music’s missed opportunities

by Arco-X

27 November 2017

I’m not much given to regrets for what might have been, for wrong choices made, opportunities missed.  Maybe I have a couple: I wish that, as a child, I’d learned the piano not the clarinet; and I definitely should have played more cricket when I was at university.  Since there’s nothing I can do about either of those relatively trivial errors of judgement from almost a lifetime ago, I don’t waste too much energy by reflecting on them. 

Looking back at the development of western music, however, it seems to me that there is reason for mild regret about opportunities missed; though in this instance the possibility exists for a retake.  Despite its multiplicity of forms and styles, music’s journey down the broad highway of history has followed, in some respects, a rather Roman straight line.  There have been countless byways not taken, any one of which might have made a creative difference. 

What follows is a very partial history of music, from plainsong to Adele in about 500 words, in an attempt to shine a light on some long overlooked paths still worth exploring. Musicologists may cavil about errors, omissions or misconceptions;  I’ll take that risk.

Tonality is an overarching concept in western music.  It is the idea that, in a composition or section of a composition, there is a principal tone (the keynote or tonic) with a hierarchy of other notes organized around it.  Music, as it emerged from its liturgical origins in the early Middle Ages, was composed using only seven notes, roughly the white notes of the yet to be invented piano, identified by the letters A to G.  In the succeeding centuries the other five (black notes) were added to make a complete chromatic scale of twelve notes in each octave.  Despite these later additions, the conventional basis of composition, from the 16th century to the present, has involved the use of combinations of those original seven notes, but with the added chromatic flexibility that each of the seven can be either flat, sharp or natural.  These combinations are called modes or scales, the best known examples of which are Major and Minor. 

In fact, through the centuries of music making, about thirty such modes have been devised and named.  About twenty of them are variations of the Major (e.g. Lydian, Hungarian Major) or Minor (Harmonic Minor, Neapolitan Minor), and the rest are more esoteric combinations derived from middle-eastern folk music and adventurous 20th century jazz.

It is curious that the catalogue of modes is limited to just thirty, because there are in fact 399 possible combinations.  This means that there are potentially about 360 anonymous and unloved heptatonic (seven-note) modes which have rarely, if ever, been used to make music:  roads not taken, possibilities still to be explored.

Through the 18th and 19th centuries, more ambitious and longer symphonic forms demanded a more complex tonal methodology, but they were still fundamentally based on the major and minor modes.  By the 20th century, ideas of tonality began to change as the years of consensus gave way to the various manifestations and convulsions of modernism:  ultra-chromaticism, polytonality, microtonality, atonality, bebop and the provocations of the avant-garde. 

In polar opposition to all this cleverness, along came rock & roll.  As this new strand of simplistic vernacular music-making developed through the late 20th century, its more cerebral forms appealed to an informed and educated audience who might previously have gravitated towards classical music.  At the end of all these centuries of musical development there is a historical irony.  The biggest international hit song of 2015, ‘Hello’ by Adele, is totally, resolutely, non-chromatic and written in the Aeolian mode, a tonal structure handed down to us from the church musicians of the Dark Ages.

Clearly, that sort of simplicity retains a valid appeal.  Perhaps art music has become over-complicated, but between its self-regarding opacity and the clichéd repetitiousness of pop there remains space to compose new kinds of original, intelligent but comprehensible music.  So perhaps it is time to look at those 360 unexploited modes to see if they might provide some fruitful raw material.  We could rewind to a point before modernism and explore some overlooked tonal byways, not to compose fake 19th century music, but to invent a new, original mode-based music for the 21st century.

Compositions based on unusual heptatonic combinations can have a refreshing simplicity and clarity but, by their very nature, they steer the composer away from melodic and harmonic custom and cliché.  Though they may sometimes sound slightly alien from a conventional perspective, each mode defines its own tonal logic which the ear quickly assimilates.  The process of composing (and listening) becomes a journey of discovery through unfamiliar tonescapes.  Maybe it’s time to research this disregarded inventory of unorthodox tonality, and invent a new music with a different palette of modes. 

Actually, I’ve already started work on it.

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