Was the relative minor scale 'discovered' or 'created'?
May 28, 2017 4:22 AM   Subscribe

So, the major scale is what it is because it's even (well-tempered) tones splitting up a mathematical actuality that exists due to frequencies. Where the hell did the RELATIVE MINOR come from? Why don't we start the relative minor on, say, the fifth or the third and play all the notes in the major scale still? Is it a naturally-occurring thing too? Just the result of piano keys? The natural minor sure isn't very.... melodic (pun intended), so why what caused the focus on the 6th degree of the major scale for the formation of a scale at all?

Backstory: I'm trying to revisit music theory learned as a kid via piano, but as an adult now wanting to actually 'get' it rather than just memorise it by rote, perhaps with a view to having a stab at composition. I got to about Grade 5 level of theory and Grade 8 practical but it was a looooong time ago. 'I'm taking piano lessons at the moment and struggling with playing diatonic octaves of triads'-kind of struggling.

Trying to fill in some context for myself: the 'why' rather than just the 'how'. So any knowledge about other scales or anything else really that's even tangentially related but could fill in the gaps that they don't teach to children would be also very welcome.
posted by springbound to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The best entry point to get started thinking about this is the musical concept that predates major and minor, the mode.

There's a decent set of musical examples here but their notation bizarrely starts every scale on C which obfuscates basically the entire music theory basis of modes (that fundamentally they don't represent key signatures but rather result from choosing a different note in the do-re-mi pattern as "home."

The concepts of major and minor emerged in the transition from "composition = counterpoint" to "composition = harmony" which is roughly identifiable by the bass line, which shifted from a solo melodic role to having more function in establishing key and harmony.

There is a very large amount of debate about how and why and when western music ended up this way but if you want to hear roughly what the transition sounds like you could listen to Palestrina on one side and Bach on the other. If you want to get confused, listen to Monteverdi, who basically lived through and/or invented the transition.
posted by range at 5:05 AM on May 28, 2017 [7 favorites]

I don't think the major scale as you know it is "natural" in any way. Equal temperament is a basically a kludge, which sort of comes close to the mathematical purity of Just intonation, but misses on every single note but the octave. It's useful for making keyboard instruments, but ultimately not very pure in the sense of physics/acoustics. I also am confused why you think the natural minor is not melodic. It is the basis of huge swaths of modern pop music, including rock, hip-hop, Indy, etc. Maybe it's not your favorite but it is consistently popular for the past 60 years, Paint it Black , Stairway to Heaven etc.

What range said is of course right: we did/do start on lots of other scale degrees, that's how you get different modes. And they are also right: forcing everything to root at C makes the differences in steps per degree more obvious, but completely hides the fact that if you start at D and play the white keys up to another D, you get what we (now) call the Dorian mode. It's a fun one, and you'll get it by starting and stopping on the second degree of any major scale. If you start on the fifth, you get the (modern) Mixolydian, which is indeed just as "natural" as a major diatonic or natural minor. It is also fun to play in. Different modes (and the one we call a relative minor) are great ways to change up the feel of a piece without even leaving the white keys!

I'd advise only worrying about the modern senses of these modes for know, but you can indeed dive in to what the Greeks considered Mixolydian, how it's different from what we call by that name now, etc.

Finally, "The term "major scale" is also used in the names of some other scales whose first, third, and fifth degrees form a major triad.", e.g. the Harmonic Major scale.

All very fun stuff, lots of different interpretations of what is major and what is minor, IMO none of it is truly natural in the sense of music of the spheres or whatever, it's all just self-reinforced societal agreements on what kinds of things sound good, and if you rewind 1-10k years or travel 1-10k miles, you'll see many, many different answers to "what is the natural scale for good music?".
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:13 AM on May 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

And to answer a few of your questions more specifically, one of the reasons we have different "flavors" of minor scales is because what you actually do in a minor key is heavily context dependent - this is also a holdover from modes, where for example B was very commonly played as Bb in order to avoid unwanted counterpoint intervals(*). So we have

Natural minor: just play the notes in the key. Equivalent to strict Aeolian mode. Essentially never seen in practice because of the alterations below

Harmonic minor: raise the seventh step a half step. This accounts for the fact that practically any time you play that note in a minor key, you are playing the third of a dominant chord which is MAJOR even in minor keys - so eg in C minor you play B natural to participate in a G major dominant chord

Melodic minor: also raise the sixth scale degree. This is because composers like Mozart thought the augmented second (eg, Ab to B in harmonic minor) was nasty and to be avoided in voice leading

And of course because actual music is written by humans who are driven to make stuff that sounds good to them (as opposed to implementing a ruleset) real music found in the wild adheres strictly to none of these but bounces all over the damn place.

Finally, it's probably worth noting that nearly all of the formalism in music theory is descriptive - it's our best crack at trying to categorize things but one of the hallmarks of great composers is how poorly they adhere to this kind of pigeonholing. In musicology classes this is usually summarized as "Mozart never wrote anything in sonata form despite being the model for the definition of sonata form." Everything Mozart wrote, for example, is a commentary or variation on sonata form but he seems incapable of using it without messing around with it. One of my musicology professors was fond of ending discussions like this by saying "... and that's how you can tell Bach apart from Telemann."

(*) The systematic alteration of B to Bb is famously the "etymology" of the flat symbol itself - because Bb just WAS what you played when you saw a B. If you wanted a B natural you needed to specify HIGH B (Hoch, in German). Eventually marking b and H turned into the symbols we use now.
posted by range at 9:12 AM on May 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

Okay, over more thing and then I'll back away for a little bit.

There's an important misconception in the first line of your question. The major scale doesn't represent evenly splitting anything - it's the chromatic scale where, in equal temperament, the octave is split into twelve equal steps (strictly, the frequency of every half step is a factor of 2(1/12) larger).

Major and minor (and any other) modes are all about choosing which of those 12 pitches to use in order to, in large part, manipulate consonance and dissonance to dramatic effect. Composers and theorists going at least back to Pythagoras have tried to organize sounds and intervals based on how consonant or dissonant we perceive them. The modern (well, modern until Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Ives et al came along) major and minor modes are the result of at least 600 years of iteration, fads, etc.
posted by range at 9:30 AM on May 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

Indeed, the modes are a good starting point both in terms of music theory and music history. It should also be noted that the keyboard and its organization is historically not the starting point of Western music.
And while equal temperament (the term "well-tempered" is today usually applied to various circular non-equal temperaments) has been around for ages as a mathematical and thought-experiment, it has not played a role in actual music making on keyboard instruments until the early nineteenth century; so there is no link between equal temperament and the "why" of the character of the major scale.
posted by Namlit at 9:34 AM on May 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you want to take a deep dive into this question, check out Harmonic Experience by W A Mathieu. I haven't read it myself but I've heard the author talk and he was able to talk about complex theory in a very approachable way.

From the jacket -
W. A. Mathieu..., presents a way of learning music that reconnects modern-day musicians with the source from which music was originally generated... His theory of music reconciles the ancient harmonic system of just intonation with the modern system of twelve-tone temperament.
posted by metahawk at 1:04 PM on May 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Can I mark several of these as best answers? range you are wonderful, thank you for all of your replies, each of which contained at least one more 'ohhh!' moment, more often several. SaltySalticid, 'music of the spheres' - yes, that's just what I was wondering! Thanks for the phrase. And... I suppose it's just playing the natural minor scale itself and not what's based on it that doesn't seem particularly melodic, maybe because it lacks a strong leading note or, as range says, it's not something I feel like I've encountered in the wild much without the variations that make it 'melodic' or 'harmonic'; so perhaps I just lack the feel for it at present. Stairway To Heaven was an excellent counter - thank you. metahawk I am absolute getting that book!!! Thanks all of you for all these excellent jumping-off points. I can tell I will keep referring back to this page.
posted by springbound at 2:15 PM on May 28, 2017

You asked about scales, not keys, but this may be of interest:


The history of this is a lot more convoluted than I knew.
posted by thelonius at 3:21 PM on May 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

These are great answers. I feel compelled to chime in and reinforce the idea that the major scale is not more 'natural' or 'purely mathematical' than other scales. This argument goes way back. My favorite response is Alexander Ellis' 1885 quote that "The Musical Scale is note one, not 'natural,' nor even founded necessarily on the laws of the constitution of musical sound...but very diverse, very artificial, and very capricious."* This is crucial, because the notion that Western scales are somehow more mathematical while others are less so has been a key means to asserting supposed Western musical superiority in comparison to other musical systems around the world.

* From his article "On the Musical Scales of Various Nations"
posted by umbú at 5:55 PM on May 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thanks for that link, thelonius. I've only half-read it at this point but you've given me some interesting reading! umbú, that is an excellent point and well worth reminding me of -- thank you.
posted by springbound at 4:12 PM on May 30, 2017

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