Musical culture, instrument type, and pitch-class properties: Towards a new model of scale structure
Presenter Name:Elizabeth Phillips
Co-Authors:Elizabeth Phillips, Steven Brown
The predominant theory of the origin of musical scales comes from the observation that common musical intervals are similar to the frequency ratios of successive harmonics. This “harmonicity theory” was the basis for the early just intonation of Western instruments and later influenced diatonic theory. However, much work has shown that the frequencies of vocal pitch-classes are widely variable and do not conform to discrete mathematical ratios. Moreover, many non-Western scales do not abide by just or diatonic tuning. Therefore, we posit that pitch-class precision and accuracy depend on 1) instrumental tuning properties and 2) musical culture. To test the effect of instrumental pre-tuning, we analyzed the precision and diatonic tuning of pitch-classes in eight recordings performed in Canada with organ, flute, trombone, and the voice. As predicted, the results showed that the fixed-pitch instruments (organ and flute) were significantly more precise and accurate than the variable-pitch instruments (trombone and voice). To test the effect of musical culture, we analyzed the precision and diatonic tuning of pitch-classes in 430 traditional, solo vocal melodies from 10 musical cultures around the world. The pitch-classes were 170 cents wide, on average, with wide variation, and showed a general disregard for diatonic tuning. Importantly, vocal pitch-class precision and diatonic accuracy were low regardless of musical culture, suggesting that vocal music may have universal physiological constraints or stylistic properties. These results collectively suggest that researchers should reconsider scale theories that only describe just intonation in instrumental music, and that global vocal-melodic music may shed light on a new cross-cultural theory of the origin of musical scales.