Scales and Musical Language

September 3, 2011 § 8 Comments

Playing more than one instrument can encourage perspectives towards composition that might not otherwise arise. I have spent more time with the piano than any other instrument however I have picked up and produced sounds from every instrument that I could lay my hands on.

While playing the guitar I take great pleasure from how the frets have no bias towards the diatonic scale (white notes of the piano). In 1996 I had written the third movement of my first piano sonata and wanted a first movement unlike anything I had written before. I moved up the frets of the guitar in alternating steps of tones and semitones, the symmetry so attractive, and then improvised a variety of melodies keeping to this language.

Identifying a scale of interest is a first step and the least important step. Far more importantly the properties of the scale must be investigated by the composer and with much passing of effort, eventually mastered and only from this is one’s music language genuinely extended. Comparing to the spoken language you can learn the pronunciation (but not the meaning) of new words and your story cannot be enriched in such a way.

This scale of alternating tones and semitones, which I later learned was first used in Persian Music of the 7th Century AD, I found so fruitful. It permits, without needing to include any accidentals, the harmonies of F, Fm, D, Dm, Ab, Abm, B and Bm and striking melodies. Starting with a triad and moving each note one degree upwards in the scale produces the most beautiful harmonic effect. I improvised so richly within this language that the diatonic scale began to feel more foreign and strange. Major harmonies displaced by a diminished fifth (e.g. F# to C) took on a sense of being highly related and I would often modulate in that way, so much more symmetrically than the diatonic dominant to tonic modulation (the notions of the sonic purity of such a cadence largely break down when considering all of the notes in the harmony).

Feeling the alternating single and double semitones links in this scale, I named it “Chain Scale”, unaware that it was known as the perhaps even more ridiculous Octatonic Scale, and I incorporated it into many subsequent works. The following examples that used it strictly (exclusively): the first movement of the first piano sonata, Tin Sentinel, the second movement of Artemis and one of the works within Animation Suite. Many other words however incorporate it during sections.

There is no question that the thorough exploration of the properties and relationships within the Chain Scale and the improvisatory absorption led to a richer output of works.

My musical language continued to develop in various ways since 1996 and in 2008 I started to explore more deeply an equally fascinating scale within my improvisations. This next one used alternating links like the Chain Scale however with the tones replaced by tone-and-a-halves; thus leaving only six notes in the scale: b, c, d#, e, g, and ab.

I investigated this also in 1997 but didn’t find it fruitful – how could any melody of beauty be written for such a scale? – and ignored it until 2008. I then realized that it had some beautiful properties which need to be treated very differently. I perhaps lacked, earlier on, the sufficient richness of surrounding harmonic and rhythmic language to realize these relationships and properties that arise from the scale. From it I wrote this year my third Scherzo and it will unquestionably remain helpful with the stimulation of ideas and increased expressive range.


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§ 8 Responses to Scales and Musical Language

  • andrew jeffrey says:

    I agree with you. What are your perspectives on the blues scale?

    • Any unusual scale can encourage novel thoughts, you may fall into a similar mindset of others using the same scale so think about that also. Of course use this scale if it has genuine aesthetic appeal but do not stop there. One must explore new harmonies and qualities that arise from the scale and try to take ownership of it.

  • Sin música no podría vivir, por lo cual admiro a todo el que tenga el grandioso Don de crearla, moldearla, interpretarla y compartirla. Muchísimas gracias.
    Un saludo: Aída Román Fernández, desde España, La Coruña.

  • Listen to Leo Ornstein! All his works have that octotonic scale flavour.

  • Garret Reynolds says:

    Your prose is beautifully written. Isn’t the scale of alternating tones and semitones that you mention first in the second paragraph simply the diminished scale? (whole step-half step variation)

    Also, I really like your ideas in regards to synthesizing your own scales and as a composer of jazz primarily can relate quite easily to having an idea but finding no fruits until far later.

    • Thank you Garret. You are right – it is the Octatonic Scale or whole tone diminished scale. It is wonderful how you can feel the difference between being able to describe a scale and having it without your flesh, mastering all the properties and so on. The more tools that you form within the mind the more expressive potential you will have. Think of a child with a limited vocabulary and how the story telling becomes enriched as new words are discovered – the language actually becomes part of the method of thought. Extending the musical language extends one’s creative thought as composer and thank goodness there is no end do this.

  • Papageno says:

    The scale with alternating tones and half-tones was used a lot by Olivier Messiaen who called it “Mode II”. It’s one of the “symmetric modes” described in a a book he published in the late 1940s, which you will find fascinating if you didn’t read it already.

  • Paul Gilligan says:

    Dear Mr Cochran,

    I am a amateur but I am very interested in your views and I am trying to make my music more cheerful.

    I was always bored with the lets start to learn to compose from C major idea and as I teach myself I find myself around Cm and Ab which is bringing out a bit of a sad mood, but I am thinking of going from sad to happy and hope to try your points you have here.

    Thank you for the inspiration and I hope I can find a melody from Ab to your happy world.


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