Fun with Arranging (Part 2)

As I was discussing in my previous post, it’s amazing how the classic tune Caravan seems to be especially robust in inspiring so many varied interpretations. If you’re willing to except my statement as fact, then read no further. However, if you want to read some half-baked theoretical ramblings, then buckle your seat belts because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

The secret weapon of “Caravan,” I think, is the tension between major and minor in the A-section (a minor second, a minor sixth, a diminished seventh, and a note that falls to my ears somewhere between a major and a minor third). There are also three sets of minor second intervals (C-Db, E-F, and G-Ab). In a major scale and its modes, there are only two minor second intervals (for example, in a major scale, there are between 3-4 and 7-8). The “Caravan” A-section scale looks like this (Note: the B-section contrasts so well with the A-section because the B-section melody and harmony are unabashedly Western):

A huge component of what gives any scale its sonic thumbprint is the location of its half steps. This is why D Dorian–the “So What” scale, which has half steps at E-F (2-3) and B-C (6-7)–and D Phrygian–which has half steps at D-Eb (1-2) and A-Bb (5-6) sound so very different. This is amazing considering the most important notes of each scale–the tonic, subdominant (4th), and dominant (5th)–are exactly the same. In fact, most of the scale is the same (five out of seven notes, D-F-G-A-C, which, when sounded together is D-minor 11th, minus the ninth).

Although “So What” is modal–which is simply saying that it is scale-based and thus not based on tension between the tonic chord D-minor and the fifth chord A or A7–Miles creates tension in another way: modulating the D Dorian scale up a half step to E-flat Dorian. This allows the D-flat (7th step) of E-flat Dorian to serve as a leading tone function. Simply, this allows Eb Dorian to cleanly resolve into D-natural, which is the first step of the D-Dorian mode.

In equal-tempered tonal harmony, these notes are enharmonically the same, except the D-flat is now called C-sharp, which is the third of the dominant chord A or A7. In tonal harmony, resolution again occurs when the C-sharp moves up a half step to the tonic or first step of D-minor, D-natural.

To my ears, this is why a progression from D-Dorian minor to Eb-Dorian minor sounds so much more neat and tidy that a progression from D-Dorian minor to E-Dorian minor. Even though the tension between D-Dorian and Eb-Dorian is greater than that between D-Dorian and E-Dorian (Because a minor second is a slightly more dissonant interval than a major second. Also, while D-Dorian and Eb-Dorian share two notes in common, D-Dorian and E-Dorian share five.), there is no leading tone that brings us back to the tonic note D as smoothly. In fact, the closest approaches from E-Dorian to the D tonic note are a whole step away (E-D or C-D). In tonal music, the difference between a half- and a whole-step can sound pretty significant.

I find it noteworthy that the semitone difference between each pitch of the two scales, which puts them in harmonic conflict, is ultimately what makes them flow so smoothly into each other. Now put down the instrument and meditate on that. No, really, do it. Can you find parallels in the world of sight? Of touch? Of smell? Of taste? Can we find any parallels in our relationships with our friends? Our families? Our enemies?

Does listening to the tune help fuel your reflections?

I also mentioned D-Phrygian (D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C). Philip Glass constructs the melody of the final aria from his opera Satyagraha entirely on this scale. Listen to this for a while and get the sound of the Phrygian mode in your head. Also, I can pretty much guarantee whether you like this aria or not is a good indicator of whether Glass’s music will do anything for you. It’s not good or bad if you don’t like it. I happen to like it, but a lot of people I respect hate it. It’s entirely possible for there to be good music we don’t like. Just be nice about it when you don’t!

Note how D-Phrygian helps unify two chords that might otherwise be difficult to solo over when they appear in sequence: Eb (or Eb-Major 7th) and D-minor (or D-minor 7th). Do you think half steps have anything to do with it?

So back to “Caravan,” which we said uses this scale: C-Db-E-F-G-Ab-Bb. The scale sounds somewhat minor, somewhat major (for those keeping score, yes, I know it’s technically a major scale). Notice how the only difference between this ambiguous-sounding major-minor scale and the C-Phrygian (C-Db-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb) is one note and one note only: E, which is natural in one case, flat in the other. Again, by changing 1/7 of the scale by a semitone gives a very different sound. It’s obvious that half steps can be very powerful tools indeed when changing the texture, flow, or mood of a composition or improvisation. Can you think of any other aspects of your life where changing 14% of something can make such a huge difference?

Did you know that revised estimates suggest that humans and chimps share 86% of their DNA in common? In one sense, that means that what separates people from chimps is a difference of 14% in our genetic code–1/7.

But I digress.

If you listen to Klezmer music, you’ve heard the “Caravan” scale, which is called Ahava Rabboh or the Freygish scale. Maybe because of its use in music that seems exotic to our ears, this scale gives the melody of “Caravan” an exotic sound. This same scale is used in Egyptian music (where it is called Hijaz-Nahawand or Bayati maqam), Iranian music (where it is called Dastgāh-e Homāyoun), Romanian music (where it is called the Misheberak scale), or North Indian music (where it serves as the basis for the raga Vasant Mukhari, which is associated with the early morning).

In the European tradition, it is called the Phrygian dominant scale, and is the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale. Part of what gives the harmonic minor scale a more exotic sound is also found in the A section of “Caravan,” which is the leap of a minor third or three semitones between the 2nd and 3rd steps–in harmonic minor, it is between the 6th and 7th steps.

Since exotica music is about, well, the exotic, it makes sense that this scale would be a useful tool for people trying to conjure the sights, sounds, and aromas of distant lands, but not necessarily any specific foreign land.  Is this racist? Is this imperialist? Does it go well with a Mai Tai? Do boys get boners when girls dance to it? That I leave to you.

And I leave with with another fine tune in Ahava RabbohHijaz-Nahawand, Bayati maqam, Dastgāh-e Homāyoun, MisheberakVasant Mukhari, or the Phrygian dominant.