A recovering microtonalist's critical reaction to Why Microtonality

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This page is a response to an earlier edit of this page:

Why Microtonality?

This isn't necessarily meant to dissuade people from pursuing microtonality; I believe there are legitimate reasons to go for it, but find the canonical reasons given above to be incorrect or problematic.

1. To break out of the 12-equal rut

"The possibilities that microtonality has to offer you are truly staggering."

So are the possibilities of 12-TET: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAcjV60RnRw In point of fact, while the possibilities microtonality offers may seem staggering from a mathematical point of view, it ceases to seem like such a big deal once you discover this neat little facet of human psychology known as categorical perception. Think of a rainbow--odds are, if you were born speaking English, you were taught that the rainbow has 7 different colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet (incidentally, most people don't tend to even pay indigo much attention, so we might say there's only six colors). Now, this doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, considering the rainbow is actually a continuous gradation of color, and technically contains infinite colors, but we humans are limited and finite creatures, and there is a limit to the number of colors that we can consider categorically distinct. Under laboratory conditions and with special training, we can definitely increase that beyond seven colors--just ask an art student or an interior decorator--but even then, we tend to think of our "extended" palette as being comprised of "shades" of the 7 basic colors.

As with color, so it is with music. Yes, the interval spectrum is infinite, and yes, we can learn to distinguish between different intonations of the same interval class, but it's exceedingly difficult to break out of our 12-tone-based categorical thinking once we get down to the task of making real music in the real world. As Mike Battaglia has shown us via his categorical experiments, changing the intonation of a piece of music has a relatively mild effect on the way we perceive it, provided the rough "shape" of the melody remains intact. The piece of music remains recognizable even under some seriously extreme changes in intonation; for instance, the "major 3rds" can be intoned as any number of frequency ratios, from 11/9 all the way up to 21/16, without distorting the music beyond recognition, or even changing the emotional affectiveness of the music signficantly for most listeners.

Okay, you migh say, I'll agree that different intonations of the diatonic scale are more similar than they are different, but microtonality offers scales and chord progressions whose forms can't be approximated in 12-TET! You'd be correct in arguing that, but it's only a technical victory. On the one hand, if you have a novel chord progression made up of familiar-sounding (i.e. 5-limit) chords, it's still quite likely that the novelty of the chord progression will be lost on most listeners, since most listeners can't identify specific chord progressions even in 12-TET. In other words, they won't be able to tell anything different is happening. On the other hand, if you have a novel chord progression made up of unfamiliar chords--i.e. chords carefully chosen to subvert most listener's 12-TET categorical perception--you might succeed in disrupting their expectations, but don't expect them to thank you for it. As discussed in the video linked above, most listeners show a strong preference for predictability, which is why we as a species haven't even begun to exhaust the melodic and harmonic potential of 12-TET--people like hearing a billion songs with the same chord progression (like the good ol' four-chord song). So, this puts you, as a microtonal composer, in a bit of a cleft-stick: either you write music that is compatible with 12-TET categories (in which case, why are you writing microtonal music?), or you write music that isn't, but which will alienate most of your fellow humans.

2. For purity

"'However, those who can hear the difference between a 386-cent 5/4 major third and a 400-cent "normal" major third may be interested in microtonality because they like the pure sound of the 5/4 ratio. They may also like the pure 6/5 minor third; the 7/4 harmonic seventh, which is an alternative to the "normal" 16/9 minor seventh; and many other pure notes that we would never otherwise play."

One needn't resort to so-called "microtonality" to achieve pure-sounding harmony. Western music is often performed adaptively--i.e., nominally in 12-TET, composed and structured according to 12-TET, but with the harmonies tuned freely to Just or near-Just sonorities. This takes place often unconsciously, without any special direction or notation: think of a barbershop quarter, a chamber orchestra, a brass ensemble, or a pedal-steel or slide guitar. It's only on fixed-pitch instruments--and acoustic keyboard instruments are really the only truly fixed-pitch instruments--that the strictures of any particular tuning hold rigidly. Even electronic keyboards can be played in adaptive JI based on 12-TET. Unfortunately, it's also the acoustic keyboard instruments that are the most difficult to detwelvulate--only those with very deep pockets or great facility in instrument repair can typically afford the modifications necessary to implement the full extent of a tuning like 19-ET, 22-ET, or 31-ET. Only a few such instruments have been built. Retuning to some unequal 12-note scale is probably the only truly viable option, if one desires an instrument which can be played with comparable facility to one tuned in 12-ET.

The guitar is a little bit more difficult to tune adaptively on the fly, because notes can only easily be bent up, not down, so flattening a major 3rd is a difficult proposition. However, the guitar is also not known for its intonational precision, and many guitarists have spent fortunes just trying to get 12-TET to intonate precisely on their instrument. Playing in 19-ET, 22-ET, or 31-ET might improve the pure sound of major and minor chords, and this indeed has brought some guitarists to microtonality, but there is a cost of dexterity, and also a loss of purity in the ratios of 3 and 9--not to mention the cost of alienating your less-sophisticated peers who don't hear any problem with the way their major chords sound. Unequal 12-note temperaments are another option--at least, to those for whom Cubist-looking bent and partial frets don't automatically induce nightmares, and for whom learning which of the 12 available keys offers good chords and which don't isn't objectionable.

In short, there are actually only a few circumstances under which it makes any sense at all to turn to microtonal tunings in search of purity. Adaptive tuning of 12-TET is often a much better option, as it is one that's already in regular use among many common-practice musicians.

3. For a greater variety of notes

"I prefer to think of 12 EDO as a palette with twelve colors. You can make masterpieces with those twelve colors*, by juxtaposition, putting different colors on top of each other, different brush techniques, and so on. Some people are happy to use those twelve colors their whole lives. But it's interesting to explore all the other colors that aren't among the twelve, and that can't be created effectively with those twelve.

[* Some of you are saying, "I can create any color with CMYK or RGB!" Well, cut it out. It's an analogy, for crying out loud, and no analogy is perfect.]"

As mentioned in my objection to #1, this misses the point that changing the colors doesn't matter if the brain that's perceiving them is still super-imposing its own rigid set of internal categories. But more importantly, what we're dealing with here isn't visual, and the "color" analogy has been stretched to its breaking point. Music is audible, and is more closely related to language than to visual representation. In visual representation, more colors are obviously better than fewer, because they enhance the level of accuracy with which we can represent something. But consider language--would adding more vowel sounds to a language make it inherently more expressive? Like color, vowel sounds exist on a continuum (albeit a two-dimensional one), but in every human language, they are grouped into categories. In point of fact, this what enables languages to have different regional accents or dialects--it's the reason why Americans can understand Brits (most of the time), even though there are serious phonological differences between the dialects of English spoken by both cultures.

Obviously, you can't just "add" more vowel sounds to an existing language and expect anybody to notice a difference...shoe-horning Germanic vowels like ü and ö into English prose will not automatically unveil new shades of meaning in that prose. So, neither will adding new intonational categories into Western music. It'll just sound like you're intonating the same ol' music a little differently--playing it with an odd dialect, as it were.

Okay, but what if you want to invent a new musical language? Well, good luck with that. Inventing a language can be a fun diversion, in fact there's a whole community of people devoted to the recreational pursuit of language construction. But now we've gotten off the subject of writing music--inventing a new system of music is quite different than actually composing music, and there have been many microtonalists who got so hung up on inventing the theory that they forgot that the actual music was the important part! Not that it particularly matters, because what good is a language if no one speaks it? Expression implies communication, and communication requires understanding; if you speak a language that no one understands, you might as well be babbling in gibberish, and no matter how eloquent you think your expression is, it will communicate nothing. Just like proper language, musical language must be learned--including any newly-invented musical language! If it differs significantly from one that is "already spoken"--as it basically must, for this "greater variety of notes" to actually expand its expressive capabilities--it will require a certain amount of work on the part of the listener. Experience shows that few people are willing to put in the level of work necessary to learn to appreciate this sort of music.

4. For historical or cultural purposes

I'm just going to come right out and say that if you want to talk about the tunings of historical Western music and/or non-Western cultures, don't use the word "microtonal", let alone the word "xenharmonic"! Ethnomusicologists generally have never heard the "x-word", and use the word "microtonal" only with derision. Not to mention that for the most part, the xenharmonic community only has a passing interest in historical or non-Western tunings...really, you'll be better-served joining communities that specialize in early music or your particular non-Western musical tradition of choice.

5. For "puns"

"Puns" are like optical illusions, just with music instead of an image. But 12-TET is full of them. You don't need to go microtonal to get them. So really, what this section should be called is "For DIFFERENT 'puns' that don't already exist in 12-TET". In 12-TET, you've got loads of puns, like 16/9 and 9/5 being the same interval, 7/5 and 10/7 being the same interval, 5/4 and 81/64 being the same interval...or four 6/5's making a 2/1, or three 5/4's making a 2/1, or three 17/16's making a 19/16, it all depends on how you want to think about it. If you treat 12-TET as a temperament, it would probably take you DAYS to list all the potential puns within a certain complexity by hand. But do puns actually have audible musical significance? If they're as extreme as the Father temperament/8-EDO example, yeah, sure. But considering that most people playing in 12-TET never even notice that they are making "puns" by the dozen in every piece, I'd argue that puns aren't exactly of mind-blowing musical significance.

Some Valid Reasons for Pursuing Microtonality

Igs' list:

With the above reasons debunked as thoroughly as I can, let me provide what I consider to be much better reasons for pursuing microtonality. Ones which require much less justification and are not tenuously anchored in objectivism by pseudo-scientific ideas about music psychology.

1. You actually like the way microtonal music sounds, and feel that for whatever reason, the music you can make in a microtonal system just sounds better than if it were in 12-TET. Maybe you like steps smaller than a semitone, or the clangorous buzz of large otonal sonorities, or chord progressions that create aural illusions by leading to unexpected places? There are plenty of acoustic and musical effects which, while not necessarily pleasant in an objective or universal sense, are nevertheless not possible 12-TET, even with sophisticated pitch-shifting effects. If they speak to you, listen to them.

2. You want an alternative tuning that makes certain things easier to do. Not all alternative tunings must be more complex; the macrotonal ones, like 5, 7, 9, and 10-ET, can be much easier to perform with than 12-TET. If you actually find 12-TET unnecessarily complex for what you want to do, alternative tunings can provide you with simpler alternatives.

3. You just like to tinker with stuff and play with numbers, and/or find experimentation a fulfilling end in itself. There's nothing wrong with this. Sometimes xenharmonic musicians deride the theorists who don't produce music (or produce very little and/or low-quality music), but recreational music-making is not inherently more important than recreational mathematics. Get your kicks however you can, life's too short for such harsh judgments!

4. You consider being unique or different is an end in itself, which does not need any (pseudo-)scientific justifications. Again, nothing to be ashamed of here--blazing a trail just for the sake of exploring unknown territory has proved itself to be a very helpful adaptation for our species. Many people justified their explorations with beliefs that riches would be found at the other end, but seldom did they find what they expected to find. The journey can be more important than the destination, and those of us with an exploratory bent should be proud to explore just for exploration's sake. You might actually find something of value out there, but even if you don't, at least you looked.

5. You primarily draw compositional inspiration from numerological ideas, mathematical constructs, or other quantitative entities, and are unsatisfied with the quantitative resources available in 12-TET. Inspiration comes from many places, and if this is where it comes from for you, that's great! Own it and milk it for all it's worth. The xenharmonic realm is indeed rich in quantitiative entities.

6. You're into the recreational construction of musical systems, either as an end in itself or as a source of inspiration. The world of sci-fi and fantasy is full of elaborately-constructed fictional civilizations; some authors put as much work into fleshing out the gritty details of their fictional cultures--languages, mythologies, social mores, etc.--as they put into the plots of the stories that are set in these civilizations. Some folks are better at imagining a civilization than they are at coming up with stories to set within these civilizations, but maybe their fictional societies can inspire others to write the stories. Or maybe they won't, but the point is that if you enjoy the construction of such fictional realities, by all means go for it! Xenharmony is a fertile and unpopulated new world that will give you plenty of space for your creation.

7. You enjoy participating in the xenharmonic community as a social activity. There are few communities that attract a greater diversity of intelligent and opinionated folks. Though differences of opinion can sometimes erupt into all-out flame war, it is possible to connect with folks who can educate you and enrich your life in ways completely unrelated to music and tuning. While I've personally made a few lasting enemies in the community, I've also made lasting friendships with people whom I deeply appreciate, friendships which I maintain even in the absence of discussions of tuning. Studying tuning could be justified entirely by the connections I've made alone.

In conclusion

Pursue microtonality because you enjoy it. Don't try to justify it with pseudo-scientific ideas about improving music somehow. Music is for enjoyment, and you should study music to make your practice of music more enjoyable. Microtonality doesn't need any justification beyond being fun, and in my opinion, trying to give it more justifcation than that actually cheapens it.

Related pages:

Why Microtonality?

Microtonalists critical reaction to a recovering microtonalists critical reaction to Why Microtonaltiy?