By Arco-X

There is a good deal of ambiguity in the use of musical terms, even by experts.  Notes and tones, modes and scales, tone and timbre could all do with some clarification.  Protomodalism 1, written for the general music-listener with little knowledge of music theory, is a bit loose terminologically; deliberately so, to avoid seeming too obscure.  In the main, I aim for precision and consistency and some terms, as I use them, are defined in this glossary.

The Protomodal process involves using heptatonic modes, tuned in equal temperament.  So far, so normal.  The difference is that these are unusual modes which have rarely, if ever, been used before.  This, very briefly, is how history brought us to this point:

Medieval music was based on just seven tones, which have come to us, with a few tweaks and modifications, as the ones produced by the white keys on the piano.  If you compose a piece of music on the white keys with A as its keynote, it will be in the Aeolian mode.  If B is the keynote, Locrian.  If C – Ionian, D – Dorian, E – Phrygian, F – Lydian, and G – Mixolydian.  The intervals of pitch between the tones are irregular (either semitones or whole tones), so each mode is spaced in a different pattern, resulting in a different tonal character.  Ionian is the prototype version of the Major; Aeolian, of the Minor.  Over a century or two the other five tones (the black keys) were added so that, in addition to the natural, the sharp and flat variants of the tones A – G were available.  This introduced the possibility of far more than the original 7 modes.

Over the succeeding centuries various altered versions of modes have either been invented to address perceived compositional problems, or discovered in ethnomusicological exploration of regional vernacular music.  About a third of these are variants of the Major, another third of the Minor, and the final third are a more esoteric and obscure bunch.  Here is a list, colour-coded in the three categories, showing their respective tones in the key of C, of 32 named modes.

The selection of tones available in a particular mode defines the nature of the melodies that can be composed with it and, perhaps more importantly, the chords which are available for the construction of harmony.  In classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries, and popular music to this day, harmony has been largely based on triads, in particular the ones based on the 1st, 4th and 5th degrees of the scale. 

Working with more unusual modal combinations, from among the 360 not on the named list, forces the composer to work with different melodic and harmonic material.  The resulting music is free from the customary conventions and clichés of the classical period, and of the top twenty.  It is like an unfamiliar musical dialect, rather than a completely new language – interestingly different, but not impossible to comprehend.

There is an example of the harmonic potential of the protomodal process in the first movement of my chamber symphony ‘Life Studies’.  It is a composition based on a kind of genetically modified F major mode with the tones: F G A B C D E.  This combination gives the normal I chord (F,A,C), but not the IV (B,D,F) or V (C,E,G).  It does, however, provide three other possible major triads (using enharmonic equivalents): III (A,D/C,E), VI (D,F,G/A) and VII (E,G,B).  Viewed (or heard) from a conventional major-minor perspective, this suggests more than a hint of chromaticism, while actually being totally diatonic within the peculiar context of this mode.  This is a distinctive feature of protomodal composition.  You can hear a few bars here:  Life Studies I  and here is the score.

In PROTOMODALISM 1, I alluded to my research that revealed the existence of 399 modes.  One bright morning I had a flash of insight that any mode could be uniquely represented by a six digit quaternary number (counting in Base 4).  This enabled me to identify, and numerically catalogue, all the possible heptatonic modes.  Music theory geeks and mathematicians can read a full explanation in PROTOMODALISM 3

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