Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Theory of Ethos: Scale Contstruction

"That's why we learn this 'theory' stuff.  It's kind of useless by itself, but as a way of describing sounds and identifying sounds it starts to become really helpful."  Guthrie Govan

Let's talk about rules and language.  There's a narrative that plays out in every beginning theory class everywhere.  Teacher starts talking about rules. Imaginative/Rebellious/Contrary student begins questioning the rules.  "Why can't I write perfect fifths? Beethoven/Debussy/Led Zepplin did!"

Here's what seems to be lost in the mix.  There are no rules in music theory.  Music theory is description.  "Do X, and Y will happen."  "The word for this thing is this word."  It doesn't mean you can't do Z. You can even call a major chord a "Slartibartfast" if you like.

It's like language in general.  You can say whatever you want to say, but if you say it in your own made up language, then no one will understand you.  All language does is give you a way to get the things in your head into the head of the fellow sitting next to you.

It all basically comes down to conventions.  Some people figured out ways of getting the sounds they wanted, and over the years we as musicians and theorists have agreed on conventional names for them. That's it.  And...think about it imaginative/rebellious/contrary students among you...this is a good thing for you.  1) It provides means of quickly accessing the sounds you have in your head.  If you want something to sound like a major chord, you don't have to go mucking about with trial and error until you find the notes you want - you just play the notes that you already know make up a major chord.  And here's the interesting one - 2) If you want to create new sounds, then you know which rules to break.

So let's start talking about some basic conventions, and along the way I'll make sure to mention ways you can bend "da rulz."

When musicians talk about scales, we compare everything to a major scale.  We talked about major scales in the first theory lesson on scales and modes.  If we number the notes in a major scale 1 through 8, we have what are called "scale degrees." (note the whole and half step intervals between each note. See Scales and Modes for a more in depth discussion of those.)

To "flat" a note is to lower it by one half step - to "sharp" a note is to raise it by one half step.  Raising and lowering certain notes will result in other scales.  For instance, the minor scale has a flat 3, flat 6 and flat 7 in relation to the major scale.

Now, there's nothing to stop you from calling the notes in the minor scale "1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8," or "Q Z Duck Bowling Ball Tennis Shoes 42."  But this idea of relating scales to the major scale is conventional, and more than that, it's a useful way of thinking about new scale.  

For instance, let's take a look at a more exotic scale.  1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7 8.  Without knowing what it's called, or even playing it, you can know quite a lot about it just by looking at those scale degrees.  

1) It's quite similar to the minor scale, only the 2 is flat instead of the 3.  
2) Whatever other weirdness a scale might have, if it has a 1, 3 and 5 left alone, those should be easy to latch onto with your ears and find familiar ground.  
3) If you look at the intervals between each note, you'll find that between b2 and 3 is neither a whole step nor a half step.  It is a step and a half, also known as a "minor third."  This is where the weirdness is going to be.  

The scale is called Phrygian Dominant.  Let's hear what it sounds like. 

"So what does that mean to me as a musician?" you might ask.  Good question.  Glad you asked.  Well, tons of things.  For one, it can open the door to experimentation.  Take a major scale - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 - flat a note here, sharp a note there.  Play the scale on your instrument and see if you like it.  

What else?  Well, why don't you try writing something in a weird scale.  Take phrygian dominant that we talked about today.  It has this weird "snake charmer," psuedo-middle-eastern vibe to it, especially if you highlight the Db-E interval.  For the guitar players, here's a scale box of C phyrgian dominant to experiment with.  

But, what if you didn't emphasize the weirdness about the scale?  What if you downplayed it, but still included the weird notes?  Then you might get something that sounds more familiar, but with a slightly different flavor.  You might end up with a heavy riff that no one even knows is in a bizarre scale.  

...You might end up with this:

Guthrie Govan puts it in another video that instead of an on/off switch to styles - as in, you are playing pentatonic blues.  Stop. Now you are playing shred - to instead treat them as a dimmer.  That there can be gradients to styles, and by introducing new notes or ideas and then emphasizing or emphasizing them you can blur the lines between things.  Brilliant.  

Doctrine of Ethos - EP - Doctrine of Ethos 

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