Exploring the Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns

Ava Mendoza uses Nicolas Slonimsky’s book, Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, as a source for new modes and compositional ideas. Slonimsky was a 20th-century classical composer. Born in Russia, he fled to the West following the Bolshevik Revolution and spent most of his life in the United States. In addition to composing, Slonimsky was a prolific writer and essayist, and a champion of contemporary music. He had close associations with Edgard Varèse, Charles Ives, and Frank Zappa.

Although largely ignored when published in 1947, Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns became popular when word got out that John Coltrane used it to generate ideas. Many other musicians, including Jaco Pastorius and Zappa, were known to study from it as well.

At its heart, Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns is a collection of manufactured scales that work around symmetrical patterns of equal intervallic distances, interpolations, pentatonics, 12-tone rows, and other systems. For example, a Slonimsky scale might be based on skips of alternating half-steps and tritones, dividing an octave into four equal parts. The patterns break from traditional harmonic structures and provide fodder for exploration in a post-harmonic, atonal environment. How dissonant or atonal one of Slonimsky’s manufactured modes might sound depends on context and how you apply it.

Slonimsky’s scales and patterns are advanced musical theory and provide a break from the doldrums of tonality. Proceed with caution: If you’re happy in a diatonic world, Slonimsky’s offerings might not be for you. To learn more about Slonimsky, listen to him discuss his relationship with Zappa in this video.