Saturday, October 13, 2007

Negro Spirituals and the Pentatonic Scale



Not all cultures used the seven note scale in composing music. For example, as this video clip points out, American Negro spirituals used the pentatonic, or five note, scale. In early America, this scale was referred to as the slave scale. Indicative of the interaction that went on between white and slave culture, many white composers adopted this scale when writing spirituals. The performer in this video, Wintley Phipps , speculates that the melody of the famous hymn Amazing Grace was West African. He suggests this because the writer of the lyrics, John Newton, was the captain of a slave ship. Of course, we can’t be sure--others would certainly disagree--but it is a compelling idea. Whatever the case, this is certainly a hymn that crosses racial lines and even religious/secular divisions in terms of popularity.

Also, not only is this video a history lesson on music, it is also a great example of the power of music to produce an emotional experience.

16 comments:

Dennis Kwon said...

It was certainly an emotional video where the speaker's points about the slavery and how all people are created equally under God were accurately connected to the notino of the Pentatonic scale and the example of Amazing Grace. I would say that the Christian aspect of his speech leading up to the famous, sentimental melody of Amazing Grace helped create a significant experience.
I think the fact that the Pentatonic scale probably emerged from West Africa, where back then it didn't communicate with the Americans in terms of music, shows how different methods of communication can be effective. The different system resembles the different numbering systems (which we studied in class) or the languages around the world; these are all just different methods and systems of communication. The reason certain systems are accepted more is the dominance of one group of people using a particular system over another group of people using the other system; although I am not sure, the 7-note system was probably favored because the Europeans were dominant over the Africans during the time. If we were to use the other system until now, we would be perfectly used to it.

hongyuan77 said...

Strangely enough, as I was watching the video, I thought about MLK and Malcolm X and realized how the style of African Americans’ speech has changed dramatically. To large extent, the difference in the tone might be the difference in individuals’ and the topic that speaker is addressing to. But I see an amazing difference in the way how MLK and Malcolm X spoke to the speaker right now. I imagine it was almost impossible for an African American speaker to stand in front of huge crowd of whites in such a bright tone MLK and Malcolm X periods. Thus, I see a huge leap in our society in a way how discrimination is mitigating.
In addition, the speaker address that there was interaction between whites and blacks, but black composer was named “unknown”. This illustrates how severe the discrimination was. However, instead of solemn atmosphere in addressing the discrimination, the tone of the speaker was very bright and the speaker tried to evoke an emotional appeal through the word and music. He stated that “we are all connected” and the song he sang was powerful in conveying the historical message.

Gracie said...

After hearing the man sing the last word, "Amen", it certainly created emotions that seems endless and binding to the soul. Not only were the lyrics of Amazing Grace powerful but the melody and the instruments used to create the song. In some ways the instruments created the sound effect of ocean waves which allowed me to picture the slave ship.

Despite the amazing emotions that came upon me while watching this video, what amazed me the most was the speakers energy and voice and the response from the crowd. In the crowd, Black and White people were sitting side by side nodding their heads and clapping.. this behavior would have never been acceptable in the past. It showed me how much the world has changed. The acknowledgement of each individual cultures were very much evident in this video which was astounding. This definitely showed how culture evolves over time.

caroline kim said...

By watching this video, I was surprised how most of the gospel songs used the pentatonic or five note scale. Never did I imagine that the melody of Amazing Grace would use the five note scale and bring emotion. Certainly, from the video, it can be seen how music can bring emotion as well as communication through its lyrics and melody. By just listening to the melody of Amazing Grace, we can have the emotion of sadness and loneliness and by listening to the lyrics we can hear the message of the sinfulness of slavery. The melody and lyrics can also bring an image in a human mind based on its emotion. From Amazing Grace, we can imagine a lonely white captain slave ship who regrets his actions.
However it was amazing how the speaker would relate the pentatonic or five note scale to show that God created all people equally. The speaker was able to communicate with the crowd that he gave humor and spoke in a firm voice that allowed the crowd to respond. All blacks and whites were sitting together and agreed with the speaker rather than discriminating the race. Overall, as time past, finally the blacks are given equal treatment as the whites. It seems that the hard work in the civil rights movements paid off after all.

James Yo said...

Just to make note of another aspect from this entry... While we talk about math and how it serves as a language, I cannot but think that music is another universal language we use. We can hardly find any culture that does not have its own songs, however short and plain they may be. It is really intriguing how cultures shape the characteristics of songs. When we listen to songs from another culture, they sound new and exotic, while people who are used to that culture will find them very familiar. This is a matter of perspectives, because whether or not those songs are familiar simply depends on the individuals. But what about our instinctive reactions to the songs? For example, if I sing a song and it's out of tune to a significant extent, even people who have never heard of that song will immediately know that it is out of tune. (unless the song is meant to be noisy...) Everyone seems to have the same sense of what is harmonious and what is cacophnious. I guess it is inherent in us, seeing that people from everywhere seem to have the same discerning ability.

Samuel Kim said...

I will keep my promise!!


The video, itself, little bit touched my heart because of its poignant melody. Anyhow, it is amazing that it is possible to make resounding and beatiful song only with Pentatonic Scale, the five black notes. In some sense, it is extremely revolutionary that African American slave contrived this scale while white, who emphasized the superiority over negros, could not find this Scale before African American did. Anyhow, i would like to examine this invention and notion in different realm.

It seems like two separate society invented two different ways to express themselves. White chose seven notes system and African Slaves chose five notes system, as a result. As one sees, their approach was diameteric and revolutionary. In some sense, both of them were intelligent to invent these Scales. This outcome totally breaks down the stereotype, which demonstrates white superirority over Blacks. Therefore, ssing Pentatonic Scale both indirectly and directly displayed, in some sense, the racial equality.

However, two diffrent society's way of effective communication system represented each other's value in music. Now, their Scale is integrated together to demonstrate higher level of musical performance.

As in music, Blacks played different roles in society until voting rights were granted to them. Therefore, i consider the Pentatonic Scale as representation of black community. The pentatic sacle was once used to represent Black community. Now, Pentatic system is coalesced with Seven Notes system to show higher level of music while Black and White communites were also integrated as US went through the civil rights movement.

Jane Placke said...

The video was very touching and emotional when the speaker first started humming the song. I have learned about the pentatonic scale in Africa and because their structure and texture of the music is so different, I have never realized that Amazing Grace used only pentatonic notes. Interestingly, in Korea as well, there is an instrument named Damso that uses a 5 noted scale called joong-im-moo-hwang-tae. I think this scale has the same notes as the pentatonic scale. The famous Korean folk song 'Arirang' can also be played with only pentatonic scale or the joong-im-moo-hwang-tae scale. Throughout learning about different music from different cultures, I think music are also influenced a lot between the cultures, and unconsciously, they probably have shared and adopted some of the things from the other cultures.

I think music, because it plays the emotions in humans’ hearts, it is very powerful and effective on humans. I felt the 'power of music' especially in the SEW last week. When I was singing the songs during the service, I was very touched by one particular song. When I looked up to see the words, I realized that its lyrics were exact bible verses from the bible. Then I was amazed by how the music can shake one's emotion. Because usually when I read the bible to myself, I don't usually get touched as much as I listen to a gospel. However, when these same words were put into musical melodies, it touched my heart and gave me strong emotions. With these kinds of experiences, I believe that music has strong power. I also believe that music is universal because even with out the words, people can be touched by the melodies. Therefore, I firmly believe that the power of music is great, and that it is affects our emotions very much.

JAEDOO LEE said...

this is a very interesting and thought provoking video. i had never thought of black hymns being made by the pentatonic scale. I never thought of this being possible. when the speaker talked about amazing grace, i was actually quite shocked because the hymn had supposedly been writen by a captain of a slave ship.
i am an avid fan of music and i always enjoy the emotions that hymns produce. it is hard to imagine why a five note scale on the black notes were use instead of the regular 7 note scale. What is also funny to notice is that the keys were BLACK. Coinciently, the slaves were black as well.
i think that music is a unique form of communication in that it delivers different messages depending on the emotion. inevitably, this is a somewhat different way of communication from the 7note scale and this is most likely because of the difference between slave and slawe owner

testosterone said...

The pentatonic scale is very rhythmical. When I play guitar and look at some of the popular rock artists and guitarists now such as ozzy osbourne or zack wylde, they are known for using the pentatonic scale to an extent. The pentatonic scale has been very important in the progress of modern music. We often learn the pentatonic scale first because it is easy to know, to memorize, and to use. The minor pentatonic scale which derived from the pentatonic scale also gives birth to the blues scale which is nearly similar to the minor pentatonic scale. Genres such as country, blues, rock and roll, etc are all heavily based on the pentatonic scale.
This video in general has very interesting information in it. Music has a way of communicating with audience through emotion. I suppose emotion can be a way of communication as well.

Alan Sohn said...

I was goosebumped for the entire clip. This clip definitely moved me, espeically when Wintley Phipps said "we are connected". Since I never thought this Negro Spirituals would make such connection, I was greatly impressed. In addition to his beautiful voice, his faith is incredibly applaudable. The way he demonstrates how John Newton would have sung this song is extremely ostentatious. I have nothing to say, but "wow"... Although the Negro Spirituals used the different scale for songs from seven scale, this absolutely brought all the different kinds of people together into one. No matter who actually composed the song "Amazing Grace", it is so powerful that it made the people in the concert hall compatible. In my opinion, all these different scales created by different ethnic groups were created to harmonize people. Despite the ethnic barrier, the music is proved to be unbreakable by the racial differences. The clip was just amazing.

Jiwon said...

Last year in IB music class, I learned that there are many types of scales. Before then, I only knew about 7-note scale and 5-note scale (pentatonic scale). In fact, a lot of Korean traditional songs are composed on 5-note scale. As Jane mentioned above, “A-ri-rang,” which is one of the most famous Korean folk songs, is based on pentatonic scale, and therefore, it can be played by only black notes on piano. Even though Korean folk songs use pentatonic scale, unlike the African spirituals, they are not related to religion or spiritual world. Still, it is interesting to discover that both Korean and African cultures used the same pentatonic scales in their traditional music. But I wonder how the two different cultures came to use the same scale because I don’t see clear connection between them in history.

Throughout history, different cultures used different scales in their music. For example, a lot of African and Asian music are atonal. Thus, they don't have the same tone or mood as most of Western music does. Musicians in India frequently use microtones, which are the smaller units of notes than semitones (Semitones, such as F and F sharp, are the smallest unit of notes in Western music). Also, traditional Japanese and Balinese music are atonal. When I listened to the Balinese music played by gamelan (small groups of traditional Indonesian musicians), I couldn’t connect to the music emotionally. However, as a ritual music, I’m sure it has different meanings and profound emotional impacts on Indonesians. Thus, I think music has different meanings to different people; I like classical music, but some people in African villages wouldn’t enjoy it. Of course, music, in general, has such a huge impact on people emotionally. But I believe that it is the different music, different culture, and different audience that determine how music can bring emotions to people.

Alice Seo said...

It is true that people adjust on what majority of people are used to or what they use. The music note scale is not the same for everyone. For instance, the Negro Spirituals and the Pentatonic Scale is very different and Korean or Chinese scale is different where we use joung, im, moo, hwang, te instead of do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti. Only using the black keyboard is not that usual to people these days. However, this is very similar to the fact that people are used to the decimal system when counting when we get into another approach. We tend to count up to 9, and then count over 10 using 1 and 0. When we time, we count up to 12 or 24 hours and 60 minutes. This inevitably tells how the public or the majority can change a fact, yet maybe not the truth.
The video also told me how music is effective in our life. Music, although it seems extremely illogical, it can change the perspective of people. I often get more emotional when I listen to music than when I am informed from other media. I could be re-informed that the movies (video) and music can be influential as it touches people’s heart.
The speaker is very powerful that nearly everyone was touched and this, in my opinion, tells how authority is effective to people. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King’s speech seem very powerful but what if they were just a normal high school student or even a kindergartener? I think this can be an interesting question.

Anonymous said...

Very Interest - Good Information too. Also the writer/arranger of a very well known R&B song, "My Girl" made popular by the Temptations used the Pentatonic scale (Slave Scale) as an introduction.

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Anonymous said...

What an exquisite rendering of Amazing Grace. The kind that brings a tear to my eyes.

However the rest of Phipps' story has taken great liberties ... I won't go into detail here - there's enough discussion out there by learned folks who know more than I do ...

This performance would have been absolutely perfect if he'd stuck to the music and omitted the story about the black keys/slave scale and the origins that he attributes to Newton's writing.