Author Topic: Let the scales fall....  (Read 3057 times)

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Ron

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Let the scales fall....
« on: February 20, 2014, 09:53:42 AM »
I was asked to write a note about scales. It is a huge topic, so I am going to touch on a few main points here.

First off, I rarely use major or minor scales. Why? Because they have been worked to death, in my view. Secondly, there are literally hundreds of other possibilities. To me, limiting oneself to major or minor is like painting while restricting the colour scheme to black and white. There are thousands upon thousands of colours to chose from and we expect our artists to draw from those choices. So, why should we be content with composers selecting only a tiny part of what is possible as their tool set? "Classical" composers tried to circumvent the limited options by transposing to other key centres, very frequently in some cases. But what they are doing (my opinion) is selecting various shades of grey.

Within the confines of an octave, using western pitch relations, we can have scales from as few as one and as many as 12 distinct tones. The most useable number is between 5 and 9 pitches. Less than 5 gives too few options to develop melodic and harmonic relationships. Scales of 10 or more pitches become indistinguishable from one another.

Establishing tonal centres depends on the relationships between tones. So, scales with fixed symmetrical intervals, such as 12-tone, whole-tone, and octatonic (alternating major and minor 2nds), tonal centres are very fluid and difficult to establish as all tones are in equal relation to each other. Other scales, such as the ecclesiastic modes, have patterns established by practice and tradition to define their centres, though when you get into scales derived from the modes (such as making the Eb in a Phrygian mode on C your tonal centre), things are not as clear-cut anymore, leaving it up to the composer to establish his own tonal definition techniques. When you combine modes, such as a Phrygian mode in one range and a Dorian mode in other range, things can get even more complicated.

Which brings us to another note: scales do not have to be limited to one octave. A full-blown octatonic scale, for example takes two octaves to cover its full range. A technique sometimes employed is to join two scales together, such as an Aeolian that become a Locrian in the next octave.

In searching for alternatives to the major-minor tyranny, we have the derivative scales mentioned above, such as a scale built on the F# of a Lydian mode on C. Olivier Messiaen put together what he called his modes of limited transposition  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modes_of_limited_transposition as a possible scheme to follow. And, examining the music of cultures outside the mainstream of western culture we find options like the flamenco scale (which I would describe as E - F - G - A - Bb - Bn - C - D. The "flamenco" progression of A - G - F - E is transposed chromatically to the dominant and subdominant of E.) Or the Hungarian "gypsy" scale (C - D - Eb - F# - G - Ab - B). There are several Japanese scales available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_musical_scales

Here is an incomplete list of named scales: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_musical_scales_and_modes  I've seen other lists in the past that were several pages long, but, in the end, I don't really care what a scale is called; what I care about is what colours it creates in the harmony and melodic possibilities that lurk within it.

All of which might explain why I never use key signatures: they overwhelmingly idefine a major-minor tonality.
Ron
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perpetuo studens

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Re: Let the scales fall....
« Reply #1 on: February 21, 2014, 01:33:35 PM »
Ron,

Thanks very much for this - fascinating stuff. I agree with your take on major/minor, but I'm just not able at this point to deal with much of anything else. All in its own time I guess.

I'm curious as to how harmonic structures are teased from non-diatonic scales. The octatonic scales you mention are used quite frequently in jazz, although I was taught to refer to them as symmetrical dominant (semitone, tone, etc.) and symmetrical diminished (tone, semitone, etc.).

But in jazz, harmony is typically the basis for a piece, so scales are applied to a chord when the scale contains the chord tones - the passing tones are colouration. The symmetrical dominant is particularly useful because it contains both altered 9ths and a non-altered 5th (although the #11 can be treated as a b5). So the harmony tends to precede melody, as opposed to the approach you've used in your series of pieces on the provinces where the scales were constructed first.

So I'm wondering how harmonic structures are drawn from non-diatonic scales. Or perhaps "real" vertical structures don't occur in the same way, but emerge from the counterpoint.

I'm also interested in how you go about choosing tones for a scale. Is it the "moods" (sorry bad term) suggested by the scale tone intervals...something else?

I'd be very interested in anything more you'd care to say on this subject, but of course understand if you'd rather not post a treatise on non-diatonic scale usage. :)

Thanks,

Jamie
The perceived object...is not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each other and analyzed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure: the element's existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it comes neither before nor after it, for the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts: knowledge of the pattern and of its laws, of the set and its structure, could not possibly be derived from discrete knowledge of the elements that compose it.

That means that you can look at a piece of a puzzle for three whole days, you can believe that you know all there is to know about its colouring and its shape, and be no further ahead than when you started. The only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces...

Georges Perec - Life: A User's Manual

Ron

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Re: Let the scales fall....
« Reply #2 on: February 21, 2014, 02:55:07 PM »
Well...I mentioned that the tradition ecclesiastic modes have fairly well-established harmonic structures associated with them. The primary chords of a major scale, for example, are based on I, IV, and V and those chords define the key. In the modes the steps that define the mode, such as the flat 2nd step of a Phrygian scale, means that the II and VII chords takes on a dominant role in establishing the tonal centre. If I am writing in a more or less "pure" mode I will take these things into consideration. However, I very rarely will continue a mode in an unaltered form for more than a measure or two. My writing tends to be in relatively short phrases that contain their own structures--and if you were to do a detailed analysis you'd like find two or three modal patterns linked together.

But, my focus tends to be on the intervals immediately around the tonal centre. I really like the descending semitone as a way of finding a tonic (maybe that's because I played flamenco guitar for several years and so the descending minor sequence (F - Eb - Db - C) sounds completely "natural" to me. Much like, I suppose, the inverse: a rising sequence of G - A - B - C makes clear the (major) tonality of C.) And, I like finding unexpected tonal centres to surprise the ear.

I think I write best when I make these sorts of decisions up front before I begin to write a piece. By doing so, I have already established a structure to hang everything else on.

Yes, certain patterns suggest moods. An upward progression of major-dominated intervals is brighter than a descending series of minor-dominated intervals. But, music, like everything else, is a mix, in flux, and context has a large influence.

I know I've avoided the main question: "how harmonic structures are drawn from non-diatonic scales." I think the best answer I can give right now is that it is derived from the movement of individual voices with the context of the scale (in other words, from the counterpoint).

I hope I haven't muddied the waters too much, but my fingers (I suffer arthritis) are very painful right now and I'm finding the typing difficult.

Ron
Rules? What rules?

perpetuo studens

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Re: Let the scales fall....
« Reply #3 on: February 21, 2014, 03:14:53 PM »
Excellent. Thanks very much.

I hope I haven't muddied the waters too much, but my fingers (I suffer arthritis) are very painful right now and I'm finding the typing difficult.

Quite the contrary...what you say makes perfect sense.

And I'm very sympathetic about your arthritis. My wife also has arthritis in her hands and has some very difficult days, especially as someone who makes jewelry and otherwise more or less lives with her iPad or a keyboard at her fingertips (ex-librarian / information junky / vacation planner extrordinaire).

Thanks again for taking the time to enlighten me.

Jamie
The perceived object...is not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each other and analyzed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure: the element's existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it comes neither before nor after it, for the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts: knowledge of the pattern and of its laws, of the set and its structure, could not possibly be derived from discrete knowledge of the elements that compose it.

That means that you can look at a piece of a puzzle for three whole days, you can believe that you know all there is to know about its colouring and its shape, and be no further ahead than when you started. The only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces...

Georges Perec - Life: A User's Manual

Jamie Kowalski

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Re: Let the scales fall....
« Reply #4 on: February 24, 2014, 06:48:03 AM »
Nice thread, Ron. Thanks for starting it.

A full-blown octatonic scale, for example takes two octaves to cover its full range

Ron, I don't think you're thinking about any typical octatonic scale that I'm aware of. The usual definition makes it a one-octave scale with 8 notes.

So I'm wondering how harmonic structures are drawn from non-diatonic scales. Or perhaps "real" vertical structures don't occur in the same way, but emerge from the counterpoint.

Something that many people don't realize is that vertical structures and harmonic progression emerge directly from the rules of counterpoint, not the other way around. Substituting different scales (or different counterpoint rules) results in different harmonies and progressions. I find it helpful to focus on individual lines instead of the resulting chords. If you have good contrapuntal writing, you should be able to alter the scale with only a few minor changes in the individual parts.

Try doing some traditional counterpoint in a non-traditional scale and see what chord structures naturally emerge. It can be a very enlightening exercise.

Ron

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Re: Let the scales fall....
« Reply #5 on: February 24, 2014, 07:20:09 AM »
This is what I was thinking of Jamie. I didn't express myself very well.

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« Last Edit: February 24, 2014, 07:21:49 AM by Ron »
Ron
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Michel.R.E

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Re: Let the scales fall....
« Reply #6 on: February 24, 2014, 07:32:36 AM »
Ron there are actually three transpositions of the symmetrical limited-transposition mode.

If you write the scale starting on C natural, you can then transpose it up a semi tone to C#, and down a semi-tone to B natural.

Any further transpositions of the mode becomes a repetition of one of these three.

The mode is limited to transpositions within a minor third. If you transpose the mode from C natural to E flat, the "new transposition" uses the exact same notes as the C natural version. Transposing it up another minor third gets the same result, and again another minor third.

basically, the mode is built on a diminished 7th chord. (I may be wrong, but don't jazz musicians refer to it as the diminished 7th scale?)

"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

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Michel.R.E

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Re: Let the scales fall....
« Reply #7 on: February 24, 2014, 08:50:11 AM »
I'm curious as to how harmonic structures are teased from non-diatonic scales. The octatonic scales you mention are used quite frequently in jazz, although I was taught to refer to them as symmetrical dominant (semitone, tone, etc.) and symmetrical diminished (tone, semitone, etc.).
Jamie

Jamie, if you notate your mode, you can simply create "triads" using the mode.
For example, with the octatonic mode, starting on C, if we start with a major triad we have C major.
Moving every note of that chord up by one scale-step, we actually get F# minor, in 2nd inversion.
Every note up one scale-step then gives us Eb major.

In the case of the 4-way symmetrical octatonic scale, this pattern repeats: on C, then on Eb, then on F#, then on A natural.
And between each of those major triads is a 2nd inversion chord minor chord that is tonally an augmented 4th away.

If you start with a minor triad, you get a difference sequence of chords, this time a series of minor triads followed by 1st inversion major chords.

Starting with different inversions of of triads gives, again, different sequences.
Although a word of warning, the limited transposition octatonic scale is, as its name implies, limited in the number of basic chords it contains.
However, it is VERY conducive to writing with minor 7ths and 9ths.
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"