Inadequate Indoctrination (or, a practical instance demonstrating why scales matter)

Scales matter. Piano teachers are renowned for insisting that this is true, examination boards reward mastery of these patterns, and piano students compare speed and distance as if they are training for field and track.

I talked before about why I think scales matter, in my Scales as Propaganda post, and this post follows up a lot of the ideas I put forward there. One of the main ideas in the Scales as Propaganda post is that the reason scales are important is not for technical facility per se (finger strength, fluency, tonal control and so forth) but for a broader (and fundamentally imaginative) ideational and geographical facility with the diatonic patterns that underpin music from the Baroque through to the end of the Romantic period (chromaticisms notwithstanding).

What this means in practice is that if you know how to play the major scale in each of its 12 permutations you will have a reasonably high fluency in sight reading music written in a major tonality. If you don’t know how to play this major scale pattern in each of its 12 permutations then you will surely struggle when you find yourself in an unfamiliar transposition.

I’ve just experienced a startling reinforcement of this principle with my wonderful post-Grade 8 student who has been working on Beethoven’s Opus 90 for just the past 8 days. Opus 90 is a 2 movement sonata, 1st movement in E minor and triple time, 2nd movement in E Major and duple time. This is a hard play if you don’t have big hands, but this student can play the tenths without even stretching so all the technical challenges faced by the normally-proportioned 16 year old are obliterated for this particular student purely through a happy coincidence of human growth hormone and genetics.

Not only this, but the sonata suits this student just perfectly on an emotional and communicative level as well.

So I had high expectations when the student returned after just a week of working on the sonata – expectations that were not disappointed as he played through some number of pages of the first movement. Learning was solid, and a grasp of the broader structure was already emerging. He had isolated passages that were technically challenging and had already put a strategy in place to master these passages over the next week or so.

But then we turned to the second movement and he said ruefully, “well, I haven’t put it hands together yet”. To be honest, his achievements with the first movement were already so impressive that any teacher would not have been surprised to have the student say “I didn’t actually get to practice the second movement”, but I must admit that I was surprised to hear that he had decided to attempt this second movement with the hands playing separately. The second movement is not wildly difficult to sight read per se – especially if one chooses a very relaxed tempo right from the outset. To choose to separate the musical information into ‘hands’ rather than moderating the degree of difficulty through reduced tempo is quite a significant choice at this standard of performance and learning.

“Have you ever played anything in E Major before?” I asked, and he laughed and said, “no!”. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he absolutely hasn’t – but he has never learned a piece in E Major with an awareness that he is learning a piece in E Major, and he has no template for thinking through what playing a piece in the E Major pattern might feel like or look like. This makes the task of sight reading this second movement, even at a snail’s pace, quite beyond his comfort zone or even his ‘challenge’ zone. Every note is a mystery – black or white? – and his fingers have no sense of flow around these black and white note patterns.

“Do you know how to play the E Major scale?” I asked. “I’m not sure” was the response. Now, I’m absolutely certain he will have played E Major in contrary motion at some early stage of his pianistic career, but the learning of the scale pattern was not sufficient to connect with the real repertoire context of learning a piece in this key.

Rather than spend time in the lesson working on two or four bars separate hands (the lamination technique) we ignored the movement altogether, instead spending a few minutes exploring E Major scale patterns.

This week he will be practicing E Major in similar motion an octave apart, 3rds apart and 6ths apart. He’ll be practicing E Major in contrary motion with both hands starting on E, with the right hand starting on G sharp while the left starts on E, and then with the left hand starting on G sharp while the right starts on G. He will then play through the root position triads of the E Major scale pattern through a one octave pattern ascending and descending. If he gets time he will then proceed to practice these triads in their first and second inversions.

Our goal this week is to completely familiarise him with what the E Major pattern feels like (and looks like) in any number of manifestations. Our theory is that once he has invested a couple of hours (at least) of his life into dwelling within the confines of E Major-ness he will return to the Opus 90 second movement completely capable of thinking through the sight reading challenges it poses. This, we further theorise, will save him potentially ten hours of tedious practice, working hand at a time, note by note, mastering small gestures and phrases rather experiencing (and learning) the overarching melodic lines and harmonic movements.

Maybe one week, even with 20+ minutes a day, won’t be enough of an immersion in E Major to make this transition from foreigner to native, but I think the odds are good. The pattern is being explored sideways, backwards, inside out as well as front on and in harmony. It’s an interesting experiment with the good that knowing a scale can bring – and I’ll keep you informed!

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?!

The Harmonic Language of Ringtones

I’ve always been a Nokia phone user until now, the arrival of my new generation iPhone, and checking out the new ringtones in such close proximity to writing my Scales as Propaganda blog entry made me listen to my options with slightly different ears.  Each phone I’ve upgraded to has had improvements in the quality of sound used for the ringtone, but each new upgraded phone has also had a completely new suite of tiny compositions competing for my approval.

How do these micro-musics reflect the pitch patterns of our day?  A quick analysis of my new iPhone options:

To start with let’s subtract from the 25 standard ringtones the non-pitched or single-pitched options:  ‘Bark’, ‘Boing’, ‘Crickets’, ‘Duck’, ‘Motorcycle’, ‘Old Car Horn’, ‘Pinball’, ‘Robot’, and arguably ‘Digital’ which is pitched, but basically just use old-fashioned fax or dialup-style harmonics, ‘Alarm’ which is also a harmonic-derived sound which really only signifies ‘alarm’ in any sonic sense, ‘Timba’ which is a drumming pattern, and finally  the minimalistic ‘Sonar’  which features a single pitch echoed at diminishing dynamic levels. So now we have 13 pitched options remaining.

‘Marimba’ is the default setting, a jaunty major pentatonic theme. ‘Ascending’ is a straightforward chromatic scale. ‘Bell Tower’ uses all the notes of the major scale except the seventh, and there is no suggestion in the melodic construction to suggest that the seventh would be anything other than major.

There are some ring-tones which simply outline a basic interval, such as ‘Doorbell’ (a descending minor 3rd), ‘Trill’ (literally, a trill on a semitone), and ‘Old Phone’, the traditional mid-20th century phone ringing sound, a major 3rd bell tone.

‘Harp’ goes to the effort of outlining a complete minor arpeggio (in root position).

‘Sci Fi’ is a variation on the interval of a semitone and an octave; it ascends a semitone, before dropping to the octave below the opening note and descending a semitone which then slowly bends the pitch a further semitone lower.

‘Time Passing’ is an interestingly contemporary phenomenon: a perfect 5th followed by another perfect 5th a semitone higher before returning to the original pitch.  This tonic/flattened supertonic chord alternation is one I’ve used in my own educational piano music (for instance Cloak and Dagger, currently a Grade 2 examination piece for the Australian Music Examination Board piano syllabus), and is a harmonic shape that was not in common usage until the latter third of the 20th century.

‘Xylophone’ uses the sound first incorporated into popular culture through music of American Beauty, and with its distinctive percussive tone colour, and a theme in the Dorian mode. ‘Strum’ is true to its name, strumming out three chords: a tonic major chord, a subdominant major chord, and finally a tonic major 7th chord, distinctively voiced to suit performance on an acoustic guitar .

‘Piano Riff’ is exactly that, a simple and tiny riff played on the piano that could have come from any number of blues influenced popular songs from the past 40 or 50 years.  Acciaccature, or crushed notes(depending on which language you choose to label your ornamentations) are a significant musical feature of this ringtone, which moves from the tonic to the subdominant and then back again via a harmonically ambiguous third (is this riff in a minor or a major tonality?).

Finally, ‘Blues’ outlines what is classically known as a dominant seventh chord, or the tonic 7th chord if you are working in a Mixolydian mode, along with some melodic ornamentation, which in fact creates an interesting an label-less scale… If we work from a major scale and make alterations we can describe this scale as having a raised 2nd, a raised 4th and a flattened 7th.  Another way of looking at this scale is as a harmonic minor scale with a flattened 5th (creating a diminished, rather than minor, tonic), starting on the 6th degree. (A bit complicated when you first think about it, especially if you’ve never thought about any scales beyond major and minor before).  I think this scale is the closest a 7-note pitch pattern can get to the melodic language of the blues (the both laughable and lamentable so-called blues scale being desperately wide of the mark), bearing in mind that the fundamental harmonic language of the blues is that of the mixolydian mode.

In all, these ringtones do express an interesting harmonic cross-section of contemporary musical language. But is this harmonic cross-section in any way significant?  And how do these 2009 iPhone ringtones compare to the standard ringtones in my 2007 Nokia N95?  Watch this space….

Scales as propaganda

Why do we require our students to learn scales?

It’s heresy, really, to suggest giving piano lessons without teaching students the full range of major, harmonic and melodic minor patterns.  Not teaching scales would be seen as gross negligence, in fact;  a kind of failure to innoculate, or a musical malnourishment that would only happen in the worst of circumstances;  a pedagogical incompetence, perhaps, or a breathtaking breach of duty of care.

But why?  What is it that scales (and arpeggios) deliver that simply cannot be gained any other way?

Teachers respond quite naturally with issues such as finger strength and velocity.  And scales do focus on these two important skills of execution.  But scales are certainly not the sole means available to piano teachers to develop a student’s finger power and speed.

Some teachers might add that scales allow students to develop tonal control and evenness of touch, and this is also certainly true. But these skills can also be developed using any number of other means besides scales.

What is it that scales, and scales alone, can bring to the musical education of a student?  Is there, in fact, any musical benefit that scales uniquely provide?

Well, yes, but this benefit has absolutely nothing to do with agility or control.

Scales are unique in teaching us how to hear.  Scales teach us how to hear in pitch patterns, how to anticipate melodic contour, how to predict harmonic outcomes.  Knowing the pattern of a scale starting on any one of the 12 semitones in an octave enables a pianist to move between keys almost effortlessly, able to transpose at sight or by ear.  An understanding of scale patterns underlies the ability to harmonise a lead sheet, to play from a chord chart or to sight read an accompaniment.

These benefits quickly accrue to a student who learns scales with these functions in mind.  The patterns are interesting in the way they relate to music known and music yet to be known.  The geographical configurations each pattern manifests appear to the student as interesting terrain to be conquered in pursuit of increased musical flexibility.

But for the student who practices scales in order to play at a faster pace and with stronger fingers, the scale itself is more like an obstacle course, with hurdles that impede progress and sudden tricks in layout that preclude clarity.  Practising scales in this fashion is a task undertaken dutifully (if at all) with no sense that the scale itself is of any particular value or interest.

Now, it should be clear that I strongly advocate the use of scales in every student’s education, and it is equally clear that I believe that knowing the major and minor scale patterns sets students up for all kinds of musical adventures.  But this is not anywhere near enough.

The scales we traditionally teach our students (major, harmonic minor, melodic minor, chromatic) as well as the scales that more recently have come into vogue (the natural minor scale, pentatonic scale variants, and the so-called blues scale) don’t even come close to covering the patterns that 21st century students actually encounter in the music they hear every day and the music they will want to play throughout their lifetimes.

Just listen to the themes of prime-time television shows.  The Simpsons, the longest running television show of all time, is an excellent example.  The theme seems, at first listen (to a classically trained ear), to be a slightly quirky take on a major scale.  Now, that’s not a bad way of hearing it, as it turns out.  The theme IS a major scale, with the 4th raised a semitone, and the 7th lowered a semitone.  Looking at it another way, The Simpsons’ theme uses the melodic ascending pattern starting on the 4th degree.

This is a really cool scale!  The raised 4th (in common with the Lydian mode) expresses a high-energy optimism, while the the flattened 7th (in common with the Mixolydian mode) expresses a laid-back approach to life.  Six Feet Under also uses this pitch pattern at the start of its distinctive theme.

Desperate Housewives uses the Lydian mode (major scale with the 4th raised).  Then there are the themes in the Dorian mode (major scale with the 3rd and 7th flattened).  American Beauty and The Sopranos are two of the many films and tv shows that have been accompanied by music in this off-the-educational-menu scale.

And that’s without getting into popular and dance musics where variants on the harmonic minor scale (particularly starting on the 5th degree) have been becoming increasingly common over the past decade, and where the mixolydian mode (major with the 7th flattened) has really been the norm for nearly 50 years.

Why don’t we teach these scales?  The goals of strength, velocity, agility and control could be just as easily achieved while playing these patterns as any of our traditional scales.  In fact, by teaching more patterns, one would think that technical skills could be positively reinforced.

So why don’t we do it?

It comes back to that earlier point that scales teach us how to hear, and piano teachers have been in the business of teaching students how to hear music written in a classical style (let’s say from about 1720 to the mid 1800s) since piano teaching began. Teaching students how to hear the music of Bartok or the blues (both past their centenaries) hasn’t been all that high on our professional agenda.  Even the music of Debussy still seems harmonically brave and adventurous nearly 100 years after his death, and that’s because we haven’t learned how to hear it, how to be inside the pitch patterns that are the foundations of his work.

We (piano teachers) need to recognise that scales are propaganda – they teach our students what to hear, what to ignore, what to write off and what to value.  And rather than just keeping on doing things the way we always have, we need to start actively introducing our student to the patterns that permeate their iPod playlists, these new scale-codes that decipher contemporary composition, and these new keys to understanding the music of their time.