Byzantine Scale

Around the World in 80 Scales #1: Byzantines, Egyptian Girls and Scale Practice

This is the first in a series on world music. We will be taking a tour through the huge variety of scales and scale types. The goal is to make it around the world in 80 scales. Some of these will be familiar, while others will be exotic and will challenge your ear, no matter where you come from. We will start with the Byzantine scale. If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you may have gleaned that I have a special affection for all things Byzantine, so I’m very excited to present this to you for your edification and development. Along the way, we will be making some surprising stops, including a piece of postmodern cinema (dreck, really) that defined a generation.

What is the Byzantine Scale?

This scale has a few different names. This is because it exists in many different cultures. Whether this came to be through cultural contact, or independent invention, is impossible to say. Using western terminology, we can call it the double harmonic scale. This is because it consists of two consecutive, identical tetrachords with an augmented second between 2 and 3. Let’s narrow in on what that means. A tetrachord is a short scale of four notes, separated by three intervals. Think of a fence with four fence posts. There will be three stretches of fence between the posts. The posts represent the notes, the pieces of fence represent the intervals, or distances, between them. An augmented second is an interval of three semitones. For all intents and purposes, this is the same as a minor third. However, in Eastern musical languages, the semitone is not the smallest unit, as it is in Western music. We will deal with this in another post, but for now, this is what we’re dealing with:

Double Harmonic scale starting on C: C, D flat, E, F, G, A flat, B, C

The first step in the scale is a semitone. In the music of the Levant, this is more like a demiflat. The second step, from D flat to E, is an augmented second to E. Then we have another semitone to F. This sequence repeats exactly for the next tetrachord. If you play this scale, you will notice it feels quite dark, mysterious, or even mischievous. Arabic music knows this structure as Hijaz Kar Maqam (حجاز كار) and Indian Carnatic music gives it the title Mayamalavagowla.

Music that Uses the Byzantine Scale

I’ve had pupils tell me that the scale (and my little improvisation in the video above) evokes Spanish bull-fighting. This is not a coincidence. For a period of centuries, Iberia (Spain) was colonized by the Umayyad Caliphate, after its overthrow in Iraq, something we touched on here. As a result, Arabian musical forms fused with the native Roman and Visigothic cultures of Iberia. This creates the unique architectural, artistic and musical heritage we recognize as Spanish today. Once the native European peoples of Iberia were able to overthrow this genocidal colonial tyranny, Spanish culture as we know it bloomed into a distinctive organism. You can hear Debussy’s interpretation of Spanish culture, using the Byzantine scale (starting on E), in one of his preludes: “The Gate of Wine”.

The scale has also featured in this song by the Black Eyed Peas, which they borrowed from Dick Dale. But all of them are borrowing from a Greco-Turko-Arabic folk song from the Ottoman era. The song is called Misirlou (μισιρλου) and it has an interesting story. Like all folk songs, it is impossible to know exactly who penned it, and it’s also irrelevant. One of the great aspects of folk music, like Byzantine chant and iconography, is that the authors don’t see the need to boast by attaching their names to their work. The Arabic word Misr (مصر) means “Egypt”. In Turkish a Mısırlı is an Egyptian. Greeks show that a name belongs to a woman by ending it with “ou”. The result is this delightfully ecumenical word “Misirlou”, which refers to an Egyptian girl. It’s a sappy love song in Arabic-infused Greek. An early version of the song is linked below. I won’t translate, but this girl must have been quite something:

Grow your Musical Knowledge

Learning new scales can broaden your knowledge and, more importantly, develop your craft as a musician. It’s part and parcel of learning a new language, which Charlemagne famously compared to getting a new soul. No matter what instrument you play, think of ways that you can incorporate this scale into your practicing, your improvisation and composition efforts. Look out for it in music that you already know. Remember to check in soon to see where we’re going next!

I improvise on the Byzantine scale over some lush tabla beats

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: