This 3-minute musical snippet is an improvisation from about eight years ago. Entirely spur-of-the-moment, in the living room, and thus the recording is absolutely low tech. Two musicians, both amateurs. Mon amie is playing a hang, a Swiss innovation, which uses the sides and tips of the fingers to sound resonating metallic ringing tones. I’m playing a digital keyboard which had been set to emulate a zither. What unites these two instruments, an uncommon duo, is the scale they are tuned to. More on that after having a listen…
If you don’t understand musical scales, they really can be thought of as just a selected group of musical notes. This selecting also implies some excluding; in other words, some notes are not within the chosen scale and so will never be heard. While western music is much more built around concepts like harmony, many traditional eastern musics feature pieces which are far more colored, identified, by the scales (or modes) they are being played or composed within. Setting aside esoteric forms like microtonal and atonal musics, the most typical scales are either 5-note (pentatonic) or 7-note scales. The notes within the scale can and usually do recur in higher and lower octaves in a tune or piece. Rumanikos is a 7-note scale of eastern European origin.
Indulge me a bit longer? Pianos are very useful for visualizing scales because the notes are laid out linearly in space. Conventional music contains 12 separate distinct notes per each octave. (The full piano keyboard contains seven and a third octaves laid out side by side.) Therefore, a typical musical scale will select seven of these twelve notes, low to high, at the expense of five excluded other notes — per each octave. A very common musical scale, known as the major scale, simply consists of all the white keys on a keyboard, excluding the black keys. A very common pentatonic scale consists of all the black keys. This is why doodling around on a piano while using exclusively the black keys affords a certain pleasing unity of sound; one is playing melodies within a pentatonic scale. Here’s another way to conceptualize what a major scale looks like:
Major: C – D – E F – G – A – B C ► (Listen)
Rumanikos: C – D Eb – – F# G – A Bb – C ► (Listen)
Major scales have either directly adjacent notes, like E and F, or consecutive notes which are separated by a single excluded tone, such as G and A. But notice the spacing of notes within Rumanikos. Between Eb and F# there are two consecutive excluded tones, making for a large ’empty’ interval. Also, there are three distinct pairs of directly adjacent notes within Rumanikos. These two factors give the Rumanikos scale it’s unique, characteristic, and haunting feel. Rumanikos is an eastern European scale, popular with gypsy or tzigane musicians. It has older roots within Persian and Arabic music, and in fact bears a close relationship to the well-known Arabic scale, or maqam, known as hitzaz.
Hangs (rhymes with gong) are really interesting instruments, blending both melodic and rhythmic elements. They were developed around the year 2000 by two Swiss ethnomusicologists and metallurgists. The quickest way to absorb what they are all about is to take a quick half hour tour via YouTube, noting the varying playing styles possible. A good place to start is here. Hangs are very accessible to novices; it’s not too difficult to elicit some pleasing sounds from the instrument. Yet it offers several avenues of more advanced exploration for serious players. Hangs have been manufactured in more than 40 different musical scales over their relatively brief lifetime, including African pygmy scales, Chinese and Japanese pentatonic scales, and various middle Eastern scales. There are also numerous less expensive knockoffs available nowadays. You can try out a virtual hang with nothing but a laptop and a mouse for free.
Zithers occur across cultures throughout the Eurasian landmass. There are also African and South American variants. The word itself is German, reflecting the Bavarian folk instrument. The Chinese variety has fewer strings and a more spare and stark appearance and sound. Architecturally, it’s amazing; it looks like a sculpture. A specially attractive feature of it is the way notes can be bent by the musician. Perhaps my favorite zither is the Arabic version, known as a qanoon. And I leave off with this recommended sample, a duet composed by Andrew Cronshaw featuring qanoon and zither.
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