Greek Modes, Ancient

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Greek Modes, Ancient


the system of melodic scales in classical Greek music, in which polyphony as we know it did not exist. Tetrachords formed the basis of the modal system (initially only descending ones were used). Depending on their intervals, there were three genera of tetrachord: the diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic. There were three types of diatonic tetrachord, distinguished by the position of the minor second: the Dorian, Phrygian, and Lydian.

Octave modes, or harmoniai, consisted of a combination of two tetrachords. The basic modes—the Dorian, Phrygian, and Lydian—were formed by combining two tetrachords of the same type so that the lowest note of the upper tetrachord was separated from the highest note of the lower tetrachord by a whole tone. The secondary hypomodes were formed out of the basic modes by transposing the tetrachords and by adding a whole tone below to complete the octave. In all, there were seven modes, the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, mixolydian, hypodorian, hypophrygian, and hypolydian.

The complete system of ancient Greek modes, comprising the tetrachords hyperbolaion, diezeugmenon, meson, and hypaton, was called the systerna teleion, or “greater perfect” system.

A characteristic effect was ascribed to each mode and genus (the doctrine of the “ethos” of modes and rhythms). The difference in the “ethos” of modes resembles our distinction between major and minor keys. Thus, the Dorian mode (named after one of the indigenous Greek tribes) was considered to be severe, “manly,” and ethically the most valuable. The Phrygian mode (named after a region in Asia Minor) was held to be ecstatic and Dionysian.

The Greek names were applied to the medieval, or ecclesiastical diatonic modes, which had an entirely different structure.


Antichnye mysliteli ob iskusstve, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1938.
Zaks, K. “Muzikal’no-teoreticheskie vozzreniia i instrumenty drevnikh grekov.” In the collection Muzykal’naia kul’tura drevnego mira. Edited by R. I. Gruber. Leningrad, 1937.
Gruber, R. I. Istoriia muzykal’noi kul’tury, vol. 1, part 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1941.
Antichnaia muzykal’naia estetika. Moscow, 1960. (Collection of texts.)
Bellermann, F. Die Tonleitern undMusiknoten der Griechen. Berlin 1847.
Monro, D. B. The Modes of Ancient Greek Music. Oxford, 1894.
Abert, H. Die Lehre vom Ethos in der griechischen Musik. Leipzig, 1899.
Gombosi, O. Tonarten und Stimmungen der antiken Musik. Copenhagen, 1939.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.