[Smt-talk] rationalizing the octenary system

Eytan Agmon agmonz at 012.net.il
Wed Apr 15 10:06:48 PDT 2009

Dear Collective Wisdom,


Hucbald’s classic definition of the octenary modal system (Babb’s translation, pp. 38-39) begins with the clause “passing over the first three notes,…” meaning A, B, and C. One could be somewhat audacious and argue that it took music theory some six-and-a-half centuries to discover that this “passing over,” except in the case of B, is totally arbitrary. Indeed, Hucbald’s important notion of “a bond of similarity” (socialitas) that holds between the final and the note a perfect fifth above (or perfect fourth below), is suggestive of why B, but not A or C, may be “passed over” as finals.


My question, therefore, is this. In the centuries between Hucbald and Glarean, was the question ever posed, and if so, was an answer provided, as to why A and C are a priori unfit to serve as finals, relative to the “white-note” system (cantus durus)? It is understood, of course, that “the Carolingian clergy regulated the relationship in the Franco-Roman Gregorian chant by using the borrowed system of the oktoechos” (Powers, “Mode,” NG, p. 382).    


Eytan Agmon

Dept. of Music

Bar-Ilan University


Israel, 52900


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