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The Modal World of Toru Takemitsu Part I: The Melodic b5 scale

In this series of posts I will be focusing on the music of Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, and specifically on his compositions for solo guitar. This post looks at the first movement of In The Woods.

Now, after I analysed the first movement, Wainscot Pond, it has become apparent to me that a big part of TT’s sound is his choice of scales, and in particular, scales that have a b5 in them. In the 87 bars of music, b5 scales are used for 47 bars of music. That is 54% of the music in this movement.

What exactly are these scales, I hear you ask?

Well they are as follows: Melodic b5, Harmonic minor b5, Harmonic Major b5, Ionian b5, Locrian natural 7 and Neapolitan Major b5. They are used by composers far more than you would think, even Bach uses them, but the one that appears in Wainscot Pond more than any other is Melodic b5.

The next realisation I had with Wainscot Pond in particular is that TT has developed a system, not unlike John Coltrane’s changes, involving the Melodic b5 scale. For those that are uninitiated, John Coltrane was fascinated by the division of an octave into three equal parts. The circle into an equilateral triangle. So starting on C, that would give C, E and G# and back to C again. Each note is a major third away from the next. Then he built a major chord on each note, C Major, E Major, Ab Major. Then a perfect cadence on each in a progression going back through the circle of fifths:

C Major – Eb7 – Ab Major – B7 – E Major – G7

This can now continue with ii V I progressions etc, but the point is the division of the octave, or circle, into three equal parts. Takemitsu goes with four. The octave into four would give us a diminished chord C, Eb, Gb and A. Or the circle divided into a square, and each note has a minor b5 chord built upon it. But we’ll move on to the scales themselves.

Let’s start with C Major, raise the root of C Ionian (+1) which gives us C# Altered (D Melodic) and now we flatten the root of mode V, A Mixolydian b6 (or Hindu if you like) to move into D Melodic b5 territory. That gives us the mode of Ab Lydian +#23. (Yes it exists, and it is a fabulous mode, on the guitar it is akin to a minor pentatonic shape, the #2 acting as a b3 but sounds so much more expressive, at least to me.)

Now, before we continue, can I say that I have read an analysis of In The Woods that was submitted as a phd to a well known university and accepted, but which goes nowhere near the level of complexity we are discussing here, so don’t be discouraged if you find this difficult.

Anyway, back to the Melodic b5 scale. Now if we take D as our starting point, and build a diminished chord we get D, F, Ab and B. Now play a Melodic b5 scale on each of those roots and you are now in the world of In The Woods. D, F and B Melodic b5 all appear regularly in the piece with only Ab Melodic b5 being the exception as TT changes to Harmonic minor b5 when on the note of Ab.

Obviously, there are many other parts of the music to take into consideration when analysing, but as these areas are well documented and studied I will leave them to the discretion of the reader.

Next, I’ll turn to the second movement of In The Woods, Rosedale. Thanks for reading.

If you enjoyed this post, there are many more at my group:

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