Tonal Materials. Ecclesiastical Modes

Updated: Jan 19


In order to define the sound field of ancient music, it is necessary to take as a starting point the theorist Guido d’Arezzo (c 995 -1050). It is at this time that a notation of defined heights begins that allows a person who does not know a melodic, to sing it.

The process towards a notation that fixes tone and semitone relationships was slow. Guido d'Arezzo established the use of syllabic Solmization: ut-re-mi-fa-sol. Six syllables to name the notes applied to musical practice.

He organised a series of hexachords, whose notes he names with the first syllables of the successive phrases of the Hymn to John the Baptist: Ut queant laxis.

He uses this six-note model ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la, to build a system of seven hexachords that overlap our Sol, Do and Fa, or G, C and F.

The System:

It begins in Sol2 or G2 (identified with the Greek letter gamma) it was also called “Gammut” and it reaches Mi5 or E5.

This is the range that comprises the entire repertoire of the Gregorian Chant. Roman letters A through G identify system notes using

First: capital letters Second: lowercases Third: double lowercases

This was meant to differentiate the different octave registers. Below we can see the Hexachordal system by Guido d’Arezzo:

Counterpoint and Polyphony, page 31 (Eduardo Checchi)

The hexachord on Fa required a flat B to reproduce the halftone mi-fa (or E-F). This flat B was called soft or “mollis” because of the rounded form of the letter “b” which indicated: b-fa (the letter b of our Si or B written in rounded form was called Fa or F).

SOL’s hexachord was hard (or “durum“) because of the letter “b” that indicated Mi or E (Si natural or B natural). The letter b of our SI or B, written with the square letter was chanted MI or E. The original model on C was called natural hexachord. This can explain why the scale on Do or C is still the main one for Western Music, even pedagogically.

The Guido d’Arezzo system names the pitches in two ways:

a/ With the letters, define the fixed pitch

b/ With the first syllables of each verse, define the relative pitches in fixed tone and semitone relationships: T – T – S – T – T

He also invented the famous and celebrated method to memorize all the pitches from Sol2 or G2 to the MI5 to E5, called the “Guidonian hand

This is a memory help that uses the hand in a spiral way, here is a graph that depicts the system:

In summary, there are two parallel ways to see the notes:

1. The absolute pitch, which starts on the letter “gamma”, also called “Gamut” by Guido d’Arezzo.

2. The second, are the relative pitches of the notes, adapting the ranges for the needs of the singers. In the picture below we can see how the notes had different names, according to the hexachord they belonged:

Lorenzo Penna, Li primi albori musicali (Bologna, 1672), pp. 128-32

This last picture has a curiosity: the “proto-clefs”, so as speak. Above we can see the first drawings of our G, C and F clefs.

Diether de la Mott called the set of notes used in this system “Tonal Material“:

Reinterpreting this system, that is, eliminating the different registers that were used and organizing the sounds on the fifth scale, the structural sounds of the system are obtained and by ordering the sounds of each tonal Material in succession, using the basic relation of syllabic Solmization: Ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la with the addition of the last sound “Si” or “B” we obtain the following:

There are seven sounds that they were used in a simultaneously. To each subset Diether de la Mott gave the name of Tonal material.

By ordering the sounds of each tonal Material in succession, using the basic relation of syllabic Solmization: Ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la with the addition of the last sound “si” or “B”:

Counterpoint and Polyphony, page 32 (Eduardo Checchi)

These are not Major scales. They are tonal materials on which one works. An expressive sound is added to these tonal materials, indicated in each case with a filled head-note. We see that these expressive sounds are in the same place in both tonal materials.

The notes in the tonal materials are mutually exclusive alternatives and are not adjacent notes.

On each of these two tonal materials, the ancient modes or Ecclesiastical Modes were built.


The music of the XVI century is based upon the Ecclesiastical modes, a system that existed in Western Europe from the origin of the Latin Church and dominated until the XVII century when the transition of our Major-Minor system began to prevail.

Each ecclesiastical mode has certain defining components beyond the simple scale patterns. Some of the elements that contribute to the definition of these modes are:


The tone that functions as the focal point for the mode. It is often used as the final tone, although this is not essential.

Reciting Tone: (also referred to as tenor or confinalis):

This tone serves as a primary focal point in the melody (particularly internally) and as a substitute for the finalis; it is also the reciting tone in the psalms.


The prescribed range of each mode is rarely exceeded by more than a tone above or below.

Musica Ficta:

The use of an altered tone (only Bb in plainsong) often in Modes I and V, frequently in Modes II and VI, and virtually never in Modes III, IV, VII, and VIII.

Melodic Patterns:

The melodic figures associated with the mode that contributes to its unique quality.

Absolute Initial:

A confusing term used by at least one author to refer to one of the many possible starting tones characteristic of each mode — for some modes as many as six of the possible seven tones are defined as “absolute initials.”

Counterpoint (knud Jeppesen) pages 60/61


Knud Jeppesen says in his book (page 63) “Gregorian modes must not stop with the tones, but it must come to understand the melodic laws that govern their use. Most important here is the question of the basic pillars of melodies, and therefore, of modes: TONIC (principal tone, which perhaps also be called “tone of resolution”), and the DOMINANT (which might be designated as the “suspense tone” or “note of tension”.


It is essential to mention that the intention here is to give a summary of the Ecclesiastical modes and not to write a treatise about the History of the modes.

This is a story in which the system changed through 200 years from 1500 to the 1700s, from the first appearance of the “8 modes system” to the Major-Minor system we still use today thanks to the two theorists, the English Christopher Simpson (“A compendium of practical music” 1667) and the French Marc-Antoine Charpentier (“Regles de Composition” 1704) dictated that en reality, just two modes existed: our “modern” Major and Minor scales.



Sequentia: Dies Irae -Graduale Romanum (1961), p. 96* or in Liber Usualis (1961), p. 1810 (Missa prodefunctis)


Graduale: Haec dies ?. Lapidem quem reprobaverunt


TeDeum laudamus – Graduale Romanum (1974), p. 838 (Pro gratiarum actione)


Offertorium: Confirma hoc Deus – Graduale Romanum 1974, p. 255 (Dominica Pentecostes)


Salve Regina – Liber Usualis (1961), p. 279. Latin lyrics sung by the Benedictine


Communio: Tu es Petrus – Graduale Romanum 1974, p. 577 (Ss. Petri et Pauli, Apostolorum)


Qui Sedes Domine – Liber Usualis (1961), p. 335.


Alleluia: Qui Posuit – Liber Usualis (1961), p. 884 (130).

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