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Author Topic:  The Major Scale Mystery
Fred Treece


From:
California, USA
Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 10:28 am    
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The key of C is made up of all natural notes; no sharps or flats. Can anyone explain why the note names and keys weren’t arranged so the the Key of A was the all natural key? We don’t even have a clef for A. This has never made any sense to me. I’m sure the history of music notation is interesting to some, but not to me, except for this one weirdness.

I found this:
https://www.reddit.com/r/musictheory/comments/g5op9/if_c_major_is_all_natural_notes_why_isnt_it/

I guess it’s just one of those things that we blindly accept and move on. I don’t expect to get a lot of hits for this one...
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Larry Hobson

 

From:
Valley Grande (Selma) Al USA
Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 10:38 am    
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What is a A clef?
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Mike Neer


From:
NJ
Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 10:39 am    
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I think it has something to do with the evolution from modes to scales/keys, and A ended up being A minor with C being its relative major.
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John Sluszny

 

From:
Brussels, Belgium
Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 10:42 am    
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???
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Bill McCloskey

 

Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 10:42 am    
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...

Last edited by Bill McCloskey on 25 Sep 2020 10:34 am; edited 1 time in total
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Tucker Jackson

 

From:
Portland, Oregon, USA
Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 10:49 am     Re: The Major Scale Mystery
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Fred Treece wrote:
The key of C is made up of all natural notes; no sharps or flats. Can anyone explain why the note names and keys weren’t arranged so the the Key of A was the all natural key?

I've often wondered the same thing, and just assumed that somebody, somewhere had the explanation. Anyone?? At some point, letters of the alphabet were assigned to tones on a physical instrument (I assume an early piano or clavinet). So why not assign the letter 'A' to the ivory-key thing we now call 'C?' That would be the logical way to start the naming process but that's not what happened.


Last edited by Tucker Jackson on 11 Sep 2020 10:54 am; edited 1 time in total
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Ian Rae


From:
Redditch, England
Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 10:53 am    
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Mike has it right. Although in modern popular music we think largely in terms of major keys, in some areas of "western" music minor scales predominate.
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Last edited by Ian Rae on 11 Sep 2020 11:13 am; edited 1 time in total
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Tucker Jackson

 

From:
Portland, Oregon, USA
Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 10:55 am    
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Huh. So all that pre-Medeival music leaned on minor keys? I guess I need to get out more.
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Erv Niehaus


From:
Litchfield, MN, USA
Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 10:58 am    
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We all started out as minors.
And as we grew older we evolved into majors, Or is that adults?
I'm confused. Rolling Eyes
Erv
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Tucker Jackson

 

From:
Portland, Oregon, USA
Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 11:08 am    
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Erv Niehaus wrote:
We all started out as minors.

Or miners. Didn't we all?

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Bill McCloskey

 

Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 11:22 am    
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...

Last edited by Bill McCloskey on 25 Sep 2020 10:34 am; edited 1 time in total
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Erv Niehaus


From:
Litchfield, MN, USA
Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 11:27 am    
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Tucker,
That's SO cute. Very Happy
Erv
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Fred Treece


From:
California, USA
Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 12:03 pm    
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Okay. The mystery is solved, at least partially. The Am mode makes some sense.

I suppose I shouldn’t ask why then, if it was the predominant mode, was it called “minor”? If it was the dawn of notation, had the nomenclature for major and minor 3rds even been conceptualized as a thing yet? And then they threw in that E7 chord as the V7 of Am...And the melodic and harmonic minor scales...multiple sharps...head exploding again! I’m leaning toward Bill M.’s “11” explanation.
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Erv Niehaus


From:
Litchfield, MN, USA
Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 12:08 pm    
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Another case of paralysis by analysis. Whoa!
Erv
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Bill McCloskey

 

Post  Posted 11 Sep 2020 12:17 pm    
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...

Last edited by Bill McCloskey on 25 Sep 2020 10:35 am; edited 1 time in total
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Brint Hannay

 

From:
Maryland, USA
Post  Posted 12 Sep 2020 2:35 pm    
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I think "major" and "minor" refer to the size of the third interval that defines the key/scale; derived from Latin "maior" larger and "minor" smaller.
Wikipedia: "A major interval is one semitone larger than a minor interval."
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Ian Rae


From:
Redditch, England
Post  Posted 12 Sep 2020 3:33 pm    
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Agreed
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Fred Treece


From:
California, USA
Post  Posted 12 Sep 2020 7:09 pm    
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Brint, I don’t think you’ll find anyone to disagree with what we know now. I was just curious what they were thinking back then, but it appears to be a cold case.
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Ian Rae


From:
Redditch, England
Post  Posted 13 Sep 2020 1:05 am    
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A lot of western classical music is in a major key with dramatic interludes in the minor. The idea that this convention gets reversed further east came from playing in a Yiddish folk band years ago (clarinet, not steel!) where the modes sound to us rather like minor keys. They're apparently based on how different prayers are sung, but not being Jewish myself I can't elaborate.

The point is that a lot of the tunes had a brief section in the major, which was very ear-catching in the context of the generally middle-eastern sound.
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Scott Thomas

 

Post  Posted 14 Sep 2020 3:58 pm    
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I'll add my own imperfect knowledge to the mix. I think they were first called Greek modes (thus the Greek sounding names, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, etc)...seven in all. In the middle ages, they were called Church Modes. Even each scale (mode) themselves were subject to some note changes until they were mostly codified after the middle ages to what they are today. In fact, in the middle ages, modes were described with different "moods" they were thought to evoke in the listener. For centuries, the tritone (three consecutive whole steps) was called the "devil's interval" because it has an ominous, unsettled sound.

But anyway, yes, A Aeolian (which generates the notes of the natural minor scale) has the same notes as C Ionian (the major scale).

C Ionian---CDEFGAB
A Aeolian--ABCDEFG
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Laurence Pangaro


From:
Brooklyn, NY
Post  Posted 25 Sep 2020 5:43 am    
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Ok, my memory may be a bit fuzzy here but....

Yes the answer has to do with the church modes - Dorian, Phrygian, Lydiam, and Mixolydian known as the authentic modes as well as their counterparts the plagal modes Hypo-Dorian, Hypo-Phrygian etc. Authentic modes extended from their final note (think tonic) upwards an octave whereas the the plagal mode's extensions ran from a fourth below the final to a fifth above it.

So sometime in the 10th or 11th century when someone decided to assign letters to name notes, the lowest note required was the fourth below the final of Dorian to meet the requirements of the Hypo-Dorian mode, so that lowest note became A making the final of Hypo-Dorian (and Dorian) D. Letter names went up as high as G to supply finals for all the modes. After that letters repeated.

A single note was added below A in order to satisfy the theoretical needs of the system of hexachords and solmization syllables (UT Re MI Fa Sol La) established by Guido D'Arezzo and named the Greek letter Gamma. That bass note was the Gamma-UT from which comes the expression "gamut".

The Aeolian and Ionian modes assigned to the letters A and C respectively were designated sometime in the 16th century by Heinrich Glarean.

Hope this helps and that I haven't butchered music history too much.

Laurence
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Allan Haley

 

From:
British Columbia, Canada
Post  Posted 25 Sep 2020 9:49 am    
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Thank you, Laurence. That is mostly new information to me. Fascinating musical history. I have some reading to do!
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Laurence Pangaro


From:
Brooklyn, NY
Post  Posted 25 Sep 2020 10:13 am    
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Great! Lemme know if I got something wrong. I just know there's a medievalist out there who'd tell me I messed it all up.

LP
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Tucker Jackson

 

From:
Portland, Oregon, USA
Post  Posted 25 Sep 2020 11:37 am    
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Good stuff, Laurence. Thanks for that.

Laurence Pangaro wrote:
...so that lowest note became A ...Letter names went up as high as G to supply finals for all the modes. After that letters repeated.

A single note was added below A in order to satisfy the theoretical needs of the system...


Can you say more about that note being added below A? At this point, hadn't they designated a repeating pattern of A through G? I presume the pattern would also repeat moving lower in pitch, so wouldn't the note below A be G?
.
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Laurence Pangaro


From:
Brooklyn, NY
Post  Posted 25 Sep 2020 11:55 am    
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Right, that lowest G was called gamma which would be a G in Greek. They at this time established a first octave in capital letters and continuing with lowercase letters into the next octave up (much like today). I guess they didn't have a bigger G so a gamma seemed like a good solution.

Eventually the repeating pattern was extended higher and lower in both directions, but these advances took some time to be accepted and codified in theory. Remember previous to this time notes were not labeled with letters and there was no staff notation. There were difficult nomenclature derived from Ancient Greek sources transmitted by philosophers like Boethius that were really only for scholars.

By the way in some of the early systems of notation (read less successful) the same pitches didn't repeat from one octave into the next resulting in what we would call different alterations from one octave to the next..
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