Inside the Music | ‘Artificial’ Scales | Modern Era | Classical

The term ‘mode’ tends to be used in twentieth-century music to refer to a scale other than major or minor (though these can be called modes as well). The so-called ‘church modes’, given their prominence in the folk music of both Eastern and Western Europe, are frequently encountered in music that draws on those traditions (e.g. Bartók, Janáček, Vaughan Williams). It is easy to get an idea of their basic scale patterns from a piano keyboard by playing all the white notes in succession within an octave: moving from any D to the D above it gives the interval pattern of the Dorian mode, the scale taken from E gives the Phrygian mode, that from F the Lydian mode and that from G the Mixolydian mode (these are the names originally chosen in the Renaissance). Any of these modes can appear in transposition: for instance, a Dorian mode starting on E would run E-F sharp-G-A-B-C sharp-D-E.

Of the church modes the Dorian and Phrygian are close to the natural minor scale, the Lydian and Mixolydian to the major. They can therefore adapt quite easily to an otherwise tonal context, while providing it with a distinctive colouring. More disruptive of tonality are the ‘symmetrical’ scales based on the division of the octave into equal intervals (and their further subdivisions). The whole-tone scale (e.g. C-D-E-F sharp-G sharp-A sharp-C) contains no major or minor triads and therefore of itself defines no tonic or key-note. Other symmetrical scales include the octatonic (e.g. C-C sharp-D sharp-E-F sharp-G-A-A sharp-C), consisting of alternate semitones and whole tones (associated especially with Stravinsky) and what is sometimes called the hexatonic (e.g. C sharp-E-F-G sharp-A-C-C sharp), consisting of alternate semitones and minor thirds, whose resemblance to the harmonic minor scale is exploited by Bartók in the third movement of his Concerto for Orchestra (1943). What is probably the most universal scale of all, the pentatonic (playable on the black notes of the piano) was often used in early twentieth-century music for its ‘oriental’ or ‘exotic’ connotations.

Styles & Forms | Modern Era | Classical
Inside the Music | Modern Orchestra | Modern Era | Classical


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