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This page and the next are the concluding sections of Chapter 1. We will look at the origins of melody and the worldwide ubiquity of the pentatonic scale.

The Children's Chant

Anthropologists and biologists have various theories concerning the origins of music, going back to the most primitive utterances of homo sapien.

Such investigation, while fascinating, is beyond the scope of this course. As we begin to explore melody, however, there is one place where we can begin, which is intimate with our own experience. That is what we could think of as the Children's Chant.

If you think back to your own childhood, or if you observe the behavior of very young children, such as a young sibling, you will observe a very basic melodic pattern, that of the descending minor third. When children around the world vocalise, often in a manner of taunting or speaking in a sing-song way to one another, they use a very similar interval, that of the descending minor third.

Curt Sachs, as quoted by Peter Van der Merwe in Roots of the Classical, notes the following:

"The earliest attempts of children less than three years old resulted in one-tone litanies and in melodies of two notes a narrow minor third apart, the lower of which was stressed and frequently repeated. At the age of three, children produced melodies of two notes a second apart, and even three-tone melodies. Children three and a half years old sang in descending tretrachords."

This phenomenon appears to be universal across cultures, as if embedded in our human DNA. The basic melodic shape, if notated in the treble clef in the key of C, comprises a core interval of a descending third (G down to E), with a slight hint of an additional note above the center tone (the A):

I think of this as the mocking "nyah, nyah, nyah-nhay, nyah" chant that children sing to each other as a method for taunting another child and showing superiority. It is also sung to such charming words as "Johnny is a sis-sy" or "I can see your underwear!" Go to another culture and language, and you'll get the same tune in the local vernacular. It's really quite amazing! If you were lucky enough to have gone to a school that offered Kodaly or Orff training in elementary school, you would have begun your training by learning to sing and recognize, in a formalized way, this descending pattern. Using the syllables of the solege (which we will study by and by), the syllables are "Sol-mi La Sol-mi." Here's the tune if we were to transcribe it off the playground:

This then, is our basic tune, common to much of humanity. Even now, as a young adult, you will find this the easiest phrase to sing and hear. From this childlike melody comes a world of musical expression.

Pentatonic Scales

Pentatonic scales are 5 note patterns that seem universal among the majority of the world's cultures. I am introducing a few pentatonic scales here, at the very beginning of the course, in a way that may seem out of sequence. We will, in fact, be looking into the origin of scales, intervals and tone relationships in great detail during the first third or so of the course, and we will come to understand the history and philosophy of tone relationship and modal patterns, including the structure of pentatonic scales..

However, pentatonic scales also transcend, or perhaps pre-date, theory. While many explanations are made for the ubiquity of pentatonic scales, one explanation is very compelling: that they perhaps grow out of the basic Children's chant. To whatever extent this may be true, it could then be said that pentatonic scales are in some ways natural to the human species. Certainly those pentatonic tunes that you may already know. such as Amazing Grace or Swing Low, Sweet Chariot or Ol' Man River or Auld Lang Syne, have a natural ease about them, a basic familiarity. If your come to Earlham from another country, you may know different tunes, but it is likely that the basic melodic shape have some similarity with the tunes just mentioned.

I take the following idea from The Roots of the Classical. It certainly seems to me that Peter Van der Merwe has thought about this a great deal. Perhaps the pentatonic scale is just a combination of two Children's Chants, the second one starting a tone below where the other one leaves off. Thus we combine


, which is the same tune moved down by four notest, and we get:

Once this note pattern has been established, we can also choose a different starting note, and thus could create this pattern, using the same notes (A G E D C A), but start them on C:

As you listen to the recordings of these, playing up and down the scale, and then with a bit of improvisation thrown in, you will hear a fundamental difference in mood or tone. The first scale, starting on A, is what we could call the minor pentatonic, and the second one, starting on C, is the major pentatonic. These two basic forms (there are many other variants of Pentatonic, as we will see) also form a fundamental duality or polarity that we will explore throughout the semester—that of scales and ultimately chords that have a minor third from the low tone to the next tone in the pentatonic pattern (in this case from A to C), contrasted with scales that have a major third as the lowest two notes in the pattern (in this case from C to E). This major-minor polarity is of ultimate importance to the theory of music. If this not completely clear to you at this moment, not to worry—it will take up a goodly portion of our work together over the coming months.

Meanwhile, as an opening ear trainer, let's listen to and learn to sing some great pentatonic tunes. We'll worry about the theory of it all soon enough!

Go on to: 1F Pentatonic Tunes

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