[Smt-talk] a la mode

Michael Morse mwmorse at bell.net
Sun Dec 1 08:49:10 PST 2013

A careful and slow reading of the august Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, together with keen observation and occasional participation in the lively discussions here, has convinced me that there is no concept in music more confused than mode. I don't even think "ambivalent" covers it; somehow, over the millennia, what can only be entirely disparate phenomena came to be addressed and, more parlously still, labelled with this term or its analogues. The only faint shred of sense in the whole history is making itself felt in the present discussion, namely that the conceptions have,  one and somehow, all something presumably tangible to do with historical and local practices--but alas not, as Aristotle and Aristoxenos thought, the mere pitch collection inclinations of tribes and locales.
In this context, I'm much intrigued by Ildar's citing of the Corfu colleague's succinctly Aristoxenean conception. Perhaps music scholars generally, and theorists in particular, need above all to start over with the Augean Stables task of disentangling the constituent components of "mode" from each other, starting with "mode" and "scale," proceeding to "interval," "triad," "chord," and "tonal function."
A perhaps unexpected starting place might be the literature on folk song, most of it from the early/mid previous century. A notion such as Bertrand Bronson's "mode star," which postulated that the seven tones disport themselves like points on a star, breaking off and shifting identity one at a discrete time through the processes of oral transmission, was widely and deservedly ridiculed. But what is the truth? Beyond generalization such as broad inclinations to pentatony, what can we say about modality in Anglo-American folk musics? Fortunately, there is a significant body of field recording still around to enable such questions to be posed anew. Bronson shared with less rash students the presumption that church mode nomenclature was a sufficient instrument for analysis. Is it? As several have already asked implicitly, was it?
[A final footnote: jazz theorist George Russell became convinced that the 7 tone pitch collection most logically connected to the triad through the overtone series was {what we call} the lydian rather than ionian mode. The very fact that could be such a controversy as late as 1950 is more than suggestive. Moreover, Russell himself and his influence generated a considerable body of practice based on this contention.]
Michael MorseTrent UniversityPeterborough, Oshawa

[...]I also remember one participant at the conference in Corfu, several years ago, saying that the triad is not preconditioned by the seven-step scale, and tonal function is not preconditioned by the triad. It took additional theorizing to come up with the new categories, including the parsimonious role of the harmonic major pitch collection. In the course of innovation, older things are being abandoned. For example, diatonic is not heptatonic pitch collection. Neither pentatonic, nor octatonic have been honored by Greek root dia--, only the seven-note scale. Dia--, of course, does not have anything to do with the number of notes; rather, it refers to a mysterious linear coherence, achievable in tonal music. So, when Rimsky-Korsakov uses diatonic--he uses it not as a pitch collection. When he switches to octatonic (which in Russia is always called R-K scale, see, e.g. opera Sadko,
 immersion scene), he treated it as an artificial pitch collection.
Best wishes,
Ildar KhannanovPeabody Conservatorysolfeggio7 at yahoo.com 
     On Saturday, November 30, 2013 9:08 PM, Nicolas Meeùs <nicolas.meeus at scarlet.be> wrote:
    While I fully agree with you that detecting sets and collections of
    pitches is a Western concern, I believe it to be older than you
    think. In the case of Arabic music, the Western musicians present at
    the Cairo Congress of 1932 advocated a conception of the Arabic
    system as formed of 24 quarter tones, against all evidence as we can
    see it today, and this had the most nefarious influence on Arabic
    theory itself.
    We should realize, I believe, that even in Occidental music, even if
    we think it based on an underlying dodecaphonic system, it would be
    more reasonable to view tonalities as founded on heptatonic scales,
    of which the 3d degree determines the major or minor character (but
    with the possibility of passing from the one to the other as a
    result of a possible mobility of this degree), with the mobility of
    the 7th or the 4th degree possibly (but not necessarily) opening
    paths to modulations by a fourth or a fifth (flatwards or
    sharpwards), and the mobility of other degrees (mainly the 6th and
    to a lesser extent the 2d) opening paths to other, more remote
    To view the mobility of these degrees as changes of scales (from
    major to Mixolydian or Lydian, from 'natural' minor to 'harmonic' or
    'melodic', etc.) seems to me quite unmusical. Our note names, be
    they letters or solmization syllables, count only seven degrees in
    the octave, with additional signs to denote the mobility; and our
    keyboards show 7 white keys in the octave, with black keys for the
    mobility. Pitch class set theory replaced these with 12 numerals in
    the octave, or tried to, but may not have been so successful for
    describing our music of the past.
    I can follow your description of Rimsky's gradual modulation through
    pivot chords (e.g. the minor subdominant), and I would easily agree
    with it. The question, however, is whether he understood such shifts
    as resulting from scale shifts, say from 'natural' (or 'diatonic')
    major to 'harmonic' major, which would seem to me an unduly complex
    description, so much more complex than explaining that the
    subdominant can become minor as a result of the mobility of the 6th
    degree. You certainly know Rimsky better than any of us, and I'd be
    eager to know how he conceived this.
    Nicolas Meeùs
    University Paris-Sorbonne
    (PS. While you certainly know Rimsky better than any of us, you
    should refrain from statements about Schenker based on a superficial
    knowledge... There is much more in Schenker than Oster's Free
    Le 2013-11-29 09:30, Ildar Khannanov a
      écrit :
        Dear List,
        I can add to Dimitar's post that harmonic major
            played a significant role in Rimsky-Korsakov's and, further,
            in Russian views of harmony not only as a pitch collection,
            but as a means to other goals. In general, it is only after
            WWII the theory of music in the West has focused on
            detecting various sets and collections of note heads. This
            has become a favorite pastime of theorists with mathematical
            background. It is important to remember that theorists of
            the 19th century were composers working in the domain of
            real tonal music. For them, the categories of theme, motive,
            classical forms, tonal-harmonic function and, ultimately,
            modulation (all of which has been carelessly discarded by
            Schenker) have been the tools of the trade.
            Rimsky-Korsakov's inclusion of harmonic major was a result
            of his work on theory of modulation. In his concept of
            degrees of kinship of keys the modulations to keys that
            differ in 3-5 signs in a key signature present the most
            difficult tasks. Still, he and Tchaikovsky suggest that in
            the large-scale form modulation should unfold slowly,
            step-by-step. In the so-called gradual modulation the remote
            key should be reached as a result of simple pivot chord
            modulations (or sequences). The use of a minor subdominant
            provides a shortcut when one modulates towards the flatted
            keys. That is why Rimsky-Korsakov included the minor
            subdominant into the list of closely related keys in major.
            Hence the harmonic major.
        Best wishes,
        Dr. Ildar D. Khannanov
        Peabody Institute
        solfeggio7 at yahoo.com

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