The 8 modes

I’ve sat down at the keyboard the last two nights to write one entry about music, and different ones keep coming out. Let’s see if I can get the one I intend out.

When my parents came to visit, we stopped by a store that sold sheet music. This is rarely a satisfying experience for me. My library usually knocks the tar out of their trumpet selection. But we stopped and I looked because I could tell Dad needed to sit.

I found this book: Plainchant for Trumpet. I was enchanted. The composer (W. Jonathan Gresham) took 22 chant lines from the Liber Usualis (Medieval Big Book o’ Chants) and wrote etudes on them. The etudes are quite nice. But my favorite part is that he highlights the medieval mode in which the music was written.

Medieval theoretical musicians (the best kind, according to my buddy Boethius who’s responsible for transmitting most of this stuff from the Greeks to the middle ages) thought there were 8 different modes of music. It gets all squishy in my brain, what goes where, because they stole this from Ancient Greece and didn’t completely understand it. The Greeks thought that the modes inspired different methods of action (here we’re getting into my thesis topic). For example, music in a Phrygian mode would cause someone to be warlike. A Lydian mode, on the contrary, tamed inflamed passions. I can’t remember which (the Dorian perhaps) the Greeks discouraged ever using because it made men timid and weak.

Medievals pulled across this idea of modes, but they sort of ignored the alchemical nature of the modes. There are 8 medieval modes (which act similarly to keys in modern music), four of which are authentic and four of which are plagal. They are the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, Hypolydian and Hypomixolydian. The very names to me are magical. They carried a significance, a meaning along with them.

I’m not really going anywhere with this. In some ways, I’m being nostalgic over my own past, when I was given the marvellous opportunity to delve into these mysteries and call it homework. I’m not sure I ever truly mastered my subject, but I was fortune enough at times to see glimpses of a whole and coherent picture.

If I won the lottery, and I had the time, energy and attention to devote to whatever I wished, I’m sure I could find more meaningful and more important things to do. But what I would like to do is delve even further, understand even better, and see clearly and laid in front of me that picture of the genesis of music that I made the barest pencil outlines of in college. I’m not sure what I would do then — if I could transform my understanding into a communication for others.

That day will probably never come. But that doesn’t stop me from rolling the words off my tongue and dreaming about how the obscured picture might look. Dorian. Lydian. Phrygian.

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