Adding colour to the diminished scale

It is easy to slip into the idea, from studying harmony textbooks, that the only way to form scale-tone chords is to make stacks building upward from each note of the scale, skipping every other note. Then depending on how high your stack is, you call it a triad, a seventh chord, ninth chord, eleventh or thirteenth chord.

Of course the result is rather boring if you do this with the diminished scale (that’s the one I call the 2 1 short scale – check out my MOVES page if all these numbers mean nothing to you). All you get are inversions of the same two diminished chords a semitone apart.

French composer Olivier Messiaen was blessed (or cursed) with a condition called synaesthesia, which means he heard sound – or chords – as colours. He was also very fond of short scales, which he had a special name for: modes of limited transposition.

His solution for adding colour to the 1 2 scale is elegant. He harmonizes it with eight different chords using this system:


As you can see, if you keep moving the bracket to the right, this provides a series of chords with alternating 3 4 6 and 3 5 6 structure, none of which are inversions of each other.

Of course, for Messiaen these chords are colours, so he can use them as a colourist would. He doesn’t have to restrict their use to harmonizing diminished scale passages. The sixth movement of his Turangalila Symphony, called “Jardin du sommeil d’amour” (Garden of Love’s Slumber) consists of a long slow theme that uses only these 3 4 6 and 3 5 6 chords plus fifty shades of F#6 and its dominant C#7.

I don’t know how much I’m allowed to quote, but the theme’s coda looks like this:


One of Messiaen’s famous dicta was “Melody is Queen”. This queen follows her fancy. If we look at just the top notes, (the melody), we note that the 1 2 short scale occurs five times, somewhat randomly interspersed with bits of the chromatic scale, and doesn’t even replicate up the octave:


Some of my astute readers will have observed that the 3 4 stack is a minor triad, while the 3 5 stack is the first inversion of a major triad. And sure enough, if we remove the melody and look at what we have left, we get a pretty collection of colours:


All that is left for me to do is to play the piece for you, so you can hear what it all sounds like. I have left out the avian chatter of the original (which you can also find on YouTube), meant to be nightingales, but to my ear more reminiscent of the black-throated laughing thrush (garrulax). This is not, however, the place to take issue with Messiaen on ornithology.

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About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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