* Olivier Messiaen's modes of limited transposition

After starting a discussion on cadences in modal music on VirtualArtists.com, the subject at some point turned into a discussion of elements of the musical language of Olivier Messiaen (notably his "modes of limited transposition").

After listening to and reading a bit about Messiaen's musical language I was intrigued enough to try and find out why and how his modes work so well with us, the listeners. I wanted to see if there are some things about his modes that are not present in other scales or modes used for musical composition.

I believe I came up with some fascinating insights (if not necessarily new ones? I haven't checked).I've written up my insights so far and if the subject interests you, perhaps you might want to take a peek at the document. It uses some basic mathematics, but everything you need to know to follow the document is explained in a hopefully understandable language.

Comments and especially criticisms are welcome! Also don't be frightened by the length of the document (27 pages so far). The length is caused mostly by the many appendices :)

The current version of the document is attached here in .pdf form. The document itself contains instructions for where to get the latest version of the document, since this represents a work in progress, and also for people who want to reproduce all the results contained therein (this may be a bit difficult if you haven't got any experience with software development).

The latest version of the document should always be available from this link: Link to latest version of .pdf document.

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Comment by Stefaan Himpe on April 24, 2014 at 3:07pm

Thank you so much B_Graytful!

I like to work with a text or a poem because it provides a structure for the music and adds a sense of direction to the music. In my view it's related to this "syntax of music" discussion you started. Many of my pieces "without lyrics" secretly have lyrics behind them. I see it as a kind of constraint that helps me select promising paths from the vast sea of possible paths and arrive at a result. By "singing" a text I also feel like it's easier to come up with a melody, as opposed to just successive notes that happen to result from vertical harmonies.

Elaboration of musical ideas into longer pieces is something I struggle with - I usually quite literally follow a text and since I'm not a huge fan of long poems, it results in short pieces. Elaboration and "forms" in music is something I still hope to learn more about in the future.

Incidently, the scores are not made in Finale or Sibelius - I use Lilypond - but in case anyone'd be interested to sing a piece I could probably make a recording of just the piano part. Then, not unlike it's done for the virtual choir, it should be possible to mix recordings and make something.

Comment by B Gray on April 24, 2014 at 2:42pm

I agree with Julie.  Nice pieces.  Lovely choice of texts too.  Wonder if we have anyone here that is willing to sing the part for you.  I understand that you can blend in live audio on Finale and Sibelius.  I have not done it but . . .

Comment by Stefaan Himpe on April 24, 2014 at 7:01am

Thank you Julie for your kind comments! I'm honored and thrilled by your proposal to use my humble experiments for your class.

You can get scores here:

Wandrers Nachtlied - Ein gleiches

I died for beauty

Best regards, and good luck :)


Comment by Harmonia on April 23, 2014 at 9:04pm

Stefaan, both these pieces are lovely!  I'm deep in concert preparations so I won't get into the interesting discussion, but I wanted to tell you how much I enjoy these two pieces, and your choice of text. 

Goethe's Nightwalker poem is one of my favorites.  This is the English translation I've "grown inward" with over many years:

Over all the hilltops
Among all the treetops
You feel hardly
A breath moving.
The birds fall silent in the woods.
Simply wait! Soon
You too will be silent.

Your setting is absolutely perfect.

The Emily Dickinson poem is new to me, and it's a thrill to learn it!  I thought I knew all her 2,000 or so poems!!  ;-)

Stefaan, this Saturday my university composition class is studying text setting and simple accompaniments and I promised to bring them some interesting new examples.  We don't have an internet connection in my classroom (imagine that) so I take printed copies of scores.  Would it be ok with you if I used these two settings as examples for my class?   And if so, could you upload the scores so that I can download and print them?   These two pieces would be a very fitting end to a class which has been focusing on mode writing and more recently on art songs.  The students (ranging in age from 13 to 78) will be fascinated by these two modes of yours!

Thanks in advance - and mainly thanks for this beautiful music and sharing of poetry!

Comment by B Gray on April 23, 2014 at 7:23pm


Yes --> "This "pick a mode and have fun with it" is leading me to create pieces I never would have come up with if I had started from a chromatic scale (which encompasses the same notes, and more)."  

Music is pattern (among other things).  Composers impose pattern and make that work

Comment by Stefaan Himpe on April 23, 2014 at 4:58pm

I've created two pieces now based on non-Messiaen modes of internal symmetry.  Because I do not have access to a "good singer" at the moment, I've created some versions where I've replaced the singing with a synthetic oboe (it sounds... somewhat suboptimal)

The first piece sets a poem of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to music (Wandrer's Nachtlied - Ein Gleiches). It uses the mode of ternary internal symmetry (3)9. This hexatonic mode consists of the 6 notes C Eb E G Ab B. Maybe you better know this mode as "the C augmented scale". Only these 6 notes (in different octaves) are used in the song.The score was posted in the previous comment, but now you can listen to it!

The second piece sets a poem of Emily Dickinson ("I died for beauty") to music. With the exception of a single measure, the piece only uses notes from mode of binary internal symmetry (2)109. This mode has 7 notes: C Db E F G Ab B, and sounds quite Arabic. Again I had to replace the singing by a synthetic oboe, but according to some comments I got on youtube in this case the oboe works a bit better in the style of the music...

One of the major insights I get from these excercises is that constraints can help creativity. This "pick a mode and have fun with it" is leading me to create pieces I never would have come up with if I had started from a chromatic scale (which encompasses the same notes, and more).

Comment by Stefaan Himpe on March 20, 2014 at 6:11pm

In the mean time, the document has grown to about 13 pages of explanation and over 300 pages of appendices and musical "passports" for each of the modes that have internal symmetries as examined in the document.

I've taken one of the non-Messiaen modes from the document (mode (3)9 in the notation of the document) and used it to set a Johann Wolfgang von Goethe poem to music ("Wandrers Nachtlied II - Ein Gleiches"). 

The mode I used has 6 distinct notes, and has ternary internal symmetries (see document for details). It consists of notes C Eb E G Ab B. Later I found out this is also sometimes called the C augmented scale.

While writing the music sometimes I got frustrated for the lack of some "essential" notes, but then the challenge became to work around the missing notes by either substituting them with other notes, or just using silence to suggest them and have the listener fill them in subconsciously. This sounds way more advanced than it really is in the little piece I wrote... It's a slow and simple piece, but to me it sounds quite effective. I'm certainly motivated to redo this exercise with a different poem and a different mode.

I do not yet have a recording, but I hope to be able to make one in the future. If anyone feels like singing a tenor part in German ranging between middle Eb and high G, be sure to let me know ;) (The English is included just for understanding the lyrics, it is not meant to be sung). And of course criticisms or other feedback remain welcome.

and page two:

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