Posted in For Project 7 Examples

Example 2 Research: Octatonic scale and Orientalism

After writing my first example using the whole-tone scale, I decided to employ octatonic scale for my second example, which results from the alternation of whole and semitone steps. There are two versions, depending on whether the order begins with a whole tone or a semitone. (Fig. 1) Note that there are several other manners to notate the scale, depending on whether sharps or flats are utilized for specific notes. (Fig. 2) With no standardization, all of these notational variants are used, varying from composer to composer, depending on the musical ideas.

octatonic modes

Fig. 1. Two versions of the octatonic scale

octatonic modes 2

Fig. 2. Some notational variations of the octatonic scale

But before I focus on the properties of the octatonic scale, I have to address how puzzled I was as to why it was associated with Middle East in the West. I’ve already started my research on the Middle Eastern modes, which you can read in my three-part research here. As I wrote there, the modern practice of Arabic maqam, Turkish makam and Persian dastgah, and the related Afghanistan, Central Asian and Caucasus systems, actually use heptatonic modes. It is in the older traditions that we see the octatonic modes.

Schillinger (1946) suggests that eight tone scale was formulated in Persian music in the 7th Century AD, where it was called Zar ef Kend, but there is no maqam or dastgah under that particular name. I think he probably referred to zirafkand, which is the most similar name of a mode that I could find. There are also other eight-note modes, mostly dating from the Middle Ages. For instance, they appear in the very important musical theory of Safi al-Din al-Urmawi al-Baghdadi (Fig. 3) c. 1250-1300 AD, which shows the fusion of Arabic, Persian, Sassanid and Greek cultures.


Fig. 3. Safi al-Din al-Urmawi

Safi al-Din analyzed the Greek sources, especially Pythagorian tuning that remained a staple of the Middle Eastern modal theory of the time, and the works of Muslim scholars, such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. In his treatise Kitab ad-Adwar or Book of Musical Modes, Safi al-Din shows the division of the octave into 17 steps, and he was the first to look at Middle Eastern modes and try to codify the system into one coherent whole. With the invention of this “Old Orient Sound System with 17 notes”, he is often called the Zarlino of the Orient. He inspired others, such as Qutb al-Din who furthered the categorization process started by Safi in his treatise Durrat al-taj, which contains many more modes.

However, these eight-tone modes differ much from the Western notion of octatonic scale, where the whole and semitones alternate. Instead, as I wrote in more detail in the post I indicated above, they use the microtones. I couldn’t find sources for the modes given in Durrat al-taj, so I will mention only the octatonic modes given by Safi al-Din, which include zirafkand, buzurg, nihuft, kawasht, iraq and kardaniye. (Fig. 4) I only found Wright’s transcriptions for zirafkand and iraq, which were comparing the Arabic 17 steps with intervals from the equal temperament. For other modes I had to turn to the paper by Arslan, however these modes were transcribed by comparing the Arabic 17 steps with Pythagorian tuning. In the end, I found it easier to modify Wright’s transcription to match Arslan’s. So, keep in mind that the intervals are given in Just tuning. The  sign indicates the lowering by approximately a quartertone, while + sign rises the tone by the similar amount.


Fig. 4. The eight tone modes given by Safi al-Din

With the use of microtones we see that none of the Middle Eastern octatonic modes can be the complete equivalence to the two versions of Western octatonic scale. Not only that, but just like how the Pythagorean comma and limma system isn’t used as the common Middle Eastern tuning today, these old octatonic maqams are atypical in the modern practice. At any rate, it is highly unlikely that any of them had any role in even inspiring the catalysis of the Western octatonic scale. Instead, the whole/semitone alternation emerged as a Western byproduct of transposing scale fragments around an interval cycle of minor-third. (Chemistruck, 2006: 6)

This occurred subconsciously at first. For example, as Taruskin points, in Scarlatti’s K. 319 Sonata, the semitone/tone version of descending octatonic scale appears in the bass in bars 62-80 (Fig. 5), formed from the minor-third relationship of keys in the passage, which occurs from bar 67 – B Bb Ab G (Eb major/c minor), and from bar 75 – F E D C# (C major/a minor).


Fig. 5. Scarlatti’s Sonata K. 319, bars 62-80

However, the octatonic bass notes aren’t part of the transposition in the true sense of the word, and in my opinion aren’t the true driving force here. Rather, I noticed the important role of the sequential melody in the middle voice – F Eb D C D in the first fragment (bars 61-73), and its true transposition minor-third lower D C B A B in the second fragment (bars 75-77) and finally B A G# F# G# (bars 78-80). If we combine these notes, we also get the descending semitone/tone octatonic scale, although a different one – F Eb D C B A G# F#.

A lot easier to spot is the octatonic scale as a result of direct minor-third transposition, such as in the sequence occurring in higher voices of Bach’s English suite No. 3. (Fig. 6) It starts from bar 17 in Sarabande with Db Bb Ab G, transposed to Bb G F E in bar 18, and finally G E D C# (Db) in bar 19. We get octatonic Db D E F G Ab Bb although with one missing note – B or Cb.


Fig. 6. Sarabande in Bach’s English suite No. 3, bars 17-19

Another example is the peculiar passage from Adagio con molto expressione in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 11 in B-flat, op 22, where transposition also occurs in the upper voices. (Fig. 7)


Fig. 7. II movement from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 11

Starting from the 19th century, the octatonic scale is used very differently. For example, in the chords of coronation bells from the opening scene of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, the octatonic scale is formed of two dominant seventh chords with roots a tritone apart. (Fig. 8) DeVoto points out that Tchaikovsky also demonstrated the coloristic potential of octatonicism, in the celesta’s cascading arpeggios in the Sugar Plum Fairy from Nutcracker, made also from the dominant seventh chords, but minor third apart. (Fig. 9)

Although Debussy and Ravel also used the scale in interesting new ways, for example DeVoto noticed a passage from Debussy’s Nuages (Fig. 10) with a bold centricity based on diminished tonic triad, the Russian composers were the ones to reinforce the scale, especially Korsakov and his circle of composers in St. Petersburg. In fact, so much so, that the progression became thought of as peculiarly Russian, and the scale was referred to as Korsakovian scale and finally came to be used consciously.

Korsakov started using octatonicism after the model in Liszt’s symphonic poem, Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne, where the cycle of minor-thirds was used. It is perhaps with Korsakov’s use of the scale in the exotic works such as Scheherazade and Sadko, that the scale received its association with the Middle East. Here, once again, we find ourselves in the situation similar with the Parisian boleros. In one of my earlier posts, I addressed how bolero conveyed everything Spanish for the mid-19th century composers in Paris, when the French viewed Spanish music as something exotic.

I think here we have a similar situation. For Korsakov and other Russian composers, the Western octatonic scale offered harmonies and melodies by which they could explore everything that they considered Middle Eastern. Middle East itself was an idea, rather than reality, as “a scent capable of setting off fantasies”. (Bellman, 133) Orient was favored as something mythical, ungraspable, unreal, and the octatonic scale, although without actual connection to Arabs, Turks or Persians, proved capable of transferring the audience into this esoteric realm of fantasy.

On the other hand, for those like Scriabin, it had become more abstract, a “… central means for expressing the numinous, of pointing towards the realm of pure spirit, of a profoundly subtle and rarified state of human consciousness… his own journey towards pure spirit.” His Prelude Op. 74 no. 3 is an example of this.

However, this sense of fantasy didn’t exist for those who weren’t Eastern or general mystics, and for them, octatonic scale survived simply as another useful mode for expressing new types of harmonic thought. This is the case with Stravinsky and his use of octatonicism in works like Rite of Spring and Firebird.

In any regard, the two versions of octatonic scale are very curious. Both can be thought of two interleaved diminished seventh chords (Fig. 11a), and also containing the first four notes of four minor scales separated by minor thirds. (Fig. 11b)

The first version – semitone/tone, is the most commonly used in art music. It enables both the major and minor third above tonic and the tritone and perfect fifth, while stressing simultaneously the dominant seventh and half-diminished seventh sound. It is versatile with a somewhat static feeling due to the lack of major-seventh leading tone.

The second version – tone/semitone, is not as common, being somewhat unusual by lacking the perfect 5th on tonic and possessing only minor third above it. Yet it has strong leading tone due to the presence of natural 6th degree and major-seventh leading tone. Comparing to the first version, it has a stronger feeling of two interleaved diminished seventh chords, since there is no additional sound of the dominant or half-diminished seventh chord to obscure it.

We’ve seen the genesis of octatonic scale with minor third transpositions. This is not surprising, since these mediant relationships and borrowed harmony are present within the scale. In the first version in C, we have three triads – C major, Eb major and A major, all co-existing. In the second version in C, there is the simultaneous presence of the major and minor subdominant and submediant triads – F major/minor, Ab major/minor and also A minor, linking it to the polarity theory.

With all this, plus the symmetrical nature of the scale, by which it is limited to produce complete invariance at four levels of transposition and inversion, Massien states how octatonic scale is “in the atmosphere of several tonalities at once, without polytonality, the composer being free to give predominance to one of the tonalities or to leave the tonal impression unsettled.”

So we see that any triad within the given octatonic collection can act as tonic. In this respect, octatonic music is more like modal diatonic music, in which almost any scale degree can function as tonic. But as Lerdahl (255) writes: “Tonicity is more ambiguous though, because of the intervallic repetitiveness, which makes position-finding within it quadruply redundant. As a result, judgments of octatonic tonicity depend more heavily on surface perceptual salience than they do for diatonic tonicity.” In other words, predominance of a tonality typically arises from notes that are stated frequently, sustained at length, placed in a registral extreme, played loudly, rhythmically or metrically stressed, depending also on voice leading and harmonic progression.

To conclude, I really enjoyed reading about this peculiar eight-tone scale, its history and its features. For my example, I chose to explore the second, more rarely used version. You can check it out here.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1 Two versions of the octatonic scale

Fig. 2. Some notational variations of the octatonic scale

Fig. 3. Safi al-Din al-Urmawi (Author: Amir a57 [2012]

Fig. 4. The eight tone modes given by Safi al-Din

Fig. 5. Scarlatti’s Sonata K. 319, bars 62-80

Fig. 6. Sarabande in Bach’s English suite No. 3, bars 17-19

Fig. 7. II movement from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 11


Schillinger, Joseph (1946) The Schillinger System of Musical Composition, Vol. 1: Books I–VII. Edited by Lyle Dowling and Arnold Shaw. New York: Carl Fischer.

Chemistruck, D. (2006) ‘Imposing Harmonic Restrictions on Symmetrical Scales: Creating a Tonal Center in the Half/Whole Octatonic Scale’ [Undergraduate (hons)] Central Connecticut State University

Locke, Ralph P. (1998) ‘Cutthroats and Casbah Dancers, Muezzins and Timeless Sands: Musical Images of the Middle East’ In: Bellman, Jonathon (ed.) The Exotic in Western Music. Boston: Northeast University Press pp. 104-136

Lerdahl, F. (2001) Tonal Pitch Space. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc.




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