The Ethos of Rhythm and Scales by Nadel Paris

In the ancient past, the Greeks attributed an "ethos" or moral force to musical rhythms and scales. To determine the ethos of anything such as a musical rhythm they not only factored meter, but also other fundamental rhythmic elements such as lengths, beats, bars, and parts. Their study of these elements brought about the following statements about rhythm in particular:


An equal genre such as 1/1 is calm and resolute. The sound of this rhythm would be similar to that of a heartbeat that pounds steadily away with each beat containing an equal emphasis.


The double 2/1 is vivid and loose. The sound of this rhythm could have a few variations where you would either emphasize the first or the second beat (backbeat).


The rhythm 3/2 they considered feverish and enthusiastic. The sound of this rhythm would have a waltz feel or a swaying motion.


Interestingly, by combining ones, twos and threes you can get other meters or a time signature which allows you to capture the ethos of other meters as mentioned above. You can get a 2/1 feel (vivid and loose) from a 6/8 or a 4/4 time signature or a 3/2 ethos (feverish and enthusiastic) from a 12/8 or 9/4 time signature by expertly accenting the right beats in the measures or using a complex form of syncopation.


Similarly, the Greeks did exactly the same thing with scales and modes. Several remaining fragments and entire essays exist today where a famous Greek philosopher theorized about the subject of an ethos of a scale. Perhaps, a good example to use will be by one of ancient Greece's most famous philosopher's Aristotle. [Note: the ancient Greeks used the word 'harmoniai' when referencing scales and modes.] For example, Aristotle in the Politics says, "melodies themselves do contain [character]... the harmoniai have quite distinct natures from one another, so that those who hear them are differently affected and do not respond in the same way to each. To some, such as the one called Mixolydian, they respond with more grief and anxiety, to others, such as the relaxed harmoniai, with more mellowness of mind, and to one another with a special degree of moderation and firmness, Dorian being apparently the only one of the harmoniai to have this effect, while Phrygian creates ecstatic excitement."


Unfortunately, scholars are not quite sure about the exact tonal character of ancient Greek music, their tuning systems, and scales. So when Aristotle refers to Mixolydian or Dorian he may not actually be referring to the scales we're familiar with. While it would be very cool to know about those things concerning the music of the ancient Greeks, it is not a part of the point. Rather, what I want to bring your attention to is the fact that the scales or modes we use today do indeed also have an ethos and the degree to which we can become aware of the exact ethos one is creating musically or being exposed to when we're listening to music is the exact degree to which we can affect (or infect) others or are allowing ourselves to be affected. Because ultimately, it's these two elements - rhythm and melody - more than any others in music that have a profound effect on us emotionally, intellectually, and morally.


Not unlike rhythm, scales and modes can also be mixed together to compose very complex melodies as is common in modern Western music. What happens when one mixes bits and pieces of the elements of two or more modes is very similar to what occurs when one mixes two or more rhythms in a single composition, you effect dramatic emotional, intellectual, and moral changes upon the listener. So whether one is manipulating the size, duration, force, velocity and mixture of two or more meters in order to achieve the use of asymmetrical meters, oddly numbered measures, plenty of syncopation, changing time signatures, or any combination of these elements or modulating from one scale to another diatonically or chromatically, using modern embellishments, and compositional techniques the end result possesses an ethos of unusual character. Perhaps, the ethos of modern Western music would be difficult to define if not even unknown to the ancient Greeks. Regardless, it's what we've got now and today it's how a modern composer and musician approach the art of writing music.


Nadel Paris is an EDM artist and a music producer. Nadel writes about music and its various genres, other related topics and shares her experience she has over the years. She offers expert advice and great tips forall aspects of music genre through her blogs.

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