HARP SONG MODES
Aristides Quintilianus (probably third century AD) had a threefold division of Greek song into
diastaltic, systaltic and hesychastic moods not unlike the Gaelic geantraighe, goltraighe and
suantraighe. Greek music theory was related closely both to the voice and to the lyre and
included various systems of diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic scales. Letters were used to
designate musical pitches for both voice and musical instrument (probably for the Greek auloi,
slim oboe-like pipes played in pairs) but the strings of the lyre were also given their own special
names in the tetrachords of the scale system. These tetrachords and string names imply a four
finger playing technique. The Greeks were known to practise magadising (which involved
performing a melody at parallel pitches) and heterophony (which involved playing notes on the
lyre additional to the sung melody): the poet Anakreon, as quoted by the Egyptian Athenaeus of
Naukratis, indicates that they may have had an ancient twenty string harp called the μάγαδις:
"I hold my magadis, and sing,
Striking loud the twentieth string.."
The earliest surviving reference to an eight mode system is the οκτώηχος (oktoechos)
mentioned in a Syrian document of the early sixth century. Byzantine and Latin Christianity may
have remodelled their own musical systems around the same time and that kind of modal
thinking may have influenced Gaelic harp music to some degree. Indeed, the harp or lyre may
have been used in a Gaelic ecclesiastical context in early times, as the harp was latterly. A
substantial portion of the traditional Gaelic song repertoire displays the characteristics of a
system of 'authentic', 'plagal' and other modal positions.
In this article, I will present a schema of some of the more statistically significant vocal ranges of
the Gaelic song of Scotland. The schema, which I have named the 'seòl slinneadh' is an
attempt to describe how they may have worked historically in relation to the Gaelic harp. The
research has been extensive and it has taken three different attempts using three different
approaches to find the patterns within the repertoire outlined here. These patterns may be
historical, relate to the medieval hexachords, and provide a basis for future research.
The seòl slinneadh is a pattern extracted from a morass of musical innovation which covers
several centuries. It is not an attempt to reduce this morass to one simplistic system. However,
it may relate to a structure once overtly articulated by Gaelic musicians before the end of the
bardic order. The modal system of instrumental music itself, even that of the harp, is not as
such catered for under the seòl slinneadh.