Complicating the Modal Paradigm with the Music of William Byrd (c. 1540–1623)


ACLS Fellowship Program


Music Theory


This project develops a historically grounded model of pitch structure in the music of William Byrd, drawing on sixteenth-century music theory, recent research on sixteenth-century pitch frameworks, and computational analysis of a digital corpus of Byrd's works. We generally understand sixteenth-century music to be governed by modality, a system of pitch structure described in contemporary theory texts. However, scholars have questioned mode's broad applicability, especially in England, where little modal theory and few explicitly modal musical sources survive. As an alternative, this project adopts an analytical perspective based on solmization, the sight-singing rudiments that undergirded all sixteenth-century musicians' sense of pitch. Solmization determines what pitches a composer can use, marks some pitches as essential and others as accidental, and controls features from motivic design to harmonic plan. This pragmatic framework, grounded in vocal pedagogy rather than speculative modal theory, can radically reshape our understanding of both English and Continental music.