Andihemitonic Heptatonic Modality

Yeah, I made that up.

It seems like a good number of famous composers have invented their own “systems” of music in order to come up with a their personal musical language. When you think Messiaen, you think modes of limited transposition. Schoenberg, 12-tone serialism. George Russell, Lydian Chromatic Concept. Ornette Coleman, Harmelodics. When I compose, however, it’s always a mishmash of ideas thrown together in whatever way I feel like at the time. It’s great, I wouldn’t do it any other way, but I always wondered what it would be like if it was all “legitimized” by some overarching theory, rather than my aesthetic taste and a jumble of vaguely related ideas.

With all that in mind, I came up with the idea of “andihemitonic heptatonic modality.” It’s a complicated term to describe something very vague in conception, so I’m sure music theorists will love it. It also sounds impressive, when pronounced correctly and with a straight face.

The basic idea behind it is simple enough, I suppose. One of the reasons why harmony works so well with the major scale and its modes is because there are no consecutive half steps. In traditional theoretical thinking, voicings with consecutive half steps form “tone clusters,” where the function of each individual note is obscured and instead they “blur together” to form a dissonant harmony. With the major scale and its modes, you never have to worry about that sort of thing happening if you’re staying strictly within the scale. Although, it’s a lot of fun to play the piano with your forearm.

This got me thinking, how many other 7-note scales are there that don’t have consecutive half-steps? Turns out, there are 4 (plus all of their modes, so really, 28). They can be neatly categorized by describing their upper and lower tetrachords. Major  and Minor for the lower tetrachord and Melodic and Harmonic for the upper. Check it out.

Melodic Major (Major scale) = 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Melodic Minor = 1 2 b3 4 5 6 7
Harmonic Major = 1 2 3 4 5 b6 7
Harmonic Minor
= 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7

Bam, that’s everything. It’s convenient, too, because, with the exception of the harmonic major, these scales and their modes are all pretty much standard for contemporary jazz improvisation. You end up with 4, 7-note scales and 28 independent modes.

OK, cool, so that’s everything, so what? Good question. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to turn this vague idea of universal modes into a method of composition, but what I have so far comes from the theory and contemporary treatment of the Greek modes. The standard “Berklee” treatment of the modes in contemporary music involves constructing tertian chords in all of the modes and then classifying them based upon their “characteristic pitch.” Every mode is assigned a “chracteristic pitch,” and the strength of a chord progression is based upon whether or not a particular chord contains that characteristic pitch. My thought was that if I can apply the same sorts of ideas to all 28 modes versus just the Greek 7, I can get a far more “complete” picture of modal harmony and composition.

So that’s where I am right now. I’ll be updating this blog with much more detailed looks at these modes and how I’ve used them over the next month. Until then…


Also…if anybody out there is feeling particularly “gotcha,” there are actually six of these kinds of scales, but two of them are simply subsets of the octatonic scale. These “diminished heptatonics” sound and behave so similar to the 8-tone diminished scale that I haven’t bothered investigating them further as their own scales. I might as well just have that 8th note and write with the full diminished scale.


4 Responses to “Andihemitonic Heptatonic Modality”

  1. 1 elissamilne February 17, 2010 at 7:16 am

    There’s two more possibilities, which means bam there’s 42…. And the extra 14 aren’t traditionally used in jazz improvisation…. It seems that the Carnatic tradition (south Indian classical music) accounts for all the modal possibilities that have the 5th degree as a perfect 5th, but any modes of the scales that use the diminished or augemented 5th on that 5th degree are disregarded…

    • 2 elissamilne February 17, 2010 at 7:20 am

      And I don’t mean this in a gotcha way, but in a I don’t agree with you way, regarding how these scales work (subsets of the octatonic scale). And that the Carnatic tradition recognises the modes that can be created from these scales where the 5th is perfect, so there is a long history of these patterns having valence completely independently of the concept of the octatonic scale. [I posted my first comment in undue haste!]

  2. 3 Dan Simon April 12, 2013 at 2:59 am

    Hey adam, have you checked out Mathieu’s “Harmonic Experience”?

    I think you might like it because of some of your writings. Particularly mention of tritones & modes, modal modulation, and Hindemith.

    Another one to check out is Gordon Delamont modern harmonic technique (I think vol 1)…acoustic roots.

    The only other person on the ‘net I’ve seen mention tritones/modes is Dr. Jody Nagel…his website has some interesting articles as well.

  3. 4 Raxin September 22, 2013 at 11:42 am

    (I’m not sure if it took the first submission. If I double posted, would you delete one?)
    Hi Adam. I grok the structures, but I believe the name is off. The modes you describe would be dihemitonic and trihemitonic, because they contain two and three semitones, so they couldn’t be “andihemitonic”. The term you want is “ancohemitonic”, meaning not containing adjacent semitones, not containing any instances of three chromatic neighbors.

    AHM = Ancohemitonic Heptatonic Modality

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