Close this search box.

Symmetrical Scales in French Flute Repertoire

Molly York | May 2009

    All flutists eventually learn and perform French Conservatory literature but generally do so without the theoretical knowledge that lays the foundation for many of the scale passages within. Technique books, such as Taffanel and Gaubert’s 17 Big Daily Exercises, include traditional major, minor, and whole tone scales and arpeggios but fail to address less common scales. Under­standing the whole- and half-step formulas that make up symmetrical scales will make learning many difficult passages in the solo repertoire easier.

A Bit of Background
    The French Flute School founded by Paul Taffanel, who taught at the Paris Conservatoire from 1893 to 1908, became a collaboration of teachings that were influenced by other professors and flutists, including Philippe Gaubert, Georges Barrère, Andre Maquarre, and Marcel Moyse.
    Between 1860 and 1950, flute music at the Paris Conser­vatoire was written for use as test pieces and studies. Rather than grades, students received prizes for their performances of these works, and receiving a First Prize (premier prix) was the same as graduation. These pieces are now staples in our flute repertoire and represent a vast part of what we are expected to learn.
    Music written during the first half of the 20th century began to breakdown traditional tonality; functional harmony was no longer used in the traditional sense. This music retained the pillars of functional harmony, but also filled phrases with extended tonality.  This was done with the use of whole-tone, octatonic, and hexatonic scales.
    Meter and rhythm also began to change. Rhythmic ambiguity was created with poly-meters, such as shifting subdivisions in mixed meters. Greater technical demands became part of music during this period, as composers explored new interpretive and expressive extremes. Flute music became more dramatic and expressive than before, causing music written in typical classical structures to be less rigid and more free forming. In The Flute Book, Nancy Toff describes early French flute music: “dynamics, tempo, expressive markings – became more numerous and more complex. But, paradoxically, these increased markings gave rise to greater interpretive license for the performer: rather than being restrictive, they provided the performer with a whole new range of possibilities.”2

The Scales
    French composers influenced by impressionism favored whole-tone, octatonic, and hexatonic scales and patterns, called symmetrical scales, which created a dreamlike musical atmosphere. Also known as synthetic scales, these scales lack a tonal center,3 because they lack a leading tone. This creates a lack of drive or resolution. Because these scales are frequently used in 20th-century and contemporary literature, it is extremely important for flutists to learn them well.

Whole-Tone Scales   
    The whole-tone scale is constructed entirely of whole steps. (W=whole step)
A whole-tone scale starting on C consists of three white keys and three black keys.
There are only two possible combinations of notes for whole-tone scales – one that begins on C and one that begins on C#.
    Because all the notes in a whole-tone scale are equidistant from each other, no note feels more or less important than the next. Here are two examples of whole-tone scales taken from Philippe Gaubert’s Fantaisie. The introduction sounds free and has improvisatory characteristics. The C# whole-tone scale below concludes the dreamy introduction right before a beautiful and lyrical, yet definite beginning theme.
    This next example uses a C# whole-tone scale accompanied by a descending augmented triad that just happens to be one of only two possible triads available in the whole-tone scale.

Octatonic Scales
     An octatonic scale has eight notes that alternate whole and half steps. The pattern is as follows: whole step, half step, whole step, half step, whole step, half step, whole step.
Because the whole/half step interval pattern is consistent, there are only three forms of an octatonic scale. Octatonic scales can start on any pitch, but they always fall into one of these three patterns.
    The octatonic scale is also called a diminished scale because it is made up of two super-imposed diminished seventh chords.4
    Octatonic scales, similar to the whole-tone scales, lack a tonal center because of their symmetry. Composers use octatonic scales because their major, minor, and diminished qualities make them extremely flexible.
    In Jacques Ibert’s Pièce Pour Flute Seule, the beginning of the piece plays around a D-octatonic scale. Marked “a piacere,” which means “at your pleasure,” this octatonic passage gives Pièce a haunting foundation.
    Another example comes from Henri Dutilleux’s Sonatine for flute and piano. The octatonic scalar passage, leads up to a forceful high-A trill and is the climactic and elusive ending to a long crescendo based on the A theme at the beginning of the piece. This particular octatonic passage is based on a C-octatonic scale, although it is a little hard to detect because it is enharmonically spelled.
    The example above from the Sonatine is a double-tongued passage that marks a vague ending before the cadenza segment that ends the Allegro section.

Hexatonic Scales
A six-note hexatonic scale follows the pattern: half step, minor third, half step, minor third, half step. (A minor third is equal to the distance between three half steps.) The keyboard following illustrates a hexatonic scale.
    Like the whole-tone and octatonic scales, a hexatonic scale is symmetrical, so there are only four possible combinations. Like all other symmetrical scales, hexatonic scales can start on any pitch and can be enharmonically spelled.
    The use of hexatonic scales or patterns in music provides a sense of detachment of tonality or a “floating between a tonality that has been attacked by the weakening of the root progressions but not yet completely destroyed.”5
    The Dutilleux Sonatine excerpt above is a wonderful example of a hexatonic scale. It is part of the cadenza at the end of the first allegro section.
    Another example of a hexatonic pattern in French flute literature comes from George Enesco’s Cantabile et Presto. This excerpt from the very end of the Andante ma non troppo incorporates an A major instead of an A minor, which would complete the whole hexatonic scale.

Applications for Use
    Flutists should add these scales to their daily scale routines. When the  whole- and half-step patterns become second nature, many of the running passages of scales and arpeggios in solo pieces will become more fluid, and practice time will be reduced. Using the interval patterns defined above, you could chose one scale type each week and play them on each scale degree every day.
    If you are used to playing scales in key centers (all types of C scales and arpeggios, etc.), then just add the three symmetrical scales to your daily routine. When they are smooth and even, try them with various articulations and rhythms. The more time spent on them in your practice session, the easier the French Conservatory and contemporary solo repertoire will be.

Andrews, H.K: ‘Whole Tone Scale’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy
Bass, Richard. “Models of Octatonic and Whole-Tone Interaction: George Crumb and His Predecessors.” Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 38, No. 2. (Autumn, 1994), pp. 155-186.
Cohn, Richard. “Maximally Smooth Cycles, Hexatonic Systems, and the Analysis of Late-Romantic Triadic Progressions.” Music Analysis, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Mar., 1996), pp. 9-40.
Garner, Santa, and Thomas Hughes. Flute/Theory Workout. USA: 24Keys, 2002.
Garner Santa, Lisa. Rêver en Couleurs (CD insert notes). USA: MSR Music LLC, 2007.
Kostka, Stephan and Dorothy Payne. Tonal Harmony. United States: McGraw-Hill     Companies, Inc., 2000.
Moyse, Louis. Flute Music by French Composers. New York: G. Schirmer, Inc., 1967.
Strunk, Steven: ‘Altered Scale’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy>
Toff, Nancy. The Flute Book: A Complete Guide for Students and Performers. New York:     Oxford University Press, 1996.

1 Wye, Trevor, 1993, Marcel Moyse, an extraordinary man, ed. Angeleita Floyd, Winzer Press, Iowa. pg. 107.
2 Toff, Nancy. The Flute Book: A Complete Guide for Students and Performers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. pg. 242.
3 Kostka, Stefan and Dorothy Payne. Tonal Harmony. United States: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2000. Pg. 496.
4 Strunk, Steven: ‘Altered Scale’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy
5 Cohn, Richard. “Maximally Smooth Cycles, Hexatonic Systems, and the Analysis of Late-Romantic Triadic Progressions.” Music Analysis, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Mar., 1996), pg. 9.