In the last post, we continued to take a look at ways that we found the scale. The most important thing that we learned is that the two biggest cultures in the world, the Chinese and the West, figured out that there was a "candidate list" of tones. From these many tones, the various cultures picked their scales. We found out that the Chinese were ahead of the west in discovering that if you continued to divide the string, by a third, 53 times, you would finally come up with a division that brought you back very, very close to the original note. This was called "Mercator Comma" in the west. (A comma is just the remainder from not quite matching up.)
We could address the fact of the comma now, but we are going to leave this on the back burner for just a little bit. What we are going to look at now is this whole idea of "picking" notes out of a candidate list. As we found out, for reasons that we'll explore later, both the Chinese and the West have the 12 different tones to pick from, but the Chinese went pentatonic (5 notes) and the west went heptatonic (7 notes). However, when I say "picked," it really doesn't describe what happened.
From everything that we can see, every modern culture has music. As the music theory was being formed it fell into the culture in which is was being made. This is a great mystery to me. If you think about it, what gives us boundaries are the instruments that we make. If you want to know what a C sounds like, you will go over to your piano and play a C. Your instrument then becomes the basis for all of our music. At least this is what happens for most people.
As I talked about a bit in my last post, there are a few very remarkable people that have what is called perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is the ability to simply remember what a C sounds like. In science this ability is know better as absolute pitch.
Let's examine this a bit more, only we are going to use the analogy of colors.
If I showed you red, you will remember that it is red. If I come back the next day and show you a red card, you will go "that's red." Music is not like that. The key for music is that most people need somebody to play a note and then the note becomes the reference for the rest of our music.
The equivalent in colors would be like the following:
Maybe you took a bit of color lessons when you were young. A woman would come to your house and she would take you to the family color player. A color player is an instrument that throws light on a wall and has keys like on a piano. There are 12 different colors that are used over and over. After you use the 12 colors, it has another set of keys that are higher on the keyboard. However, the higher colors are the same as the lower colors, only a bit brighter. So you have 12 colors repeating on the keyboard.
She taught you how to push the keys so that certain series of colors would flow across the wall. The flow of lights are very pleasing to the eye, and words are said with the flow of light to make it even more memorable. Good words with good light is very nice and pleasing to most people. As you age, you really don't have time for doing the colors yourself. Therefore, you log onto the iColor store and download series of pleasing color sequences from color groups. Each color sequence costs just .99 per download.
Now, your walking with a new friend of yours, and you see a tree. He says, "What color is this?"
"I don't know," you answer.
"It's definitely green," he answers.
You have no idea of how he knows that it is green. So you grab a leaf, and take it back to your house. You go to your color player, and press what you know is the green key. Once you have the green on the wall, you hold it up to the color on the wall, and sure enough, the colors match.
"How did you know it was green?" you ask.
"I been able to do this since I've been small," he answers.
Perfect pitch is just like this. You can be phenomenally talented in music and not have perfect pitch (or absolute pitch. However, I have read a few description of people with perfect pitch and they describe that they can hear the notes of raindrops falling. The note of a church bell ringing. Every sound that comes out, the gurgling of the fish tank, or the squeal of a blender, all of these sounds will have a fundamental note. If you have perfect pitch, then you are going to quickly understand which note that it is.
If you do not have perfect pitch, then it is only through training do you start to figure out that it is all based off of blending the colors together from a certain base color. The base color is our tonic note (or color). But here is the rub, I would suggest that having perfect pitch may be very helpful for an individual to compose in a culture, but it doesn't allow the culture to expand its musical horizons. Perfect picture can create a fence, and not having a fence around your pitch will allow more diversity.
Let's go back to the time of the Chinese and their 12 Lu scale, and remember that the Chinese population has a much higher percentage of people with perfect pitch. This means that once the scale has been decided (through whatever culture factors created it), there are more people inside of the culture that can hear somebody that diverges from it. They quickly say, "Hey, that's out of tune." Now, combine that ability to see "outside the lines" with a culture that is much more respectful of tradition and being "inside the lines," and you will get a culture that locks in to a tradition and has a tough time changing.
It would be a little like having a GPS in your car, and a great respect for efficiency and traffic patterns. You would always drive to your destination in the exact same way. If you started to get off course, your GPS (or absolute pitch) would quickly remind you that "you are off course, please turn around."
In the Western Culture, we have no GPS in our car. We have a general sense of where we want to go, but if things are off a bit, we really don't notice that quickly. As a matter of fact, we find out that we find things on our journey. We have discovered new stopping off points and restaurants. How many times have you discovered new stuff because you were lost?
In Western music, we have gotten lost a lot. And because of this, we have polyphony. We have transposition. We have all types of minor scales: natural minor, melodic minor, and harmonic minor.
I believe that in Western Culture, the inability of our ears to hear perfect notes allowed more creativity in picking different scales and different harmonies. In Chinese culture, with a much higher percentage of people having perfect pitch, you had a more rigorous establishment of the defined scales. They were less free, in some sense, to evolve their music.