Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Why The Major Scale?

Q: Why the major scale? Why is music based on it and who decided that the major scale is what we will create music from? Couldn't it just as well have been something else?

A: No, it couldn't have. I've always sort of assumed that the major scale was a result of physics but never thought much about it. I did a little research and found out something really interesting. Now, remember here I am not a musicologist, music historian, physicist or archeologist so I'm just giving you my opinion based on some facts, you can decide for yourself if I'm full of it or not.

Anyway, it turns out that several years ago Dr. Ivan Turk, a paleontologist, found a bone fragment that looks like a flute. It is between 42,000 and 82,000 years old and was found at a Neanderthal campsite in Europe. I found the
essay on the web and believe me it is a hard read. The scale apparently plays part of the major scale which bugs a lot of academics because it possibly means that major scale may be the processor of the pentatonic scale and not the other way around. Some of these so called academics claim that a bear or wolf may have chewed on the bone and it was pure luck that it turned into a flute that plays the major scale (yeah right, and pigs are going to fly out of my butt!).

So what this says to me is that Neanderthal musicians were messing around with the major scale before we were (which bugs a different set of academics). Do you think it is it a coincidence that they found the major scale and we also did? That a completely different race at a completely different time based their music off of the same scale that we do? No, it leads one to the conclusion that the major scale is something created by some natural force and is most likely inescapable for the most part. Why would this be? I researched this too and it turns out that academics also fight about this as well (they give me a good crack up).

Anyway, the theory is that generally the interval of choice for the common ear is a fourth and fifth from the root. In other words if you were a normal person and sang or played a C note, you would be likely to sing the C note followed by a F note (the fourth) and/or a G note (a fifth) It is true, take it from me, music and especially bass movement favors 4ths and 5ths. If you play any of these notes against a C note, you get a fairly pleasing effect, very little dissonance. On the other hand any other intervals played against a the root creates a less pleasing effect. Therefore is seams pretty likely that these would be the intervals of choice even 80,000 years ago. Hold on to this thought while I explain something else.

Overtone Series - You also have this thing called the overtone series. When you play a note, you are really playing a few notes. If you listen real carefully you can hear it. I tried it the other day in the classroom to demonstrate the principle to my students. I played a C note real loud on my guitar and let it feed back. After a few seconds you can start to hear some other notes come out. What comes our besides our C note is a G note and to a lesser degree an E note. That is the overtone series. C = C, G and E. There are some other notes that come out too but don't concern yourself with them because they aren't really audible. Once again, besides your root, you get a 5th and a 3rd in that order.

Overtone Series and the major scale - Now let's go back to my last section, I said that C is generally followed by a F or G note. If we look at the harmonic overtones created by these three combined notes, we get this:

C = C, G, E
F = F, C, A
G = G, D, B

Now combine all these notes in order from low to high: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Wow, it's the major scale! Pretty cool! That is the theory anyway, and academics fight about this too. I'm probably going to get some slack too for writing this as well. I always get hate mail from academics who hate my simplicity. When I wrote about the "Baroque Police" and "Mr. Rodgers Diatonic Neighborhood" I got a bunch of hate mail.

But that is why the major scale is the basis for what we do, physics has made it inescapable. I would even suggest that if there is life on other planets there is a pretty good chance that they too are making music somewhat based on the major scale. Let's petition NASA to test the overtone series on Mars next time they send a probe. I mean, they bring worms on the space shuttle, why not musical instruments? Hell, I'll bring my guitar along! (Now I'm going to get hate mail from astronauts as well for making light of what they do with worms in space).

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