How to Become a Scale Bender

For awhile I've been toying with the idea of calling myself a scale bender, someone who lives in the cracks between the piano keys. All of the music compositions referenced here can be found on

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In 1997, after spending three years of blood, sweat and tears writing Peripathetique, I was annoyed when this muse in my brain said: "what an epic effort, but what I'm looking for is richer and less jarring". I remember yelling at the sky: “could you please be a little more specific?!” 

In 2012 when I wrote Peisinoe, this was the first time I started to get this “richer and less jarring” sound I was looking for, and my high school chorale director mentioned I do a lot of C / C# business all over the place. So not an octave, but a half step lower or higher. I remember I agreed with him completely, and I was also disappointed thinking: "is that what I spent 30 years trying to achieve, and that’s all that I’m doing?!" I thought there had to be more to it but I couldn’t figure it out. It turns out I was right. While my chorale director was right about the C / C# business, his explanation was incomplete and I couldn’t “get” what was going on until in 2016 my professor at Juilliard said this about the second half of Pandora’s Box (Thelxiepeia’s Revenge):

The manipulation of harmony is very skillful in your piece, and very impressive. I think I know what you mean by sound bending, and it’s a kind of manipulation of harmonic expectation where the harmonies themselves are fairly clear but their relationship to each other is ambiguous and full of instability. It’s fun! Brava!

I think between the “C/C# business” and the above quote, I can now begin to explain what is going on in my compositions, and how to achieve a similar effect.

Take a look at the music below, specifically bars 31 and 32 (the two last bars).

Now, what would “normal” sound like?

Normal in bar 31 would be: D♭, E, A♭, B♭ (which it is)

And then the right hand would also be playing D♭, E, A♭, B♭. 

Actually play this on a piano, and listen to it. It’s harmonious, right? And both right and left hand are doing the same thing.

But now look at the music: what is going on with the last four notes in bar 31? D♭, E, A♭… but now C and E♭.

In other words, I started with D♭ (or C#) and the last note is C♮, so there is the C / C# thing my chorale director was talking about, which would normally be a bit jarring. And the second note was E♮ but by the start of bar 31 it’s now an E♭. And I think this is what my Juilliard professor saw:

1. That I take a perfectly normal, harmonious base: D♭, E, A♭, B♭.

2. But I layer this slightly off-kilter C and E♭ up top, bending the scale down half a step. So now play the notes in bar 31, plus the E♭ in bar 32. Can you hear the difference?

And that is scale bending. =)

On top of that, you know the first four notes are harmonious. The next four alone are also harmonious. And if you move one note over and play E♮, A♭, C, E♭ - that is also harmonious. So each of the chunks are harmonious, but string them all together where the last two notes bend down, and now it’s slightly off-kilter. It’s not “normal” and stable anymore. But it still works because it is composed of harmonious chunks that don’t quite fit at the edges when put together.

I bet once people know this anyone can become a scale bender. If the sound gets richer and richer, it’s because there are multiple notes where you’ll find this C / C# business happening. Like above, with E♭ and E♮. In Pandora’s Box, the separate harmonics in the right and left hand are harmonious, but have almost nothing to do with each other when you put them together. Yet it works, without being so jarring. And I think that’s what my Juilliard professor saw.

The downside with doing this, is that many times I will throw up my hands in disgust as I try to figure out how to notate the sheet music properly. I've killed key signatures and went with C major, adding all accidentals in. As one Juilliard classmate moaned: "it's like the accidentals had a love fest and there was a population explosion..."

While that sounds problematic, I discovered "fixing" it from a theory standpoint may clean things up, but then you'll start to see double sharps and double flats popping up. And that makes the performers squawk. I had one Juilliard-trained piano veteran say: why did you change that? There was nothing wrong with what you had before. My husband asked what that funny looking x was, and when I told him it was a double sharp he freaked out (as someone who once played bass clarinet in a big band during his childhood). He asked: why do you want to make me think?! This is why whiteout still exists, so performers can correct @(#*$ like this.

Once I got this feedback, I bagged any idea of making things correct from a music theory standpoint. I'll leave this as an exercise to music theory professors for generations to come, who would like to torture their music theory classes on what would be the "best" way to notate wildly polytonal music.

I'll leave off with one last brain bender. I think this is the tip of the iceberg. While the above example bends two notes down half a step, I still consider this to be a single degree of scale bending. When you do this, double sharps and flats will pop up. I think it May be possible to do several degrees of scale bending, bending it down half a step several times. If I understand this correctly, then you would need triple sharps / flats, quadruple sharps / flats, etc. Soak on that one.

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