Major Harmonic Revisited

The last scale-of-the-day I blogged about (back on February 20) was the Major-Harmonic scale, and when I wrote my post about this particular pattern I found myself with little good to say about it (much to my own surprise). I complained about the clichéd cadence that this pattern allowed, and surmised that it may well have been the first scale to which I was impelled to give a thumbs down.

This negative assessment was no doubt impacted on quite considerably by the fact that that weekend I was supposed to get my first 8 hour sleep since 2006 (pregnancy, newborn, toddler who doesn’t sleep through) and thanks to noisy hotel neighbours it just didn’t happen.

But I think maybe more germane to my disdainful summary was that I was only thinking about this pattern in its C incarnation. This is an important point, because I know full well that the physical sensation of any pattern changes from one semitone to the next, and these physical changes impact on one’s imaginative interaction with that pattern.

On the weekend, in the throes of giving a presentation about P Plate Piano, I realised that one of the pieces I’ve composed for that series, “Hickory Dickory” uses this major-harmonic pattern (no other scale pattern fits), and “Hickory Dickory” is far from the hackneyed composition my assessment of the scale would suggest.  But then, it’s not on C.  It’s on F sharp.

Here’s the difference.

When we think of the Major-Harmonic scale on C it’s just the usual sequence of white notes interrupted just once, and by A flat. Once you have that particular geographical scene firmly pictured (along with the chord possibilities that immediately spring to mind) now move to the next image: the same pattern on F sharp.

The group of three black notes, followed by the start of the B minor scale (B C sharp D) and the raised 7th, E sharp, so that the pattern is black-black-black-white-black-white-white-black, with the gap between the two consecutive white notes being an augmented 2nd. And an augmented 2nd created by two white notes is always going to register somewhere in your pianistic mind as being just another way of spelling a minor 3rd (even though you definitely experience the interval in the scale pattern as a 2nd with an augmented quality).

“Hickory Dickory” mobiles these black note/white note patterns thus: the left hand only ever plays the three black note group, and the right hand only ever plays the three white notes of this major harmonic pattern (B, D and E sharp).  But of course, this is educational piano music for students in their first year or so of tuition, so the white notes are notated B D F, and in the context of this piece (with no 5th degree of the scale present) it definitely creates the impression of a diminished chord.

Here’s the first line of this piece:

Most of the piece is spent exploring this one run (across the full length of the piano keyboard), and beginner students find the piece both easy to learn and engaging to practice and perform.

The lesson for me here (besides being warned off reducing every pattern to an on C version) is that when working with new patterns don’t be constrained by the diatonic idea of using triads that skip every second note!  The major-harmonic pattern produces this wonderful, shimmering contrast between major melody and diminished chord, and if I hadn’t been fiddling about on the black notes I would have missed it altogether.

One thought on “Major Harmonic Revisited

  1. Very cool, I love the your perspective on this scale as a piano educator. As a string player (electric bass), the visualization and geometry of individual scale patterns is uniform (in position playing, at least), so the idea that a scale would be radically PHYSICALLY and VISUALLY different between two key centers normally doesn’t take precedence for me (even though I play a decent enough arranger’s piano). For me, although there are many different ways to play a certain scale in different positions and fingerings, they are all the same for every key, just differing in minute physical distances. The idea that differences in not only physical distances and shape but COLOR (white/black, enough to excite the synaesthete in me) is pretty cool, and definitely worth consideration.

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