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A great variety of scales across the world differ in the way they go up and down. Some examples that come to mind are the Melodic minor that has A and B natural going up but Bb and Ab going down. A similar phenomenon can be observed in the Desh raga and Maqam Rast (see example below).

Notably, all three scales use "sharper" or "raised" pitches going up, and "flattened" or "lowered" pitches going down.

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Has this topic been studied? I am especially interested in the ubiquity of this phenomenon across cultural boundaries.

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I think you're unlikely to find the kind of answer you're looking for.

"Ancient" scales, like those found in Arabic or Indian music — or, say, ancient Greece — are most likely justified (by said "ancients") on mathematical, theological, or broad aesthetic grounds. So at that level, justifications likely vary from culture to culture or scale to scale, without any grand, cross-cultural unified theory of why pitches would be raised ascending and lowered descending.

A more contemporary study, if such exists, would either focus on the sociological aspects, or perhaps the neurological aspects, of why sharped pitches as associated with ascending and flatted with descending.

However, at the level of basic intuition, it does seem obvious that if a string (say) needs to be re-tuned during the playing of music, it would be natural to tune it higher for an ascending passage and lower for a descending one.

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  • "it would be natural to tune it higher for an ascending passage and lower for a descending one." Why is that? I'm not seeing how that's true. This justification also seems to assume such scaled were primarily created on stringed instruments, while the oldest instruments known to archeology are wind instruments. Mar 26, 2023 at 6:40
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Well, up is up and down is down! It seems natural to push up when ascending, down when descending. Doesn't it?

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