NATIONAL CHARACTERISTICS IN PENTATONIC MUSICS
by László Vikár
One of the greatest achievements of systematic Hungarian folk music research which started at the beginning of this century was the discovery of pentatonic melodies. Within some years Z. Kodály and B. Bartók proved by thousands of folksongs of their own collection that the pentatonic scale formed the genuine basis of the musical tradition of our people. This scale was unfamiliar in the music of the peoples living around Hungary but has survived in the Volga-Kama area, where our ancestors came from, up to present day.
Prisoners of the first war and recent collections bear evidence of its survival.
Thus from the middle of the twenties pentatonic music came into the focus of attention of Hungarian folk music research, moreover, it assumed a decisive role in the new music education program introduced later.
For assessing the characteristic traits of the music of one’s own people it is insufficient to know merely the collection carried out in the country itself. Neighbours exert an influence from which one cannot and perhaps does not even want to withdraw oneself. It is a common phenomenon that in borderline regions homogeneous or at least similar musical styles develop despite differences in language. This insight led Bartók to study the music of the Slovaks and Rumanians. Language and state boundaries only seldom fall in with the confines of musical styles. In music there are no sharp dividing lines but rather large transitional zones which change into each other almost imperceptibly. Instrumental music that has less to do with language abounds in common features. So, a real research will have an ever greater role in the future. The generally accepted view of pentatonic music was even some decades ago, that these melodies were only existant in the music tradition of some peoples, mostly far from the “civilized” western countries. They were treated as curious and held in disdain to a certain extent. But in our days, when, through travels and recordings, unlimited possibilities have opened up, it may be safely claimed that pentatonic music is not a stray occurrence but a basic, widespread phenomenon encountered in innumerable forms on every continent. It does not follow from the foregoing, of course, that all pentatonic music is in close connection. Only complex research could reveal genuine relationships which would need the assistance of experts in the field of linguistics, history, archeology, ethnography and other related sciences. Actual connection can only be spoken of if the longlasting coexistence or neighbourship of two or more peoples is unambiguously proved.
Such a relationship may for example exist between the pentatonic musical tradition of the Indians in North and Latin America and the pentatonic melody treasure of the Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Breton peoples preserving the one-time music of the Celts or between the thousand-year-old kinship of the musics of China and the neighbouring Far Eastern regions. On the other hand, the existence of a close connection between e.g.the pentatonic music of the Indians in Peru and the pentatonic tunes of the Amharic natives of Abyssynia isbeyond question. It should be accepted that the pentatonic scale is a musical phenomenon that could evolve among the various peoples of the world independently as well. Incidental concordances do not establish the truth of anything. Folk music research, looking back on a mere 80 to 100 years and as such being a young discipline, will need quite a long time yet to be able to survey the music tradition of all continents. In connection with pentatonic music some fundamental conceptions must be briefly discussed as they might assist in clearing up misunderstandings. Both the p e n t a c h o r d and p e n t a t o n i c music consist of five notes. The difference is, nevertheless, substantial. The first includes only intervals of a second (e.g. do-re-mi-fa-so), while all others belong to the second group and may be divided into hemitonic and anhemitonic (with and without half-notes) melodies. According to their final the anhemitonic songs fall into five groups: do, re, mi, so, la. The final of these melodies has a much less important role than in the major-minor tonality. From among the anhemitonic pentatonic tunes—according to our present knowledge— those ending on so occur in the greatest number, the second most frequent ending is do, then follow songs with la and re ending and sporadically even mi-melodies can be met. The hemitonic pentatonic scales form a much more complicated system. Attention will be drawn here from their many kinds to three main ones only. The first e.g. do-mi fa-so-la is prevalent in Eastern Europe.
The second: mi-fa-la-ti-do is familiar in the Far-East, particularly in Japan, while the third: mi-fa-si-la-ti occurs in the Near-East among the Arabs. Some books apply the term pentatonic for melodies consisting of less than five notes too, denoting hereby a deficiency of the melody that it is made up of five notes “only” or even less. This somewhat pejorative use of the word seems to imply that pentatonic music itself is merely some kind of transition towards higher forms, a necessary step of development leading sooner or later from an initial stage to heptatonic diatonicism. This so-called theory of evolution can be refuted by ten thousands of melodies, for pentatony subsists and flourishes in numerous communities of the world without showing any sign of change, or progress. There is however, music with heptatonic or higher scales which lacks the transitional pentatonic period.
An important matter that has cropped up in discussions with colleagues abroad time and again is to define where the limits of the definition of pentatonic music are to be set, in other words, whether pentatonic music means the same for all people? Whether all melodies with five notes are actually pentatonic ones (with the exception of the pentachord tunes, naturally) and whether a melody with six-seven different notes is still entitled to be called pentatonic? In theory the answer would be extremely simple: every tune with five notes is pentatonic and all the others are not. According to personal experience our Hungarian sense of music developed through pentatonic music with a minor character, contradicts this reasoning. Let us take an example, the popular American children’s song of German origin. From a formal point of view it is actually pentatonic as it includes only the notes do-re-mi-so-la.
Nevertheless, it cannot pass for a pentatonic melody, because its turns fall in completely with the music in the major mode, they hide the inner construction of major harmonies and do not contain any single step which would come near the traits of our pentatonic scales. An example of contrary nature is e.g. a well-known Hungarian folksong.
Should anyone analyse it abroad, he may well claim that it is a dorian melody here (major second, minor third, major sixth). Yet it evokes the feeling of a pentatonic melody in us for, although extended by some notes, it has still remained characteristically pentatonic on the whole, in its melody turns and above all in its Their occurrence has been investigated on the above mentioned music material and among the 495 melodies of the collection—which contains of course non pentatonic melodies as well—921 such motifs could be encountered. Disregarding details the fact could be established above all, that the leap of a fourth is preceded in the majority of cases (57%) by the step of a second even if the two intervals have a contrary movement. The most frequent motif is where both steps are in the same direction (27%). The pentatonic melodies end—with one exception—on la.
The first volume of Cecil Sharp’s famous collection “English Folksongs of the Southern Appalachians” which contains almost the same number of songs (501) has also been analysed for experimental purposes.
Out of these 253 are pentatonic with a round hundred different cadential melody patterns. In spite of the identical range of voice the results differ greatly from those obtained in the Hungarian melodies. Among them there are 102 melodies ending on do, 62 on la, 52 on so and 37 end on re. The final is reached from above in 160 cases. Out of the hundred different cadences 35 end upwards. The most typical cadential melody turns are as follows:
Much data is provided by the initial and closing motifs as they form perhaps the most important elements of the various melodies. But finally the characteristic melodic turns, rhythms and inner forms produce the countless variants possible from the five notes of the anhemitonic scale.
The closer you look at the pentatonic melodies the more conspicuous the nuances become. The title of the present paper could also have been a question: Is there any national characteristic in the various pentatonic musics? It may be safely asserted that there is and not negligible either.
Future research will lean more and more on computers in every field. Technical devices will perhapsenable us some day to be aware, not only of sensual impressions, but also of the musical diversities as well.
Trends in research lead in two directions: from the knowledge of particulars to universality, or on the contrary from the knowledge of particulars to universality, or on the contrary from the whole to minute details.