Scale of the Day #3

This scale, starting on D as shown above, is my favourite scale of all time. It feels unbelievably wonderful under the hand – three black notes in a row, four white notes in a row. And as good as it is to play in similar motion hands an octave apart, just wait til you try it thirds or sixths apart (magic), or contrary motion (strange and wonderful).

What makes this my favourite? Well, it has all my favourite features: the raised 4th of the Lydian mode which communicates curiosity and optimism; the flattened 7th of the Mixolydian mode which communicates a lack of tension and a trusting approach to life; and then to top it off we have the flattened 2nd which imbues any scale with exoticism and sensuality.

How could anyone not like this scale?

If you’ve been following the scale of the day you will notice that this is almost the same as last week’s Simpsons Scale  - the only change is that flattened 2nd.  But this one change means that the pattern is no longer from the pitch class of major modes, or of melodic ascending modes, and it doesn’t belong to the harmonic minor pattern either. This scale is one of the modes of the pattern I call the melodic diminished. Keeping the same notes we have in the scale shown at the start of this post, let’s just start on a different note:

You can quickly see that this is the melodic ascending pattern, only the 5th note (E) has been flattened, which creates a diminished tonic chord, hence my naming of this pattern ‘melodic diminished’.

So one option for giving a name to my favourite scale of all time is to call it “Melodic Diminished on the 4th degree”, but this approach to labelling is forensic rather than evocative, creating little incentive for the newcomer to make the acquaintance of this scale.

Naming is a powerful thing.  When we know the name of something, our ability to know the thing itself is transformed. Naming is about classifying a thing, making a judgement as to how it works and what it does.  So choosing to give an obtuse and derivative title to a scale implies that the scale’s meanings are equally obtuse and derivative.

So, what should we call this pattern? And what names has it been given in traditions outside of classical Western music theory?

Do you know any pieces of music that feature this pattern? And do you enjoy the sound and the feel of this pattern as much as I do?!

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??!

Scale of the Day (on a weekly basis)

2010 has dawned with a lot of people I know participating in a project to photograph some aspect of every day in the year – a lovely discipline to find things of visual and conversational interest in even the mundane moments life brings, I suspect.  I’ve been really enjoying the photographs posted in various networking media.

But it led me to thinking: how about, instead of a visual image, a scale of the day?

No, not the major and harmonic minor ones we’ve all practiced frantically in the final two weeks before our instrumental examinations.  Last year my most popular post, by some long way, was one I entitled Scales as Propaganda, where I argued that the patterns we learn to play are also the patterns we learn to hear, and the music of our lifetimes is replete with patterns that our [Western] culture,historically, doesn’t believe we should be recognising (otherwise we wouldn’t be able to pass our Grade 8 exams without playing some of them).

I’m proposing that the Scale of the Day  look at the other scales, the modes, the patterns we don’t have names for that are used by composers working today as they create fascinating tonal music people are drawn to listen to.

I put a quick message up on facebook to see who might be interested, and it looks as if we already have a quorum for the 2010 Scale of the Day (on a weekly basis) Experience.

The idea is that each week I will write up a piece about a different, probably unnamed, scale pattern, and then we’ll all go away and play with that pattern and report back as to how we liked it, how it made us feel, how challenging it was to master physically/aurally, all that kind of thing, and see where it leads.

So who’s in?!