A Mythology of 12 Tones | Midwood Guitar Studio
Posted by Robinson Earle on Apr 14th 2020
A Mythology of 12 Tones | Midwood Guitar Studio
From an architectural standpoint, music is like a spiral staircase. The same intervals repeat, while each floor is a new octave. In the west, we divide each level into 12 separate tones that can be selectively combined to create different scales. Assuming a static key signature, 11 of these tones can be defined by their relative distance from the tonic, or root note. Imagine the 11 tones as the 11 steps between floors (octaves). If you’re on the 10th step, for example, your two steps away from the next octave. This distance can also be represented as a ratio, such as 3/2, the perfect fifth, which is 7 steps away and 1.5 higher than the root note.
This distance/ratio can be further interpreted as a basic rhythm. You see, what we perceive as different pitches are likewise very quick beats, microscopic distillations of moments in time. Just imagine two insects flew by your ears at slightly different speeds, and their combined buzzing created a specific note. I suggest dwelling over each interval on top of a tonic drone.
The One, 1/1, Root, Solfege: Do, Svara: Sa, Scale Degree: Tonic
The first note is the sun. It exerts the most gravitational pull. It is the tone around which all the other sounds revolve. It is also the self. It is home. In India, it has been described as a Peacock, for it contains all the other colors.
The Flat Two, 16/15, Minor 2nd, Solfege: Di, Svara: Komal Re
This uncanny interval exerts a plaintive pull on the ear. Often eschewed in Western melodies, it has become synonymous with the far and near east. The second note mourns its separation from home as a newborn cries for the womb.
The Two, 9/8, Major 2nd, Solfege: Re, Svara: Re, Scale Degree: Supertonic
While the minor 2nd pines to be reunited with the one, the Major 2nd craves adventure. Although its insides swim anxiously, it still manages to affect confidence. It is a young bull whose bellow suggests awakening creativity.
The Flat Three, 6/5, Minor 3rd, Solfege: Ri, Svara: Komal Gah
A station of mournful catharsis. The note that signals a minor mood. Blending strength with pathos, this tone is as stubborn as it is lonesome. When correctly intoned, it can illuminate the darkest caverns of the heart.
The Three, 5/4, Major third, Solfege: Mi, Svara: Gah, Scale Degree: Mediant
This is the ladder. The note that ascends the harmonic wall. Climb carefully up to a major third and you’ll be granted a spectacular view of the horizons beyond. It is a sturdy goat of a note, offering milk and security. Like a landmark foretold, it reassures the pilgrim that they are on the correct path.
The Four, 4/3, Perfect 4th, Solfege: Fa, Svara: Ma, Scale Degree: Subdominant
This is the mother. She boasts a reciprocal relationship with the tonic, in that if the key signature were shifted, the tonic would be her 5th. She is the moon. Despite revolving around us, she pulls strong on the blood in our veins. Elegant as a crane, she is always auspicious. One can’t help but suspect that she is the secret ruler of this land.
The Sharp Four, 45/32, Augmented 4th, Solfege: Fi, Svara: Teevra Ma
Perhaps the most mysterious note of the 12, the sharp four is buried deep within the tonic as a faint overtone. Perhaps this explains its uncanny effect on the ear. Anyone who has experience with the Lydian mode knows the ancient gravity that this interval can elicit. Some of the oldest melodies in the world made use of this note. Jazz music theorist, George Russell, published a seminal book in the 1950’s that focused on the harmonic stability implied by the inclusion of the sharp 4. Both Miles Davis and John Coltrane were influenced by Russell, the man regarded as the theoretical inspiration behind modal jazz.
The Fifth, 3/2, Perfect 5th, Solfege: Sol, Svara: Pa, Scale Degree: Dominant
The five is the father. He is the earth. Next to the 1 (the sun), he exerts the strongest pull on us. He is present in nearly every musical scale the world over, and music never sounds quite right without him. He is as natural as the five fingers we have on each hand. He is the first overtone after the octave to appear in the harmonic series. If you combine him with the tonic, you have the most elemental of chords, the power chord. He is a connective note. Like the root note, other notes tend to gather around him. In Indian mythology, he is the nightingale, a bird admired throughout the globe for its beautiful song. Many believe it was birds who first instructed humanity in the art of music.
The Flat Six, 8/5, Minor 6th, Solfege: Si, Svara: Komal Dha
As with the minor second, there is an inherent longing contained within the minor sixth. It laments its separation from the perfect 5th. Like the minor 3rd, it is one of the key signifiers of the minor mood. Slide up to it slowly from the heroic fifth, and marvel at the shift. It plays an especially dramatic role in the harmonic minor scale (1,2,b3, 4,5, b6, 7); the tension created by the 1 ½ jump between the b6 and 7 is palpable. It is a foal that has wandered off from the herd, whinnying as darkness falls.
The Six, 5/3, Major 6th, Solfege: La, Svara: Dha, Scale Degree: Submediant
The dark mother. Filled with forgiveness and compassion, she guides you through the night. The root of the relative minor scale. The doppelgänger on the road, world-weary and calm. The 6 often coincides with moments of high drama, followed by impending resolution. She shines like the wise eyes of an old mule.
The Flat Seven, 9/5, Minor 7th, Solfege: Li, Svara: Komal Ni
The sound of letting go. On every long journey, there comes a point when you accept that the horizon is endless, and begin to identify with the experience of motion alone. Although the destination has not been forgotten, it has been disregarded. This is the darkness before the dawn.
The Seven, 15/8, Natural 7th, Leading Tone, Solfege: Ti, Svara: Ni
When the end is in sight, and one is pulled like a magnet toward its source, the experience can be overwhelming. The elephant, startled by a mouse, trumpets in alarm. Falling upwards is the final pose we master.
The Octave, 2/1, A reflection of the self in the universe. A doubling or halving of each wing beat.
A reflection of the self in the universe. A doubling or halving of each wing beat.