Polymodal chromaticism

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In music, polymodal chromaticism is the use of any and all musical modes sharing the same tonic simultaneously or in succession and thus creating a texture involving all twelve notes of the chromatic scale (total chromatic). Alternately it is the free alteration of the other notes in a mode once its tonic has been established. [1]

The term was coined by composer, ethnomusicologist, and pianist Béla Bartók. [2] The technique became a means in Bartók's composition to avoid, expand, or develop major-minor tonality [3] (i.e. common practice harmony). This approach differed from that used by Arnold Schoenberg and his followers in the Second Viennese School and later serialists.

The concept was indicated by Bartók's folk-music-derived view of each note of the chromatic scale as being "of equal value" and thus to be used "freely and independently" (autobiography) and supported by references to the conception below in his Harvard Lectures (1943). [4] The concept may be extended to the construction of non-diatonic modes from the pitches of more than one diatonic mode such as distance models including 1:3, the alternation of semitones and minor thirds, for example C–E–E–G–A–B–C which includes both the tonic and dominant as well as "'two of the most typical degrees from both major and minor' (E and B, E and A, respectively) [Kárpáti 1975] [5] p. 132)". [1]

Bartók had realised that both melodic minor scales gave rise to four chromatic steps between the two scales' fifths and the rising melodic minor scale's seventh degrees when superimposed. Consequently, he started investigating if the same pattern could be established in some way in the beginning of any scales and came to realise that superimposing a Phrygian and a Lydian scale with the same tonic resulted in what looked like a chromatic scale. Bartók's twelve-tone Phrygian/Lydian polymode, however, differed from the chromatic scale as used by, for example, late-Romantic composers like Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner. During the late 19th century the chromatic altering of a chord or melody was a change in strict relation to its functional non-altered version. Alterations in the twelve-tone Phrygian/Lydian polymode, the other hand, were "diatonic ingredients of a diatonic modal scale." [6]

Phrygian mode (C)C–D–E–F–G–A–B–C
Lydian mode (C)C–D–E–F–G–A–B–C
Twelve-tone Phrygian/Lydian polymode (C)C–D–D–E–E–F–F–G–A–A–B–B–C
Twelve-tone Phrygian-Lydian polymode
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. Twelve-tone Phrygian-Lydian polymode.png
Twelve-tone Phrygian-Lydian polymode Loudspeaker.svg Play  .

Melodies could be developed and transformed in novel ways through diatonic extension and chromatic compression, while still having coherent links to their original forms. Bartók described this as a new means to develop a melody.

Bartók started to superimpose all possible diatonic modes on each other in order to extend and compress melodies in ways that suited him, unrestricted by Baroque-Romantic tonality as well as strict serial methods such as the twelve-tone technique.

In 1941, Bartók's ethnomusicological studies brought him into contact with the music of Dalmatia and he realised that the Dalmatian folk-music used techniques that resembled polymodal chromaticism. Bartók had defined and used polymodal chromaticism in his own music before this. The discovery inspired him to continue to develop the technique.

Examples of Bartók's use of the technique include No. 80 ("Hommage à R. Sch.") from Mikrokosmos featuring C Phrygian/Lydian (C–D–E–F–G–A–B–C/C–D–E–F–G–A–B–C). [7] Lendvai identifies the technique in the late works of Modest Mussorgsky, Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, and Giuseppe Verdi. [8]

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Béla Bartók Hungarian composer and pianist

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Modulation (music)

In music, modulation is the change from one tonality to another. This may or may not be accompanied by a change in key signature. Modulations articulate or create the structure or form of many pieces, as well as add interest. Treatment of a chord as the tonic for less than a phrase is considered tonicization.

Modulation is the essential part of the art. Without it there is little music, for a piece derives its true beauty not from the large number of fixed modes which it embraces but rather from the subtle fabric of its modulation.

Chromaticism is a compositional technique interspersing the primary diatonic pitches and chords with other pitches of the chromatic scale. Chromaticism is in contrast or addition to tonality or diatonicism and modality. Chromatic elements are considered, "elaborations of or substitutions for diatonic scale members".

Not only at the beginning of a composition but also in the midst of it, each scale-step [degree] manifests an irresistible urge to attain the value of the tonic for itself as that of the strongest scale-step. If the composer yields to this urge of the scale-step within the diatonic system of which this scale-step forms part, I call this process tonicalization and the phenomenon itself chromatic.

Chromaticism is almost by definition an alteration of, an interpolation in or deviation from this basic diatonic organization.

Throughout the nineteenth century, composers felt free to alter any or all chord members of a given tertian structure [chord built from thirds] according to their compositional needs and dictates. Pronounced or continuous chordal alteration [and 'extension'] resulted in chromaticism. Chromaticism, together with frequent modulations and an abundance of non-harmonicism [non-chord tones], initially effected an expansion of the tertian system; the overuse of the procedures late in the century forewarned the decline and near collapse [atonality] of the system [tonality].

Chromaticism is the name given to the use of tones outside the major or minor scales. Chromatic tones began to appear in music long before the common-practice period, and by the beginning of that period were an important part of its melodic and harmonic resources. Chromatic tones arise in music partly from inflection [alteration] of scale degrees in the major and minor modes, party from secondary dominant harmony, from a special vocabulary of altered chords, and from certain nonharmonic tones.... Notes outside the scale do not necessarily affect the tonality....tonality is established by the progression of roots and the tonal functions of the chords, even though the details of the music may contain all the tones of the chromatic scale.

Sometimes...a melody based on a regular diatonic scale is laced with many accidentals, and although all 12 tones of the chromatic scale may appear, the tonal characteristics of the diatonic scale are maintained. ... Chromaticism [is t]he introduction of some pitches of the chromatic scale into music that is basically diatonic in orientation, or music that is based on the chromatic scale instead of the diatonic scales.

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Closely related key

In music, a closely related key is one sharing many common tones with an original key, as opposed to a distantly related key. In music harmony, there are five of them: they share all, or all except one, pitches with a key with which it is being compared, and is adjacent to it on the circle of fifths and its relative major or minor.

A heptatonic scale is a musical scale that has seven pitches per octave. Examples include the major scale or minor scale; e.g., in C major: C D E F G A B C—and in the relative minor, A minor, natural minor: A B C D E F G A; the melodic minor scale, A B C D E FGA ascending, A G F E D C B A descending; the harmonic minor scale, A B C D E F GA; and a scale variously known as the Byzantine, and Hungarian, scale, C D E F G A B C. Indian classical theory postulates seventy-two seven-tone scale types, collectively called thaat, whereas others postulate twelve or ten seven-tone scale types.

Harmonic major scale

In music theory, the harmonic major scale is a musical scale found in some music from the common practice era and now used occasionally, most often in jazz. In George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept it is the fifth mode (V) of the Lydian Diminished scale. It corresponds to the Raga Sarasangi in Indian Carnatic music.

Béla Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 3 in E major, Sz. 119, BB 127 is a musical composition for piano and orchestra. Bartók composed the piece in 1945 during the final months of his life, as a surprise birthday present for his second wife Ditta Pásztory-Bartók. It consists of three movements.

Pitch axis theory is a musical technique used in constructing chord progressions. The tonic is used as the bass note, and melodic scales are chosen according to the chords that lie beneath them. "A variety of scales or modes are used, all built around the same tonic pitch."

Distance model

In music a distance model is the alternation of two different intervals to create a non-diatonic musical mode such as the 1:3 distance model, the alternation of semitones and minor thirds: C-E-E-G-A-B-C. This scale is also an example of polymodal chromaticism as it includes both the tonic and dominant as well as "'two of the most typical degrees from both major and minor' ".

In music, the acoustic scale, overtone scale, Lydian dominant scale, or Lydian 7 scale, is a seven-note synthetic scale.

In music, the axis system is a system of analysis originating in the work of Ernő Lendvai, which he developed in his analysis of the music of Béla Bartók.

Bimodality is the simultaneous use of two distinct pitch collections. It is more general than bitonality since the "scales" involved need not be traditional scales; if diatonic collections are involved, their pitch centers need not be the familiar major and minor-scale tonics. One example is the opening of Béla Bartók's "Boating" from Mikrokosmos. Here, the right hand uses pitches of the pentatonic scale on E and the left hand uses those of the diatonic hexachord on C, perhaps suggesting G dorian or G mixolydian.

In music, the major Locrian scale, also called the Locrian major scale, is the scale obtained by sharpening the second and third notes of the diatonic Locrian mode. With a tonic of C, it consists of the notes C D E F G A B. It can be described as a whole tone scale extending from G to E, with F introduced within the diminished third interval from E to G. The scale therefore shares with the Locrian mode the property of having a diminished fifth above the tonic.

Allegro barbaro, BB 63, composed in 1911, is one of Béla Bartók's most famous and frequently performed solo piano pieces. The composition is typical of Bartók's style, utilizing folk elements. The work combines Hungarian and Romanian scales; Hungarian peasant music is based on the pentatonic scale, while Romanian music is largely chromatic.


  1. 1 2 Wilson, Paul (1992). The Music of Béla Bartók, pp. 8–9. ISBN   0-300-05111-5.
  2. Suchoff, Benjamin (2002). Bartók's Mikrokosmos: Genesis, Pedagogy, and Style, p. 115. Scarecrow Press. ISBN   978-0-8108-4427-8.
  3. Kárpáti, János (1994). Bartók's Chamber Music, p. 169. ISBN   978-0-945193-19-7.
  4. Bartok Essays, pp. 367 and 376. cited in Kárṕati (1994), p. 175.
  5. Kárpáti, János (1975). Bartók's String Quartets, p. 132. Translated by Fred MacNicol. Budapest: Corvina Press. Cited in Wilson 1992.
  6. Bartók, Béla (1976). "46: Harvard Lectures". Béla Bartók Essays. ed. Benjamin Suchoff. London: Faber & Faber. p. 367. ISBN   0-571-10120-8. OCLC   60900461.
  7. Suchoff (2002), p.130.
  8. Lendvai, Ernő (1979). Bartók and Kodály, Volume 4, p. 98. Institute for Culture.