Teach Yourself Music Theory – 36.) Church Modes

As we begin entering the realm of counterpoint, we need to touch upon some music history. Renaissance counterpoint will be the first destination.

Early chant, called plainsong, were composed using 8 different modes. Modes, as we have previously talked about, are scales the encompass the same pitches as a key area, but are not technically our known major or natural minor. By the 16th Century into the Renaissance era, it expanded with a few more.

These Ecclesiastical Modes, or Church Modes, define which notes are more important than others in contrapuntal musical pieces. Each modes are built off of different species of whole and half-note combinations.

There are authentic church modes, which are the “main” modes than cover a range of an octave (but can go a step out from each end of the mode). And there are a plagal church modes which are derived from the “main” modes by starting on the fifth degree above the tonic.

Church modes have their own special characteristic notes of finals (the literal “final” note of a melodic line), and dominant (the recitation tone which is held during chant).

In the picture above, the half-notes denote finals within a mode while the triangles denote dominants.

When composing, is a person uses way more than the range of the mode – it is called excessive. If the melody of the contrapuntal piece covers both the range of the authentic and plagal church modes – it is called mixed. And for those melodies that never cover the range of an octave – it is called incomplete.

Before wrapping up this post, it should be mentioned that certain scale degrees can be flattened to avoid the tritone interval, and other scale degrees can be raised for cadential purposes.

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