Sunday, September 20, 2009

Updating Scales

Are we practicing outdated scale forms, more suited to the 18th century than to the 21st? Elissa Milne's Scales as Propaganda asks the question of what scales are really for and how they might better teach us to listen:
Scales are unique in teaching us how to hear. Scales teach us how to hear in pitch patterns, how to anticipate melodic contour, how to predict harmonic outcomes. Knowing the pattern of a scale starting on any one of the 12 semitones in an octave enables a pianist to move between keys almost effortlessly, able to transpose at sight or by ear. An understanding of scale patterns underlies the ability to harmonise a lead sheet, to play from a chord chart or to sight read an accompaniment.
The problem is that our music now uses a much larger set of possible scales:
Desperate Housewives uses the Lydian mode (major scale with the 4th raised). Then there are the themes in the Dorian mode (major scale with the 3rd and 7th flattened). American Beauty and The Sopranos are two of the many films and tv shows that have been accompanied by music in this off-the-educational-menu scale.
Not to mention Phrygian mode, which figures so prominently in Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica...

(Via ComposeCreate)


  1. My biggest objection to traditional piano technique is the inclusion of the harmonic minor "scale." The harmonic minor, with its lowered sixth and raised leading tone, corresponds to the collection of notes most usually encountered when harmonizing a minor melody - the reason it's called the "harmonic" minor - and has no relation to any melodic pattern that occurs in the literature. (In other words, the notes of the scale are always deployed vertically, never horizontally.) Students spend years practicing the scale, developing a skill which has no practical application.

    Still, I find Milne's article to be a bit much: surely no teacher can predict his students' future musical interests in the earliest stages of technique! If little Billy is going to develop an interest in 17th-century music and become a harpsichordist, he will have to forget everything you taught him about technique: instead of tucking the thumb under, he'll generally play scales with paired fingers, crossing the index finger over the third. If Billy ends up playing a lot of Messiaen, he'll need to come up with comfortable fingerings for a lot of unusual modes, starting with the octatonic. The main thing is to give the student a solid technical foundation, and to let the rest follow as he matures.

  2. Thanks for the great comment, Osbert! I figured out a fingering for octatonic scales in graduate school, although I've since forgotten it.

    BTW the other day in the RCM I walked by a studio where someone (at breakneck speed) was practicing a 4-octave chromatic scale FORMULA PATTERN. Talk about badass.

  3. Firstly, thanks Chris for bringing my blog to the attention of your readers!

    Osbert, you'll find that it's an urban myth that the harmonic scale is never realised horizontally - it frequently appears in the literature! An obvious example is Bach's Prelude in C minor from the 1st book of the 48. The subject uses all the notes of the harmonic minor scale and no others! There are many other examples, but only one example is required to disprove the myth.....

    You make such a great point about piano teachers being unable to prepare their students for performing on other instruments! I've had piano students go on to play the organ (whole new technique once feet get involved!) as well as guitar, trumpet, flute, cello, clarinet, saxophone, oboe, recorder, viola, trombone, electric bass, and so on. The techniques they acquire in their piano lessons will not directly apply to these new instruments - this is an important point that you establish.

    But practising scales is not about establishing any kind of technique - it's about learning patterns, and mostly about learning how to HEAR patterns. Students need to learn many other fingerings apart from scale fingerings right from their earliest repertoire, so the idea that scales are the basis of the fingering students employ in performance is more than slightly disingenuous!

  4. I think the C minor Prelude rather supports my point about the harmonic minor scale than otherwise - the essence of the piece is a regular change of (vertical) harmony on the tactus pulse, which is projected horizontally using sixteenth-note figuration. To think of it horizontally at all is, I think, missing the point of the work. There are similar examples in the organ literature, such as the A minor Prelude (BWV 543). But when a composer wants rapid scalewise motion (think the opening of the third Beethoven concerto, or the Poulenc sextet) the logical choice is always the melodic minor. The augmented second in the harmonic minor scale is generally seen in only two ways - as an accident of vertical harmony, or as an affective, emotive gesture in slow music.

    Be that as it may: I suppose I'm not convinced that it's possible to separate the process of technical development on the one hand from the process of pattern formation on the other. This was part of my point about the "early" fingering used by organists and harpsichordists. When we teach beginner students how to play scales, we're inculcating certain basic technical habits which have been assumed in piano technique at least since Czerny: you group scalewise passages into chunks of three or four notes, tucking the thumb under when you run out of fingers, and avoiding putting the thumb on a black key. These are skills which professional pianists take for granted, but which beginning students find challenging. Scales have acquired their importance in pedagogy precisely because they are the best way to inculcate these fingering habits - the student tucks the thumb under the fourth finger again and again until this rather awkward habit is deeply ingrained, and determines all of his future fingering choices.

    My point, I suppose, is that scales have a particular importance in piano pedagogy, much greater than on wind instruments (I speak as a former trombonist) because the entirety of modern piano technique is founded on specific principles of scale fingering. Asking a student to play in the Lydian mode instead of the modern major scale, I suggest, is a relatively minor and cosmetic change compared to asking him to play Sweelinck.

  5. Osbert, I'm a sleep-deprived incompetent today (it's a long, interesting but irrelevant story) - my deep apologies: of course, the Prelude is a TERRIBLE example of what I meant.....

    I meant to write the C minor FUGUE. The subject is most definitely a horizontal realisation of a melody based exclusively on the harmonic scale pattern. Every note of the harmonic pattern is used, and no others. And when the subject appears starting on the dominant it is still outlining the harmonic scale pattern of the dominant, while the surrounding harmonies are still clearly in the tonic. It's a really interesting example of melody-writing using an exclusively harmonic minor pattern of pitches to choose from.

    Regarding the importance of learning all the traditional patterns, I'm not sure that you read my piece: I think (and state) these patterns are fundamental to being able to play classical music. It's just that all the music being composed now (and in the last hundred or so years) uses patterns we don't bother to teach. So..... why don't we teach them?

  6. What a great discussion!

    I see two other issues behind this issue:

    1: We're not sure what to do about "teaching technique". At least scales give us something to fit that bill, and we feel like we've done our duty.

    2: Who would tell us the "correct" fingerings for these other patterns?? Oh my! And if we got sidetracked for a couple of weeks on something crazy like chromatic formula patterns, how is that going to pay off at the exam? Teachers of classical piano are insecure about these things, we live with the ghosts of our own childhood teachers breathing down our necks.

  7. Ah, I see what you mean about the fugue. My point is not that the notes of the harmonic minor scale are never deployed in melodies (which would be obviously false, since melodies have harmonic implications). Rather, I point out that the distinctive pattern of the harmonic minor scale - the part that makes it difficult to play - is the inclusion of a melodic augmented second between the lowered sixth and raised seventh. Both pitches appear in the Bach example you mention, but not consecutively (the sixth drops to the fifth, and the leading tone rises to the tonic). It's because the augmented second is considered a dissonance that you will rarely see it used melodically in the literature, and especially not in sixteenth notes, in both hands, at quarter note = 120.

    I've probably been quite unclear and unnecessarily wordy above, for which I apologize. My essential feeling about piano technique, however, is that a basic training in "classical" technique will allow a student to pursue any other option he chooses, once you give him time to develop musically and explore a variety of other options. (I speak from my own experience - having gone through the RCM system, learned bushelbaskets full of scales, and then switched majors to organ and started playing a lot of contemporary music, particularly Messiaen. It's unlikely that I will ever play, say, Chopin in public ever again, but I now have a basic facility that makes it comparatively quick to learn pieces in a different modality.) Before I'd accept the necessity of teaching the other modes you mention, I'd want to see a case that they represent a substantively different technique from anything we currently teach. It doesn't seem to me that the Lydian, for example, meets these criteria, as the fingering is identical to the major scale in almost every key.

  8. Becky, I love your observation that by teaching scales piano teachers feel that they've at least done their 'duty' in regard to developing technique.... [Of course, how much more there actually is to technique than being able to play a scale!!] This will be food for thought for me....

    Osbert, I can completely see where you are coming from. My point is that practicing scales is not *about* fingerings so much as it is about what you learn to hear, and that's where practicing other patterns becomes so very important. Many many piano students do not progress to the kind of repertoire you mention, and why should their harmonic experience be restricted to the patterns of two hundred years ago (and more)? Why should they not learn the patterns that are the basis of most of their contemporary LISTENING (as compared to performing) experience?

  9. Accepting that this is a piano blog, I think there is a distinction between technical development on the piano and technical development on other instruments. The focus here is more on development of the body to cope with the demands of playing the instrument - ie breathing exercises, lip development etc.

    I realise that pianists need to develop muscular strength in the fingers but I don't believe they spend as much time on physical development as other instruments. (a little general but broadly accurate)

    The need to develop these physical attributes leads to use of specific exercises in these areas - many of which are not scalic in nature.

    That said, I do believe that the use of scales in and of themselves is a lazy practice by some teachers. To answer the charge of relevance to music written today (or indeed at any time) those scales practised should in some way be related to actual music played thus assisting musical and technical development at the same time.

  10. Whoa! Chris, you're right about how a lively dialogue can be the best part of a post.

    Everyone has some valid points. I'm not going to add much more to what has already been said but simply share a couple of things my students and I have began to employ to make practicing scales (and other technical exercises) more practical - improvising.

    One hand is working on a simple chord progression (I for the beginners, I-V for the intermediate, I-IV-V-I or ii7-V7-I for the more advanced ones). The other is improvising scales.

    Since the advent of Conservatory Canada's Contemporary Idioms syllabus, I've started to include some of those other scales in my RCM students' "technique toolbox". It helps that a few of them love to either compose, improvise, try learning from a lead sheet or just rack up the technical bonus points in my incentive program.

    They hear me grumbling over how long it takes me to practice technique now that I'm trying to keep up with all the modes and "funky" scales on top of "traditional" technique.

    This has always been on of my concerns with our traditional technique requirements. We have to study modes, pentatonic, blues, octatonic, etc. for rudiments. We really should know how to play those scales too, not just write them. And as was pointed out earlier, these scales are showing up in music more frequently, so our knowledge of these scales needs to be at our fingertips (excuse the pun).

    Regarding octatonic scales and their fingering, there is an easier way to think of them: Play the first four notes of minor scale, go up a half step and play the first four notes of that minor scale and then play the tonic. Fingering-wise, use the "normal" fingering for each of those two minor scales within the octatonic.

  11. Elissa: I suppose part of my angle here is that I think musical study, at least in the early stages, ought to present a unified and synoptic perspective about how to think musically, as well as how to play the instrument. This is something I like in Mike's post above - technical exercises should be played musically, and repertoire should be related to technique. It seems to me that the classical school of piano technique (which is really only about one hundred and fifty years old) is particularly well-equipped to present the student with this. Better to pick one style of playing that's especially well-developed and go deep into it, even if it means sacrificing a certain amount of breadth. If the students later want to go a different direction, they'll find it in their own time, and will likely be able to understand and adopt a more contemporary idiom much more readily than their teachers.

    (Just to show you where I'm coming from: Organ pedagogy is currently trying to combine an older, Romantic tradition of pedagogy with a more recent, historically informed approach - with the result that many organ students seem to have split personalities, playing all pre-1800 repertoire with an overly detached touch and exaggerated agogic accents, and playing all post-1800 repertoire with gooey legato and a certain rhythmic waywardness. The teachers need to find a way to synthesize the two ideas if their students are to be the best possible musicians. This is the opposite problem from piano pedagogy, which you characterize as being too monolithic.)

    All of the above aside: if you find an effective way to work more contemporary idioms into your pedagogy, I wish you all the best and I'd love to hear about it! I am conservative enough to have a certain skepticism about such projects, but I'm also aware that piano teachers can use a bit of shaking up once in a while. . .

  12. I've found students to be somewhat adept at moving from one musical style to another - from minuets to waltzes to tangos, for instance. And I've found them to relish the variety, to savour getting insider knowledge on how different ways of using musical elements results in different messages and different experiences.

    But I teach in an extremely repertoire-rich fashion. None of this solely-focussed-on-the-examination (6 to 10 pieces a year) teaching for me and my students. Many of my students learn more than 45 pieces each year, all of them (except the most advanced) learn at least 30.

    The bulk of their repertoire (around two-thirds) comes from the last 100 years (which after all still includes some Debussy), with the remainder being drawn from repertoire composed at least 100 years ago.

    So I'm not 'working contemporary idioms into my pedagogy', it's more like I'm working from contemporary idioms in my pedagogy. There are students whose one desire is to play sonatinas, but nearly all students in 2009 want to be able to play the music they hear in their everyday lives (some of which IS written by Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky).

    I should also add that I am talking about the kind of students you will find in normal suburban private music studios, from as young as 4 or 5 through to around 16 or 17 years of age.

    All this discussion has given me food for thought that I will certainly further explore in entries to my blog over the next few weeks/months.... And I'll also put up some posts relating to a coherent approach to pianism using music of our own time.

  13. Incorporating contemporary idioms into our lessons can be a blog entry of its own.

    At most of the gigs I perform at, I play contemporary idioms; everything from ragtime to the rhumba. Dimly lit environments, crappy pianos and tight timelines to put stuff together forced me to develop my improvising skills. It's now been my saving grace with classical and contemporary repertoire (Bach would be proud).

    Then, in an attempt to break out of my own repertoire rut, I took jazz piano lessons last year. Next month, it's singing lessons to develop my "playing & singing" abilities.

    I'll never look at music the same way again.

    "Technique", keyboard harmony and transposition are now getting shoved down my students' throats because of it. They (and I) are paying more attention to the shapes of chords now.

    Those are probably the biggest things from the contemporary idioms that I've been able to transfer to teaching classical repertoire.

    For instance, I was working with a student today on a Bartok Bagatelle. She was stumbling on the chords in her LH. We analyzed the bejeebers out of it. There was one chord that threw us through a loop (C#, E#, D#, A). Only once we played it and looked down did we realize it was just a good old F7#5/A#. Much easier to remember.