Meantone Tuning

Meantone tuning (most commonly 1/4 syntonic comma) is a tuning system based on pure thirds. The characteristics of this tuning system can be compared to the modern way of tuning keyboard instruments (equal temperament) as follows:

Meantone Equal temperament
The most frequently used enharmonic tones are available(f#, c#, g#, b-flat, e-flat)


Good thirds and fifths (the major thirds are completely pure)


Wide leading tones (in the usual keys)

All available keys have the same tuning characteristics


4 (8) key colours (church modes)


Dissonant intervals sound dissonant in and of themselves

All enharmonic tones are available


Good fifths, bad thirds (the major thirds are 7 times more compromised than the fifths, the minor thirds are 8 times more compromised) which also means bad sixths (8 times more compromised)

Narrow leading tones

All keys have the same tuning characteristics


2 key colours (major and minor)


Dissonant intervals only sound dissonant in a certain harmonic context


Meantone tuning implies the conscious use of the key colours of the church modes. These are identified as follows:



Despite the fact that there are 8 different modes, there are really only 6 different key colours in this system (in distinction to the two key colours of modern harmony, major and minor). Each mode is divided into two different scales, both having the same tonic (home tone). The authentic scale begins on the tonic, the plagal scale begins a fourth under the tonic. This division has mostly to do with the ambitus (range) that is provided for the melody and flows forth out of the vocal tradition (a melody ought to be singable in terms of its range). Each mode also has a characteristic interval which has its origin in the repeated tone of Gregorian chant. The interval is to be viewed as a series of notes which provide each mode with its unique character (due to the position of the semitones).

Three of the six modes are minor sounding and three are major sounding to modern ears.

The modern minor mode is characterised by a minor third and a minor sixth.

The Doric mode has a minor third, but a major sixth (except when ‘b’ is approached from below without continuing to the ‘c’ – in those circumstances the ‘b’ is turned into a b-flat). Just as in the modern minor key, the leading note is sharpened at all cadences. This mode was associated with seriousness.

The Phrygian mode has both the minor third and the minor sixth and adds to these the minor second. This provides unique possibilities for a final cadence, e.g. regular cadence with ‘a’ as the harmonic tonic (see fig. 1), or a genuine Phrygian cadence (see fig. 2). This mode was associated with sadness.

Fig. 1


C. Goudimel, final cadence Psalm 17 (melody in tenor)



Fig. 2


J. P. Sweelinck, final cadence Psalm 17 (transposed a fourth lower, melody in bass)


The Aeolic mode is the same as the modern minor key. It was associated with joy and love. (!!)

The modern major key is characterised by the major third, major sixth and perfect seventh.

The Lydian mode was nearly always used with a b-flat in the 8 mode system. In this way it is equivalent to the modern major key. When the 12 mode system came into vogue (during the 16th century), this mode (with b-flat) was normally viewed as a transposed Ionic mode. The Lydian mode with ‘b’ is, however, almost totally theoretical and hardly ever used. The Lydian mode was associated with gladness and simplicity, and sometimes also with godly reverence.

The Mixolydian mode has the major third and major sixth, but only uses a perfect seventh in cadences when the leading tone is sharpened. It was associated with moderation.

The Ionic mode is identical to the modern major key. It was associated with gladness and liveliness.

The Genevan Psalm melodies date to the end of the 16th century when many composers were highly influenced by the Glarean/Zarlinean 12 mode system of church modes. The psalms are divided into modes as follows:

Doric: 2, 5, 8-14, 20, 24, 33, 34, 37, 41, 45, 48, 50, 53, 59, 62, 64, 67, 78, 80, 88, 90, 91, 92, 95, 96, 104, 107, 111, 112, 114, 115, 125, 128, 130, 137, 143, 146, 148, 149

Hypodoric: 7, 23, 28, 40, 61, 77, 86, 109, 120, 129

Phrygian: 17, 26, 31, 51, 63, 69, 70, 71, 83, 94, 100, 102, , 131, 132, 141, 142, 147

Mixolydian: 15, 19, 27, 46, 57, 74, 82, 85, 116, 126, 136, 145

Hypomixolydian: 30, 44, 58, 76, 87, 93, 103, 113, 117, 121, 127, 139

Aeolic: 4, 6, 22, 38, 65, 72

Hypoaeolic: 16, 18, 39, 55, 106, 110, 144, Song of Mary

Ionic: 1, 3, 21, 29, 32, 36, 47, 68, 73, 75, 81, 84, 97, 105, 122, 133, 135, 138, 150

Hypoionic: 25, 35, 42, 43, 49, 54, 56, 60, 66, 79, 89, 98, 101, 108, 118, 119, 123, 124, 134, 140, 10 commandments, Song of Simeon


In the course of the 17th century, the 8 church modes were transformed into modern keys as follows (partly due to ignoring the distinction between authentic and plagal ambitus):


tone 1 = d minor (Dorian)

tone 2 (b-flat) = g minor (Hypodorian, tr.)

tone 3 = a minor.

tone 4 = e minor (Hypophrygian)

tone 5 = C major (Lydian, tr.)

tone 6 (b-flat) = F major (Hypolydian)

tone 7 (f #) = D major (Mixolydian, tr.)

tone 8 = G major (Hypomixolydian)

In addition f minor became a usable key due to the fact that the three augmented seconds F-G#, Bb-C#, and Eb-F# are close to the sound of a pure 7:6 minor third and therefore sound consonant. These contribute in giving f minor a distinct key colour in meantone.