thanks to folks like Plato, every time they do it, they are heralded as
great innovators! People like Shakespeare, who call for comic characters to play
clowning scenes in between scenes of great drama to relieve the tension and let
us laugh for a moment before the next round of bad news. Even fellows like
Polonius, the clown (for all intents and purposes) in Hamlet, who manage to
wander into the midst of the drama and get themselves killed after having said
so many ridiculous things in the course of the play that made us laugh.
|It is hard, though, for a thing to maintain its identity when it is mixed
with so many other things, and Plato was sure that every mode had a particular
characteristic, and that it was not appropriate to put elements of one kind of
mode into another.
For example, if the Phrygian mode led us to sober contemplation, it would not
be right to play a Phrygian tune "quickly and with chopped notes."
A Dorian tune should always have a military sound about it; perhaps those
dotted notes that make up so many official tunes in our own day.
But it was not enough simply to regulate the modes; Plato wanted to limit
them. In his book (ten books, actually) Republic, Plato manages to argue away
most of the modes. He wanted strong and courageous leaders, and any music that
promoted weakness, or intemperance, was not a mode for him. Dirge-like modes,
like the Lydian mode, are out, as is the Ionian, for it promotes sloth and
drunkenness, he feels. One has to be amused: the Ionian mode is the one that,
according to Middle Age theorists, sounds exactly like our modern day C major
scale! So if you've been feeling slothful lately, blame it on half the music
you've been listening to!
And so he settled on just two: the Dorian and the Phrygian. The Dorian,
he said, would "fittingly imitate the utterances and accents of a brave man who
is engaged in warfare," while the Phrygian was suitable "for a man engaged
in works of peace."
What led him to these conclusions is unknown. It is likely that some kind of
tradition had grown up in the artistic community that led them to associate
certain modes with certain styles of music. In our modern era, composers often
feel that different keys express different moods. And there are more practical
considerations; for instance, a man writing a military symphony would want to
use trumpets and drums. For much of the 18th century, trumpets did not have
valves and could only play certain notes. If you wanted to use trumpets you
pretty much had to write your piece in D major. In consequence, that key became
associated with official sounding, courtly, or battle, music. If Plato had been
born into the 18th century, he probably would have picked up on this tradition, and
assumed that D major was a noble, courageous, key, suitable for leading troops
into battle. Since music written in that key was often in celebration of the
king or his prowess, it would have seemed to back up his claim.
There were modes, and then there were modes. As has been mentioned,
certain ones were cause for alarm. It was not the excessive volume or the
lyrics that young people had to be guarded against, it was the construction of
the melody itself. Certain tunes in our own day may seem to actually sound more
"immoral", partly because of a web of associations we've all gotten used to (think of all the movies you've seen where the saxophone begins to play
a slithery tune at the least hint of innuendo...), and certain conventions
have grown up about how the music should sound to accompany certain emotions (...or
those breathless passages in the low bass of the piano that always signify a
chase scene in an action movie). Romantic pieces have their own
vocabulary, as do moments of great tension and anxiety. We may not have any idea how to
write a film score, but we certainly know what kind of music to expect in each
of the pivotal moments. Those more mundane bits in the middle require no music
at all; it is only when we should share some strong emotion with the onscreen
characters. We still expect music to provide an emotional content, and we expect
that it will move us in some way.
In our own day, various musical "artists" have been held in contempt for
the kind of music that they are feeding our youth; Plato's alarm, in some
regard, looks like an early attempt to protect against the pernicious influence
that immersion in some kinds of music may have on them. But Plato's idealism
went a good deal farther. He envisioned a just and equitable city-state, with
all of the elements acting together to produce wise and honorable and brave
citizenry. Music, he argued, was one of the forces that should bring about that end.