Alt intervals, making us all crazy

WEDNESDAY, October 9, 2019

The written problem…

So far there have been exactly 13 intervals and various names for them. These are pretty straight-forward and logical. All the problems in describing what we hear comes for a conflict in systems.

Seven notes…

Long ago our musical system was very different. Essentially there were seven notes in the system, not 12, and the writing system that developed is based on that seven note system. The white keys on the piano are a pretty good visualization of how it once was. If you play only white notes, our staff system looks great. You don’t need extra symbols – no sharps, flats or naturals.

Five more notes were added…

Gradually over time five other notes got added, and those are roughly the same as black notes. The whole story is a lot more complicated, but this is a good start.

At first those five black notes were used now and then, sort of like flavoring, with caution. But gradually the old seven note system evolved into a 12 note system, and today we play the black notes as often as the white notes. The result is that there are no names for the black notes. There is no place for them on a staff. Instead, we have directional indications.

The old seven note system conflicts with the newer 12 note system.

Today there is a clash between what we hear and what we write. The directional indicators are only a very awkward fix.  Sharp means to shift one note to the right, and flat means to shift one note to the left. The natural sign was invented to warn people when sharps and flats disappear. So the result is that if you want to play the black note between C and D, it has no name. Instead, it borrows the name of the white notes on either side. That no-name-note can be either C# or Db, and you can’t tell which unless you are reading music. Otherwise it’s just “that black thing between C and D”.  Flip a coin. The old seven note system does not look good with 12 equally important notes, and that causes all the mess.

But we’re stuck with the old system…

Most problems we have with notation comes from the clash between the old seven note system and the modern 12 note system. It’s a lot like English spelling, which is horrible. It’s just too late to change everything. it would take generations for people to accept a new writing system, and most likely no one would be able to read old books or old writings.

The result of this hybrid attempt make 12 notes work in a a seven note system  is that there are always several ways to write any interval, and each way has a different name. 

It’s THIS weird…

A simple major third – such as C to E – may also be written as B# E, B# Fb, Dbb E, Dbb Fb and so on. This just scratches the surface. Fortunately, most of these odd ways in which we could write something so simple are not used, but there is at least one that is.

One example, alt major 3rd…

C Fb is a 3rd, a major 3rd. Play it on the piano. Look at your hands. Listen to it. It sounds the same as C E. It has to. But on paper suddenly you have a 4th, not a 3rd. C to F is a 4th, and no matter what signs you add, it remains a 4th in a score because on paper all interval names are described by letters. Remember, this was logical when there were only seven notes in an octave. C Fb is alt interval (a diminished 4th.) Clearly the difference on paper makes no sound difference, but visually it is often necessary to write an augmented chord. So all alt intervals, even the ones we end up needing, are only valid in writing. It is much like “to” “two” “too”. These three spellings make a difference for understanding what we are reading, but all three have the same sound. Alt intervals are like homonyms, different words that sound exactly the same.

The sound is the important thing…

In the end we ONLY care about the sound, so alt intervals are just weird names for things on a page that describe the oddities. Alt intervals are one ginormous, irritating, vexing, headache-producing pain, and I am only mentioning them because sooner or later you have to learn these crazy names to understand what most musicians are talking about when they talk shop and sound more like Martians than earth people. Think of alt intervals as Martian intervals, or Uranian intervals. Or names that were invented to make you and me feel confused.

And yet…

At times, as weird as it sounds, alt intervals have practical uses. For one thing, they are used by notation software for transposition, so I need them every day of my life to write music. I do eventually try to teach some of these odd terms to students. I just wish music were easier to explain.

 

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