Scale of the Day #5: A Mystery Scale

Before you read another word try playing this week’s scale-of-the-day through on your instrument:

Written on C it’s clear that this is the major scale with a single note adjusted a semitone higher.  It’s that it’s the 5th degree that has been adjusted that leads to the tonic chord having an augmented quality.

I’m not sure how I would go about composing with this scale, or how I would create a sense of genuine C tonality. Our western ears are attuned to the perfect 5th defining harmonic spaces, so this scale is challenging simply because that 5th degree does not create that expected consonance.

But even more challenging is the fact that the 5th is augmented. When we hear these two pitches out of context we assume (and believe deeply) that we are hearing a minor 6th, and we further project into this harmonic outline either a 2nd inversion of a minor chord or a 1st inversion of a major one.

It’s only when that additional note is positioned plumb between the bottom and top pitches that we hear the shape as expressing an augmented 5th (and an augmented chord). And when we hear that augmented quality, we rarely experience it as a point of conclusion or even pause; augmented-ness  suggests being on the way to somewhere else.

On the other hand, this scale presents us with some interesting relationships: the first and last 4 notes of the scale separate out into two contrasting contours. The first is simply the default position of the major scale, while the second is the shape we associate with the 7th, 1st, 2nd and 3rd notes of the melodic scale (that curly part of the pattern where two semitones get as close as they can to each other).

And the chords we can create with this scale are intense and wonderful.  Beyond moving between the I augmented and the IV major chords, and between the I augmented and the V diminished (an interesting exploration of how our diatonic expectations are stymied), we can create spectacular and fascinating complex chords. For example:

Where is this scale fun to play on the piano?  I like it a lot on E and B!

These are examples of what I call pseudo-symmetry: the pattern of white and black note is symmetrical, but the physical spacing is definitely not! But it’s a great-feeling scale in contrary motion because of that white/black pattern.

It’s also pseudo-symmetrical on F, but because the 4th and 5th degrees of the scale are black notes we end up having to play this scale with the thumbs on a note other than the tonic, and that feels very bewildering after a lifetime of diatonic white tonic scales. But the pseudo-symmetrical version on B flat is a delight (for the same reasons).

Finally, now we’ve explored all these positions of the scale, let’s acknowledge exactly what this scale is: the harmonic minor starting on the 3rd degree. In jazz parlance it’s known as Ionian #5, and if you’re up with your terminology that does actually express quite a lot (it’s a major scale with the 5th raised, therefore creating an augmented tonic).

But I’d love to get some feedback as to what this scale makes you feel, what this scale communicates. Scales that create a tonic with an augmented or diminished 5th are in a different category to those with that expected perfect 5th outline, and I’d love to come up with a name for these scales that don’t have the kind of tonic we are used to coming home to. Suggestions?

3 thoughts on “Scale of the Day #5: A Mystery Scale

  1. As you mentioned, it’s bit difficult to “hear” this scale right in my head due to the fact that we’re conditioned to hear a perfect 5th.

    In Carnatic music, there are no equivalents to this. A 5th should strictly be perfect.

    • Now that’s really interesting. I wonder if there is any musical culture that is comfortable without the 5th being perfect?

  2. I very much doubt there are any musical cultures that don’t “default” to a perfect fifth. The perfect fifth is such a strong force in the overtone series that it’s hard to hear anything else.

    That’s why Ionian #5 is so cool!

    It denies expectations, but it doesn’t seem to violate any rule with regards to harmony or melody (unless you count the augmented second interval if you’re feeling strangely baroque).

    Once you start to mess around with harmonic progressions within the scale, however, it starts to give the “impression” of harmonic minor, whether you like it or not. With any modes of the harmonic minor (or melodic minor, or harmonic major), its very difficult, if not impossible to escape the basic “sound” of the parent scale. This isn’t a bad thing, but to my ear, it’s always going to sound like harmonic minor, versus “Ionian #5″, even if I hear C as the root, if that makes any sense.

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