Welcome to
      Home    Listen    Site Index    BLOG  

042 < >

Plato and the Greek modes
Can You Believe What They're Listening To These Days?
An Early Culture Critic Speaks Out

(Plato tries to keep it simple, and free from pernicious influences)

"The introduction of novel fashions in music is a thing to beware of as endangering the whole fabric of society, whose most important conventions are unsettled by any revolutions in that quarter."                       
The Republic     (c.428 B.C.- c.347 B.C.)
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: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Lochrian.

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 Dorian Mode.

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.

For comparison...

Listen to the same made-up tune in the various modes to hear the differences between them:

Ionian Mode
Dorian mode
Phrygian mode
Lydian mode
Mixolydian mode
Aeolian mode
Lochrian mode

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.


[email protected]


comments powered by Disqus