Who was the first to change key? It may well have been the blind visionary Gorzanis in 1567 who made lute improvisations on popular dances, one in the minor and one in the major, shifting up one fret at a time. In that era each popular dance had its own chord sequence which the musicians jammed on, like todays rock and jazz musicians. The dancers recognised the chord sequence of each dance. As there was no recording of these pieces I asked a luteneist well aquainted with Gorzanis’ work, Michele Carreca, to record them. With support from the National Early Music Association his beautiful rendition is now available on a CD which can be ordered online by clicking on the link below.


Lutenist Michele Carreca

There is so much similarity between the improvisations of the Renaissance musicians and today’s rock and jazz musicians that I thought it would be interesting to show the chord sequences Gorzanis chose on iReal Pro, an app that all today’s jazz musicians carry on their mobile phones and ipads which can conjure up the chord sequences of most of the jazz standards that are likely to be “called” on a gig.

Here’s a video

Ardent fans of iReal Pro can click the link below to download the Renaissance Jam Session file. Click below.

There is more background to Gorzanis Dances on Every Fret on the music theory page.

Curious to know a bit more about Gorzanis? Here are links to Michele’s other recording of his work


and this link will take you to a CD of Gorzanis songs made by Pino de Vittorio


It may be true to say that Gorzanis was the first person to transpose in Europe but not in the world. There is a long tradition of transposing in 12 steps in China and Japan going back 2,000 years. Whereas Gorzanis transposition was linked to popular dances the Chinese transposition is performed to create a link between the monarch and the heavens by linking the transpositions to the 12 moon cycles in the year or to the Chinese Zodiac.

Transposition to follow the 12 moon phases of the year was also adopted by Japanese aristocracy. Around 700 CE Empress Wu had a hall built in which the leader would, each lunar month, move clockwise to a different set of rooms, change clothing, food and music, thus establish harmony with the heavens and their authority on earth.

see Wolpert, R. F. (2013) “Tang music theory of ritual calendric transposition applied”. In Chime 18-19 pp 67-82

The following chronology shows Gorzanis’ central role and is contained in the CD.

A Chronology of Equal Temperament and its Musical Exploration

Around 450 BCE.the Chinese court of the Marquis Yi of Zeng has developed a large set of bronze bells with a chromatic scale over 3 octaves. The motivation appears to be able to transpose the pentatonic scale 12 times to match the 12 years of the Chinese Zodiac which is based on the almost 12 years orbit of Jupiter. The method of calculating the pitches is not known.

Around 880 the singing practice in Western Christian worship is formalised by the French monk Hucbald into four modes Dorian (from Re ascending the white notes to the Re above), Phrygian ( from Mi to Mi) , Lydian (from Fa to Fa) and Mixolydian ( from Sol to Sol). Each mode has a variant with the prefix Hypo- (lower), that indicates a lower range extending from the dominant below to the dominant above the central tonic.

1350 Keyboards in Europe have accumulated five black keys between the seven white keys though the intervals between them were usually not equal.

1450 Major and minor triads spread from England throught Europe and are used to articulate the rhythm of dance music mostly in root position as continues today in much popular dance music.

By 1500 lutenists and instrument makers are placing each fret roughly 1/18 of the remaining string length on instruments such as the cittern, bandola, viol producing equal temperament.

1547 Observing that, in popular song and dance music, two new scales had gained currency, exemplified by the white notes scales from on Do and La, the Swiss scholar Glareanus named them Ionian and Aeolian after Greek provinces. The Dorian, exemplified by the white notes beginning on Re, is still regarded as the first mode/scale.

Between 1500 and 1722 we see scales jostling for position. The many church modes are being whittled down to two options distinguished by the size of the 3rd. Note. Is it minor spanning 3 frets of major spanning 4? The scale on Re is gradually being replaced by the scale on La as the minor scale (i.e. the Dorian is being replaced by the newcomer from popular music the Aeolian)The scale on Sol is being replaced by the scale on Do as the major scale (i.e. the Mixolydian is being ousted by the newcomer Ionian). While in the church modes the Dorian with the minor 3rd is listed first as the Baroque period progressed there was a swap and the major scale on Do is listed before any minor scale whether from Re or La.

1567 Giacomo Gorzanis’ suite of minor and major dances on every fret.

The dances are identified by their characteristic chord sequences ornamented by scalic runs. The minor 3rd dances termed antico appear first, followed by those using the major 3rd termed moderno. The minor dances are still Dorian in character in that the major 6th is treated as an independent note, while the major dances have a strong Myxolydian flavour in that the lowered 7th degree is freely used. Yet the antico dances use a major 3rd in the final chord of a cadence following renaissance harmonic practice. Both antico and moderno use the raised 7th leading note in the penultimate dominant chord of a cadence. At this point the fretted instruments, mostly written in chromatic tablature, free of signature and accidental, are leading the trends in music practice and theory.

1581 Vincenzo Galilei presents the tuning debates in a dialogue in the style of Plato with one of the characters arguing that a keyboard instrument tuned with pure ratios “cannot transpose a piece by a tone or a semitone up or down which can be done very comfortably on the lute.” Dialogo della musica antica, et della moderna.

1584 Galilei put theory into practice by writing a suite of minor and major dances on every fret expanding the design of Gorzanis’ cycle.

1584 Chinese mathemetician Chu Tsi-yu suggests slightly flattening the ratio 3:2 to 749:500 which, when repeated twelve times arrives slightly flat of an octave.

1605 The mathematician Simon Stevin arrives at a the 12th root of 2 as the ideal expression of Equal Temperament and this was adopted first by guitar makers before becomeing an orthodoxy in classical music. The 749:500 method is slighlty flatter and the 18/17 method slightly flatter still.

1722 In Rameau’s TraiteX de l’Harmonie he remarks that key signatures are not used uniformly with the minor often often apearing as Dorian and the major sometimes as Myxolydian. He considers using the scale on La as the ideal minor but himself uses the Dorian in places because of the force of tradition. Rameau demonstrates the minor scale using only what has come to be know as the melodic minor e.g. 0 2 3 5 7 9 11 12 frets in ascent, 12 10 8 7 5 3 2 0 in descent.

1722 J S Bach, while himself sometimes using a Dorian signature for a minor piece when writing for orchestra, demonstrates the virtues of the Aeolian signature in his Well-tempered Clavier. This follows a similar design to Gorzanis and Galilei except that now the Ionian (major scale) pieces comes first followed by the minor. The pieces, a prelude and fugue, are of a more serious nature than Gorzanis’ or Galiei’s, influenced by church music and containing many modulations made easier by the reduction of scale options. The pieces spread thoughout Europe and the signature scheme become orthodox ending the eight centruy primacy of the Dorian mode.

Around 1750 the capo is invented allowing guitarists to transpose fingering shapes.

1797 Gossec institutes the harmonic minor at the Paris Conservatoire, e.g. 0 2 3 5 7 8 11 12 in ascent and descent.

Gradually Equal Temperament spreads to all instruments of the orchestra, the organ being the last and most expensive to adapt. The fretted instuments from which the tuning system originated are not included in the symphony orchestra which favours instrument with continuous force rather than the decaying sound of plucked instruments.

After around 1850 classical composers begin to look beyond the Ionion/Aeolian options to revisit the Dorian and other modes and explore the full chromatic potential of Equal Temperament. Various alternatives to the Ionian/Aeolian options are widely explored in 20th and 20st century popular music and jazz.

1880 Alexander Ellis divided the Equally Tempered fret into a hundred parts know as cents and used this measure to describe the tuning of scales from all ove the world. Subsequently modern media has contributed to the global spread of equal temperament and the obliteration of many such tunings.

1959 Miles Davis released the recording Kind of Blue which explores new ways of improvising on the modes. One track So what holds the improvisors to the Dorian as strictly as early plainchant, much more strictly than the musicians of the Renaissance. The bridge shifts the Dorian up a fret, a move first made by Gorzanis in 1567. This album signals the end of the Dorian eclipse and this scale s now part of the jazz curriculum.

It may seem to be a multiple coincidence that the Chinese Zodiac has 12 years following the orbit of Jupiter, that the Babylonian Zodiac has 12 months imitating the number of moon orbits of the earth in a year and that Equal Temperament divides the octave into 12 options. Such options can closely imitate the simple vibration ratios up to 4/3 (with a maximum deviation of 2 cents) and can approximate higher ratios (up to and including the number 10) with a maximum deviation of 35 cents. As the adjacent numbers get higher the intervals between them get smaller and our discrimination in live music dwindles. This loss of discrimination is used to musical effect in harmonic symmetries such as the wholetone scale, the diminished 7th chord, the augmented triad, and tritone substitution which also exploit the several factors of 12, these are 2,3,4 and 6. It is also coincidence that the biological limit to the number of memorable and easily singable notes per octave appears to be 7 which is not a factor of 12 and therefore produces assymmetrical scales which fortunately make it easier for singers to orientate themselves and pick up melodies. Likewise 5 is not a factor of 12 and can only produce assymetrical pentatonic scales. The octatonic scales (0 2 3 5 6 8 9 11 12 and 01 3 4 6 7 9 10 12 frets) and whole tone scale (0 2 4 6 8 10 ) appearing in classical music and jazz are rich in symmetry but do not lend themselves to popular song.

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