The diversity of harmony and melody
Question by Anonymous
Question: I've gone through most of your lessons and have enjoyed them thoroughly. But what has been confusing me for a while is the following...
The western music scale has only 7 letters to it. So how do things not become monotonous and why do we have so many unique melodies out there? I think I'm struggling to understand the difference between pitch and tone.
Also, with all of the different modes and scales that have been created, what room is there to create your own scale? Or has everything already been discovered?
Thanks in advance for any replies. I'm the type of person that wants to know everything about everything and so these questions have been bothering me quite a bit.
Very good questions! It's important to understand these concepts as far as we possibly can.
Firstly, as well as the 7 letters, A-G, there are obviously sharps and flats to consider, meaning there are 12 notes in total. These 12 notes make up what's known as the chromatic scale.
While you're correct in that there are most commonly 7 notes in a given western scale (known as a heptatonic scale), we must also consider how movements of harmony across the 12 note chromatic scale introduce more musical combinations than just those from the 7 notes of a given key.
The reason there is such a diverse range of harmony is because of the many different combinations and orderings of these notes, both in chords and scales. For example, taking just one component - major chords - there are many different inversions and combinations of tones we can use in major chords.
Creating your own scale?
Funnily enough, there have been scales named after musicians, but what you'll often find is that they are just existing scales/modes with notes added or removed to highlight specific harmonic qualities or movements. Even very slight modifications of a "staple scale" (e.g. the major scale) can create a completely different feel and context. You'll see this as you learn more and more scales.
You can certainly try to create your own scale, but you should ask yourself the following questions when you think you've discovered one...
1) Is the scale musically appliable? E.g. does it have unique harmonic qualities that highlight a particular chord or movement?
2) Even if it does fulfill the criteria above, is it really a unique scale in its own right or is it simply a sequence of tones without an identifiable tonal center?
I'm pretty confident there is no scale left undiscovered that fulfills those criteria. My advice would be to spend time exploring the already vast and rich tapestry music has to offer, and of which music theorists have spent centuries expanding our understanding.
It's worth noting that the musical tradition people call western music is obviously not the extent of music theory, but as guitar (at least the most commonly used variety, as taught on this site) employs the chromatic scale in its layout, that limits it by default to the sub-systems of that parent scale.
Even so, it's still a huge and fascinating subject, as you can appreciate.