Scale of the Day #2: The Simpsons Scale

Rather than alter the original post (which would make the comments below somewhat hard to follow) I will leave it as is, but point out that “The Simpsons Scale” certainly does have a name within the jazz tradition, the Lydian-Dominant (just as last week’s scale has a name within the tradition of South Indian classical music, “Mayamalavagowla”), so in reality when I call this scale “The Simpsons Scale” I am boldly naming what hundreds of thousands in the world of jazz have named before. (And note that this scale has a name in the South Indian tradition  [Mouli's comments below]).

Now this scale isn’t actually called “The Simpsons Scale”, but since it isn’t actually called anything [in western theory] I have decided to boldly name what no one has named before.

In reality the Simpsons scale is the melodic ascending pattern starting on the 4th degree, but it happens to be the pitch pattern used for the tonic harmonies in the theme music to The Simpsons, so I decree that the scale henceforth be known as…..

Here’s the pattern, in F (because the pattern of white/black notes is identical to that of G Major):And here in C (so it is easy to see at a glance which notes have been altered, and by how much, from a ‘neutral’ major pattern):

And here is how the theme from the Simpsons goes (in seriously truncated form, so that all the notes of the pattern as evident):

This sounds like the Lydian mode, to a casual listener, because the raised 4th is the predominant note in the melodic sequence, while the Mixolydian marker, the flattened 7th, only makes an appearance as the theme wraps up at the every end .  But a careful listener will notice that this is the only kind of 7th note that occurs in the harmony also.

Yes, this pattern has the Lydian and the Mixolydian marker notes, so it’s a kind of Hyperlydian, succeeding in doing both the fundamentally major modes at once.  It’s a sensationally modern take on major, sounding quirky but smart, and full of a very contemporary energy.

I used this “Simpsons Scale” as the basis for my trumpet composition, Go-Goanna, published by Faber Music in their Fingerprints series, and now an ABRSM exam piece (Grade 4). But while Danny Elfman creates the feeling that we are flickering between C Major and D Major, in Go-Goanna the melody is shaped so that it feels like an alternation between C Major and G minor (in transposition), with the G minor leading note (F sharp) as part of the equation.  It’s interesting to me that this same scale produces two equally successful harmonic partnerships from its triads.

It takes a while to become accustomed to playing this scale, obviously to the ear, which is expecting neither the raised 4th or flattened 7th, but more especially to the fingers, who simply refuse to believe that a major-sounding pattern has its two semitones positioned so close to one another.  This is why I included the scale pattern in F – one’s fingers can be tricked into playing this correctly quite swiftly if one focuses on playing that G Major pattern that we know so well, but hearing this brand new pattern! As it turns out, starting on G is a similar proposition: play the white/black note pattern of F Major and you’ll get it first try.  Starting on F sharp can be quite rewarding also, as one can concentrate on playing the C (really B sharp) and the E around the two black note group.

Have a play, and then have your say.  How do you like it, and what does it make you feel?  And is this name, The Simpsons Scale, really the right one??!

10 thoughts on “Scale of the Day #2: The Simpsons Scale

  1. This is awesome! I love these posts, and your descriptions/explanations.

    The name I was taught at ANU School of Jazz for this scale is ‘Lydian-Dominant’, as it’s, as you say, a dominant scale with a lowered 7th degree, but lydian as well due to the raised 4th degree.

    Cheers,

    Sally

  2. Hi Elissa, great project, congratulations! This scale does indeed have a name in western theory, jazz people commonly know it as the Lydian Dominant scale. There’s a big tradition of scale nomenclature in jazz, including naming modes of the melodic minor scale (check out Super Locrian). Worth checking out.

  3. The term Lydian-Dominant is so oblique!! Would it mean the Dominant of the Lydian (in which case it would just be a major scale), or would it mean the Dominant mode of the major (Mixolydian) with a raised 4th (the Lydian marker) attached? Obviously, it is the second which is intended. But using the same logic one could describe this same pattern as Mixolydian-Subdominant, or Lydian-Melodic (it’s the melodic pattern starting on the 4th degree), and so forth.

    My major problem with the descriptor Lydian-Dominant is that the term Dominant is only relevant within diatonic relationships, and once you are in this melodic ascending set of patterns those major-mode (diatonic) relationships no longer hold.

  4. I believe it is intended to mean the Lydian scale with the seventh that is found in a *dominant* seventh chord. Not saying it’s a brilliant name, or not “oblique”. There are many oddities in the world of nomenclature. But however justified your misgivings about the name (and I think there is justification for them) perhaps it’s a bridge to far to claim as you do in your post that the scale doesn’t actually have a name when thousands of music students around the world are taught a name for it. Maybe better to cite that indeed it has a name and add your misgivings?

  5. Great one. Especially I like the feel of the notes of 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th degrees sung/played continuously; got a “swing” feel with the semitones at both ends.

    In South Indian Classical music, this scale is called Vachaspathi. Further information is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vachaspati_(raga).

    (One note – the 7th degree which is called “Ni” in Carnatic music – was wrong in that page. It should’ve been N1, instead of N2. I’ve updated that wiki page, but unable to update the svg picture. Just a caveat!)

  6. And just to clarify – the “swing” is not the typical Jazz swing that I refer to here, rather the structure of semitone-tone-tone-semitone. If you play in C as depicted by Elissa, I think you’ll get what I mean here.

  7. Elissa, I have just started following your posts, and am really enjoying them! I had to laugh at your statement, “This sounds like the Lydian mode, to a casual listener…” , as I can’t imagine an average fan of the Simpsons listening to the opening theme and making that remark. :-)

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