music’s missed opportunities
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
I’ve already started work on it.