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    Sharing my music theory based YouTube Channel

    Hi there everyone,

    I've been teaching theory as an adjunct at Winthrop University for about four years now, and after implementing flipped pedagogy in my own teaching a couple of years ago, last year I decided to create an educational channel about music on YouTube that I call Music Corner.

    It currently has five longer episodes and I've recently begun adding short ones so I can have a regular schedule. Most videos have some kind of theory focus and I try to include theory history where it is relevant and helpful. The first episode tells the story of pitch names to explain why C is the note name where we often begin instead of A. I've also discussed parsimonious voice leading, modes, and harmonic function, among other things.

    I wanted to share these with you now as it finally looks like I have the time to keep it active. Let me know what you think, and good luck to you all on the new semester.


    David Kulma


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    • 14 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • David,

      I too found your video quite clear and well made. I wonder however about some aspects that seem to me oversimplified.

      While I can understand your claim that ancient Greek theory knew modes (the matter is uncertain and calls for a clearer definition of "mode", but your claim is reasonable in view of you pedagogical intention), I fail to understand why you say that the medieval theorists "misunderstood" Greek theory (did they?) or that they deformed it in order to adapt it to the plain chant theory that they were building. I fail to see in what sense or for what purpose they would have done so.

      Wouldn't it better, on pedagogical grounds, not to speak of Greek theory at all, unless, say, to stress that the Greek had described the diatonic system of which our Occidental music has made so much use, and from which the Carolingian theorists developed a theory of diatonic modes?

      As to the idea that Glarean described two "new" modes or scales, this always seemed to me so puzzling! I think that the idea of a moveable Bb in the medieval system, even if somewhat difficult at first, allows not only to explain the Ionian and Aeolian modes (as F and D modes with Bb respectively), but also to give a hint of why or notation first was essentially diatonic, with sharp and flat notes originally viewed as mere inflections and progressively accepted as separate degrees, until the chromatic scale replaced the diatonic one as the background scale. This would also permit, at a more advanced stage, to explain how an essentially movable diatonic scale (also in pitch), allowing for modal differences, came to be replaced by a fixed chromatic one in which all tonalities are the same.

      It seems to me that one danger of vulgarization is that making things too simple at the start later results in a need to modify notions and concepts that you contributed to fix in your students' minds. I see no need to speak of Greek theory at this early stage when you don't even try to explain what a mode is. It may be more useful to explain how the seven diatonic degrees A B C D E F G or C D E F G A B C could appear sufficient at one point, and why it became necessary to complement them with sharps and flats at another point.





    • Thanks everyone for your thoughts! I'm already aware of some fellow teachers showing my videos in their classes, which is a high compliment to the work I'm trying to do with these videos. My hope is to bring some ideas from music theory (and other musicological disciplines) to a wider audience of people while keeping it as content full as I can. Thank you all for taking the time to watch.

      Most of what is below address's Nicolas's helpful feedback. Nicolas, thanks for giving me some things to think about as I work on more videos.

      Each of my videos are intended to be stand alone from one another, but only introductions to the given topic. They can be viewed in order and I do make connections between them, but it is not a structured curriculum where you have to see video 1 to watch video 8. I've always felt that there are ideas and content in professional level musicology (theory, ethno, historical) that are approachable to regular people and musicians without a graduate education. My videos are an attempt to introduce these ideas to this broader public where I quickly define and/or remove technical terms that usually keep this audience out. I understand that this process (as in attempts to do pop science) will oversimplify sometimes, but I do my best to be accurate.

      As to the relationship between Ancient Greek and Medieval theory, it's my understanding that Medieval theorists were starting from ancient music theory (because of the importance of received authority to Medieval scholarship) as they built their own systems to explain church music, and that this applies to scales and modes. Am I wrong about this?

      As to Glarean, my goal was find a fixed point in time that clearly delineated that the idea of C and A as finals is more recent than the ideas that made the letter A the name for the lowest note in Mode II Hypodorian. While I was specifically avoiding accidentals to tell this particular story in a time limit so that people would watch it all the way through, your discussion of accidentals is a great idea for a follow-up video to expand upon how theory and music changed over time.

      Thanks again!


    • In response to Nicolas (and David) -- I suspect what David may be referencing in terms of "getting stuff wrong" is the mismatch in name terminology between the "Greek" church mode names (Dorian, etc.) and their equivalents in the ancient Greek harmoniai.  (They aren't really "modes" in any medieval sense, but yeah, let's just avoid that definition problem for now.)  There's also the oddity of Greek music theory adding proslambanomenos as the final note onto the bottom of the scalar system, whereas medieval writers go a step further (hah!) and graft yet another note (gamma-ut) onto the bottom.  This point has particular relevance to the present question of where the "beginning" of the notes comes from (since gamma-ut served as a reference producing the hexachordal system, thus grounding the C-based scale as more fundamental -- no pun intended -- than the A-based one).

      All of this is glossed over in the video with some weirdness about ancient Greeks having scales built down instead of up, though this is an irrelevant statement for the present argument, since the medieval gamut was built on the perfect system scale of ancient Greece.  Whether one builds up or down, the intervals were interpreted to be the same.  (Well, it's the same for values of "same" that focus on particular diatonic genera while excluding the complexity of Greek tetrachordal tunings).

      Anyhow, it might be more accurate to say that the medieval writers appropriated one of the Greek scalar structures, but then did other things with it.  (The earliest church modal classifications were of course not called Dorian, etc., but getting into primus through tetrardus is too much for an intro video.)  After this new 8-mode system was established, some dude superimposed a bunch of Greek harmoniai names onto it with little rhyme or reason.  It's not so much that the medieval folks misunderstood as they were doing different stuff and inconsistently applied ancient nomenclature (which most of them were probably getting third-hand anyway).

      All in all, I kind of agree with Nicolas that leaving the Greeks out of it might be best (other than just a reference that the scale with A as lowest note can be dated back that far).  Unless you're going to get into how the tetrachordal system was organized, why it tended to be built down to "B", and then why "A" (proslambanomenos) was added, it's just not worth it -- and that's just too hard to explain in an intro video like this.

      But all of this is a rather minor quibble on a fun intro to a rather arcane topic.  (And I'll refrain from quibbling further on Glarean... Nicolas is right that there's some funny business going on with transposed Lydian = Ionian, but I think the video gets enough right about when the pitch-class-name identity became centered with modes on C.)

      Congrats on the videos, and thanks for creating this for broad public consumption!

    • Carson, I don't want to argue about technicalities either. I only think that it is our duty as educators to avoid oversimplifications – which, in addition, eventually explain nothing and leave the students as puzzled as before. If you think that modes are scales, and that tonality merely is the reduction of a variety of scales to two only, plus a preference for leading tones, how do you explain that so many people who were not merely idiots took such pains explaining it? How do you justify the sense of tonal teleology that affects tonal works? How do you explain the various theories of tonal functions, of tonal tension, etc.?

      By claiming that tonality (or modality) is but a matter of scales, you prevent further explanations. On the contrary, by stating from the start that tonality or modality do not reduce to a matter of scales, you'd open the path for fruitful further discussions.

      The most general definition of modal/tonal music is that it somehow aims at a distant termination that will release all tensions, a termination diversely defined as a final, a tonic, or the like. It is not so difficult to illustrate musics which lack this teleology – e.g. pentatonic music of the far East, or atonal music of the 20th century – and to make the students realize this specific aspect of our music, without any need for technical knowledge. They may be made to realize that this characteristic is shared among others by maqamic music, or to a lesser extent by musics of India, also by much of jazz music, etc.; there is no clear indication that it existed in ancient Greek music.

      If on the other hand you define modality/tonality in terms of scales, then of course there is the pentatonic scale, the Greek armoniai, the dodecaphonic scale, etc., and almost all musics of notes would fall under the definition – because it always is possible to arrange notes to form a scale. But a definition that does not allow distinctions is useless.



    • I like this a lot. Your videos are very clear and well-made. It's a great resource to refer students to.

    • Thanks David, you've made music theory fun!  Your ideas are cogent and thought provoking and this is a wonderful direction for music theory for a wider audience.  I look forward to viewing [all] your work with interest and amusement!  

    • Let me be more precise. The only "mistake" of medieval theory about the Greek one, was when "some dude", as John writes, superimposed Greek names to the Latin modes. These dudes were the authors of the treatises of the Enchirias group, unless I am mistaken, and it seems that nobody took over their weird denominations before ... Glarean. The medieval theorists, in other words, were not really guilty of what they have been accused (by Jacques Chailley, among others, in L'imbroglio des modes, a book which indeed succeeded in making the whole thing even more complex than it really was).

      As to the reason of A, not C, as the lowest note of the scale, it should be realized that Latin letters were not often used before the Dialogus of the pseudo Odo of Cluny in the early 11th century. They were used mainly by Boethius, who began each of his discussions of scalar fragments or intervals with the letter A, irrespective of the particular note concerned. And he usually ran the alphabet as high as necessary for the demonstration. (Boethius even once used the letters from A to P to denote what we may now write as aa g f e d c b a G F E D C B A.) Thus, at that time (and for some time after), "A" meant "the first note", irrespective of what note was the first. Several early medieval treatises call "A" the note that we call C (Scholia enchiriadis, GS I, p. 209; Notker Labeo, GS I, p. 96; Hucbald, GS I, p. 118; Bernelinus, GS I, p. 326, etc.).

      The reason why the Dialogus established A as the letter for the note A is that he attached some importance to the two-octave system of the Greek, from A to aa, supposed to represent the ambitus of a human voice (irrespecive of pitch, of course). But the pseudo Odo also added one letter below A, Γ which for a long time in the middle ages was to be the first note of the scale.

      To sum up, I trust that the existence of the Greek Systema teleion is the reason why some, in the Middle Ages, considered that the scale began at the note A, in theory at least (but often not in practice), and why the Odonian notation, which became the basis of our modern-time notation, gave the letter A to this note A. That some in the Middle Ages used the letter A for the note C appears to have been a mere accident.

      I think that it would be quite wrong, among others for the reasons stated below, to believe that, thanks to Glarean, the Ionian and Aeolian modes gained the first place:

      – The C scale was already known in the Middle Ages as F with Bb; both were called with the same note names, ut re mi fa sol re mi fa, and the letters were rarely used for real music.

      – The real model of the major scale probably is the Mixolydian mode (G mode), not the Lydian one (F mode with Bb). [This is because the major mode is articulated in two disjuncts 4ths, G-C-D-G or C-F-G-C, while the F mode is articulated in 3d+3d+4th, F-A-C-F; but this is a complex matter.]

      – Certainly, the model for the minor scale at first was not the A mode, but the D one, or else the minor scale knew these two models, at least until the early 18th century.

      It is an amusing coïncidence that Glarean apparently "dicovered" the C and A modes and that these apparently became the major and minor mode, but neither of these is true.





    • Nicolas and John,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to elaborate on this theory history for me. I already knew some of what you describe, but some of it is new information for me. When I made this video a year ago, I thought I knew enough of this history to make my larger point. But some of my necessary shortcuts clearly falsify some of that history or paper over some important points.

      I have always been interested in expanding on this particular video. I have a different correction from the ones you have mentioned that I want to note as well in a second video. I'll put it on my to-do list. I hope you'll watch the other videos where I'm on firmer ground (I hope).

      Again, thanks for taking the time to discuss this with me.


    • In defense of David (and I certainly do not have the background to argue with Nicolas or John), the conceptual point is that "modes" eminate from the Greeks and most likely Pythagoras' harmonic inverstigations in general.  Is this a fair statement?  And though the treatment by the Ancient Greeks of mode and division of the octave by tetras differs from usage with the later Medievil "church modes," a mode by concept is a scalar variant from a single collection of [scalar] pitches that characterizes different harmonic/melodic results with different roots/tonics and cadencial points.  Why Middle C?  Perhaps that has to do with the circumstances of history past - instruments, language, tradition, etc.  To the point that the transition from "modes" to major/minor tonality has no clear explantion is confusing to me. In my perception the reason for the transition is the compression of the modal forms into the major/minor variants and the stylistic change/preference for a leading tone regarless of specific mode.  The musical language of the 20th century is just such a compression of the harmonic system that preceded it - the extended chromaticism and harmonic regions explored in the Romantic and late Romantic periods leads to a path away from a fixed tonal center and towards atonality as Schoenberg implied - atonality was a logical extension of what came before.  

    • Thanks for your feedback and response Nicolas.  I don't think that the concept of modes and their usage is an oversimplification or that complex.  Jazz musicians use modes all the time and it's a process of extracting the various octave patterns from each successive scale tone (of the fundamental scale used for the "modification.").  There is very a famous and widely used book Jazz musicians use called the "The Guitar Grimore/Bass Grimore" by Adam Kadmon which is entirely about that process.  Pentatonic scales can be modified as well as any scale can.  Often using a mode variant of any particular scale brings about good musical compositional results.  For example, this scale created from cello and violin harmonics (the first 8 overtones) BCC#DEF#GG#AB is interesting when started on the root of D - almost a Bebop Mixolydian scale becomes apparent (with a blue note as well).  My intent was not to oversimplify or stifle the discussion, rather to bring the concept of modes and "modification" into a current usage discussion.  How modes were treated in Ancient Greece or during the Middle Ages has a common origin that continues to develop in contemporary music and is useful to all musicians as a conceptual technique.  As a composer I always examine modes derived from any scalar patterns as fundamental pre-compositional work that often leads to good musical results.  I also like the idea of the Greek use of tetras (at least that is my understanding of Greek scale formation) and the interesting possibilities that various symmetrical and asymmetrical tetras can offer for musical variation, musical ficta, modulations, etc.  Thanks for your comments from one who is far below your academic resume, but very active in musical thinking.  The joy of being a composer is not in the understanding of everything, but the joy of not understanding everything and the ensuing exploration that allows for individual creativity to occur.  And modes are scales if you play jazz - John Coltrane, Miles Davis, etc.  If you have to create a bass line from a D Dorian scale it most certainly is a scale in every regard.  I am also quite fond of Persichetti's discussion of modal usage in "Twentieth Century Harmony."  I'm no expert on the historical details of modal academia, but I certainly use modal technique in everything I do as a classical/jazz musician, composer and teacher.  

    • Regarding leading tones - I merely suggested that the change from the Renaissance modal system to the Baroque major/minor system shows a compression of the various modes and favors the use of the leading tone as a structural feature in contrast to the b7th of Dorian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian modes (Schoenberg talks about this so not my original idea).  All of the minor variants use the leading tone with the exception of the descending melodic minor.  Of course the leading tone was used in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance periods as well in addition to modal usage without leading tones - Praetorius, Gregorian Chant, etc.  But the b7th seems to disappear as common usage (with the exception of dominant 7th chords, passing tones, altered chords, melodic patterns) as a bVII chord or leading tone the way it was previously used: Dm-C-Dm-A, Dm-C-Dm-A-Dm or i-bVII-i-V, i-bVII-i-V-i (a Praetorius progression).  With all due respect for you Nicolas and someone I greatly admire and learn from.  

    • Nicolas,

      I just wanted to say that I appreciate your attention to detail (as always), and I hope you took my somewhat free-wheeling comment in the spirit it was intended.  That is -- I didn't intend to downplay the significance of the various steps you gave more detailed information about.  I just didn't feel like getting too much into all that, since it wouldn't fit into this video anyway. 

      If anything, I'll reiterate what I said in my first post (in agreement with you): I think the connection between ancient Greek theory and medieval/renaissance theory is glossed over way too much and would better be left out completely than misrepresented.  That's not really a critique of this video as much as a critique of the music history narrative in general.  I'm not sure how it is in Continental European textbooks these days, but in American music history textbooks there's almost always an intro chapter (or at least a few pages) on Greek music, with some handwaving explanations about modes and tetrachords before leaping forward a thousand years.  Textbooks always have to simplify and summarize, but I think the potential connections (and, more importantly, the major differences) between Greek theory and medieval theory are almost always oversimplified or left out completely.  Thus, there's this weird tension where music historians seemingly WANT to ground "Western music" in ancient Greece (a literal "classicizing impulse"?), but don't want to bother with the many steps needed to actually show the development, which you outline some of.

      Again, this isn't so much about the video anymore, as it is about the broader misperceptions in music history.

    • Carson -

      A couple observations.

      (1) "Mode" has obviously meant MANY different things throughout history.  Aside from the notion of scale or a collection of pitches or even a tendency toward a final resolution note (as Nicolas mentioned), I'd also note that many cultural uses of "mode" (both "Western" and non-Western) involve much more than "scale" or pitch collection.  They often involve stock melodic formulas, for example as in Indian raga.  You might have characteristic strings of 3-10 notes used melodically which define the "mode" more than just the collection of pitches.  I'd submit that to the extent that "mode" existed for ancient Greeks or in the earliest chant classification systems, it often had something to do with these melodic characteristics too.  (Think of the stock D-A-C minor seventh leap pattern outlined in mode 1 of Gregorian chant, for example.)  The earliest "modal" classifications of medieval chant had absolutely nothing to do with scale or pitch collections, but rather with cadence formulas.  Anyhow, that's part of the difficulty in relating our modern "mode"=scale conception back historically all the way to Greece.  (And nevermind that you have a roughly 800-year span of history during which Greek music theory was written, with a multitude of different conceptions of scales, modes, and note relationships which are generally completely glossed over.)

      (2) Regarding leading tones -- they were basically an element of polyphonic music from very early, particularly at cadences.  It's crucial to remember that our "modal scales" from renaissance treatises are theoretical constructions, not necessarily indicative of all pitches necessary for practice (especially polyphonic practice).  Despite being branded as "ficta," the leading tone was a critical element of actual musical practice, going back to some of the earliest treatises describing polyphony.

      Also, regarding the putative "compression" of modes into the modern tonal system, I'd just note that in some ways we've just absorbed the old accidentals.  Dorian merely represents a shift in scale degree 6 in minor, which is still perhaps the most changable of the notes of the minor scale in tonal music (after the leading tone, of course).  Mixolydian and Lydian are merely the flat-7 and sharp-4 accidentals in a major key, which are of course the most common accidentals occurring in major keys, generally signifying a move toward subdominant or dominant in tonal music.  The only "lost" mode is really Phrygian, which was never very popular for polyphonic composition anyway.  (And polyphonic Phrygian pieces frequently would "modulate" and hang out in other places of the scale, making the E-based system probably the least stable.)

      In sum, as Nicolas already said, it's important to remember that historically "mode" didn't just mean "collection of pitches in a scale," as it frequently is used today.  And many of the notes we now think of as "characteristic" of special modes (i.e., the raised 6 of Dorian, the raised 4 of Lydian, the lowered 7 of Mixolydian and Aeolian) were actually mutable notes in medieval and renaissance practice and were not consistently applied in dogmatic "scales."

    • Thank you for your comments John.  I appreciate your detailed and informed analysis and I feel lucky to have a conversation with both you and Nicolas.  I understand your points and perspective and much to think about!  I wanted to share this with you both - it's a well known method for guitarists and bassists called "the Guitar/Bass Grimore - scales & modes"  

      I think it speaks for itself and the publisher is Carl Fischer.  There is a series and each one explores different technical topics (and is a compendium of International scales).  

      Unfortunately I cannot upload a photo.  Here is a link: