Making Your Own Tools:

Several years ago an aquaintence, knowing that I composed, said, "Isn't it amazing how many tunes can be made from just eight notes!" notes did you have in mind? I have an electronic keyboard sitting above my computer keyboard. I see a lot more than eight notes when I look at it. In fact, there are many more notes that I can't see because I can shift octaves up and down with a button.

Okay, I'll stop being a smartass for a moment. Assuming he was talking about Western major and minor scales, I still count only seven. Count them yourself: C D E F G A B. Now, if that's what all music was made of it would be very boring indeed. I am going to limit my discussion to the Western Equal Tempered Scale. This is derived from the fact that if you play a note at an octave higher you are physically hearing twice the number of vibrarions per second; play an octave lower and you are physically hearing half the number of vibrations per second. Though there are many minute shades of differences, generally what we have done in the western world is divide the distance between octaves into 12 equally spaced intervals. I am not going to get into quarter tones or micro-tones—or alternative tunings—here.

We can organize these twelve distinct pitches in relation to each other. One way is to arrange them randomly—that can have its uses. Or, we can used fixed repeating patterns, such as is done in serialist music—that, too, has its uses. But, generally, what I am interested in is tonal music and that requires a scale to frame the tonic. There are many ways to do it. You could have a 6-note scale of C Eb F G A Bb for example, or an 11-note scale of C C# D D# E F G G# A A# B. There are literally hundreds of possible scales using those twelve tones. Most of them—for example, 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, or 11-note scales, are not of any practical use. Five-note scales tire our ears quickly because of their lack of colour, but they can still be used in short passages. Ten-note scales tend to be indistinguishable from each other. So, the optimal number of notes in a scale is 6 to 9.

The Overtone Scale.
Overtone Scale

Overtone Sample

Now, out of the hundred or so scales remaining, which ones are you going to use in your music? If your answer is an automatic, "major/minor" then you might as well abandon your dream of being a serious composer right now. No one, except the naive or anachronist, uses major and minor scales exclusively to write contemporary music. Jazz has long had its "blues" scale that is neither major and minor. The pop music I hear on the radio uses intervals that would never have been heard outside of the concert hall a hundred years ago. Rock, in all its flavours, bases its harmony and melody lines on riffs that stretch the concept of western scales to the limit. I hear polychords. Consider for a moment the standard Flamenco scale: E F G A Bb Bn C D. That's right: eight tones. Even contemporary hymns are no less adventuresome.

Why I started with scales is because they form the framework upon which your music is going to hang. Right at the beginning I want to make it clear that a framework is not inflexible. Suppose you chose the Flamenco scale, as described in the last paragraph. If you wrote an entire movement of a suite, trio, symphony, or any large form using only E F G A Bb Bn C D your listeners will be squirming in their seats before you are halfway through it. Even if you transposed that scale to, say, A Bb C D Eb En F G for a contrasting thematic unit the monotony of those same intervals repeated will not be tempered. I put together a score showing 33 possible scales (and there are many more) all based on C. It's a PDF file which you can view or print by clicking here.

If you are at all interested in making your music interesting to the listener, then you will have to use more than one scale. As I mentioned above, just playing the same scale from a different tonic is not enough. I am currently working on a piece where I have chosen: C D E F# G Ab Bb as my primary scale. I am also using the same scale on different tonics simultaneously during the opening statement of the work. (For example, D E F# G# A Bb C; and Ab Bb C D E F G.) However, when I finish that opening statement, the next section, in contrast, will not be based on that same scale. I will use something like this: C Db Eb Fb Gb Ab Bb, and very likely based on a tonic other than C.

It doesn't matter what the name of the scale is, but, whatever scales you use, make them your own. Sit at a keyboard and doddle—trying different groupings of notes within an octave. Actually, there is no rule that a scale has to be complete within one octave. Two octave scales are rare, but they do exist. (A simple example is a whole- tone scale which does not return to the tonic until the second octave.) What is this scale: C Db Eb F G Ab Bb? It is the mirror image of C major (the intervals between the notes are the opposite of those in the major scale). Even though I usually avoid augmented intervals in the scales I use, don't overlook them. They add the colour to scales that we often associate with Eastern Europe (for example: C Db E F G Ab B C). And, do not be shy about using different scales simultaniously. And, before we leave this topic, you can always add extra colour to a scale by using notes from outside the scale.

It is hard work breaking a brain's habits, but by the mid-19th century the western major and minor scales had been pushed to their limits. Wagner went as far as is possible within our concepts of tonality. Listen carefully to the excerpt from Tristan und Isolde, which was written in 1857-9 (Jessye Norman and Herbert von Karajan Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra 1987). The tension in the chromaticism of the music is almost unbearable. And since then music has continued to evolve. Discussions about contemporary tonality and atonality are, in my book, as pointless as aruging about whether the colour orange is, in fact, a shade of red, or a shade of yellow. Does it matter? Remember my first unbreakable rule: Know that notes on a score mean nothing. It is what you do with it that counts.

5. Making Your Own Tools: Harmony