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I am wondering if there are any scales (that are in actual use) that also contain non-fixed pitches. By that I mean that in addition to having several fixed pitches, also have some "flexible" pitches that can be raised or lowered at will?

For example, are there any scales that can have either a raised or lowered scale-degree 3, where the descision whether to play a raised or a lowered 3rd is left at the discretion of the performer, and not prescripted by the scale itself?

Some examples of what I AM NOT after:

  • In the melodic minor, scale-degrees 6 and 7 are raised on ascent and lowered on descent. Yet, in the context of either ascending or descending they DO have a fixed pitch.
  • Similarly, in Indian music, the Arohana and Avarohana often contain different pitches, but those pitches are fixed in either context.
  • Chromatic passing notes, which by definition are not intrinsically part of the scale.
  • The use of modal mixture, that through some harmonic alteration may impact the notes of a melody.
  • In the Klezmer scale Adonai malach (on C), there's an E natural when playing within the 1st octave of the scale, and an Eb when playing in the 2nd octave of the scale (see below). So the scale sometimes has E natural and sometimes Eb, but those too have very clear contexts, and in that sense those pitches are fixed as well.

enter image description here

Purely, to illustrate my point, I am attaching an example (below) of such scale (which I invented for the sake of explaining my question). This C scale, can make use of either E natural or Eb, as well as A natural and Ab interchangeably (at the discretion of the performer). In that sense, the scale itself contains some non-fixed pitches.

enter image description here

Are there such scales in wide use anywhere?

UPDATE The Hindustani Raag Pilu (or Piloo) seems to fit the bill. Any other examples?

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  • How close does musica ficta get to what you want? This involves unnotated, often optional accidentals.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 6:18
  • As far as I know, musica ficta doesn't really leave any room for choice. I may be mistaken, but musica ficta MUST be enacted to abide by counterpoint rules and so, it an example of a non-flexible note that is inferred by context, but I wouldn't really call it a flexible note. What do you think? Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 6:45
  • A scale is just a set of notes which has been contrived by us. So chromatic would just about cover this.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 7:58
  • @Tim A scale is much more than a contrived set of notes. It's a role granting musical framework that in some form or another is used ubiquitously across the world. As far as I know, the chromatic collection of notes is not used as a scale anywhere. Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 15:17
  • Exam boards would disagree with you there.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 17:07

2 Answers 2

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I would be willing to bet that there are many throughout different cultures but what immediately comes to mind for me is the way I sometimes improvise over blues. I use an unofficial composite scale made up of combining parallel major and minor pentatonic scales and adding the #4/b5 blues note as well. It’s possible or even likely this scale has a name, I’ve never researched it. It looks like this in the key of C:

enter image description here

This scale allows for playing either major or minor pentatonic lines and also chromatic lines utilizing notes from both scales combined. It is completely chromatic from the D to the G. I even sometimes add extra chromatic passing notes between the ^5 and ^6 and also the ^b7 and ^1. The bottom line is you can use whichever notes you like at your discretion depending on whether you want a major or minor tonality or a more chromatic style.

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  • I had thought about something like this as well. Can you think of any recorded or notated examples? I know I definitely heard that E and Eb played interchangeably in the context of blues, but an obvious example doesn't come to mind. Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 6:46
  • @MichaelSeltenreich If you combine the blues scale with the bebop scale, then the available pitches are ^1, ^2, b^3, ^3, ^4, #^4, ^5, b^6, ^6, b^7, ^7, ^8. If you want recorded examples, jazz. "Giant Steps", perhaps. But that's just a fixed scale that has a lot of flexibility. There are contexts wherein a musician can use all 12 notes in a piece. Is that what you're looking for? Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 7:05
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    @MichaelSeltenreich There are so many but the intro to “Straighten up and Fly Right” by the Nat Cole Trio immediately comes to mind. ^b3 ^3 ^1 etc. There are also countless examples of blues/rock guitarists playing major pentatonic scales on the I chord then switching to a minor pentatonic on the IV chord. Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 7:33
  • Yes, this is a 'scale' that I use a lot. And I'm certain a lot of blues/jazz players do too. Basically every chromatic note, bar the two either side of the root. But even those come out to play sometimes! B as part of the Bebop, and C# as a kind of tts. I tell students that any note in any piece at any time is ripe for use, they just have to know how to play it. +1.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 7:56
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    One great example I found so far is the Pilu Raga from the hindustani musical tradition. In it, E, A, and B, can appear both as natural or flattened notes. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilu_(raga) Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 15:23
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A scale, by definition, is fixed. But there's this thing called 'chromatic notes'. A jazz player may interpret the chord 'C major' by basically using notes of the C major scale, but making frequent additional use of E♭ and G♭. It isn't a new scale, E♮ and G♮ are still used, but other notes are too.

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