Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Musical Clichés: Descending Major Scales

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about music clichés and how – if not overused – they help to anchor the listener in the familiar when digesting a new piece of music. 

One of the tried and true clichés in rock and pop music – and one of my favorites – is a descending major scale in the bass.  There are hundreds of examples, and I’d like to highlight a few.  If you’re not sure what a descending major scale is, consider the familiar Do-Re-Mi scale from “The Sound of Music,” but sing it backward (Do-Ti-La-So-Fa…).  If that doesn’t help you, try singing the first eight notes of the Christmas song, “Joy To The World.”

The Beatles song “For No One” is a good place to start, as the bass follows the B scale backward for five notes (B, A#, G#, F# and E):

John Lennon followed this pattern in his masterpiece, “A Day In The Life,” though he takes the scale down two additional notes (down to “Re”), and did the same as a solo artist with “Mind Games”:

And his son, Julian, showed he wasn’t above using the descending scale in his 1984 song, “Say You’re Wrong.”  Remember this one?

But the descending scale isn’t limited to The Beatles and their offspring.  A classic example is 1967’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harem.  In this song, clearly influenced by Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major (Air on the G String), the bass descends the entire major scale, and as if that wasn’t enough, it goes back up to the fifth and descends again to the tonic:

Other examples include “Mr. Bojangles,” made famous by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and “She’s Got A Way,” “Come Sail Away” by Styx, "Changes" by David Bowie, "All The Young Dudes" by Mott the Hoople (but also written by David Bowie) and “Accidents Will Happen” by Elvis Costello:

And lest you think I’m mocking those who use clichés in music, I’ve used it myself.  Here’s a sample of “No Point In Seeing Me Through” from my album, “Pause.”

The descending scale: an oldie but goodie.  If you’ve got some other examples you’d like to share, please comment below.  Don't forget to subscribe to the RSS Feed above for regular updates.

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