All The Scales

When I was at music school (the California Institute of the Arts) they portrayed music history very roughly thus:

There is a musical language that has been used in the West beginning more or less at the Renaissance, called “Common Practice”. That musical language is still in use today in the vast majority of Western music: popular music of every sort, film scores, jazz, the blues, etc. Common Practice consists of a commitment to certain scales (major, minor, ‘the blues scales’) and the harmonic approaches they imply. Meanwhile, as they tell the story, in the early 20th century in the ‘classical tradition’ there was a feeling that “all that can be done with Common Practice had been done, and all that remains is to turn our backs on scales, harmony, rhythm, and the rest as understood in Common Practice and do the opposite. Bach, Beethoven and Debussy have expressed everything that can be expressed in Common Practice, so we need to turn our backs on Common Practice altogether.”

Here are a few musical examples they held up for emulation:

Even at the time, as a mere teenager, I thought this assertion was absurd: as if Shakespeare and Poe and Hemmingway and all the rest have said all that can be said in the English language, and there is nothing left to do but write text that isn’t comprehensible English. Ditto for music.1

Now if you simply want to turn your back on the English language, or musical Common Practice, that’s your prerogative! But assertions like “there’s nothing else to do” sound to me a lot like “I can’t THINK of anything else to do”. Is that simply a poverty of imagination?

But Cal-Arts did get me thinking about how Common Practice might be taken to another step forward. Which is anything but a new idea — that’s exactly what every innovation in music since the dawn of Common Practice has entailed: Monteverdi enlarged Common Practice, Bach enlarged it, Beethoven enlarged it, Debussy enlarged it, Duke Ellington enlarged it, the Beatles enlarged it, etc. In exactly the same way that significant authors enlarge our ‘imaginal space’ — whether they be Milton or Faulkner or JRR Tolkien or Stephen King.

But it did seem to me that the vastness of Common Practice in Western Music was still based on a dozen or so foundational scales: the major and minor scales at the top of the list, plus the whole tone, diminished, blues, the pentatonic scale, the ecclesiastical modes and a few others. So, how many possible scales are there? With no constrains — an infinite number. But what if one narrowed the field to scales (DO to DO an octave above (as in DO-RE-MI .. DO)) with no steps greater than a minor third, using the standard Western piano keyboard — a definition that includes essentially all the scales in common use? It turns out there are 1490 of them. Of which in Western Music we’ve explored only a tiny fraction.

Strictly speaking the term I should be using is a musical ‘mode‘, which is a particular species of a scale. If you care about the distinction see here, meanwhile just for clarity/consistency/correctness I’ll use the word ‘mode’ instead of ‘scale’ for these 1490 modes.

To be fair, many of these ‘new modes’ amount to ‘the major scale plus some notes’ or ‘the minor scale minus some notes’. But even those have their own color. After all, Picasso is famous for his ‘blue period’ where he deliberately excluded certain colors from his palette. Sure, some of the differences of adding/subtracting notes from the Common Practice scales will be subtle, but so what. Meanwhile, the unique character of some of these modes won’t be subtle at all!

So, where does one even begin with 1490 modes (minus a dozen or so already extensively explored)? That’s a lot of modes to explore! Just to get a feel for what modes sound like one would want to be able to write very short pieces (thus being able to write more pieces for more modes, covering more ground), yet have these pieces be long enough to get a sense of the mode’s musical color. It occurred to me that ’rounds’ fit the bill nicely because writing a round that’s only a half-dozen bars or so, repeating multiple times and harmonizing with itself gives you a piece that’s a couple minutes long. (BTW, the ‘proper’ musical term for a round is a ‘canon’, the term I’ll be using henceforth.)

One rule I have for these canons is that all the notes in the mode have to be stated in the melody before the second voice enters (just to clearly state the mode).

Also, all these modes need names — Adam’s first task in the Garden of Eden was to name all the animals.2

Next week I’ll pull this all together and present my first canon based on one of these modes.




  1. I was at Cal-Arts in the 1970’s. I have no idea what their current compositional philosophy might be. Meanwhile, back then, I was ejected from the Composition Degree program for failing to embrace this philosophy. In hindsight — thank you!
  2. “And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and He brought them to the man to see what he would name each one. And whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.” (Gen.2:19)

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