Learning a Far-Out Scale from John Foulds

Maud MacCarthy lived a storied life. She was born in Tipperary but spent some of her childhood in Sydney, Australia. in the 1890s she moved to London to train as a violinist at the Royal College of Music, at the same the time embracing the then-fashionable ideas of theosophy. When her career was cut short by an injury she travelled to India with Annie Besant, where she spent several years studying music and mysticism. She and composer John Foulds met when they were both already married but, scandalously for the time, moved in together (they did get married, much later). Foulds was deeply influenced by MacCarthy's studies in Indian music, as we hear in some of his music.

Background Stuff

Foulds sounds to me like a kindred spirit to Henry Cowell. He was adventurous never really a modernist; he experimented with prepared piano and microtonality, but most of his work has a light, entertaining and folk-influenced character. Today I gave my first attentive listen to his "Essays in the Modes":

Fair warning, this will all be a bit meandering. You can get the score of this piece here at IMSLP.

The reason I was struck by them isn't so much their musical content, which is a big of a mixed bag, but the choices of "modes" employed. These seem to be completely unsystematic and are maybe just whatever Foulds felt like using at the time:

  1. Senavati (mode of a major scale with a b2)
  2. Lydian Dominant (mode of Melodic Minor)
  3. Dhenuka (mode of a major scale with a #2)
  4. Major scale
  5. Lydian
  6. 1 b2 b3 b4 5 b6 7, whatever that is
  7. Lydian

So we have Major and Lydian (twice!), which are obviously very familiar, and Lydian Dominant which would have been a bit more exotic in Foulds's time but certainly isn't for us. There are also two Carnatic melakatas, Senavati and Dhenuka. These are closely related, being members of the netra chakra and differing by only one note. Surely learned these from MacCarthy, who at the time was one of very few Westerners with a deep knowledge of Indian music. In the later book Music To-Day, though, he apparently included a table of 90 heptatonic scales that he took to be complete. It may bear examination to see whether and in what sense this list is systematic; I haven't been able to get my hands on the book yet.

Foulds makes of these scales a sort of late-impressionist atmosphere, like something from Florent Schmitt or Egon Wellesz. Compare it with the rambunctious use Charpentier makes of them (the sequence here starts with Senavati, then Hanumatodi and then Dhenuka, going clockwise around the wheel of melakatas):

Apparently the "Essays in the Modes" was originally intended to be part of a project with the same outline as Charpentier's later one: a solo piano suite with a movement in each of the 72 Carnatic melakatas. If this is true, he must have abandoned that plan before putting the piece into its published form.

The Far-Out Scale

But then there's the very far-out scale of the sixth movement. This isn't a Carnatic melakata, and according to Ocean of Ragas it isn't found in any Hindustani raga either (I don't know much about that, though). What can we do with it?

The scale is spelled 1 b2 b3 b4 5 b6 7. I'm embarrassed to say this is misidentified in the scale book as "Melodic Minor b4", which it obviously isn't (there's another entry for the actual Melodic Minor b4, correctly labelled). I'd be inclined to think of it as Neapolitan with a b4. From a more Indian perspective, it might at a stretch look like a melakata with a shifted fifth: it's a mode of Neetimati with a #5, Ramapriya with a #5 and Mararanjani with a b5. Melakatas always contain the natural fifth, so messing with it is one way to produce some extra scales that are outside the Carnatic system.

In terms of traditional polychords, with the root in C you can think of it as a Cm Maj7 chord with an A major triad on top. Certainly you could try A9 over a tonic C minor chord to get this sound, and although that looks like jazz on paper it sounds like Debussy -- but then, you can say that about a lot of 20th century tonal harmony.

Another way to look at it is through one of its modes. Play a minor/major chord -- i.e. 1 b3 3 5 -- with the augmented triad a whole tone away, so for example A min/maj plus B+. This goes the other way round: it looks on paper like something from Bartok but can sound like Thelonious Monk if you play the min/maj chord with a bluesy inflection. Of course it's very possible that Monk new Foulds's work; many of the beboppers were into the classical music of their time.

Like almost anything involving augmented triads, you can use this to completely refry "Giant Steps" into a kind of shifting model tune, since the same augmented triad produces the sound of this scale on all three key centres. Not recommended at your local jam night but you might get a viral YouTube hit out of it.

Another misty-sounding way to break this up is as an Em6 with an Eb diminished triad on top. It really does have to be the minor 6 chord though; if you accidentally play an Em7 instead the effect is much more crunchy.

We still need a name for this scale, and I don't currently know one; Foulds's "Mode IIP" won't do at all. But my searches haven't turned up anything yet, so that'll have to wait for another day.


Maud MacCarthy apparently "campaigned against the use of the harmonium in Indian music", however one might do that. The harmonium is a Western instrument introduced during the Colonial period, probably to enable missionaries to accompany hymn-singing. It uses the 12-tone equal tempered system. This was already, in the late 19th century, causing a problem of pitch alignment between the delicate system of 22 or 24 sruti and the 12-EDO tuning of Western instruments; the harmonium -- being a loud, reedy drone -- will always win this contest. The imposition or willing adoption of Western instruments into non-Western musical traditions often has this effect; it's a kind of colonial-age auto-tune that tends to homogenize more complex systems of pitch and smooth everything out. You can read a bit more about the harmonium in Indian music here.

[Thanks to Andrew for a small but important correction to an earlier version of this post.]