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I'm looking to prepare a talk on attitudes to the arts within the church, and I am trying to trace some sources for a comment I once heard about music.

Apparently, centuries ago, the church banned songs in major keys, as they were considered too joyful and frivolous for Christians to sing. Christians back then were expected to be solemn and serious all the time.

I'm keen to know if this can be verified, as I obviously don't want to say anything that's incorrect.

I only heard it mentioned in passing years ago, and can't remember any of the details. The speaker may have said Ionian mode instead of major scale (if that sounds like a load of Greek to you, it is, but now is not the place for a discussion on scales and music theory).

I want to contrast this to the fact that books have been written recently in which minor keys are condemmed as being too miserable and sad for believers. Also, in Jewish society, minor keys are often associated with joy and celebration. So some of the songs that Jesus sang (and almost certainly danced to) were probably in minor keys.

Conclusion being that we should be reluctant to say that A is right and B is wrong, as we interpret music and other art forms from our own cultural perspectives. We are frequently unaware that these have both changed over time and are anything but universal.
The first thing that came to mind reading the above was a church edict of sorts made about never ending a song with a minor chord, but always a major one.

It came from the fact that in the acoustics of cavernous old cathedrals, the way sounds bounced off the walls would take the harmonics of a minor chord and transform it into the aurally disturbing mess of having both the actual minor third sounding and the sympathetic major third sounding (because of some complex physics laws about intersecting harmonics) therefore, the Picardy 3rd was birthed in musical practice. The harmonics of a major chord remained true in the acoustical bouncing, and was therefore deemed the preferred ending.

(a bunny trail, but I think interesting...)

The one problem with the so-called "major" keys is the regular appearance of the diminished 5th (same notes as the augmented 4th), known as the sinister "diabolicus musicus". This was a problem in early music, when parallel 4ths & 5ths were the norm. The sound rankled everyone; it was to be avoided at all costs. Problem was that it's an interval that begs resolution to either a third or a sixth. They did not do those, so it was to be avoided.
Okay, Dave, ya made me hafta do this...

I'm honestly not sure if the church banned major keys. I'm still researching that and will be back to tell you what I find.

What I can tell you is that (if memory of 30 years past history classes holds true) the terms major and minor really did not come into common usage until the 17th century, very late Renaissance, pre-Baroque, sometime shortly before Telemann's era. Until that point, the church musicians used the Greek modes to speak to tuning schema. As Helena has so elegantly pointed out, several of the modes had some inherent problems with what was perceived as dissonance in the pre- to early Renaissance, when polyphany was born and used in chant. The devil details are described in her post.

There's a pretty interesting webpage that talks about this a bit. <URL url="http://www.pathguy.com/modes.htm"><COLOR color="blue">Modes</COLOR> In there is a quote worth reading carefully:
Quote:In The Republic, Plato claimed that the Ionian and Lydian are "relaxed / soft / drinking" systems, without military use, and should be banned. (It is hard to believe commentators who say that "relaxed" just means the strings are less taut and thus lower-pitched.) Plato also described the two Lydian systems, as expressing sorrow. The Dorian would remain legal for use in war and crisis, and the Phrygian for peace, dignity, temperance, and worship. The discussion indicates that lyres were manufactured in various modes. Plato wanted the government to control popular music by allowing only the manufacture of lyres built for the approved modes. In particular, Plato wanted to ban lyres with lots of strings ("a multiplicity of notes") able to play several different modes.

Maybe it was PLATO that banned major keys from the church! <EMOJI seq="1f607">:innocent:</EMOJI>

I know that the church has banished all sorts of strange things in eras gone by. It would honestly not surprise me to confirm your premise about banishing songs in major keys (Ionian mode). Likewise, it would not surprise me to find that somewhere they reversed that and banished songs in minor keys (Aeolian mode), too!

In its musical, artistic infancy, the church came up with some really amazing rulings. During the second or third wave of the Protestant Reformation, congregations were prohibited from singing in harmony! Another sect prohibited the singing of any lyric that was not taken directly from the Authorized Version, specifically from the Psalms. "God gave us a Psalter, and that's what we'll use."

I have to laugh out loud at what we humans have done to church musical life. Some of the folks from the early 1600s in what became the US were told: We have to be sober at all times; laughter on Sabbath will get you put in the stocks! (along with playing, working, smiling in a knowing way at your wife, and more). Then someone read the Word and discovered, "Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS. In case you didn't hear it, I'll say it again: REJOICE!" Oh, that... Or a sect that did not allow ANY sort of music that went away after it was discovered that we are to be making melody in our hearts and coming to meetings with songs, hymns and spiritual songs. Oh, that... My favorite is still the folks called the Shakers. They did several things right, but were kind of stupid on other scores. They sang and danced in every service! Line or circle dancey kinds of things that looked a lot like the secular dances of the day (minuet, and other Baroque dance forms, done in a rather British sort of way). [Off topic remarks ahead!] Yet the Shakers, in all their enlightened worship and praise, had not figured out that God ordained the marriage bed for the purpose of procreation! THAT was forbidden in Shaker communities. They grew by adoption. They ran the orphanages and took in the kids that no one wanted or that were born out of wedlock in non-Shaker communities! Nice ethic, but they missed at least one boat, IMHO.

Half of the Church of Christ bans instruments from their services. The other half says, "Ehhhh, they're just fine. Whatsamatta with you??" Only men could sing. Only women could read. No, only WOMEN could sing and MEN could read. No, both. No, neither. Ummm, uhhh... Sheesh!

A little more research and I found an oblique confirmation of your premise, but it goes on to kind of refute itself in that some abbess (a clerical type in charge of an abbey with men only is an abbott, a woman in the same office for an abbey with only women is an abbess) LIKED the flatted 7th and used it a lot! Go figure! <URL url="http://clem.mscd.edu/~yarrowp/MODEXh.html"><COLOR color="blue">Modes2</COLOR>
Quote:This is the system as it had evolved by about the 11th century. It is worth noting that composers of chant were free to use a flatted B in modes I and II, and sometimes V and VI, thus mutating some of the modes toward the modern major or minor (folk modes: Ionian and Aeolian), which were frowned on by the church and used only for secular music - at least officially. The Ionian, in fact, was termed the "lascivious mode." One of the composers who was particularly fond of using the flatted B in this manner was Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. It's worth noting that a Bb in Mode IV produces the plagal Locrian mode, and there are surviving examples.

As best I can find, it was not the major scale that was banned, it was the tritone that was such an integral part of what would become church music. That interval occured in several modes, and those were thus "frowned upon."

Hope that helps. At least you have a couple of references with which to work.