Rethinking Musical Mode

A Hybrid-Symposium hosted by the Institute for Ethnomusicology at Kunstuniversität Graz

symposium Dates: 
11-12 November 2021

Keynote speaker:
Sumarsam - Wesleyan University
Hooman Asadi - University of Tehran


Fee information:
There will be no registration fees.

Program committee:
Alexander Cannon - University of Birmingham
Kaustuv Kanti Ganguli - New York University - Abu Dhabi
Babak Nikzat - University of Music and Performing Arts Graz
Sarah Weiss - University of Music and Performing Arts Graz

Organizing Committee (contact):
Babak Nikzat: b.nikzat(at)
Sarah Weiss: sarah.weiss(at)

Palais Meran (Kleiner Saal), Leonhardstraße 15, 8010 Graz
Please Note: Pre-registration required for attendance at workshop and concert. Send an E-Mail to Babak Nikzat (b.nikzat(at)

Meeting-ID: 992 3760 4941
Password: 575461


Useful Information:
Institute for Ethnomusicology
City of Graz
Music in 8010
Weltmusik Graz Festival 202

Symposium Supported by Land Steiermark and Kunstuniversität Graz.



In the 1980 edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the renowned musicologist Harold Powers published a comprehensive overview and analysis of the many world musics (from Indian raga and Arabic maqam to Japanese cho, Gregorian chant, and Irish tune families) that are habitually described, at least in English, using the  term “mode”. Power’s defines musical mode “as either a ‘particularized scale’ or a ‘generalized tune’ depending on the specific musical and cultural context.” He connects the disparate musical performance processes and ideas found throughout the world (and identified by the English word mode) with the idea of a continuum, one that has ‘scale’ and ‘fixed melody’ as its functional end points. Powers suggests that most of the world’s ‘modal’ musics fall somewhere along that continuum. As a general construct for understanding various musical processes from a comparative, theoretical perspective, Powers’ continuum is clarifying, logical, and useful. The weakness in Powers' description and analyses is that he largely ignores discrepancies found in the relationships between theoretical concepts and musical practice, effectively omitting the lived experiences and in-time musical decisions of practitioners. In this symposium we aim to recenter the performer, their performance practices, and their aesthetics in our analyses and our reassessment of the word ‘mode’ in its many musical meanings. 

The organizers of this symposium are currently undertaking an extended research project which aims, using ethnographic and quantitative approaches to collect and analyze the data, to close the gap between theoretical discourse and performance practice.

We are hosting this symposium to consider the following questions:

  • Do/How do performers theorize the modal music they play?
  • What is the relationship between tacit and recognized theoretical knowledge? 
    • How do people talk about it? 
    • How are the different ways of knowing valued? 
  • Do local aesthetic and/or philosophical ideas intersect with theories about music performance? 
  • Do/How do musicians perform using modal “rules”?  
    • If they use them, do performers’ rules function in the same way as they do for theorists?
    • What happens when a person is both theorist and performer?
  • Do various modal theories, as described by Powers and other analysts, actually predict what happens in performance? 
  • Is change in performance practice over time reflected in modal “rules”, and if so, how/when?
  • How are modal “rules” changed/(dis)respected/rewritten in modern/contemporary interpretations/theories/performance?
  • Do/How do performers theorize the modal music they play (or that their teachers played)?
  • What does it mean if the performance of “improvised” modal music is played “incorrectly”?
  • Is the word ‘mode’ useful for us, or should we redefine/throw out the word mode?
    • Is there another word that functions better?
    • Is the idea of comparing the musical processes, modal or otherwise, a colonial one? 
    • Is a decolonized analysis possible, necessary? 
    • Is analytical  interpretation similar to interpretation in performance? 

This symposium will be the first international gathering to focus primarily on a reconsideration of Powers’ conceptualizations of mode, while maintaining a comparative perspective and centering performer perspectives. We strongly encourage professional and amateur performers and advanced students to submit abstracts, as well as established scholars.

Presentation modes:
This symposium will be run as a hybrid event: proposals for physical, live video, pre-recorded video with live Q and A are all welcomed. Submissions in the following configurations are possible:

     - an individual paper (20 minutes plus 10 minutes for questions)
     - a panel (30 minutes x number of speakers, maximum total of 120 minutes)
     - roundtable (maximum total of 120 minutes)
     - Workshops / Lecture Recitals / Alternative Formats (maximum total of 120 minutes)

Submission Guidelines:
Individual paper:
Proposals should include a short abstract of no more than 300 words and a 100-word biography.
Panel and roundtable: Proposals should include a short abstract and panel description of no more than 400 words and a 100-word biography for each of the participants.
Workshops / Lecture Recitals / Alternative Formats: Proposals should also include a short abstract of no more than 300 words and give some details about the format and the infrastructures they will need.

Submission process: 
All proposals should be submitted electronically through the following portal:

Submission deadline: 1 September 2021
Notification of acceptance will be sent out in September 2021