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Alphabet Songs

What if we let some outside rule direct our melodies? Maybe one that might seem to have some element of chance or randomness. This is the idea behind many approches to constructing melodies, and they have some pretty interesting uses and side effects.

This page explores some specific melody-directing rules that are based on playing certain notes for characters in an alphabet. I call the songs that emerge “Alphabet Songs”.

The basic idea is to assign each character in your alphabet to a pitch or, for our flutes, a finger pattern. Any written phrase then corresponds to a sequence of pitches or finger patterns that form the basis of a melody. You can then “play” a written phrase as a melody. Of course, how long you hold each note, what rhythm and tempo you use, and how you add ornaments is open to interpretation or improvisation.

Alphabet Song chart by Doug Holly

Alphabet Song chart by Doug Holly Larger image

History

The idea of alphabet songs goes back to at least Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), who used his own initials for the notes of the fugue “Before Thy Throne I Now Appear” on his deathbed on July 28, 1750 ([Schmidt 2011]). However, it might be far older and date back to Greek philosophers.

R. Carlos Nakai has said that Doug Holly was the first to use alphabet songs for Native Americian flutes. I received the chart shown at the right on a small wallet-sized card at the 2001 Renaissance of the Native American flute workshop.

On the R. Carlos Nakai album Journeys (1986), the melody for the first track — Life is for Living — is an alphabet song on its own title.

The alphabet song technique has also been referred to as the “Fibonacci Technique” by Robert Gatliff on his FluteTree.com web site. His Fibonacci Technique page lays out a mapping from the letters in the Latin alphabet onto the pentatonic minor scale, but does not include the Finger diagram open open closed open open open octave note.


What can you use Alphabet Songs for?

At first, alphabet songs seemed rather whimsical, because of their arbitrary or random nature. However, over the years, I found them useful in more and more situations. Here are some:

  • Personal songs. You can play a “person's song”, based on their name. This is useful in one-on-one situations as well as more public settings such as in classroom presentations and memorial services.
  • Teaching scales. In an educational setting, you can use the alphabet song exercise as a game. The side effect is that participants will learn the scale they are playing. In particular, they will learn to play leaps (see the Steps and Leaps page) and start to introduce them in their own melodies. For more advanced participants, you can teach alternate scales simply by playing alphabet songs based on that scale.
  • Teaching song structure. To teach common song structure patterns:
    • Have people play select two phrases. Let's call them “A” and “B”. For example, I might use my first and last name — “Clint Goss” as my “A” and my middle name — “Francis” as my “B”.
    • Have people play a alphabet song based on the “A” phrase.
    • Repeat the “A” alphabet song.
    • Play an alphabet song based on the “B” phrase.
    • Finally, play the “A” phrase again.
    • People have just gotten experience playing the classic “AABA” song structure.

Pentatonic Minor for the Latin Alphabet

Here is a chart that I use for playing alphabet songs in the pentatonic minor scale:

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Pentatonic Minor Scale / Latin Alphabet  Larger image

Here's how it works: Take a phrase and, for each letter in your phrase, locate the letter on the chart. Then read across to find the finger pattern to use for that letter.

If I want to play “Clint Goss”, I would start by locating “C” on the chart:

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Example of playing “C”   Larger image

... and my melody would begin on Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open. Continuing with “Clint Goss”, I would follow this path through the chart:

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Example of playing “Clint Goss”  Larger image

… and here's what it might sound like:

Example of an Alphabet Song playing 'Clint Goss'

Clint Goss.

By the way, the colors in the charts on this page are from the Color of Sound calculator for the pitches on an F# minor flute. They are the frequencies of those pitches, scaled up 40 octaves and converted to a frequency of light.

Printing an Alphabet Song Chart

Clicking on any of the charts on this page should fetch a larger version, ideal for printing. You might want to print the first chart on this page, the one for the pentatonic minor scale on Latin letters.

However, if you have problems with printing color, you can use this version in black & white:

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Pentatonic Minor Scale / Latin Alphabet  Larger image

Playing the Numbers

If we want an alphabet song chart that maps numeric characters onto the pentatonic minor scale, we have some choices. What I've done in my version is to use the degrees of the scale from music theory — a method that many people use to notate their music.

However, since we only use six pitches in the pentatonic minor scale, that leaves the digits 0, 2, 6, and 9 with no corresponding finger patterns. I give two choices in the chart below: copying four of the other digits or using some unusual notes outside of the pentatonic minor scale for the digits 2, 6, and 9.

Here's my version of the chart:

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Pentatonic Minor Scale / Numerical digits  Larger image

This lets you score alphabet songs based on numbers. Here are the first 28 digits of π — 3.141592653589793238462643383 — in a pentatonic minor scale.

Play the melody down each column starting with the leftmost column:

Alphabet Song

Digits of Pi as an Alphabet Song - Pentatonic Minor Scale   Larger image

It might sound like this:

Twenty Eight Digits of Pi

Clint Goss.

Other Scales

One of the most beautiful and easiest scales to use for alphabet songs is the Bugle Scale. However, since most players are initially taught the pentatonic minor scale, I usually don't start with this scale:

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Bugle Scale / Latin Alphabet  Larger image

Here are three more interesting scales to try:

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Spanish Gypsy Scale / Latin Alphabet  Larger image

 

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Hexatonic Minor Scale / Latin Alphabet  Larger image

 

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Miyako-Bushi Scale / Latin Alphabet  Larger image

 

Other Alphabets

And if you're really intent on playing world music, you might try playing alphabet songs from these alphabets of various languages: Cyrillic, Katakana, Hebrew, Arabic, Georgian, Greek, and Cherokee:

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Pentatonic Minor Scale / Cyrillic Alphabet  Larger image

 

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Pentatonic Minor Scale / Katakana Alphabet  Larger image

 

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Pentatonic Minor Scale / Hebrew Alphabet  Larger image

 

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Pentatonic Minor Scale / Arabic Alphabet  Larger image

 

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Pentatonic Minor Scale / Georgian Alphabet  Larger image

 

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Pentatonic Minor Scale / Greek Alphabet  Larger image

 

Alphabet Song

Alphabet Song - Pentatonic Minor Scale / Cherokee Alphabet  Larger image

 

 

 
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To cite this page on Wikipedia: <ref name="Goss_2016_alphabet"> {{cite web |last=Goss |first=Clint |title=Alphabet Songs |url=http://www.Flutopedia.com/alphabet.htm |date=20 December 2016 |website=Flutopedia |access-date=<YOUR RETRIEVAL DATE> }}</ref>