Friday, July 24, 2009

Fun With Scales and Modes

If you have been following my blog entries on tonality (Why Atonal?, Atonality — Even the Word Sounds Unpleasant!, Atonality = Noise?), you will know that I encourage (i.e., require) student composers to explore harmonic/melodic systems that move beyond conventional tonality, where tonality is defined as " the system of musical organization of the common practice period, and of Western-influenced popular music throughout much of the world today" (from Wikipedia). One way to do this would be to experiment with any of the thousands of scales and modes that either already exist or that you can create yourself, hence the title of today's entry.

→ Here is an "octatonic" scale, also known as a "diminished" scale because a diminished seventh chord is formed from every second note. The intervalic pattern consists of alternating half- and whole-steps (or vice-versa):

Here is a short waltz based on this octatonic scale (click on it to enlarge):

Octatonic Scale Waltz:

→ Here is a Hirajoshi scale:

Here is the first phrase of the waltz, this time based on the Hirajoshi scale:

Hirajoshi Scale Waltz:

→ Here is one form of a blues scale:

… and here is the first phrase of the waltz based on that blues scale:

Blues Scale Waltz:

  • We tend to limit ourselves to the use major and minor scales if composing tonal music, but there are thousands of other scale possibilities that have unique nuances and harmonic implications. If you have fun (i.e., experiment) with even a few of them, you may discover that every different scale gives your compositions a slightly (or even radically) different feel.
  • Of these, there are a number of commonly-used alternatives to major and minor scales, such as anhemitonic (which just means "no semitones") pentatonic scales (5-note scales whose pattern can be found by playing only the black notes on a piano, any of which can be the tonic), the blues scale (there are different permutations, but all are derived from the form of the black-note pentatonic scale beginning on Eb, or La-Do-Re-Me-So-La), the Hirajoshi scale (another pentatonic scale, from Japan, but unlike the previous penatonic scale this one has two semitones (which means it is hemitonic): La-Ti-Do-Mi-Fa-La), or the octatonic scale (used in some Russian folk melodies and by some Russian composers such as Stravinsky and Scriabin, as well as by Bartok, and also used in jazz).
  • You can make up your own scales and modes; Messiaen created scales with repeated patterns that he called "Modes of Limited Transposition," such as:

    Tone-Semitone-Semitone-Tone-Semitone-Semitone-Tone-Semitone-Semitone (which he called his third mode):
    or Semitone-Semitone-Minor Third-Semitone-Semitone-Semitone-Minor Third-Semitone (which he called his fourth mode):
  • Messiaen's Modes of Limited Transposition are all based on repeating patterns within equal subdivisions of the octave, but in making up your own modes or scales, you do not need to be limited in this way. You could, for example, create a scale with a repeating pattern that spans a major sixth. After four such pattern repetitions, you would have spanned three octaves and the overall, three-octave, pattern would then repeat. But the pitch patterns in each of the three octaves would be slightly different. Such as this, for example:
  • The following scale is a mirror around the pitch F#, but you could also create a scale with few or no pattern repetitions in it:
  • Another approach, suggested by my friend and former colleague Dr. Scott Godin, is to construct a few (2-3) atonal chords that you wish to use as the basis for a composition, then construct a scale containing all or most of those notes. You can then use that scale to create additional harmonies if you wish.
  • Once you choose or create some scales with which you want to work (play), you could make charts of the triads and "seventh" chords formed on each scale degree. However, you need not build these chords in the same way as is done with major and minor scales (in thirds); you could form chords based on unusual patterns, such as chord I comprising the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th scale degrees; chord II comprising the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th scale degrees, etc. Remember that there are no rules here, so you can form chords in whatever way you like.
  • All of these approaches create harmonic and melodic sound worlds that are distinct from major/minor tonality, but which can yield some fresh and attractive results.
  • Consider this: "Tonality" refers to far more than mere scales and the chords formed from those scales; it mostly refers to the relationships between the notes and chords in the scales. When using alternative scales and modes, you may notice some relationships between notes and chords that seem "natural" to you, and you are of course free to use them, but bear in mind that often what seems "natural" in these scales and modes are the aspects that are most closely tied to tonality, such as dominant-tonic relationships or leading tones. It can be fruitful to explore note and chord relationships that are not similar to the more familiar aspects of tonality.
  • Incidentally, the objective, when using something like a blues or Hirajoshi scale, is not necessarily to create blues music or Japanese music (although it obviously can be if you wish); it is to write compositions that may sound to the listener as though they are related the kinds of music from which the scales originated, but with your own unique spin on them. For example, my blues-scale waltz fragment above does not sound particularly bluesy, because the F#-F-F#-G in the 3rd bar is not characteristic of blues music. More bluesy in that bar would have been F-Eb-F-G, or even Gb-F-Eb-G, because the F#/Gb in that scale is usually treated as an inflection of F or G.
  • And finally, don't forget that the concepts of "non-harmonic tones" and "modulation" can be borrowed from tonality and applied to any music you compose using these alternative scales.
  • Have fun!


A. Rideout said...

When thinking about writting atonal music the thought of using different scales, other then the major/minor scales is exciting. You can do so much with an octatonic scale or a penta scale, etc. The piece I just wrote for voice, piano, violin, and percussion, based on Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice" was based on two different types of scales. For fire I used an octatonic scale and for ice I used two different whole tone scales. When comparing these two scales the contrast in character is awsome. The whole tone scales gave me an awsome ice feeling, there were no semitones so it felt static. On the other hand the octatonic scale worked great for the fire because it it was full of semitones and it sounds dark. Atonal scales open the doors up to writting music it gives composers much more options and paths too take. I definitly agree with Clark, when beginning to write atonal music playing around with different scales is great. I definitly learnt a lot even though I have only written one piece using atonal scales.

Andrew Rideout

SarahClement said...

I was definately excited to read this and start thinking about all the different possibilies for modes and scales because I LOVE modes. They make me happy. I just naturally tend towards the sound worlds they create. I also became rather enamoured with Klexmer scales during my stint with the Klezmer band B'ys in da Shtetl. However, I am confused about how to make sure that pieces composed using these scales stay atonal. As you know, I had a lot of difficulty with this in my second piece I composed for class. I was never really sure where the line was that separated, atonality, modality, and tonality. Do you have any suggestions of what I could do to better understand?

Elliott Butt said...

As someone who is very rooted in tonality, this blog is actually rather helpful! I usually find it very hard to get out of that tonal mindset, so branching out brings me out of my comfort zone.

That said, the best piece that I've ever written (in my own opinion) was written using the octatonic scale. For that piece I told myself "You will not write a tonal piece" and completely gave in and rid my mind of tonal ideas. The result was something that sounded organic, and, better yet, like something I've never written before (or like something I could have written for that matter)!

I agree completely that these various modes and synthetic scales can each provide their own character or evoke their own feeling that tonality just can't.

Kyle Andrews said...

Using other scales is always a lot of fun. However sometimes I end up finding myself lost in how to do things harmonically. for example a pentatonic scale I usually just use all the notes at once, cause they all sound good with each other, and then just cadence on the same note to make things sound final.

My favorite thing about using different scales is that rather than modulating to a new key using the same scale, you can modulate to another scale. my personal favorite being whole tone scale, that modulates to a pentatonic scale, because they both share the characteristic of all notes sounding good with each other ( more so than scales with semi tones atleast), but they are very contrasting in their sound.

Jenny Griffioen said...

I'm playing with different scales/modes for this second assignment - and yes, I am finding it fun!
At first, when given the task of writing atonal music, I had no idea where to start. My musical background is so rooted in tonality, those are the sounds that my ear wants to create, the patterns I would instinctively follow. I at first felt quite lost when having to avoid traditional harmonies and disregard so many of the rules we learned in core theory classes.
Using different scales is giving me some structure to follow - something to pull notes from and create chords out of. And it's really interesting to compare the intervallic structure of the different scales - like how whole tone and augmented scales are both composed of two augmented triads, a whole tone apart in the WT scale and a semitone apart in the aug. scale - so similar, yet each with a distinct character.
I will admit it. I appreciate being forced out of my comfort zone, being challenged to explore different techniques. It's giving me a whole new set of ideas I can apply to my composition so i'm no longer limited to the familiar world of tonality.

Timothy Brennan said...

I really like using and exploring the modes. They open the do to so many exprssive and creative possibilities, and in my opinion a good example is Gregorian chant, which is some of the most beautiful and haunting music I've ever heard! Outside of the church modes, I got the opportunity to explore the modes of the limited transposition in the Messiaen project, which was a unique experience for me. I had learned about them in theory and music history, but never actually used them for a creative purpose. I realized that many beautiful sounding chords/sonorites and melodies can be created form the notes of these modes and I will definitely go back and use them in my future compositions! Outside of the realm of tonality, I think the various atonal scales and modes are great tools for composers!

Dominic Greene said...

The subject of employing different scales into tonal music really interests me. I've been so rooted in tonality my entire life, that I've never really considered that different scales and modes can actually be used, and sound great in tonal music. I've always looked at tonal music as simply being scales, and chords found within those scales, rather than the relationship between the notes and chords of the scales. I will definitely keep this in mind for future composition assignments. Learning about different scales, and the relationship between the notes and chords of these scales has definitely given me some direction!

Becca Spurrell said...

Before I started music school, I had a very small knowledge of theory. My previous teacher had never taught me scales or chords, so even those simple concepts were sort of new to me when I started university. Even without that education, I was still writing music. Once I started theory classes, I realized that many of the progressions and chords I used in the pieces I wrote as a child were actually standard tonal chord progressions, and I didn't even realize it. At the same time, I was also using many chords and progressions that were not tonal at all, but still sounded interesting. After taking 5 semesters worth of theory, I find it harder to write chord progressions like that, that are not tonal, even though it was so easy as a child. The assignments for this composition class I found very difficult at first for this reason, but I got past my tonal thinking after a while. These scales you have shown are very interesting, and could be very helpful for me. I particularly like the Hirajoshi scale, I've never heard of that one before, I really like it!

I think I just need to stop thinking of tonality as rules and more of stepping stones or guidelines.