Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Rebel No More, Sort of

As someone with many musicians as friends, but for whom music is not at all intuitive personally, I have often in the past few years railed against Western musical notation. "It makes no sense!" I'd say.

My main complaint was that the same visual interval can represent two different musical intervals, depending on where the half-step falls. Having to keep track of that, I said, was a huge barrier to entry for music, and a little elitist trick of musicians.

"But the Western scale is just natural," they'd tell me, "once you find yourself on it, the half-step will fall into place without you even thinking about it." I simply wasn't buying that. I definitely did have to think about it or those minor thirds would become major thirds.

And that was only working with chant. If I had to work with "normal" music...all the accidentals, all the sharps and flats...would have been way too overwhelming.

Maybe my problem is that I apparently did not respond to the intense socialization they put children through in elementary school music class getting them to internalize the major scale. When I see 8 notes in a row, my instinctive scale is not "Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do" which seems arbitrary to me (why those two random half-steps?) Rather, my "internal scale" is apparently "pentatonic," if I see 8 notes in a row, I naturally hum "Sol-La-Do-Re-Mi-Sol-La-Do".

I'm not claiming that is any less arbitrary, as it has random steps-and-a-half rather than half-steps sprinkled throughout it. And yet, I'm told that lots of folk music around the world is pentatonic, so I was always somewhat inclined to view my scale as more natural and organic. I certainly like to listen to bluesy pentatonic music more than major-scale stuff which I admittedly find rather boring.

So I advocated some sort of chromatic notation, or some sort of whole-step notation. Why should there be these random half-steps? Just make each visual interval represent the same musical interval. Don't surprise us with half steps!

But...I'm surrendering. I'm not going to change the world, the custom is too entrenched, and apparently trained musicians like it better, so what do I know? And it's a pain transcribing everything into a system that makes more sense just so I can sing it.

So, I'm trying to learn to sight-read even with this damn arbitrary scale. Mainly just chant for now. That's the main thing I want to be able to sight-read (comes in handy liturgically) and it doesn't have all those accidentals to mess me up.

In many ways, my Crusade against the Western Scale, as counter-intuitive as I may find it, was stopping me from just hunkering down and learning it. But, as I've sung in my local chant choir, I have finally started to internalize the scale and get used to the intervals. So I've let them get inside my head at last...

For the musicians out there, any tips on sight-reading? Chant especially?

However, I don't consider myself subdued totally just yet. For, all this being said, a friend and I have been tinkering with the idea of interpreting the chant notation according to something other than the major scale. In other words, taking the same notes, but then not assuming that they represent Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do, maybe assuming their progression is pentatonic instead, etc. The only problem is the one flat (the "te") which always falls in the same place, something rather hard to explain in any scale that has other than 8 notes. But, if any musicians have any tips on this project either, it would be greatly appreciated.


Mark of the Vineyard said...

You can thank John the Forerunner for the Do-Re-Mi :-D

Anonymous said...

Is it just me, or does this blog need some sprucing up visually speaking? Content matters, but boy...We have to make this place look better than, say, Commonweal.

A Sinner said...

Yeah, I know. That's not my specialty, however. If you all have any recommendations for someone like a graphic designer or something who would know how to do something like that, please tell me.