Hidden in Plain Sight: The Discovery of an Important Scale // Kim Chandler

I’ve had an insatiable curiosity for quite some time to know which scales (or modes) that songwriters of hit songs intuitively use to create their vocal melodies; the main interest being how this knowledge applies to the vocal exercise patterns we use in training singers. Clearly, at the present time, there’s a strong bias towards major-based patterns in vocal exercises, but a “soap box” area of mine for years has been to challenge and encourage singers and teachers to embrace the wider, tasty “smorgasbord” of available musical patterns in the pursuit of achieving a more varied, interesting and nourishing vocal “diet”. 

To this end, almost a decade ago, I was presenting at an international voice conference in the south of France – PEVOC 9 – to a room packed with eminent vocal coaches from across the world. I wanted to present my case for going “Beyond the Major Scale” and so took it upon myself to analyze the vocal melodies of the UK Top 40 in the weeks leading up to the conference to see: 

1. What the major/minor key split was (which was one third/two thirds), and 

2. Which scales (or modes) were the vocal melodies based on? 

What I found was a surprise to me…

The main scale that kept popping up was the natural minor scale or Aeolian mode – around a third of the songs – followed perhaps unsurprisingly by the major scale (around a fifth). But a very close third – also around a fifth – was a pattern I’d not ever come across before. This was baffling, especially having been trained to masters’ degree level in music and having written and taught degree-level theory and ear-training modules. I was somewhat expecting the pentatonic scales to crop up, and they did, but not in anywhere near the numbers that this mysterious third-most-used scale was…

At first, thinking I was only going to encounter patterns I already knew, I kept saying to myself: “Is this a natural minor scale that keeps leaving out the 6th, or is it a minor pentatonic with an added 2nd as a passing note”? 🤔 But when this 6-note pattern kept coming up time & time again I realised I needed to find out if this pattern had its own name. It wasn’t good enough that it was just “plus or minus” another scale; it deserved its own recognition. I was a bit mystified that I didn’t know it myself frankly, but in the interests of self-advancement and lifelong learning I decided to eat “humble pie” and start asking around my hundreds of fellow musicians online, many of whom are top-shelf touring musicians and/or teachers at top-flight music institutions. 

The pattern was 1-2-b3-4-5-b7 so for all intents & purposes was a 5-note minor scale + a flattened 7th. As I was asking about, it was drawing a blank for most, but then finally a lone voice – a guitar teacher I used to work with – came to the rescue and informed me that it was called the “Minor Hexatonic” scale! A scale that is apparently useful for beginner guitarists to improvise with. “Hexatonic” denotes that it’s a 6-note scale of course and there are other hexatonic scales, such as the Blues scale, Major Hexatonic and even Scottish Hexatonic.  However, this particular configuration has been used intuitively in the creation of pop melodies but curiously hasn’t been “on the radar” in this role. I’m hoping to change that…

To show that the Minor Hexatonic’s melodic usage goes back at least to the 70s, here is a “retro” example in its ascending form, in perfect sequential order – the first phrase of the iconic instrumental hook from Donna Summer’s disco hit “Hot Stuff”: 

(Excerpt from www.kupdf.net. G minor key signature is not included in this excerpt)

And an example in descending form, again in perfect sequential order, is Nicky Minaj’s vocal hook just before the chorus in the 2012 David Guetta hit “Turn Me On” (at 45 seconds): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YVw7eJ0vGfM

Once I knew this wonderful scale existed and finally knew its name, I had it included in the theory curriculum for the Popular Music degree students at Leeds College of Music, where I was a Principal Lecturer at the time, and also mentioned it in a chapter I wrote for the compendium “Teaching Singing in the 21st Century” (Springer, 2014). And I’m hoping that by writing this account that even more awareness will be brought to it for those here who also deserve to know. It needs to take its rightful place amongst all the other useful scales we already talk about in reference to pop music. Keep your ear out for it and give a little smile of acknowledgment when you inevitably come across it. 🙂

If you’re interested in exploring more, please check out my upcoming workshop: https://voiceworkshop.co.uk/beyond-the-major-scale-engaging-the-ear-and-voice-in-vocal-exercises-with-kim-chandler/

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