Modal matching is a new method for establishing correspondences and computing canonical descriptions. The method is based on the idea of describing objects in terms of generalized symmetries, as defined by each object's eigenmodes. The resulting modal description is used for object recognition and categorization, where shape similarities are expressed as the amounts of modal deformation energy needed to align the two objects. In general, modes provide a global-to-local ordering of shape deformation and thus allow for selecting which types of deformations are used in object alignment and comparison. In contrast to previous techniques, which required correspondence to be computed with an initial or prototype shape, modal matching utilizes a new type of finite element formulation that allows for an object's eigenmodes to be computed directly from available image information. This improved formulation provides greater generality and accuracy, and is applicable to data of any dimensionality. Correspondence results with 2-D contour and point feature data are shown, and recognition experiments with 2-D images of hand tools and airplanes are described.