[Natalie’s Note: Mike Ellis is at it again – researching and writing on facets of music that often go unexplored by music teachers. In this article, he discusses some interesting correlations and raises some thought-provoking questions. If you haven’t checked out his Know Chords website, I highly recommend it. Mike has a way of presenting theory concepts in a way that is concise and easy to understand. His articles are great reading for music students and for teachers looking for good ways to communicate musical concepts and principles to their students. Enjoy his latest article!]
European and American Music and Christianity
By Mike Ellis Â© 2006
We know, or should know, that the music of Europe and America is not the only music in the world. Many different cultures have their own concepts of music and their own representations of it. We use music based on the diatonic major scale. Other cultures do not. I recently began research into why we use a twelve-note scale. The European music that was eventually brought to America is based on the chromatic scale having twelve tones (the sharp of a note being the same as the flat of the following note):
Going further would cause you to repeat the A note which is already shown. Delving into why we use this method, I discovered the supposed creator of our twelve-note scale. I say supposed only because this could possibly be refuted. However, in my search of the Internet, I found an article on http://www.artsworld.com, by a Mr. Howard Goodall, that reads:
“Man’s relationship with music is rooted in nature. The ancient Greeks first started arranging notes into scales to create a pattern, and it was the mathematician Pythagoras (c580-500 BC) who created the first real scale. His invention had a profound effect on early western music. He was passing a blacksmith’s forge one day when he noticed the sounds of the metal being hammered and realised that the hammering made different regular notes. When he weighed the hammers, he discovered that they were all ratios of each other. The first was half the size of the next and another was two-thirds the size of the first, and so on. This demonstrated natural harmonics. One note played on, for example, a metal bar can produce many harmonics (higher notes). A bar half the size will produce a note an octave higher. A bar two-thirds the size will produce a note a fifth higher (the dominant note). The ratio of two-thirds is a naturally harmonious relationship in mathematics and it was this that caught Pythagoras’ attention. He was also a mystic who believed that the universe made its own music by the movement of the planets. He felt music would be more powerful and mystical if it obeyed the natural laws of physics, so he set about making a scale of notes by dividing metal into simple ratios, thus creating a spiral of notes. However, when he came to the thirteenth note of the scale, he realised that it was slightly different to the first one and when the two were played together, the result sounded awful. This problem was later to be called ‘the Pythagorean comma’. The notes were not equally apart all the way up the spiral. Pythagoras’ solution was simply to abandon the thirteenth note and he was left with a twelve-note scale. To play safe, musicians kept to the first seven notes of the scale and along with the original note they had an octave. The average instrument could only cope with six notes anyway, and even up until the late thirteenth century music was kept as simple as possible.
Church music, however, required more sophistication, so composers introduced other lines to create more interesting sounds.â€
Note that in the text, above, it mentions â€œnatural harmonics,â€ a â€œnaturally harmonious relationship in mathematics,â€ and the â€œnatural laws of physics.â€ The twelve-note system seems to be inspired by nature. Also, it mentions the â€œfirst seven notes of the scale.â€ If you look at the list of notes above the quote, you will see that there are seven â€œnaturalâ€ notes, being A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. Weâ€™ll come back to this later. Keep the number seven in mind.
What does all this have to do with Christianity? Pythagoras lived a half-century before Christ. This is true. But this is just the beginning. If we go to the calendar, we see twelve months. This is due to Julius Caesarâ€™s calendar devised in 45 BC, chosen after consultation with the astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria and was probably designed to approximate the tropical year. Again, the number twelve appears in the scheme of natural occurrences. Pope Gregory XIII, a church figure, later modified this calendar in 1582. The European calendar has twelve months in it, as decreed by the Roman Catholic Church, even though the original twelve-month calendar was devised before Christ. Keep the number twelve in mind also.
The most common group of notes in European music is the major triad. This triad is the three notes containing the Root, 3rd and 5th notes of the diatonic (or seven note) scale. This is also the most pleasing and naturally harmonious grouping of notes in European music. It can be said that all other chords are either variations of the major chord, additions to the major chord, or additions to its variations (see http://www.knowchords.com – password access required). In this context, the major chord is the source chord of all other chords, the basis of all chordal harmony. The importance cannot be understated.
And so, what does all this have to do with Christianity? Letâ€™s examine some â€œcoincidentalâ€ facts.
The European calendar has twelve months, the European clock has twelve hours, the tribes of Israel numbered twelve, there were twelve disciples of Christ, and there are twelve notes in our scale.
There are seven days in our week, there were seven days of creation, the seven candlesticks are mentioned numerous times in the Bible, and there are seven natural notes in our diatonic major scale.
Christianity embodies the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, Christ rose on the third day, and our most important source grouping of notes is the major triad.
These may all be coincidental, but they may also not be. It is at least interesting food for thought, especially if you are a Christian, but even if you are not.
One other note should really be presented here. That is that there are only twelve notes, and only seven (not eight) notes of the major scale. No matter how many ways you want to arrange and rearrange these, and no matter how complex scholars want to make the study of music, the â€œcreatedâ€ complexities you will find in researching European-based music is staggering when compared to the simple twelve notes. It really doesnâ€™t have to be that way. Just ask the medieval minstrels and troubadours, who sang simple stories, much like the Beatlesâ€™ songs. By the way, the Beatles were the most successful musical artists of the twentieth century.
[Natalie’s Note: After I read Mike’s article, I immediately thought of the following passage in the Bible: