Scales and Tonic
In September of 1977, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory began the Voyager 1 mission. Still returning data, Voyager 1 is nearly 15 billion miles from Earth, deep into interstellar space. On board Voyager 1 is a Golden Record, containing greetings in 55 languages, pictures of people and places on Earth, and 27 diverse musical selections including Beethoven, a Raga from India, and a blues by Chuck Berry. The Golden Record announces the presence of a musical species in the cosmos. The record’s inscription reads: “To the makers of music, all worlds / all times.” On 31 November 2020, NASA scientists received an unexpected radio transmission. The signal contained assembly instructions for what appears to be a musical instrument. Apparently an alien intelligence has received the Golden Record, interpreted it, and responded in kind. Help NASA scientists decipher what the aliens are trying to share about music!
Video Intro (1:30)
NASA programmers made the Chromawheel Play app based on the instructions received in the alien transmission. Tap a note name to hear it. Tap 'edit' to add or remove window pieces. Tap the play button to hear a pattern. Drag in the center to rotate
ACTION STEP: Read carefully!
ACTION STEPS HAVE CAPITALIZED LABELS BECAUSE THEY ARE IMPORTANT. Reading and completing action steps with care will help you correctly answer the questions that follow
Scientists think that the aliens wanted to communicate that in many songs, one note could be chosen to be more important than all the rest. What color did the aliens use to indicate this most important note?
Researchers decided to call this important note "the tonic"
ACTION STEP: Move the red tonic piece to the note A, and remove the rest of the window pieces from the Chromawheel
In the next step you will select some new notes
ACTION STEP: Place a window piece on the note one whole step above A
Remember, go clockwise to ascend
ACTION STEP: Continue adding window pieces at whole step intervals until you have gone all the way around the circle
Some of the notes you select will have # and b symbols
Including the tonic, how many notes are selected after you have have evenly divided the circle into whole steps? (Hint: if you've followed the instructions carefully, you should have built a symmetrical shape!)
Scientists decided to call arranging the notes in sequential order as you have just done "a scale". Can you think of a more descriptive term than "scale" that you might have used instead?
The name that scientists chose for the scale made up of notes spaced at whole step intervals is most likely:
Half Tone Scale
Whole Tone Scale
Not Drawn To Scale
In order, the notes in the whole tone scale that begins on A are:
C, D, E, F, G, A, B
A, B, C#, D#, F, G
A, B, C, D, E, F, G
ACTION STEP: Move the red tonic piece to the note A, and remove the rest of the window pieces
ACTION STEP: Put down a window piece a half step above A
ACTION STEP: Put down two more window pieces, each a half step above the previous one
The four notes you have now selected are:
A, B, C, D
A, A#, B, C
Scientists selected notes at half step intervals all the way around the Chromawheel. They called this scale the chromatic scale. Some on the NASA team argued it should have been called the "half tone scale", and still others voted for the name "twelve tone scale"
How many notes are there in the full chromatic scale, going all the way around the Chromawheel?
Congrats, you're up to date with the NASA team in their attempts to interpret the alien instrument Chromawheel! You are now familiar with concepts these scientists are using to make sense out of the alien instrument: tonic, whole step interval, half step interval, whole tone scale, and chromatic scale. Please let the researchers know if you have questions or ideas!
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