In the past few days I've been shedding a little bit on some octatonic scales. I've been very conversant with the octatonic scale since college, and found myself easily able to improvise on it — something that enabled me to spin off beautiful modern-classical pieces on a whim.
But my fingers only got conversant with one octatonic scale. The other two I understand and can do, but never fooled around with enough. What! — that's like a musician knowing only the white-key scales. Crazy!
You've put it together by now that "octatonic" refers to an eight-note scale. When Maria von Trapp sings "do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do
!!!," that's definitely an eight-note phrase, but notice that the first and last are the same.
Yes. Thank you.
We humans, who have a duple heartbeat and two walkin' legs, love for things to be in 4/4 time, and on top of that we just can't leave that leading tone (ti
) hanging without resolving to the home-base of do
. That means our usual scales are seven-note scales. The usual pattern for those seven-note scales we call "diatonic." All the typical scales and modes are diatonic: they could be transposed to play on only white keys. (I've gone into that — fascinatingly!! — here
.) To make an eight-note scale, you have to go outside the bounds of diatonic harmony.
But — here's the kicker — not too far. You could think of an octatonic scale as a way of wandering through a diminished seventh chord. That's the kind of chord that, played by itself, sounds like the villain in a silent movie: LISTEN
"You'll never defeat me! Can you not hear that fully-diminished chord?"
"Maybe it's compensating for your fully-diminished sword."
So, if you just arpeggiate up the chord, then go stepwise between, you've got yourself a scale: LISTEN
What you wind up with is a scale whose intervals are very systematic: whole-step, half-step, whole-step, half-step, and so on. This is why the ancient Persians called it the "string of pearls" scale, by analogy to the way they used to string pearls of alternating size.
Technically speaking, there are lots of octatonic scales, because you can pick any eight notes within an octave. Most of the time, though, people are referring to these intriguing, oddly symmetrical scales — and, if you do a little number-crunching, you'll see that there can only be three different ones. Think about it this way: those four notes that outline a diminished-seventh are filled in by four other notes, which, therefore, also
outline a different
There's two villains in this here scale!
In other words, really, this scale is made up of two interlocking dim7 chords. That leaves only four of the twelve tones left, and they
form a third, unused, dim7.
So, really, there are only three dim7 chords in the world, and we just stack them in different inversions and call them different names. While other pairs of chords (like C-major and A-minor) have notes in common, those dim7s have all
their notes in common. Classical composers from Vivaldi to Wagner utilized this symmetry to create a kind of harmonic Wood-Between-the-Worlds. (More on that later.) For instance, a C dim7 is spelled C-Eb-Gb-Bbb. That's the music-grammar-nerd spelling, though. Most folks have an easier time conceptualizing the same notes as C-Eb-F#-A.
What's the matter, double-flat-user? Can't take it?
Meanwhile, an E-flat dim7 is spelled Eb-F#-A-C, an F-sharp dim7 is spelled F#-A-C-Eb, and an A dim7 is spelled A-C-Eb-F#.
And there's more: a lot more. All those conjunctions and overlaps and symmetries make these scales really useful for classical and jazz musicians. It's a great way to sound exotic and fresh without sounding alienating. Each octatonic scale contains no less than 8 standard-sounding chords you can use.
So, the scale is filled with major and minor chords that sound quite stable, but the way they're put together sounds just a little off from the way you're used to hearing them. The effect can seem richly enchanting.
In this video, you can hear and see Franz Liszt using it to quite good effect, sprinkling little magical-sounding downward-spiraling figures starting in measure 7 (I love videos that show you the music!):
Now skip ahead a couple of generations and listen to this eerie landscape by Ravel, in his Rapsodie Espagnole, the first couple of minutes of which are fully and gorgeously octatonic.
Cool, right? Sounds classical, and yet Mozart has definitely left the building. You can hear how the Persians dug that scale before we did. It's got a fantastical incense to it — beguiling to a late-19th-century crowd. Rimsky-Korsakov used it all over, and so did Stravinsky in a very 20th-century way. And, as I mentioned, jazzers use these scales all the time in scaffolding their improvisations.
If you're John Williams, and you're writing the music for the Indiana Jones movies, the main theme is a cinch: bright major key, march tempo, upwardly projecting brass figure. But now you come to the part where Indy is in some cave and a secret door opens, revealing some ancient wonder. What music to write? Spangly jewels often call for a high-register piano figure. But a major chord is way too square: LISTEN
A minor chord is no good either, is it? LISTEN
Even if you do a more complex diatonic chord, it still doesn't quite fit the bill: LISTEN
Working from a whole-tone scale sounds sort of magical, but too dreamy: LISTEN
By now, though, you know the answer. Gotta be octatonic, baby! LISTEN
Perfect. Sounds very John Williamsy and very Indiana Jonesy. Of course, part of that is because that's the way Williams did
write for those movies. But part of it is that he wrote it that way because that sound was exactly what he needed.
Maybe, but if you gimme one more double-flat I'm pulling out my gun.
All of which is to say that I've been shedding some on my octatonic scales, getting them all down the way I have a few down, so I can plug them in much more easily when needed. And now you know a bit more about an important tool in the musician's toolbox.