Thursday, 29 May 2014


“For in the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”  - Baba Dioum

Have you ever heard Greek, Turkish or Middle Eastern music? Do you immediately appreciate a different sound, highly characteristic of these countries? Exotic, lilting, plangent, melancholy, melismatic? Have you ever wondered why this type of music sounds so different and yet so specifically exotic? You may like to hear an example of this type of music:

This is a Greek Orthodox church traditional melody, sung by Petros Gaitanos. It is from the Second Ode to the Virgin Mary in the Plagal A sound (see below):
Αγνή Παρθένε Δέσποινα
Άχραντε Θεοτόκε
Χαίρε Νυμφή Ανύμφευτε
Παρθένε Μήτηρ Άνασσα…

Pure Virgin Mistress,

Blessed Mother of God,
Hail Bride, unblesmished,
Virgin Mother, Queen…

Well if the answer to all of these questions is yes, read on. I thought I would copy here a piece I wrote for a music composition and discussion group I belong to and which discusses Byzantine scales. These scales are direct descendant of the ancient Greek scales, from which stem the traditions of the Greek orthodox church chants, traditional Greek music and much of the Near Eastern and Middle Eastern music.

Each of the Byzantine musical collections of notes used in constructing a melody are called a "sound" [ήχος - eechos] and correspond to our concept of a scale. There are eight different "sounds" [ήχοι - eechoi]:
Principal A, Principal B, Principal C, Principal D, (these are the “main” ones [κύριοι - kyrioi]) and
Plagal A, Plagal B, Plagal C = “Heavy”  [βαρύς - barys], and Plagal D (these are the “oblique” ones [πλάγιοι - plagioi]).

Tetrachords (four-note groups) are used to construct the Byzantine “scales’ as they were used to construct the ancient Greek modes and some of the Byzantine scales are identical or very similar to the ancient Greek modes, while others are the same as diatonic scales.

There are different constructions of tetrachords and the emotional impact of the tetrachord will depend on the interrelationship of intervals in it. Some of the tetrachords are identical or very similar in construction in the different scales, and the groups of tetrachords that are thus similar are each called a “genus” [γένος - genos].

There are three genera:
1)    Diatonic: Principal and Plagal A and D
2)    Chromatic: Principal and Plagal B
3)    Enharmonic: Principal and Plagal C (= heavy)

Characteristically melodies in the diatonic genus are described as being of the following disposition [ήθος - eethos]: “joyful, imposing, festive”.  Melodies in the chromatic genus are described as being “sweet, melancholy, pensive, gloomy”. While melodies constructed in the enharmonic genus are described as being “pleasant, enthusiastic, masculine”.

The names of the notes in Byzantine music are:

C = Ni (νι)
D = Pa (πα)
E = Vou (βου)
F = Ga (γα)
G = Di (δι)
A = Ke (κε)
B = Zo (ζο)

Principal A and Plagal A  =  D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D’, C, B flat, A, G, F, E, D

Principal B = G, A flat, B, C, B, A flat, G.  But! G, F, E, D, E, F, G and G, F, E, D flat, C
Plagal B = D, E flat, F sharp, G, A, B, C, D, C, B flat, A, G, F sharp, E flat, D
Principal C and Plagal C = F major scale (F, G, A, B flat, C, D, E, F)
Principal D = E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, D, C, B, A, G, F sharp,/G, F/ E, D sharp, E
Plagal D = C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C)

Note that these are approximations as the sharps and flats are not exactly so sounded, often an intermediate tempering used, rather than the equal tempering of diatonic scales. The notation of Byzantine music is in neumes (νεύματα - as in illustration above).

Understanding of these scales contributes positively to the listening experience of Orthodox Church chants as well as to the understanding of much Balkan folk music, and of Near and Middle Eastern music.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, very interesting and explains why this music sounds so different.