Sunday, 1 April 2012

A Brief History of Intervals

What do the Blues, Chinese Folk Music, Metallica & Amazing Grace all have in common?

The pentatonic scale.

East To West

The pentatonic is one of the earliest of all scales. In fact Dr. Karl Schmaldt from the Archaeology dept. of Heidelberg University recently unearthed the fragmented skeleton of a pentatonic scale dating back to the Cretaceous period (145,000,000 B.C.) The flattened fifth appeared soon afterwards, giving us the ‘blues’ scale as we know it today. Later as the earth cooled and life moved westward leaving eastern countries like modern day China with only these six notes to play with and other harmonic territory still uncharted.

In 735AD Pope Gregory III outlawed the minor third in favour of the new more cheerful major third and his successor Pope Tony I commissioned the major seventh by papal edict in 752AD.

The Sound Of War

In 1066, After defeating the combined English forces at the battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror set out to invade Scotland only to have his forces repelled by

“a sowynd like the tayring sundre of soul and bode”

Subsequent skirmishes and scout parties revealed that this was none other than the drone of different clans bagpipes being one tone apart. With the judicious use of earplugs, Scotland was subdued, the bagpipe outlawed as an offensive weapon and the major 2nd passed into common usage.

The Age Of Genius

Five centuries later, on the other side of the world the great thinker and artist Leonardo Da Vinci was deducing the existence of a flattened 5th by inverting the major 3rd. He also believed he could deduce all the remaining intervals in the same way but his ideas were ridiculed and he died piloting his prototype wooden helicopter before he could prove his theory.

The centuries following the renaissance were a time of great advances in music and fearless experimentation. J.S. Bach shocked his church patrons by reinstating the outlawed minor 3rd and creating the Harmonic minor scale, the most important new scale since the ‘blues’ scale crawled out of the primordial modal swamp. Most of the seventh chords came into being at this time (the minor/major 7th most interestingly when the 5 year old violin prodigy W.A. Mozart slipped off his stool during a recital while playing a minor 7th).


The final phase of musical discovery was the period roughly covering 1942-1969. The world was in turmoil; music had been made with the same harmonic tools for 400 years. The world needed new guidance. Two men, one famous, one obscure were to provide the answers. In the summer of 1887 Ebenezer ‘Bucketseat’ Allman, great-grandfather of Howard (Duane) Allman and Gregory (Gregg) Allman, discovered an interval between the flattened 6th and the flattened 7th on his farm in Crossville, Tennessee. Because the flattened 6th had been mistakenly called a 6th the humble god-fearing farmer called it simply 'joy'. The note remained a closely guarded family secret passed on from generation to generation.

By the time it came into Greg and Duane Allman’s hands, the family was involved in legal wrangling with the bank who had tried to foreclose on the family farm during the depression. At this time the bank had sold the patent for the note to a major drugs corporation who were intending to licence the note for mass production. The brothers did the only thing they could – they put the note into a pentatonic scale, hot-rodded with a major 3rd and the mixolydian mode and southern rock was born. The boys started gigging as the Allman Joys to mass critical acclaim – people could not get enough of the fresh new sound. After six months the drug corporation collapsed under the weight of it’s own legal fees and the Allman Joys became the Allman Brothers Band.

The Shame Of My Generation

Meanwhile some 20 years earlier an Austrian immigrant named Albert Einstein retired from the public area a broken man. His quest for wisdom had given the world Hiroshima and the Atom Bomb. He took to endless nights of playing Bach piano studies for solace. Slowly after years of solitude his thirst for understanding became awakened again but this time towards music. He was beginning to see the complex equations that underpinned all of Bach's compositions and, being the great mathematician he noticed a reoccurring flaw. Intrigued, he delved further, realising that there was a note as yet undiscovered somewhere among the notes. And so, armed with nothing but a spectrum analyser and a pair of vice grips he took the lid off his piano and began looking for it. In an extract from his diary* he writes,

“In my dreams I hear it. A note of infinite beauty, sweeter than a major 3rd, mysterious as a flattened 5th and as impassioned as a flattened 7th”.

In the final days of that year he found it. But it was not the note he had hoped for, it was a flattened 2nd.

“I have sought truth and beauty and found only ugliness and greed”,

he wrote as, by this time, many multinational corporations and N.G.O.'s were eagerly waiting for whatever financial gain was to be had from “the mad professors piano tuning experiments”. The note that it's creator had called “the shame of my generation” was seized by the U.S. government and distributed to every musical conservatory in America without any test to determine its harmonic stability. Soon Einstein’s worst fears were to be realised. Outbreaks of Serialism became widespread all over America. The new 12 tone row was soon found to be the cause but no know law of harmony had any effect on it. Einstein died as the disease spread to Europe – the last entry in his diary read,

“I only hoped to tap the same vein of beauty as Ebenezer Allman”.

Statesboro Blues was played at his funeral.

The Sound Of Silence

Since the 1950’s many attempts to control serialism have arisen, all failing for the most part. John Cage's  4'33" succeeded but eradicated all the notes in the process. From ‘68-‘72 British musicians such as James (Jimmy) Page, Eric Clapton and Geoffrey (Jeff) Beck had some success by using distortion to accentuate the even order harmonics such as the fifth and octave, but further attempts the refine the method by Anthony Frank (Tony) Iommi by removing all the even order notes resulted in new emphasis on the flattened 2nd and 5th and ultimately, in the hands of Drs. Hetfield and Mustaine of San Francisco State University, resulted in the creation of thrash metal.

One Big Chord

Many new and exciting theories continue to spring up. Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking recently produced a paper** expounding his theory that many millennia ago all the notes were infinitely compressed into “one big chord” and that at sometime in the future music will expand so much that it may take years to get from one note to another. This theory has yet to gain favour in the field of cognitive acoustics. Another theory popular at the moment is of the existence of a 13th note. Mystics have long held this and Native American legend tells that when the 13th note is struck, the world as we know it will pass away. Some scientists believe that we are close to discovering it; others believe that it already exists but is inaudible to human ears. Still others that it’s frequency is related to Pi and thus occurs in a different place in every octave.

One thing is for sure; as long as man has enough room for more frets on his guitar he will keep searching for the next note.

Next Week:

How Jimi Hendrix discovered E7#9 while mis-strumming C7 on a right-handed guitar at a Little Richard soundcheck.

*His Diary - Entry August 23 1948 Diary of Albert Einstein Firestone Library Princeton University 

**A Paper - "One Big Bang, One Big Chord"  S.W. Hawking (Cambridge U., DAMTP). 2000.  Published in Class.Quant.Grav. 17 (2000) 1093-1099

About the author:

Matthew Blick is a guitarist, teacher, Professor of Chronological Geography at Columbia University, Mother of 3 and former stunt double for Pixar Animation Studios. He writes regularly for Ocarina Monthly and manages a thriving soup farm in Muncie, Indiana.

Free songs by Matt Blick


  1. wow - one of the most interesting blogs I have ever read. I am so looking forward to the next post - "How Jimi Hendrix discovered E7#9 while mis-strumming C7 on a right-handed guitar at a Little Richard soundcheck."

    When I discovered that chord it was one of those moments that really changed so much.

  2. Mr Blick - You are a legend and I salute you!!


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