Last week, during my panel meeting, one of my supervisors pointed out that my use of the phrase ‘based on the tonic, sub-dominant and dominant chords’ to describe a seventeenth-century tune was anachronistic, but conceded that finding terms to describe Renaissance music was difficult. We arranged to discuss it further next week, but in the meantime I’ve been wrestling with technical details and grand plans, trying to work out how best to describe my musical examples.

If I’m honest, despite the fact that I used to teach music, modes have always scared me. At the sight of anything modal, my brain goes into panic mode and simply says ‘I can’t do this’.  Teaching to GCSE level really only involved acknowledging that modes existed, that they were a feature of medieval and to a lesser extent, Renaissance music (and thereby hangs another blog post – why musicians and historians can’t talk to one another because we can’t talk about the same time periods!), and then moving on. You played some examples to show that they sounded a bit different and as long as students could recognise that a piece was modal, that was as much as information as you needed to impart. But working on the ballads has required a much more detailed knowledge of this, for me, thorny area. Not only do I need to be able to tell which scale any tune uses (relatively straightforward when you have a list in front of you and a husband to make sure you haven’t gone completely loopy), I suddenly need to know the exact meanings of terms I’ve been using loosely for years. There are philosophical debates to be had (well, actually, I’ve had them, several times over, with my long-suffering husband and equally long-suffering Fiend) about whether church music influenced popular music; how much influence popular music had on the church; what roles both popular and church music had in the move from modes to major and minor scales; whether what we find easy to learn in the twenty-first century is the same as what the sixteenth-century man or woman would have found easy to pick up by ear; and whether it matters if I use terms that hadn’t been invented in the sixteenth century to describe the melodies.

There is no immediately obvious set of terminology to use about the tonality of sixteenth-century popular music. It does not fit into the patterns of the eight Gregorian church modes, nor is it major or minor; but popular music, as it now appears to us, is mainly in the major or minor modes (Ionian, Dorian, Aeolian) or a mixture of them. These are the modes most closely linked to modern major/minor scales because of the patterns of tones and semitones that they contain. As such, they are the easiest modes for the untrained/amateur musician to sing. Are we being anachronistic to assume that we know what the sixteenth century man on the street would have found difficult to sing? If they were more used to doing things by ear, then maybe they picked up things that we might find more difficult without too much of a problem. But then, logically, the evidence that we have is that most of the popular song melodies of the period were written in the Ionian, Dorian and Aeolian modes, suggesting that they found those modes easier too; otherwise there should be just as much popular music to be found in all the other modes. My Fiend pointed out that there are reasons why we find certain musical intervals pleasing and others unpleasant – that’s why the augmented fourth is thought to be so nasty and yet any A-level music student studying Baroque harmony will know that its inversion, the diminished fifth, is used regularly and is fine. Music is heard by vibration, so there could be physiological reasons why some things are more pleasant than others.  He reminded me that the human brain likes patterns.  A quick google search for ‘brain, music, pattern’ brings up an article which points out that brain scan results all show similar responses to music. I’m fairly certain this would be corroborated if I went to Jstor and ran the same search. If we consider for a moment twentieth-century serial music, such as that by Schoenberg, the main problem of acceptance that it faces is that, for many, it has no easily discernible tune. A musician may be able to appreciate the construction, but the non-specialist strains to hear a melody, and finding none, finds the music unacceptable. The brain longs for a pattern to latch on to. Perhaps the pattern in the Ionian, Dorian and Aeolian modes is just easier to find than that in the Hypophrygian.

Of course, there is no way of knowing that what we now accept to be the tunes for sixteenth century ballads or even late medieval carols are actually how the tunes were sung at the time, because of the vagaries of notation, oral transmission and the fact that some do not appear extant in notation until the seventeenth century. The bits that were more difficult to sing could have been smoothed out in the process of the tunes being handed on from one set of ears to another. But again, this backs up the argument that tunes based on other scales were less easy to sing because the less familiar and simple intervals were more difficult to remember.

Anyway, the use of terms such as tonic/dominant/subdominant is anachronistic in that it implies a type of chordal harmony that did not exist in the sixteenth century. But it is the most accessible set of terms to a modern, non-specialist audience. Furthermore, if the tune is built on the arpeggios of those very chords, sometimes following the cadential patterns of major/minor harmony that we would recognise today, it does describe the music rather perfectly, at least to my mind. It may also play into the argument that, as music headed towards major and minor keys over the next century or so, the ballads were ahead of the game in mainly using major/minor tonalities. It is equally anachronistic to talk about things in the Aeolian mode, but talking about ‘the Dorian mode with the flattened sixth throughout’ is complicated and confusing.

There is the possibility of using solmization, which designates each pitch with a syllable, but it is based on aural rather than visual recognition, being used to recognise intervals. It is also more confusing for the non-musical audience. Apparently the standard form of plainsong harmony in the middle ages and early renaissance was on ‘fa’. One harmony line (the burden) was almost always sung a third or a fifth below the melody and the other (the treble), a fourth above – it was known as the fa-burden and avoids that horror of A-level Bach harmony students, the consecutive fifth. Technically, the fa-burden was a series of parallel first inversions of the triad on the melody note. But that is beside the point.

There is a balancing act to be done here between using language incorrectly, which I don’t want to do because it annoys me when other people use technical musical terms without the slightest understanding of what they mean (and because I just don’t like being wrong!), and using such technical language that the general reader can’t follow it. There is even an issue of what is popular and what is art music… In these paragraphs I’m assuming anything to be popular if it wasn’t written by a trained composer, but what about tunes that were written by trained musicians that were taken up by a wider audience…? What a lot of cans of worms.

I have a grand theory about music based on the use of the vernacular but I don’t think it’s all that new – I don’t see how it can be. Nevertheless, all the musicologists I’ve read seem to insist that over the long term, court and church composers influenced popular music into the change to major/minor keys, while popular music held on for many years to its out-dated modal tunes. This makes no sense to me since the vast majority of the ballad tunes were Ionian, Dorian or Aeolian, the most similar modes to the modern major and minor scales. Some of the ballad tunes, as I’ve said, seem to be squarely in a major key because not only are they based on a major scale, they have a cadential pattern which follows the standard modern patterns associated with a major key. Which is not to say that they have harmony, it’s just to point out that were you to harmonise it with chords I, II, IV, V and VI, there are standard chord progressions that would fit.

My theory is that as the sixteenth century English church embraced the vernacular, it also embraced the culture of the people. We know that across Europe, the Protestant church utilised popular melodies to enable the singing of vernacular hymns. Up until the Reformation, the church liturgy (and indeed, much official discussion in print and manuscript) was conducted in Latin. The population as a whole took no part in singing in church because church music was Latin polyphony sung by trained choirs, where it existed at all. The shift to congregational singing in the vernacular had to draw upon the only tradition of communal singing that existed – that of ballads, carols and folk songs. It is well known that Protestant reformers privileged the words over the music for theological reasons so that the meaning of God’s word was clear, but what else could you do if you wanted untrained voices to join in? The church modes were theoretical constructs developed for trained church choirs, not for the farm labourer or tanner. The simpler the melody, the easier it was for everyone to join in with metrical psalms. Perhaps you could continue to produce tunes in modes such as the Hypophrygian, but all the evidence of the extant popular tunes suggests that your congregation would have found that something of a challenge to learn by ear and reproduce. Therefore, over time, the church was forced to take on board the music of the people, not just in the use of tunes drawn from traditional, demotic sources but also by adopting the musical keys which the untrained ear had already privileged because its patterns were more pleasing to the brain. Although I’d be the last person to deny that church and court music influenced the ballads, at the moment I believe it to have been a two-way street, with the ballad music being somewhat ahead of the game in looking towards the major and minor keys before they had even been invented!