Scale of the Day: January 8

Here is the first scale-of-the-day, and this is a pattern I heard used in a composition by Australian oud player, Joseph Tawadros, when he performed recently at Government House in Sydney.  It was an original composition of his, and he told me that it used a traditional Egyptian mode.

Well, of course, this pattern has nothing Western about it, with those two augmented seconds, and subsequent consecutive semitones.

Play through the triads based on the first four notes of the scale: you get C Major, D flat major, E minor and F minor. But just where you would expect to find a dominant chord if you were listening with Western ears, there is a complete absence of anything that resembles the harmonic function fulfilled by a dominant chord.  That D flat turns it into a chord without any dominance at all.

The way Joseph used the mode was fabulous: the harmonic centres seesawed from the major-inflected tonic to the assuredly minor subdominant, and much time in the tonic position was spent spinning around on the axis the tonic provides to the upper and lower semitones (D flat and B). Highly energising.

As I frequently find to be the case with the patterns I enjoy the sound of, this is a physical delight to play on D, in this instance because of its perfect symmetry:

And I noticed this pattern in Joseph Tawadros’ composition because I’ve used this same pattern (but on the 4th degree) in music I composed for the recently released P Plate Piano series I did with the Australian Music Examination Board.  My piece was called Sad Farmer, it’s in P Plate Piano Book One (so ©AMEB) and it starts like this:

[Needless to say, in P Plate Piano we don’t explain anything about the theory of the scale, but students are encouraged to experiment with different black notes until they can make a happy farmer!]

I have no idea what this pattern is called in traditional Egyptian music theory, or if this pattern exists in a myriad of other musical cultures (I’m sure it does). But in terms of our western ears those two augmented seconds create the impression of a surfeit of exoticism.  Remember how exciting a harmonic minor scale sounded the first time you learned how to play it?  This scale doubles the frisson, magnifies the sensation of participating in something quite wonderful and utterly other.

So what to name it, from a western listener’s perspective?  The term “Double Harmonic”, I think, would be easily understood on first listening, but does the word “Harmonic” really have an equivalence with the inclusion of the augmented 2nd?

Meantime, there are other patterns one can make with two augmented seconds in a 7 note scale, so maybe using a generic term such as “Double Harmonic” should be restricted to the class, not the species?

So what do you think?  How does it sound when you play it? And how does it feel? Have you tried it contrary motion on D??!!  And what would you suggest we think about calling it?

8 thoughts on “Scale of the Day: January 8

  1. This scale is called “Mayamalavagowla” in the South Indian raga system. It’s amazing that I too was thinking this raga as a “Double Harmonic” long time back when I was discussing with one of my friends.

    There are many beautiful compositions by south indian trinity (Thiagarajar, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastrigal, 18th century).

    Indian film music composer Ilayaraaja has released a fusion album called “How To Name It?”. In this album, he has orchestrated the classical song “Thulasidala” by Thiagarajar.

    Further information is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayamalavagowla.

    • Mouli – thank you so much! This first response to the “scale-of-the-day” has me thinking that by the end of the experience readers of these posts and myself are going to know so much more about the music of the world than we ever knew before!!

      I so enjoyed the oud piece that used this pattern I can hardly wait to find more compositions that exploit its shapes…

  2. This is going to be great, Elissa – I’m enjoying it already! When I first saw this scale, I jumped to conclusions after the first 3 notes (always a bad habit of mine) and thought it was going to be like Verdi’s Scala Enigmata. I much prefer this one. I think of it as an “enriched augmented” scale. “Augmented” obviously because of the two augmented 2nds in it. “Enriched” because, as I am somewhat kinaesthesic, the colour of the scale is altered. In this case it becomes enriched – E, for example, is like daffodils (only even brighter) when major, pale and wan (like winter sun) when minor, and gold when enriched augmented.
    I’m looking forward to the next one now.

  3. I was thinking about this scale just the other day — I “discovered” it on the piano a while back (I normally start on B) and have wondered where it came from. To me it sometimes seems as if it starts/ends on the dominant…that is, if you start/end on D, G seems like a nice place to go to.

    Thank you!

  4. I don’t have too much to add here except that your comment, “Remember how exciting a harmonic minor scale sounded the first time you learned how to play it?” is right on. Especially when composing for children, it is paramount to find those sounds that thrill a child’s ears. If a composer can find those sounds, and appeal to them, then they are probably going to have a winning piece. This scale is definitely one of those that thrills students when they first hear it.

    I love the fact that your book encourages the student to experiment with the piece in order to find a scale or set of notes that would make a happy farmer. I wish teachers would not skip these little creative exercises. But, at least it is there for them to use!

  5. I believe the most common name for this scale is Hungarian Minor, which is a harmonic minor scale with a raised fourth degree:

    F Hungarian Minor = F, G, Ab, B, C, Db, E, F
    (with B-natural replacing the B-flat of a F Harmonic Minor scale)

    And this is also sometimes used modally with the tonal center shifted to the fifth degree of the scale, hence:

    C, Db, E, F, G, Ab, B, C

    • Wow, I have not heard that before, but that sounds absolutely appropriate to me!! Do you know what it’s called when it’s on the 5th degree?

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