Friday, June 4, 2010

Slonimsky's 'Thesaurus' - Part 1: Pentatonics

Nicolas Slonimsky's 'Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns' is one of the most astonishing and puzzling books in the entire musical library. Having been studied by the likes of John Coltrane, Allan Holdsworth and Frank Zappa, the book has garnered much attention but still remains an obscure venture for the average musician. The book has little text and a myriad of musical examples (over 1500) which are defined by some quite outrageous terms: Interpolation, Ultrapolation, Infra-Inter-Ultrapolation, etc. This is something that constantly impedes further study of the book but can be understood with a bit of effort; many other segments of the book are easily accessible to the modern guitar player, the pentatonic one is especially rewarding.

Considering the entire book is written in standard notation (the Achilles heal of many guitar players) I have tabbed out all 49 pentatonic examples. I've also included my own fingerings and converted each example into an exercise of ascending and descending groupings of 4's. The lengthier exercises are great for hearing the tensions in context and, of course, they are very demanding in terms of dexterity and stamina. Each example is listed by its number in the Thesaurus and the tensions are given for the 5 notes of the scale in relation to the major scale. All examples begin on C, so if a minor pentatonic were to be played the resulting tensions would read: 1 (root), b3 (minor third), 4 (perfect fourth), 5 (perfect fifth) and b7 (dominant 7).

Slonimsky's encyclopedic efforts offer us a vast range of possible pentatonic examples. Exhausting, or rather, exposing almost all the possible examples seems to be the foundation of his efforts. Let me quote the final segment of Nicolas' introduction, which is both compelling and optimistic about the future of music:

- John Stuart Mill once wrote: "I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations. The octave consists only of five tones and two semitones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways of which but a small proportion are beautiful: most of these, it seemed to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers to strike out, as these have done, entirely new surpassing rich veins of musical beauty. This sort of anxiety, may, perhaps, be thought out to resemble that of the philosophers of Laputa, who feared lest the sun be burnt out."

The fears of John Stuart Mill are unjustified. There are 479,001,600 possible combinations of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. With rhythmic variety added to the unbound universe of melodic patterns, there is no likelihood that new music will die of internal starvation in the next 1000 years. - Nicolas Slonimsky, 1 January 1947 Boston, Massachusetts


  1. Hey Keith, Adam from Chicago, here! I just wanted to say how PHENOMENAL this blog really is! This is the FIRST TIME I have ever "Followed" a Blog. You have enough information here, to keep me busy ALL SUMMER! Alkan is nothing short of a MASTERPIECE, and applying the Slominsky stuff to guitar is sheer GENIUS! Thank You so much for inviting me, and I cannot wait to see what you've got in store for us in the future!!!

  2. Thank you so much Adam. Stay tuned, plenty more transcriptions to come and, of course, plenty more crazy licks!

  3. Thanks my friend ,awesome ,,you rock .