Scales/Chords…Chords/Scales

It sounds like an attempt to spam the search results but please read on…

One of the features that causes the music of modern ‘masters’ to sound so fresh and different is the use of scales and chords that get away from the beaten track. Not only do they make use of unorthodox scales and their harmonies but they sometimes convert one into the other. At the risk of repeating myself, there are many hundreds of scales possessing 3, 4, 5 and six notes on each ‘root’. There are also 36 seven-unit scales including the familiar major and minor scales and their modal derivatives.

[In my opinion there is no such thing as a ‘diatonic’ scale. Music written where melodies and chords chiefly* use the notes of the scale in use (whatever scale it is – major, minor, modal, pentatonic, etc. etc….) is referred to as being ‘diatonic’, not the scale itself.]

Here’s how it all works:

Notes of harmonic progressions can be converted into melody and notes of melody (continuity) can be converted into harmony (simultaneity). The idea is that the raw materials haven’t changed, merely their presentation. Personally, I buy into this quite happily.

Of course, as soon as melody becomes harmony the ‘rules’ change. Chords, which may involve any combination of notes sounded together, are subject to acoustic considerations in order to maintain clarity, with wider intervals lower down and closer, more dissonant effects reserved for the higher register. This is how the natural harmonic series works and, although our systems of harmony evolved quite separately, the sonorous quality of orchestration nevertheless follows these principles. (Colouristic or percussive effects are likely to break this pattern.)

Arpeggio forms are the most obvious example of the melodic exploitation of chords but the technique can be refined, using unessential notes that respect the prevailing tonality or tonal ‘cell’. Just to be clear on this, a whole passage of harmony, all of its ‘voices’, can be used as notes of melody but, in the real world, care will be needed to achieve a musical result. We have to write a good tune.

More adventurous forms can take the two elements out of synch so that, for example, a melody from harmony x can be used over harmony n (and vice versa) but don’t expect to find yourself at Number One the following week. A case that succeeds in more orthodox surroundings is the anticipated ‘lead-in’ to the next passage in a composition, where the approaching tonality, say, at an abrupt modulation, is foreshadowed, even if there is a temporary ‘clash’ before the resolution.

The ‘rules’ also change when harmony becomes melody. A melody has the characteristics of trajectorial motion so that inertial and other qualities become apparent. It has a two-dimensional presence with the rising and falling in pitch representing the vertical dimension and the passage of time the horizontal. Human expectations are based upon our physical conditioning in everyday life and reactions to music follow suit.

A chord, on the other hand, can just ‘be’.

A warning here about the use of too many scale identifications; they can be counter-productive (just too much to remember).

For example, I recently did a bit of research into the pentatonic scale (the usual one that occurs on the black notes –there are many others) and discovered a list of them, each with its own name. And then I noticed they were all the same but each time starting on a different note (i.e. they were modal displacements). To those involved in Gaelic and Celtic music these categories can be important, especially since such music is rarely written and, like so much folk music, is handed down by skilled practitioners. Here in Britain the Alba TV station from Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, regularly broadcasts such styles. This is terrific stuff. Some of these bands really rock and the group cohesiveness is impressive. (Alba, as everyone knows, is the old name for Scotland.) An actual composition emerged from my research, which is the way things should work, of course. It’s called ‘Alba’, funnily enough, and can be found at:

https://soundcloud.com/john-morton-10/tracks

The playback quality is kind of ‘OK’. I can explain. The live recordings lower down in the list would have benefited from extra rehearsal, in case anyone is interested, but time ran out. The band did amazingly well. I pride myself on the versatility of these pieces. No one would guess they were all composed by one person. Me.

[Los Jardines De Espana is computer-generated, too. There’s a minor glitch in the playback that would have required too much work to justify removing it but it doesn’t hurt too much. The process of creating this piece was analysed in a previous Blog and some people would find this interesting]

You can find it at:

https://composerarranger.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/please-try-this-at-home/

Anyone researching chords and their related scales, with jazz improvisational improvement in mind, will have encountered the bewildering list of possibilities. It’s difficult to think on such a level. Added to this, ‘real music’ involves many surrounding features – harmonic, rhythmic, inflective–that can influence melodic characteristics in ways that can be difficult to quantify. In other words, as stated above, turning harmony into melody is a different ball-game. Knowledge of harmony, especially the sound of the harmony, together with a good ear, is arguably the most productive method of improvising over harmonies.

*I say ‘chiefly’ rather than ‘solely’ because the possibility of adding chromatic embellishment to most music without altering its essential form will generally exist.

http://www.arranging-composing.com

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3 thoughts on “Scales/Chords…Chords/Scales

  1. Indeed not a simple topic. For me, having to manage life without a musical education, this is pretty complicated stuff. But your post gives me some directions and shows me, that I need to dive deeper into this. Thanks for sharing!

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