Reluctant Musicology Episode One: A scale isn’t what you may think it is


Vox Humana: Why do you think people are reluctant about musicology? Why is this even a problem?

JF: Well let’s look at people who’ve always surrounded by music, like amateur musicians who enjoy music, but feel like they’ve never really fully understood it, possibly because of the way it was taught, or they just couldn’t grasp some of the concepts.

VH: Definitely the case with many people. And there’s the fear. 

JF: The fear of…?

VH: Music theory. It was the part of any music lesson I hated the most, even more than practising scales and actually even more than sight reading, if I’m honest. At least with sight reading you can pretend you know what you’re doing and make something sound like it sort of fits.

JF: See I find it interesting that you speak of theory in opposition to ‘practice’. I’d argue that, when you expand your understanding of musicology, you definitely move away from the practical limitations of your instrument, but you’re also simultaneously able to take this knowledge and apply it in a practical context. 

VH: What you say makes sense, but once we get into the ‘nuts and bolts’ of theory, it is a real struggle to understand it, so there’s a gap in my understanding —

JF: — which is why we’re having these conversations.

I’ll stop here and explain what’s happening in this post. This is a series of conversations between myself (JF) and various people who have struggled to understand music theory for a large part of their life, despite being either enthusiastic amateur musician or even professional instrumentalists and music makers. Musicology and/or music theory are the bane of many students of music, as you see in the conversation above. But it is my conviction that understanding musicology doesn’t have to be painful. It can be challenging, yes, but it’s also rewarding, and it does have a very real impact on an individual’s understanding of how music is structured. 

Vox Humana (VH) — meaning ‘human voice’ — is representative of many of the individuals, from students and colleagues to friends and family, with whom I discuss musicology. It’s also, incidentally, the name of a stop on a pipe organ. These conversations are based on real-life experiences and interactions with people who are reluctant about musicology, but who recognise that having a better grasp of it would help them to understand how music is structured, which can have any number of benefits from simply learning something new, to being able to appreciate and listen to music more critically, or becoming a more confident amateur musician. 

So let’s get conversing and start with a discussion about artificial scales, based on an actual conversation with a friend whose opening comment about scales was, from my perspective as a musicologist, less than enthusiastic.

VH: I don’t like scales. 

JF: There’s the reluctance.

VH: But since we’re having this conversation, what are artificial scales? And why do we need to discuss them at all?

JF: Firstly I’d like to say something that some theorists might disagree with — I don’t like the term ‘artificial scale’, as there’s a certain amount of ethnocentrism tied up with it. Essentially, ‘artificial scale’ refers to any scale outside of the ‘normal’ scales in Western music. Do you know what these are, by the way?

VH: Major and minor?

James: Major, various forms of minor, yes, and also, to a lesser extent, the ancient church modes, which actually led to what we now think of as major and minor.

VH: So anything which isn’t one of those is considered an artificial scale?

JF: Yes, and another term is synthetic scale, which referred originally to a seven note scale in which various degrees are chromatically altered. And some musicologists apply the term to longer or shorter scales, such as a pentatonic or octatonic scale.

VH: That’s five and eight, finally something that I understand. But I was taught the ‘normal’ ones. Major and minor.

JF: Do you know the degrees of those scales? 

VH: Tonic… supertonic… and the others?

JF: Seven tones, right? Plus the octave?

VH: Yes.

JF: That’s a 7-degree scale. The pentatonic scale and the octatonic scale, are other possibilities beyond those seven degrees.

VH: How many possibilities are there?

JF: Well let’s just look at possibilities within the 7-tone category. According to Ferruccio Busoni, 113. He argued that there were 113 possibilities within the 7-tone category alone.

VH: And an artificial scale can be any and all of these?

JF: Any scale can be any and all of these. The term ‘artificial’ is generally applied to those possibilities which are outside the major, forms of minor, and ancient church modes.

VH: So any possibility outside these ‘Western’ scales is considered artificial.

JF: Generally. But it doesn’t mean that an artificial scale doesn’t come from Western music. Maybe a slightly more accurate term is ‘non-traditional’ scales. But we do need to consider the semantic implications of the term ‘non-traditional’ which could imply different values and different ideas to different listeners.

VH: What would you consider a non-traditional scale?

JF: Within Western art music? The best known are probably the whole tone, octatonic, and pentatonic scales.

VH: So can I back up a little and ask: artificial scale = generally non-‘normal’ scale from a western standpoint. But if ‘normal’ Western scales include church modes, don’t those correspond to some non-Western scales or modes? 

JF: That’s where the confusion comes because there is so much crossover. Many of the church modes became known by other names — which are more familiar to you, probably. You know what a major scale is, and that’s the Ionian mode. The natural minor scale? Aeolian mode. That’s why I have such a problem with the term ‘artificial’ because any scale to a certain extent is an artificial alternation on some other existing scale.

VH: Any scale is an alteration of any other scale?

JF: Well yes.

VH: How so?

JF: Let’s look at the minor scales. We have the natural minor which is Aeolian. Sharpen the seventh and you get the harmonic minor. Sharpen both the sixth and the seventh on the ascending but then flatten them on the descending form then you get the melodic minor. You know these, don’t you?

VH: Yes, this is familiar.

JF: They’re all just 7-note scales within the span of an octave, but with different combinations of intervals. And those combinations come from chromaticism. That’s all we’re doing; creating different combinations.

VH: I see, we’re just creating variants of… something? 

JF: Yes. Variants of the one original scale.

VH: Which one original scale?

JF: Notes 1 to 7, plus the octave.

VH: Are there actually fundamental original scales from which everything is derived or is everything a derivation of everything? What if I wanted different intervals? What about pentatonic scales? Or when you say ‘original’ do you mean standard-ish intervals within an octave? And while I get that there’s the overtone series, what about non-overtone tones?

JF: What about this concept: not one specific original scale, but the notion of a 7-note scale with the eighth note being the octave, regardless of intervallic structures. Let’s just consider it an abstract notion: the concept of a 7-note scale. Then adapt it with chromaticism and varying intervallic structures. Which brings us back to Busoni. 113 possibilities within a 7-note scale. 

VH: And the seven notes can be…?

JF: … named anything you want. What and how you name them is a tabula rasa. The point is that they’re there. And to address the overtone question or the discussion about ‘standard’ intervals, that again falls into the trap of ethnocentrism, but there is a certain mathematical logic as well. The way an octave and twelve semitones are constructed is based on frequencies, undertones, and overtones. And by the way, for current purposes, we’re referring to systems within the 12-tone equally tempered system that we use in western classical music. So take the pentatonic scale. It’s still based on major scale and the 12-tone system. Just with a greater amount of selectivity. More stability I guess. Just the same, an octatonic scale contains eight notes plus the octave. Whole tone is six plus the octave. That make sense?

VH: It’s starting to. The idea of seven tones and an octave. The idea of the octave and twelve semitones being based on overtones, undertones, and their frequencies. There’s a sort of stability to it. But then within that, any combination of intervallic structures, with variations based on chromaticism. It’s so different from the way I was taught scales.

JF: The G major scale, the D minor harmonic scale, and so on?

VH: Yeah. Just combinations of notes to memorise and write. The problem with learning them that way is that I never understood the fundamental notion of intervals, octaves, and then the possibilities within. So it limits my understanding of harmony, for example.

JF: It makes some ideas seem impenetrable.

VH: Exactly.

JF: Because you’ve been forcing yourself to apply that one way of thinking about a scale. And you’re taught that that’s the authoritative way. Here, we’re trying to explore how to think about musicology, and not just what to think.

VH: Think I’m starting to see what you mean about the importance of these conversations. It’s going to be challenging though.

JF: And rewarding. And useful in a practical context. Let’s talk about scales and modes the next time, and expand on this idea of what scales are. And we can also talk more about how people are taught music, and how that influences the way we understand musicology.