The Septenary Tone Cycle
and the Psychoactive Modes Issued
from its Fundamentals
The Musical Concept of Modes
The term mode is used in various ways. Today we speak of major and minor modes, but the word mainly refers to the eight modes of Medieval plainchant and to the Greek modes from which they were derived. Ancient Greek terms have been interpreted in several ways, but what I call mode presumably refers to the Greek tropos. The ragas of India are modes, in the sense I use the term. But they appear in India only after the Christian era and the spread of intense devotionalism in the Middle Ages.
Modes are not scales in the sense of a series of five or seven Fundamentals. Before the development of polyphonic motets and a tonality system of harmony in Europe after 1100 A.D., modes everywhere referred exclusively to the sequence of sounds constituting a melody — whether the melody was sacromagical, religious, or popular. Moreover, besides being a particular series of intervals, a mode always included (in varying degrees) a combination of other factors: the manner in which the successive tones of the melody were approached and the way one tone passed into the next, the vitalization of the tones and the entire melody by the psychic concentration of the singer, the time of the day and year, and the environment and circumstances of the performance.
Thus a mode is the product of a culture's psychism and of the conditions calling for the performance. The performance may or may not have a magical or sacred purpose, but it is meant to produce certain psychic states in its hearers. The performer and the listener may or may not be conscious of this purpose, and many hearers may react to the performance only esthetically, analytically, or critically. Nevertheless, the character of a mode is always, in principle, defined by the nature of the type of emotions it is meant to produce in the hearers. Modes are psychoactive factors. (See Appendices I, II, and III).
The psychoactive modal element also exists in classical European music. While it manifests in the difference between major and minor, it is even more apparent in changing harmonies and dramatically arousing developments. The dramatic element is especially strong in Romantic and Expressionistic music, for that type of music seeks dynamically and powerfully to communicate the sufferings and joys, or (more rarely) the peace of individual persons. By contrast, during the classical period of a culture — whether in Europe, India, Java, or China — the meaning of music is essentially collective. Oriental modes are meant to affect the collective psychism of people gathering for hours to hear music. The psychoactive effect of Oriental melodies, reinforced only by the rhythm or the duplicative effect of instruments, has to be strengthened by long repetition and simple developments totally different from the complex, intellectual, and often arcane transformations of brief themes in European music. These themes act more like groupings of Fundamentals than modal sequences. They are like roots, the modes resemble branches and flowers.
What we call melody, the Greeks meant by harmony. Greek harmony depended on the modal character of a sequence of related tones. The relation was undoubtedly structural (that is, dependent on a particular sequence of intervals), but it also implied the immanence of a Fundamental, even if the latter was not actually sounded. In India the singers of ragas usually accompany themselves by constantly sounding on a tambura (a string instrument) the low Fundamental of the raga and perhaps the octave and/or the fifth above. Similarly, in the vocal music of the early Medieval Church (particularly in Byzantium) a deep bass voice continuously repeats the Fundamental of the mode intoned by the other singers. This practice led to basso continuo and even to the musical form passacaglia.
If a mode is like a plant with branches, leaves, and flowers, the root is one of the seven Fundamentals implicitly produced by the resonance of a material body to a descent of the energy of creative Sound. In a human sense, a mode is the response of a culture-whole to a special moment or circumstance in its collective life. Thus there are modes deeply and vitalistically related to the seasons and to festivals having a seasonal or religious character.
A typical example of the meaning of musical modes even in the Christian Church is provided by a quotation from a Syrian writer of the thirteenth century A.D., Bar Hebraeus. In his book, Ethicon: On the Natural Cause of Modes, he connects the eight modes of his Syrian Church not only with the four natural elements (cold, hot, humid, dry), but specifically with the yearly series of seven festivals celebrating the essential events of the mythic Christlife: Annunciation, Resurrection, Pentecost. (See Appendix III.)
Since Pope Gregory the Great, the increasingly powerful Roman Church was able to purge from the early modes all the mystical elements inherited from the Gnostic and Near Eastern traditions, thus preparing for the eventual transformation of the modes into a tonality system embodied in the classical C-major scale. The formalization of music followed from its diatonalization and especially its notation. This was an inevitable change given the leader-worship of the Germanic tribes and the gradually developing individualism. The vitalistic, psychoactive power that music had lost when true modes were no longer heard had to be rebuilt at a new level of psychological response through polyphonic and harmonic complexity and through the dramatic character of thematic transformations.
Having been conditioned by these later developments, we tend to view modes as only particular, set sequences of notes and intervals. We may carefully ascertain and measure these, but as parts of a mode they nevertheless bear a psychic quality and communicate emotions or inner states. If we believe Iamblichus and some of his late followers, Pythagoras certainly did not have an intellectual, abstract approach to the songs by which he was reputed to charm, pacify, and heal his disciples. In India extraordinary psychic and even physical power is attributed to some of the ragas. They may not have quite the same type of magical power traditionally released by the sacred mantrams of Vedic origin, but they certainly have psychodynamic character (see Appendix II).
Nevertheless, difficult questions remain about how modes were formed. What relationships connected their tones; what series of intervals did they embody? Most musicologists believe that the modes were series of simple intervals — whole tones, semitones, and (in the enharmonic genre) one or more quartertones) — dividing the Greek tetrachord in various ways. They base their answer on texts of the fourth century B.C. and mainly on later ones from Alexandria and Rome. Yet only a few of these texts are complete and deciphered easily, and many of them refer to sociopolitical upheavals after which musicians lost the full meaning of ancient practices. According to Kathleen Schlesinger, on the other hand, the ancient Greek tropoi were simply sections of the ascending harmonic series beginning at seven levels, each beginning being called the arche of the mode.
Thus there exist no truly convincing answers to these questions. Yet it seems evident to me that the earliest modes probably were more than a combination of four or five descending tetrachords with set intervals. They were the complex ways in which particular tribes and cultural groups (Dorian, Lydian, Ionian, Phrygian, and so on) intoned their sacromagical chants accompanied by simple instruments (like a five or seven stringed lyre) supporting or duplicating the voices. The Dorians may have been the main and the last group that invaded Greece proper from northern mountainous valleys, but they undoubtedly mixed with earlier inhabitants, perhaps colonies from the previous Cretan culture. Later, the Dorians themselves colonized the islands of the Aegean Sea (for example, Samos where Pythagoras was born) and the coastal regions of Asia Minor and southern Italy.
Throughout this long period the Orphic Mysteries must have exerted an important influence on archaic Greek music, and if esoteric traditions are correct Orpheus came from India through Chaldea and Thrace, where most historians believe he was born. The very ancient Syrian city, Urfa, may carry the true name of Orpheus before it was Helienized, and Brahminical tradition calls him Arjuna, the great disciple of Krishna, who traveled westward after Krishna's death. At any rate, through a process of consolidation, which may have resembled the way Gregorian plainchant became the dominant factor in the development of medieval Church music, the diatonic Dorian mode came to be considered the true foundation of a noble and pure kind of music.
How powerful an influence were the mathematical concepts and measurements promoted by Pythagoras and his disciples is an undeterminable factor. The fragmentary knowledge historians and musicologists ingeniously piece together is neither definitive nor certain, if only because technical data alone cannot provide a foundation for understanding the development of the musical consciousness of the people of a particular culture. In times of transition this development cannot be easily traced because it takes both technical-experimental and philosophical-cultural forms, and the two levels become reconciled only at a later date.
This certainly was the case during the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Europe, and a superficially similar (although basically different) situation presumably developed during the sixth and early fifth centuries B.C. In a Europe experiencing a critical passage from the Unity of the medieval Catholic culture that had produced the Gothic cathedral, to the fragmentation of national states in constant conflict, music too became radically transformed by the intrusion of the popular spirit, the growth of Humanism, and the passion for objective and free research. A new music was born during these centuries, and the particular European system called tonality became established. It arose to fill the need of the increasingly pluralistic spirit of European culture, which eventually led to individualism in its most extreme forms, and to democracy.
Tonality is a European system. It has spread all over the world, as Western civilization and its materialistic technology have done. It is the logical product of the spatialization of music through exact and visually defined notation systems, and through polyphony. Polyphony is the triumph of the many over the One. Pluralization, and therefore complexification, led to the increasing importance of instrumental music and the use of the human voice as an instrument. It also led to the development of chords and vertical relationships — a development which explains the true meaning and purpose of the word tonality.
By permission of Leyla Rudhyar Hill
Copyright © 1982; by Dane Rudhyar
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