What Are Church Modes?

Church modes were used by composers starting in the 16th century.

Sixteenth-century church music consists of seven different modes based on the C major scale. Each mode has different characteristics and had a specific purpose in 16th-century religious music. Each mode starts on a different degree and creates a different sound. Early composers felt that each mode could evoke specific emotions within the listener. For instance, the sixth mode had characteristics that were thought to induce sloth.

Ionian and Dorian

Ionian and Dorian modes use the first two degrees in the major scale to create their modes. Although there was no major scale in early church music, the equivalent and identical mode went by the name Ionian. This mode consists of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. The Dorian mode started on the second degree of the Ionian (major) mode and consists of D, E, F, G, A, B, and C.

Phrygian and Lydian

Phrygian and Lydian modes start on the third and fourth scale degree. The Phrygian mode consists of the notes E, F, G, A, B, C and D, and the Lydian mode consists of the notes F, G, A, B, C, D and E. Sometimes the B has been changed to a Bb to avoid the tritone that may occur between the B and F. A tritone is a dissonant sounding interval to their ears, and musicians went to great lengths to avoid the it. It bore the nickname “Diabolus in musica” or “The Devil in music.”

Mixolydian and Aeolian

Mixolydian and Aeolian modes consist of the last two practical modes in church music. The Mixolydian mode began on the fifth scale degree and consisted of the notes G, A, B, C, D, E and F. The Aeolian mode starts on the sixth degree and uses the notes A, B, C, D, E, F and G. The Aeolian mode is the same as the modern natural minor scale.


The Locrian mode never found a place in practical church music. Locrian as a theoretical mode existed only as a conceptual idea. It begins on the seventh degree and consists of the notes B, C, D, E, F, G and A. Since there is a tritone between the root and the fifth of the mode, it did not make it into common practice. Although there are tritones in other modes, they do not occur between the first mode degree and the fifth. Since the fifth degree is essential for proper cadences and cannot be changed, composers omitted this mode.


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