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http://www.tonalcentre.org/Scales.html

In the linked webpage the author speaks of "prime scales" and says "Remarkably enough, out of all possible scales there are only five prime scales, in which every single note is a member of at least one major or minor triad and which contain no chromatic semitones. All of these scales contain seven notes." I havent been able to find this term anywhere else so I question the credibility of the page but I also wonder if there is anything to this or any knowledge I can draw about modes from this statement. Is there a (for lack of a better term) a best list of scales to create modes from?

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  • I can't follow this theory, but I'd need more time to read it through. ;) – Albrecht Hügli Mar 18 '20 at 8:31
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I'd honestly say it's a bit of hokum. "Prime scale" is not a standard theoretical term (to my knowledge), and the various associations of "prime" in theory don't really accord with anything this author is talking about.

But the real problem comes in the claim quoted in the question:

Remarkably enough, out of all possible scales there are only five prime scales, in which every single note is a member of at least one major or minor triad and which contain no chromatic semitones. All of these scales contain seven notes. [Bolding in original.]

This is the significant claim of the page, but it's false. One could choose just about any six-note or five-note subset of many diatonic collections and achieve a scale that satisfies the conditions of the author. The "no chromatic semitone" restriction effectively rules out scales with more than seven notes.

And that's an arbitrary restriction too: why is it "superfluous" to be able to build both a major and minor tonic triad on the same note of the scale, but only if that note is the root? It's certainly allowed (by the author) to have notes in the scale that could function in two or three different triads, so why does it matter so much that you can't do that in a case where the triads have the same root? If the author is indeed interested in "harmonic resources," why are some added triadic possibilities good, but others are "superfluous"?

So, having jettisoned scales with 8+ notes with an arbitrary constraint that isn't given adequate justification, the author then proceeds to ignore 6-note, 5-note, and fewer scales that satisfy his constraints, without explanation. Why?

I'll grant that most of those scales with fewer notes don't satisfy his criterion of being a "proper mode" (a rather complicated constraint), but neither does the "double harmonic" scale he discusses and admits is not "proper." And it's even possible to find "proper" scales with fewer notes, for example the diatonic collection minus the leading tone, e.g., C-D-E-F-G-A. That satisfies all his constraints, including being "proper" (in his terminology).

And it's not even that he's tacitly excluding scales with fewer than seven notes: he explicitly earlier makes reference to the pentatonic scale as having importance. So, it's simply not true that "out of all possible scales," there are only five that satisfy his conditions.

(And honestly, I can't be bothered to check if his claims are true even for heptatonic scales. It seems reasonable that the five he quotes make sense, but I'm not convinced they are the only ones without checking. Part of it may be in the sleight of hand from where he goes from the "no two chords with same root" criterion to the "no chromatic semitones" criterion, which I'm not sure are exactly the same thing, even though he claims they are. Actually, I lie. I just tried to make a scale, and C-C#-D-Eb-F#-Ab-A is a seven-note scale that satisfies his "prime" conditions in that no notes are "superfluous" and no note can serve as the root of both a major and minor triad, but nevertheless has chromatic semitones. There are likely others. The more one digs, the worse this whole business gets.)

When the big bolded claim turns out to not only have arbitrary constraints to get there but is also literally false, it's probably time to find a better theory source. I mean, you can create whatever constraints you want to for preferring certain scales, however arbitrary. But we should at least demand self-consistency in a theoretical system.

Lastly, as to the final part of the question and what "scales to create modes from": that's up to you to figure out what you want in a scale. If you like the author's constraints and what scales the theory puts out, why not use those scales? There are no abstract "rules" for how to create scales or modes, other than your own compositional priorities.

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  • Exactly the answer I was looking for. I just wanted to find someone knowledgeable enough about this to tell me if his system had any truth to take away from it. – William Curtis Mar 18 '20 at 13:01
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There is a section of that page called "what is this site for?"

http://www.tonalcentre.org/index.html#what%20is%20site%20for

...My theoretical style is unconventional and some of the concepts I introduce are quite novel...

I did quick searches at Google Books and Grove's Online and didn't find prime scale, just like you couldn't find it. I think this is maybe one of the author's unconventional concepts.

But I wouldn't necessarily say this discredits the idea. The author does say up front that he is presenting unconventional ideas.

Looking at scales from a linear and chord perspective is common: the octatonic scale is often described as two superimposed diminished seventh chords. The melodic minor is two superimposed dominant seventh chords. That prime scale idea is worded differently, but the idea is the same: creating scales from superimposed chords. In the case of prime scale the author only allows for major and minor triad chords.

You might be interested in scales produced from combinations of tetrachords (major, minor, phrygian, and harmonic tetrachords.) It is another common way to describe scale generation, and I think all the various combinations will result in prime scales or one of their modes.

Regarding terminology: scale and mode. There is the meaning of mode for the old Church modes. But there is also a usage that means the various rotations of a scale: Dorian is the second mode of the major scale, or the altered scale is the seven the mode of melodic minor, etc.

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  • Discredit was a poor choice of words I should have said disprove . I was just wondering if this was an outlandish Idea or if there was somthing I could tak from it an apply to my own underatanding. What honestly got me here is I was told you can create modes from any scale available but then someone else rebutted why would you want to just because you can because you wont always get somthing musically usable. This got me thinking if there were any preffered scales or common scales most people used to get common modes. – William Curtis Mar 17 '20 at 16:46
  • I just made an edit. Look at my last line about modes of a scale. Some of those modes or various scale are important enough to have names, other aren't. – Michael Curtis Mar 17 '20 at 16:48
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I had never heard the term "prime scales" before, but the article seems quite advanced. The author describes the 3 things he wants from a scale (melodic resource, harmonic resource and tonally effective) and then he goes on to explain what scales we can derive from those principles. That's more than what you usually get when authors describe modes.

Quoting from the article, the 5 scale are:

  • the diatonic
  • the harmonic minor
  • the harmonic major
  • the melodic
  • the double harmonic

And by following the links in the article you find all the modes that are possible from each.

I'm not in a position to criticize the term 'prime scales', but the author seems to be following some very specific rules. I guess that he's using a more "classic" approach to music.

In the real world you can hear some scales that don't follow these rules. An example (and one of my favourite!) is the major blues scale, which is major and minor, ionian and mixolydian at the same time, and it also includes a b5 for extra fun.

Is there a (for lack of a better term) a best list of scales to create modes from?

If you want to use the most common modes, I had only heard of the 7 modes of the diatonic plus the harmonic and melodic minor scales.

If you want to create your own, it depends on whether you want to follow the 3 requirements mentioned by the author; if you do, I would follow the author's guidelines. If you don't, then you can pick and mix from the chromatic scale in any way you find aesthetically pleasing.

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