Opal, the Note Pattern in Standard Tuning
The Opal is an example of a sonome, a new musical instrument with its notes arranged in a unique way that has interesting and revealing characteristics with many advantages for the user. (fig.1)
Sonomes are available in the form of the limited edition Opal range of MIDI Controllers.
Conventional piano keyboards feature a note arrangement that has been with us since the 16th century and is still the basis of nearly all acoustic and electronic pianos, organs, synths and MIDI controllers.
In order to make a true comparison with a sonome keyboard, it is worth re-examining what a conventional keyboard really comprises: the notes are arranged in the pattern of the diatonic scale in the key of C, in a single line ascending from left to right with the 'enharmonics' (sharps and flats – black keys) in a second row off-set between the 'naturals' (white keys).
The resulting familiar note-pattern makes is easy to play in the keys of C major or A minor, using only the naturals. To play in the remaining keys it's necessary to learn a separate pattern for each key using combinations of notes from the two rows, as if it was a single row of semitones (black & white keys together). In practise, the result is often that certain keys are avoided and others favoured!
While it is possible (but time-consuming) to learn all 12 major and 12 minor keys on a conventional keyboard, the sonome has the advantage of just one key-pattern for all the major keys and one for all the minor keys. In practice, this makes modulating from key to key less taxing, not having to mentally and physically alter the pattern to do it.
The sonome's major and minor key patterns arise from the symmetrical array which can be referred to as the Melodic Table of Musical Elements. The term 'Table' refers to the placement of notes in a symmetrical 2 dimensional array comparable to the 'Periodic Table' of the chemical elements. The Periodic Table reveals much more information about the chemical elements than was possible when they are merely presented as a list, and since its discovery by Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev in Siberia in 1834, it became recognised as the basis of all chemistry.
Now we can examine how the Melodic Table (fig.2) reveals musical information hidden from view on a conventional musical keyboard.
Just as the Periodic table categorises and organises the chemical elements into groups of related properties by presenting them geometrically according to criteria such as atomic number and electron 'shell' capacity, the Melodic Table does likewise by the way its note sequences, following a specific interval in each direction, cross over to form specific shapes for all musical structures – shapes whose note-content will scroll through each change of key as they are moved around the table.
The table offers an immediate visual facility. It is an overview and a map of music. While the conventional piano keyboard presents its notes in a single line of semitones, with all other interval sequences hidden from view, the sonome's note pattern is an unfolding of this line, extending it into another dimension, a line into a plane. It is as different as seeing a whole carpet or seeing one line of stitches, and trying to calculate the carpet's pattern from it.
The hidden structures now revealed enable us to organise musical information in a more memorable and accessible way. Musical structure can be viewed geometrically and notes organised on an interval basis. For example, augmented chords no longer have to be assembled as a series of steps from a root note (root, major 3rd, augmented fifth, 7th) because it is immediately apparent that they are simply strings of major 3rds. Its shape within the table can be moved along in either direction and each note dropped from one end is simultaneously picked up the other end (refer to fig.3). This applies also to the diminished chords, which the table reveals as strings of minor 3rds.
There are only 3 diminished chords and 4 augmented. An interesting phenomenon with these chords is that on the table, they cross over one another producing a parallelogram containing one occurrence of each of the 12 notes that comprise our chromatic scale. The augmented chords appear in 3 diagonal rows of 4 notes. Reading this shape the other way round gives us the diminished chords: 4 rows of 3 notes. (3 x 4 = 12). This is the essence of the Melodic table.
Now move the entire 'dimaug' parallelogram of the 12 notes in any direction at all and each row of notes dropped from any of the 4 sides is picked up on the opposite side as the shape moves around the table, inverting the chords! (See fig.4).
The next diagram, (fig.5) charts one of the first revelations to occur to most people trying out a sonome for the first time; the fact that any 3 adjacent key buttons always produce a triad, major to the right of the root + fifth, and minor to the left.
There are aspects of the Melodic Table's added dimensions (beyond the linear) that mathematically imply the bending and folding of time and space, such as the close proximity of large intervals. For example, following the diagonal sequences of minor and major 3rds (diminished and augmented), each octave is reached after only 4 and 3 steps respectively (fig.6).
This characteristic has a profound impact on the experience of playing a Sonome, where over 5 octaves can be reached with one hand, enabling chords and arpeggios of wide range to be played easily and fast, in any key (see the section on 'playing a Sonome').
These same characteristics also open up new approaches to composition, because the organised juxtaposition of notes both close and distant in pitch provides a surprisingly comprehensive palate of musical choices.
The Melodic Table is opening up new areas of research that could enrich the experience of learning and making music.