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The Classical Greek Modes

22 July, 2019 - 10:18
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We can only guess what music from ancient Greek and Roman times really sounded like. They didn't leave any recordings, of course, nor did they write down their music. But they did write about music, so we know that they used modes based on tetrachords. A tetrachord is a mini-scale of four notes, in Pitch: Sharp, Flat, and Natural Notes order, that are contained within a Perfect Intervals (five half steps) instead of an octave (twelve half steps).

Figure 6.8 Tetrachords
Here are three possible Greek tetrachords, as nearly as they can be written in modern notation. The outer notes are a perfect fourth apart; we can be pretty certain of that, since the perfect fourth is a natural interval playable, for example, on many ancient wind instruments (See Harmonic Series II and Interval). The actual tuning of the inner notes can only be guessed, however, since our equal temperament is a relatively modern invention.  

Since a tetrachord fills the interval of a perfect fourth, two tetrachords with a whole step between the end of one and the beginning of the other will fill an octave. Different Greek modes were built from different combinations of tetrachords.

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Figure 6.9 2 Diatonic Tetrachords
Each Greek mode was built of two tetrachords in a row, filling an octave. 

We have very detailed descriptions of tetrachords and of Greek music theory (for example, Har- monics, written by Aristoxenus in the fourth century B.C.), but there is still no way of knowing exactly what the music really sounded like. The enharmonic, chromatic, and diatonic tetrachords mentioned in ancient descriptions are often now written as in the figure above. But references in the old texts to "shading" suggest that the reality was more complex, and that they probably did not use the same intervals we do. It is more likely that ancient Greek music sounded more like other traditional Mediterranean and Middle Eastern musics than that it sounded anything like modern Western music.

Westerncomposers often consistently choose minor keys over major keys (or vice versa) to convey certain moods (minor for melancholy, for example, and major for serene). One interesting aspect of Greek modes is that different modes were considered to have very different effects, not only on a person's mood, but even on character and morality. This may also be another clue that ancient modes may have had more variety of tuning and pitch than modern keys do.