Sunday, May 17, 2009

One of the fun things for me about playing Hovhaness' 12 Armenian Folk Songs, which I introduced in my last missive, is that the scales and rhythms are out of the ordinary for me. So, along with sharing a few more of my (very non-professional) renditions, I'd like to give a bit of info now on what is going on with these scales. A later post will address the meters.

Eight of these twelve songs are in Dorian mode. Take number 1 as an example.
Armenian Folk Songs #1

The most common scales (or modes) in Western classical and folk music for the last few hundred years have been the Major (Happy Birthday To You) and the Minor. (Blues and Jazz are a whole 'nother story.)

But Dorian mode is not uncommon, even in European and American folk music (e.g., Yankee Doodle). To understand why that is so, suppose you had an instrument that could only play a diatonic scale (like the white notes on a piano) over the following range:

The dashes represent the black notes on the piano, which you don't have on this instrument. The dashes also show that the distance (frequency ratio) between D and E is larger than the distance between E and F. This is an imaginary instrument, but there are real instruments (simple flutes or harps) with similar restrictions.

If you want to play a piece in Major you've got two full octaves to work with.

If you want to play a piece in Minor, you can use A Minor, but you are limited to one octave with some bits and pieces above and below.

Minor sounds different from Major because the distances between the notes are different. Most importantly, the distance from the first note to the third note is 5 semitones for Major (CDE) and only 4 semitones for Minor (ABC). Why this smaller distance makes the Minor sound sadder than Major is a complete mystery to me, but most people agree that it does.

If you want to play a song with that sad, Minor sound, you get a lot more room if you switch to Dorian mode. In fact, you get two full octaves.
Note that the spacing of notes is pretty similar to Minor. The distance between the first and third note is identical; only the distance between the first and the relatively-unimportant sixth note is different:

12345678 (Major)
12345678 (Minor)
12345678 (Dorian)

Enough theory. Here's another piece in Dorian mode.
Armenian Folk Songs #2

Now, if you have an instrument like the piano, with access to all 12 semitones (the black and the white keys), there is no reason you have to play Dorian mode starting on the key D. Both of the pieces 1 and 2 above use the Dorian mode starting on A, which looks like this on the piano:

Piece number 7 also uses Dorian mode, but starting on G:

They look very different on the piano keyboard, as well as in Western notation, but they sound very similar:
Armenian Folk Songs #7

I can not simply look at or listen to a piece and immediately know what scale or mode it is in. I often have to do a bit of research. The piece that gave me the most trouble was number 12. It is interesting both for the scale and the meter. I'll talk about the meter later, but for now just consider the scale: "E F G# A B C# D E".

I had to do lots of digging-around on the web last week to find out what scale this is. It turns out to be the "Harmonic minor inverse", which I'd never heard of. That is the Western name, but I'm sure it is called something different in Armenian folk music. In Arabic music, this appears to be called Maqam Zanjaran (Zankulah), and in neighboring Turkey it seems to be Makam Hicaz (video musical example). Of course Turks and Armenians don't really get along.

So here is number 12. Notice how very unusual the scale sounds to a Westerner.
Armenian Folk Songs #12

For me, this is a fascinating sound. Hope you enjoy it, too.

Since I did my digging last week, a new toy has become available called Wolfram Alpha. With it, my search for scale names could have gone a lot faster. All I would have had to do is type in "e f g# a b c# d e" and it would spit-out the answer "E Harmonic minor inverse scale", along with pictures and a button to let you listen to an example.

In summary:
  • 1-2 are in Dorian on A;
  • 3-5 are in Dorian on C;
  • 6 is in Mixolydian on A;
  • 7-9 are in Dorian on G;
  • 10 is in Phrygian on D;
  • 11 is in Full Minor on F;
  • 12 is Harmonic Minor Inverse on E.

(PS: The copyright issues around Happy Birthday To You are both fascinating and disturbing, so be sure to follow that link.)

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