Sunday, June 28, 2015

In case you've always wondered! Here are the intervals of the chromatic C major scale and the traditional church modes -- in 19th century Swedish (1 of __)


First of ____ posts on Johan Dillner's explanation of the intervals of the 12-tone chromatic scale, the old church modes (kyrkotonarter) and how to play them on the psalmodikon.

Here's something that's been driving me crazy, and I think I'm beginning -- finally! -- to get it figured out. So I want to post it here while it's still clear in my mind. Well, sorta kinda clear. I've long suspected that a table in Johan Dillner's Melodierna till Swenska Kyrkans Psalmer (1830) contains the keys to the kingdom, i.e. that it will allow me to understand the intervals of a 19th-century Swedish psalm, or hymn, and how they play out on the fretboard of a psalmodikon.

Dillner said with a little practice, you can learn to play a psalmodikon in a couple of hours. I'm sure he was right. It's a reminder that music theory can get in the way sometimes.

But music theory also helps me understand why major and minor tunes sound the way they do.

It just takes longer. So let's get started.

Here's Dillner's chart (Melodierna xiii). Its headline reads (in translation): "The monochord's classification after Chladni." The psalmodikon, of course, is just a monochord. And Ernst Chaldni was an 18th-century German physicist and musician sometimes known as the "father of acoustics."

It's all right there.

(Trust me on this for a minute or two, while I translate the table with the help of an excellent article on harmonics [Harmonilära] in Swedish Wikipedia and a similarly helpful list in the English-language Wikibooks article on Music Theory and Scales.)

But first, a couple of suffixes we'll need to know: In Swedish, "-iss" after a note means sharp, and "-ess" means flat. So "ciss" (no hyphen between them) is C-sharp, and "cess" is C-flat. And "diss" means D-sharp and "dess" means D-flat ... and so on for the other notes of the scale.

With that in mind, here are the intervals of a C major scale as Dillner explains them. Some will be abundantly clear, especially if you keep in mind that C-sharp is the same as D-flat and so on up the scale. Others may take a while. Still others I'm still not too sure of. But I'm translating all of them, even the ones I don't think I'll ever need to know, because I have a way of coming back to this table as I learn more about music theory and/or 19th-century Swedish hymnody. The intervals are as follows:

1. Unison [also commonly known, in Swedish and English, as Prime]. Since it's the distance between two notes on the same pitch, the interval is C to C.

2. Överstigande Primen, or augmented unison, or prime. The interval is the distance from C to "ciss" or C-sharp.

3. Lilla Secunden, or minor second. The distance from C to D-flat.

4. Stora Secunden, or major second. From C to D. ["Lilla" is the Swedish word for little, and "stora" is the word for big.]

5. Förminskad Terzen, or diminished third. C to E-flat. [And C-sharp to E? I guess it makes sense, but I wasn't a music major and I'm not at all sure about this!]

6. Överstigande Second, or augmented second. C to D-sharp. [My instincts, and Wikibooks, are telling me this is the same as a diminished third. But I'm not sure it matters! Swedish-American pastors and country church choirs out on the Illinois prairie in the 1860s probably weren't too worried about it, in any event.]

7. Lilla Terzen, or minor third. C to E-flat. [This one is important. We'll come back to it when we get to the church modes.]

8. Stora Terzen, major third. C to E.

9. Förminskad Qvarten, diminished fourth. C to F-flat.

10. Rena Qvarten, perfect fourth. C to F.

11. Överstigande Qvarten, augmented fourth. C to F-sharp.

12. Förminskad Qvinten, diminished fifth. C to G-flat. [I'll spare you the joke about the bluegrass band and the diminished fifth of whiskey.]

13. Rena Qvinten, perfect fifth. C to G. [Jack Daniels?]

14. Överstigande Qvinten, augmented fifth. [Y'see, they sent the banjo player out between sets for another bottle, and he came back with an augmented fifth. But I wasn't going to go there!]

15. Lilla Sexten, minor sixth. C to A-flat.

16. Stora Sexten, major sixth. C to A.

17. Förminskad Septiman, diminished seventh. C to B-flat or C-sharp to B.

18. Överstigande Sexten, augmented sixth. C to A-sharp.

19. Lilla Septimen, minor seventh. C to B-flat. [This is an important note -- don't skip over it: In the German notation used in Scandinavia, "B" stands for B-flat and "H" stands for B.

20. Stora Septiman, major seventh. C to H. [See above. In Sweden, "H" stands for B. And "B" stands for B-flat. Don't ask why -- it has something to do with old-fashioned German handwriting, and the story that Bach liked it because he could spell his name on a organ keyboard is just a story.]

21. Förminskad Oktaven, diminished octave. C to C-flat.

22. Rena Octaven, perfect octave. C to C'.

Why does all of this stuff matter? Because the numerical tablature for a psalmodikon -- the sifferskrift -- is written to reflect degrees of the scale: 1 = do, 2 = re, 3 = mi and so on up the diatonic major scale. That's the scale you'd get if you start at middle C and play the white keys on a piano up the octave. But it's not the only scale in Dillner's system -- which is actually the system of modes inherited from the 15th- and 16th-century church.

Essentially the modes were different scales, the ones you get it you start on different white keys of the piano and play up eight tones to the octave. By the 1800s, all but two -- which we know today as the major (Ionian) and minor (Aeolian) -- had dropped out of common practice, although traditional Irish musicians (and some Appalachian dulcimer players) also know the Mixolydian and Dorian even today.

Here's Dillner's school table (skoltablan) of the church mode scales (Kyrkotonarternas Skalor). The major (Ionisk in Swedish) and minor (Aeolisk) are at the bottom. As you study the table, you will see the intervals of the 12-tone chromatic scale are different in each of the modes. As time permits, I will be posting brief explanations and examples of how to read Swedish sifferskrift in the major and minor modes.


Next: The psalmodikon and intervals of the major (Ionisk) mode.

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