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I heard this in fifth or third grade, I think.  

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, by Claude Debussy, performers unknown.  

We had a teacher that used to hold up pictures of fauns (little satyr guys playing handpipes) when she played music for us and we were supposed to let our imagination run wild.  And Impressionist music like this is probably well-chosen for that purpose.

What mysterious, music, eh?  We're not going to get into all the fine points of what makes Impressionism Impressionism, today.  But we will look at one of the things that Debussy and other composers used in works like this to achieve their affects.  In particular, the use of alternate scales.

We are all familiar with the the major scale by now, the usual do-re-mi scale.  It's the white keys on the piano, starting at C and doinking your way from right to left.  The minor scale, too, which is do-re-mi but starting at A.  And last week we looked at all the other cool modes, scales that play the white keys starting at the other six white keyboard notes.

Those are all diatonic scales, meaning that you can play them using the seven white key notes of a piano.  But there are other scales that musicians can use that CANNOT all be played on white keys.  For instance, the whole-tone scale, which Debussy and Ravel used in many of their works, including this one, at the very beginning.


The Whole-tone Scale

It's called the whole-tone scale because all the notes are evenly spaced one whole note apart.  It's very neatly symmetrical and would look even neater on a piano keyboard if pianos weren't designed for traditional asymmetrical scales like C major, which has a clump of two and three black keys sitting there like little islands in a sea of white.  However the whole-tone scale doesn't make as much sense harmonically to human ears because it doesn't have that perfect ratio fifth note.  Every note sounds sweet compared to the one just before and after it, but it quickly creeps into a kind of mystical dissonance.  

Also, that symmetry makes it a little boring, so you'll never hear any works completely in the whole-tone scale.  (Watch somebody prove me wrong, now).  It just doesn't go anywhere by itself.  For instance, if I were to change key from the C whole-note scale to the E whole-note scale, it would be hard to tell, because you would have to use all the same notes!  The C whole-note scale is the same as the D, or E or F# or G# or A# whole-note scales.  If you play around with it on an instrument, it's interesting at first, sounds all very French and Debussy, but then you start to run out of interesting things to do with it by itself.  

But Impressionists like Debussy were not daunted.  They liked alternate scales and modes, and lots of 'em and they mixed and matched them as needed for effect.  And the effect in Prelude is a very spooky but pleasing one.

Now for a very small scale, a five-note scale, the pentatonic scale.


The Pentatonic Scale

I've portrayed it here as being all on the black keys, although I could have easily put it on the white keys by just leaving some of the usual do-re-mi notes out.  In fact, if we sang the pentatonic scale, it would sound like this:  "Do Re Fa Sol La Do!"  But I prefer to show it on the black keys because when I was kid, my dad taught me, Lil' Boy Dumbo, my first song, called Knuckles that can be played just on the black keys.  Using your knuckles.  A well-named song.

Of course, the character of the scale depends on which of those five black keys you start from.  So the pentatonic scale has its own modes, something not worth going into detail about here.

Where have you heard pentatonic music?  Well, in the music of Dvorak (the New World Symphony, asian music (remember that hit song Sukiyaki?), hymns, and more than any of that, big budge cowboy flicks.

Theme song to The Big Country, by Jerome Moross

Does that have a familiar sound to it?  Try the Magnificent Seven theme.  (If you're old enough, you know as the Marlboro Cigarette ad theme).

Theme for The Magnificent Seven by Elmer Bernstein, Cincinatti Pops.

That's pentatonic.

[Extra credit to anybody who can find the original Marlboro cigarette ad.  It appears people keep posting it and somebody at Youtube keeps flagging it.]

Of course, western film composers knew what they were doing.  They found their influences in Aaron Copland (Billy the Kid Suite) and Dvorak's symphonies.  For instance, compare the above to the finale from the New World Symphony.

Antonin Dvorak's Symphony #9 in E minor, 4th Movement, performed by Herbert Von Karajan

Sounds a little different, eh?  Well, it's the pentatonic scale, but it's in a minor scale mode.  But even with that change, you can still feel the prairies and smell the cowflops.  Those cattle ain't a-gonna rustle themselves!  

Honestly, I have a hell of a time identifying what mode or scale a particular piece is using, and I only try to do it lately because I am doing this series.  But identifying pentatonic music is usually very easy, because it has that hard, bold, no-nonsense sound to it.  It's still major and minor key music, but by shrinking the palette of notes available, the music gains harmonic firmness.  That's what you are responding to.

Another scale: The blues scale.  Which arguably is or isn't a scale.  I drew my own conceptual graphic with the "blues" notes in blue.


The Blues Scale

The first thing you'll notice is that it has all the usual major key notes.  But, wait, there are those funny blue squares on some black keys, too!  What's that about?

We are all familiar with the blues scale from rock and jazz and pop music, although some types use it more than others.  

Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. Paola Bruni on piano.

I'm posting that vid even though I don't like the way the clarinetist muffed the opening slide.

One of the characteristics of blues music is that the "normal" major scale notes are switch somewhat freely from blues to major again.  And as I hope everybody learned in school, those blue notes find their origin in African music and the music of early American slaves.

It is reported that George Gershwin once met impressionist Maurice Ravel and told him that he had wished that he had gone to music school so he could have been a composer like Ravel.  And Ravel told him, I wish I had learned how to compose like Gershwin!  He asked Gershwin how much he made; Gershwin told him, and Ravel sobbed and walked away.

And as I'm running late again, one last scale, the octatonic scale!  


The Octatonic Scale

A rather strange one you'll rarely hear and will have trouble identifying unless somebody tells you what it is, and it's not clear why you would care except for a geek's curiosity's sake but it does have its own weird sound.  For instance, late Romantic composer Rimsky Korsakov used it frequently.  I fell in love with this one particular aria from his opera Le Coq D'Or (meaning Gold Cock or something like that).  I chose this one not for the exceptional singing but for the translation on the clip.

Hymn to the Sun from Le Coq d'Or by Rimsky Korsakov, sung by Olga Trifonova

Next Week: It will be either Impressionism full blast, or it will be film music.  It's getting close to Oscars, there are lots of film awards coming out, and I don't want to miss the boat.  

Originally posted to Dumbo on Thu Jan 20, 2011 at 05:37 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Why the major pentatonic scale sounds so good (7+ / 0-)

    It's actually quite simple.

    Here's C major:

    C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C

    Here's the C major pentatonic scale:

    C - D - E - G - A - C

    Note the two missing notes, F and B.

    Those are separated by six half-steps, or three whole steps. In other words, a tritone, the most dissonant of all intervals.

    Remove that highly unstable interval, and it's not surprising that the rest of the scale sounds so good!

    We don't want our country back, we want our country FORWARD. --Eclectablog

    by Samer on Thu Jan 20, 2011 at 05:44:04 PM PST

  •  interesting that you avoided.... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, Samer, on the cusp, Rich in PA

    ....discussion of "Chinoiserie" works like Das Lied von der Erde, or Hindemith's treatment of Weber's Turandot march in the Symphonic Metamorphoses.

    "It's only in books that the officers of the detective force are superior to the weakness of making a mistake." (Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone)

    by chingchongchinaman on Thu Jan 20, 2011 at 05:46:29 PM PST

    •  It's hard to pull out individual segments from (4+ / 0-)

      Das Lied.  But you have a point.  

      To tell you the truth, I listened to Lied hundreds of times, for years, and didn't realize he was deliberately using whole-tone mode.  But I'm not always clever enough to catch things like that unless somebody tells me first.  Debussy, however, everybody knows he's the Godfather of Whole-Tone.

      One of these days we'll do La Mer.

      •  have to admit that..... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dumbo, Samer

        .....the last movement of DLvdE has been the toughest nut for me to crack for Mahler, so far, until the second live performance I've ever heard, something like 5+ years ago.  It then dawned on me how minimal the scoring gets at various points in that last movement, which is partly why I didn't "get it".  I admit that I still don't completely, which of course is a motivation to go back.

        "It's only in books that the officers of the detective force are superior to the weakness of making a mistake." (Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone)

        by chingchongchinaman on Thu Jan 20, 2011 at 08:37:22 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I don't know how often Mahler does that (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Dumbo

          But I know he did it in his Eighth Symphony, too.

          Around 10 minutes in, before the big climax for the chorus, the tenor sings "Luuuuuuuumen, luuuuuuumen . . ." with almost nothing but a violin and a flute accompanying him.

          We don't want our country back, we want our country FORWARD. --Eclectablog

          by Samer on Thu Jan 20, 2011 at 09:03:50 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Yup, that's a Mahler trait, (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Samer

            especially in Das Lied, the 8th and 9th.  I suppose you could also point to that weird little cello solo in in middle of the 5th second movement.  

            In particular, though, think about how much it costs to perform the 8th with the size of the orchestra, the specialty instruments like the harmonium and celesta, etc., and all those choral singers, plus the expanded stage.  And then when he gets them all there, he rarely uses them all at once, and often he only uses a few.  In fact, my favorite moment in the 8th is the sudden quiet sparkly sound that announces the entrance of the Virgin Mary with Komm, komm hebe dich su hohern spheren.

            Such a huge distinction from the classical era composers who would have died of embarrassment at the idea of wasting musicians that way.

        •  Das Lied is the most rewarding of them all. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Samer

          It's worth the effort.

          When Mahler shrinks the orchestra size and volume down like that, it brings it down to a very personal level, like somebody whispering something to your face, and it comes as all the greater contrast because of the enormous forces available.

          Everybody will interpret Das Lied differently I suppose.  For years, I was eager to tell people how I interpreted Das Lied, its meaning, and I usually all I did was tell them about myself and my own problems struggling with bipolar depression, an experience I can't help but read into much of Mahler's music as an expression of myself, but not --objectively-- of the music itself.  

          The very ending, though, is extraordinary, so broken, so buoyant, so full, to me, of mixed message.

  •  Also, a reminder: We are up for a Koscar! (10+ / 0-)

    I don't know if it's too late to vote.  If it's not, somebody please post the link to vote.  But Thursday Classical Music is apparently nominated for Koscars in two categories: Best Educational Post, for the Opus 1 diary on Sonata-allegro form, and for Best Educational Series, which I didn't even know was a separate category and almost missed voting on last night!

    If I understand correctly, it's too late to vote now.  Is that so?  If not, please inform us, so I can browbeat people into voting for Thursday Classical Music.  Remember, if you don't vote for CMOPUS, Baby Mozart cries.  And then he dies.

    Seriously, though, think about it before you vote, because you do have many choices.  For instance, you might take a piece of paper and fold it in half, and list reasons for voting for CMOPUS and reasons for not voting for CMOPUS.  In the first column, you might write, "A vote for CMOPUS is an act of Dadaist performance art akin to Luis Bunuel willing all his money to David Rockefeller and leaving his children destitute."  In the other column, the one for reasons why you shouldn't vote for CMOPUS, you might write something like, "Jews have too much influence already and think they own the world."  Finally, evaluate all your reasons pro and con and vote accordingly.  And think about poor Baby Mozart.

  •  Re Debussy's Prelude (6+ / 0-)

    Also had a teacher in grade school who played this for the class & we had to write our impressions ..... no one got the faun reference correct.....we were all thinking little deers romping in the woods.....

    I'm getting ready to see Lang Lang tonite.  Very excited to hear Schubert's B flat Sonata.  One of the great piano works of the 19th century.  He's also playing Chopin's Etudes Op. 25.  Massive program.  What a treat.  

    Thanks for the musical interlude.

    PS The Blues scale needs an F#....:}

    "Fuck this shit!" (-9.0/-7.59)

    by musikman on Thu Jan 20, 2011 at 05:56:18 PM PST

  •  More pentatonic music... (4+ / 0-)

    Here's an old 60s hit, Sukiyaki. Strange that this, a song in Japanese, would have been a hit in the US, but in the early and mid-sixties, there was a period there when Japanese culture was the "in" thing, some kind of delayed reaction perhaps to the end of WWII.  

  •  A minor (no pun) correction (4+ / 0-)

    We are all familiar with the the major scale by now, the usual do-re-mi scale.  It's the white keys on the piano, starting at C and doinking your way from right to left.

    Shouldn't that be from left to right?

  •  It does not get any better than this. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, chingchongchinaman, IreGyre

    The memory of seeing Afternoon of a Faun on PBS...I am thinking it was Nureyev...sitting beside my Dad (now 90) watching Magnificent Seven in a theater..discovering Dvorak's symphony because a college history prof rec'd it..
    This diary is the music of my life.
    I do not care about the theory and the scale.
    I once did.  I now care about the sound, and the memory it may invoke.
    H. von Karajan was so beyond my description of competent...Other-worldly?

    Democrats are on the right side of history every time.

    by on the cusp on Thu Jan 20, 2011 at 07:35:27 PM PST

  •  More pentatonic music from Asia, (3+ / 0-)

    featuring ME!!

    This is our orchestra on our China tour

    First:

    Then there's this one: NOTE--I'm the male bassoonist in the picture of the woodwinds.  And this was when I was about 100 pounds heavier, too.

    This is a selection from a violin concerto about the "Chinese Romeo and Juliet":

    And finally, one of the most famous folk songs in China:

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White

    by zenbassoon on Thu Jan 20, 2011 at 08:02:12 PM PST

    •  Excellent! (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      chingchongchinaman, on the cusp

      Loved the violin part in the Butterfly Lovers concerto.  I've never heard that before.

      It's interesting how the audience claps in the Yangtze River Song.  I hear that they clap on the downbeat in Japan, as well.  An Asian thing?

      I was hoping that the Yangtze River song might be the Yellow River Concerto, which I remember hearing once, on the radio, maybe thirty years ago, and actually liking it, even though I was strongly in my right wing commie-hating phase back then.  

      Ah.  Found it.  Damn, everything is on youtube nowadays.  

      And guess what... it's pentatonic, from the sound of it.  Big duh.

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