Keys are for Doors, Scales are for Fish, Modes are for Me!

A wonderful new resource came my way recently: Michael Hewitt’s book Scales of the World. At first I searched the Duke Music Library to see if they might have it to lend, but no. Of course, Amazon Kindle had it for a very reasonable fee, so- Boom! I am reading it now! (For better or worse, I mostly love technology.) In spite of my lack of concern for scales and keys, the book is a jumping off point for studying modes. Right out of the gate, Mr. Hewitt enlightened me as to the difference between scales and modes.

Where scale is concerned therefore, the main point of interest is the pattern of scale steps of different sizes that define that scale. Where mode is concerned however, the main focus of interest is the relationship of each note to the tonic, a mode being the sum of these relationships.

While scales and modes are both based on patterns and relationships, modes emphasize the tone or feelings evoked by intervalic relationship to the tonic note of the scale. Since the character of the mode is established through these relationship, modes carry a powerful sense of feeling and emotion. Modes with augmented, major intervals sound light and happy, while modes with diminished, minor intervals are heard as sad and dark. Scales, on the other hand, emphasize the structure of patterning, which allows communication with other musicians and transposition.

In the section on Diatonic Modes, Mr. Hewitt explains that practically the entire body of Western Classical music written between the 17th and 19th Centuries was created from just the major and minor scales. He goes on to say that the impression we have of greater modal diversity in this music is created by the varieties of minor scales employed by composers. So Western Classical music of this period was “based on a dualistic system, the contrasting terms of which are major and minor.” Since I did not study music, I had never realized this before, however, it makes sense to my ear. I enjoy classical music, but have always thought that many works of that period sounded rather similar to each other. This may be why.

As a matter of a fact, Ferrucio Busoni, in his 1907 essay, Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, exposes the tonal range limitations of music of this period by calling attention to the fact that many familiar motives were basically riffs on each other. One could fit inside another. Mr. Hewitt states:

Speaking about how jaded the resources of the tonal system had become, Busoni also turned his attention to the limitations imposed by equal temperament. He observed that because of equal temperament we are no longer capable of hearing some of the finer distinctions of tone which belong to what he called infinite gradation.

There is a lot packed into these ideas. While Busoni begins his critique from the larger frame of the major/minor duality, he finds equal temperament tuning equally as culpable in dulling the ear of Western Classical music listeners. I find it so interesting that we revere a music that, in retrospect, has really codified and limited our ears. The classical music of this time does have great beauty and vitality, and, at the same time, it is limited and controlling. The evolution of music and sound during the 20th Century has been a determined wriggling free from these limitations. And we ain’t done yet.

This book is very exciting to me as a jumping off point. I first played through various scales to find ones that spoke to me. I have always loved the simplicity and twang of a good pentatonic scale. Blues and Pan-Asian musics favor these scales and I do too. They are sooo versatile – really, you can pick any five notes and use them as a pentatonic scale. The scales with many notes are not as favored by me as they tend to sound like pekid chromatic scales. One scale that leapt out was the “Shostikovich” Scale. According to the author, this scale was used by Shostikovich to compose his most famous Sixth Symphony. I am working on a soundscape using this scale.

And still I am drawn back to the modes. My favorite, D Dorian, evokes a line between pleasure and pain for me. While D Dorian’s character is one of longing and suffering, there is a kind of joy in it as well. E Phrygian is also a favorite as it has a mystical, dark feeling. But here I am still dawdling in the familiar when Mr. Hewitt has laid out a smorgasbord of “scales” all the while emphasizing their modal relationships. I am interested in exploring Greek Folk scales and Indian Carnatic scales in particular. The Carnatic scales are presented in relation to the chakra to which they are attuned, which is exciting for future movement and meditation classes that Jody and I are planning. Actually, the next one will be on Sunday, June 7 at th ADF studios. Thanks to this marvelous book, I will be able to explore the solar plexus chakra with Carnatic scales attuned to that chakra. Please do join us. Here is the link to sign up:

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