Scales: Order in the chaos?

The second law of thermodynamics says that the entropy of a closed system can only increase over time. What does this have to do with scales? I was musing about scales, thinking about this week’s topic as I walked along the sea and thought about this in bigger contexts. I thought about order and chaos in various aspects of life: how we experience many things as whole events, not individual components or moments.

Eating a cookie involves a synthesis of the components.

Walking is a cosmos of individual actions and motions.

Performing is about the musical experience and not the technical minutiae.

Then looking out, I saw the clouds. They reminded me of fractals. I know we tend toward entropy. Dust bunnies magically grow, stuff fills the space, and I can certainly believe that, but what about the incredible order that also exists. Fractals are an infinitely repeating pattern that happens within nature, and all around us – You can look at river systems and see them, or at the patterns in leaves and see them. No matter on what level of detail you look, then still happen with the same level of perfect repetition. There is a really fascinating application that lets you navigate through them here:

I wondered if somehow scales are like that. Is it our way of creating order? Is it about reason? Even though we do not want to see the individual details within a performance, it is often when there is a glorious level of detail and precision embedded within the music and the performance that it can then transcend its parts to be a whole. Or is ti just an acknowledgement of what IS. The harmonic series exists within nature, but our scales are only partly built on those. And what about the allowances for deviation, as with the piano and its equal temperament? For example, string players tend to tune a perfect fifth to align the harmonics perfectly, which is 702 cents whereas the piano’s fifth is 700 cents. Small differences, but they can add up if you are stacking fifths across octaves of instruments.

Back to the fractals (Image CC BY-SA by Hairchaser)


My thinking and music was something that I had time for. I was going somewhere and had that mile of walking to think. I was in the right place for it. When I reflect on my early experiences of learning scales, I cannot say the same. They were something to be done for a test. In my case it was for the seating in orchestra at school. We had a list to prepare and would be tested on it. I don’t think I realised a wider purpose – not even a purpose like learning the geography of the instrument, and certainly not a purpose like learning the building blocks for conversation. I just don’t think I thought about them.

At higher levels I could synthesise the need to understand both geography and create a vocabulary. It makes me think. There must be a way to instil the skills both of understanding, facility, and application from an early stage. It requires a shift in perspective and a willingness to do a lot more playing off the page, where playing becomes musical conversation. Then new doors might open.

I’m going to do this in my own playing. Break scales down, and make sure I include more. (I was tempted to finish that sentence, but I think it is complete.) I am going to allow time to explore and know that it is more than just a pattern. Heck, nobody would have read this by consciously decoding of alphabetical repetition. (but it could be done) Reading, writing, performing: It’s all about the application to create levels of meaning – and that larger picture.


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