9th Biennial Conference on Baroque Music


Zarlino's Senario and the Development of the Major/Minor Keys with particular Reference to English Music Theory

Peter Hauge

In England, during the seventeenth century some very interesting music-theoretical discussions took place among the growing number natural philosophers, most of them connected with the Royal Society of London either as members or as consultants. Their treatises have received scant attention among present-day musicologists. When studying these treatises in the context of contemporary music theory (i.e. from Thomas Morley (1597) to Henry Purcell (1694), for instance), some very interesting conclusions can be drawn concerning the development of the recognition of major/minor keys. Thus, reading their statements on the definition and function of Zarlino's senario principle (1558), it becomes clear that the often quoted pairing of the major third and sixth into one group and the minor third and sixth into another does not oppose the recognition of the invertibility of intervals; rather, the two groups were interpreted as two distinct scale types. At the end of the seventeenth century, English theorists such John Birchensha (c.1664) and William Holder (1694) also added the seventh degree, hence in effect proposing the major and minor keys. It can be concluded that in England, at least, it was the diatonic scales, C major and A minor, which from the beginning were the fundamental keys and functioned as such. It was not the Ionian and Aeolian modes or the Dorian and Lydian modes, which ultimately developed into major/minor keys. It therefore seems highly probable that the major/minor keys developed independently from earlier theories of modes, and that especially Zarlino's attempt to find a tenable argument for including the thirds and sixths as consonances was the original impetus.

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Last updated on 21 March 2000 by Yo Tomita