What is microtonal music

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While microtonal music may not be easy to define, most people know it when they hear it.

Conventional Western music uses 12 logarithmically equal semitones in the octave (the octave is a frequency ratio of 2:1 in Western music, or 1200 cents. A "cent" is defined as 1/100 of a semitone.)

The difficulty in defining exactly what microtonal music is arises from the long history of Western music. Definitions of music have changed enormously over the past 2500 years of Western history, and as a result the very definition of what is and is not standard practice in Western has transformed beyond all recognition.

Let's take a look at several popular definitions of microtonality to see what's involved:

"All the world's music is microtonal." -- Johnny Reinhard
"Microtonal music is music which sounds audibly different from the standard Western tuning, and may include individual scale-steps which are either larger or smaller than the conventional semitone of Western music -- or both." -- Ivor Darreg
"Microtonal music means music whose individual steps are smaller than the standard Western semitone." -- Grove's Dictionary Of Music and Musicians
"It is not sufficient merely that a scale be numerically different from the conventional tuning in order to call is microtonal. It must sound audibly different." -- Ezra Sims
"These well temperaments are what we might call paper tunings: fine in theory, but in practice indistinguishable from the modern twelve tone equal temperament." -- J. Murray Barbour

By holding each of these definitions in our hand and turning it over in the light, we can see each separate facet of what makes music microtonal. The first definition, by Johnny Reinhard, seems as first glance entirely inadequate, since it does not define. A definition must eo ipso separate what is defined from what is not, and so Reinhard's description of microtonality would superficially appear useless. If all music is microtonal, then microtonal music has no distinguishing features. But if we look closer, we catch sight of a deeper meaning in Reinhard's gnostic oxymoron. What Johnny is probably getting at is the fact that while all music adheres in theory to a rigid set of restricted pitches, in actual practice real musicians in the real world typically bend these pitches for expressive purposes. A fine example can be found in Sinead O'Connor's song "Nothing Compares 2 U," in which she unmistakably intones melodic intervals much smaller than a semitone. This adds great plangency and pathos to the music, and she is obviously not signing in the conventional Western tuning. Or again, consider the Javanese gamelan. One gamelan is likely to use narrower pitches where another gamelan uses wider ones -- yet both gamelans ostensibly use the same tuning. Once again, we have an example in which pitch is warped for expressive purposes, yet not recognized on paper as doing so. This reminds to avoid the error of scriptism: i.e., concentrating on how music is notated, rather than how it sounds.

Ivor Darreg's definition of microtonality seems peculiar inasmuch as he seems to posit a tuning whose smallest intervals are larger than the conventional western semitone as "microtonal." How can anything larger than a semitone be called "micro"? What Ivor is getting at here, however, is that what is often called "microtonal" music in essence sounds different from conventional music. One of the best examples of this involves the 5 tone equal tuning, which sounds radically different from conventional western music. With a 720-cent perfect fifth and a step-size of 240 cents, nothing in this tuning sounds remotely akin to Western music. As a result, music in 5 equal creates a striking musical impression on listeners. The same proves true of music in 7 equal, 9 equal, 10 equal, and so on. By contrast, 5-limit just diatonic just intonation typically sounds no different from conventional western music, although its ratios theoretically have different values. LIkewise, meantone and especially well tempered tunings sound so slightly different from conventional western 12 equal tuning that most listeners simply cannot hear a difference. What Ivor is driving at is that it makes no sense to describe a tuning as "microtonal" if listeners cannot reliably hear a difference between that tuning and the conventional western tuning of 12 semitones per octave.

Grove's definition harks back to the era of the quartertone composers, which ran from roughly the 1920s through the 1940s. During this period much was made of the quartertone tuning but it failed to garner a following. As Ivor Darreg has pointed out, splitting the semitone in half merely leaves you with two independent circles of 12 fifths each, and consequently you have not left the sound-world of conventional Western music behind by going to 24 equal (quartertones). The major and minor triads in 24 equal sound (and in fact are) absolutely identical to those in 12, as is the major and minor melodic mode in 24. As the fad for quartertones faded, and new ensembles featuring american gamelans have become popular since the 1940s, the definition of "microtonal" as automatically meaning "intervals smaller than a semitone" has come to seem antiquated. Withal, Grove's definition retains some historical importance insofar as it reminds us of the fad for quartertones in the early half of the 20th century. Indeed, the quartertone fad resurfaces periodically throughout history. As Ezra Sims notes in his article on microtonality, one 17th century musician remarked "I hear much talk of quartertones, though few compose in them." So quartertones go back a long ways. This reminds us that "microtonal" music is nothing new -- it's always been with us throughout Western music. Nowadays the only difference is that technology has advanced to the point where any composer can switch on a laptop, fire up a softsynth, and get any microtonal tuning with effortless ease -- and, as a result, a whole lot of composers are doing so. (Thus the need for this wiki page.)

Ezra Sims took particular exception to claims that meantone tunings or 5-limit diatonic just intonation tunings were "microtonal." As he has pointed out, such tunings typically cannot be audibly distinguished from conventional western music by the average listener. Sims' point is that stretching the definition of "microtonal" out of all reason to include tunings which sound no different from conventional Western music represents an abuse of the terminology. It also involves a form of cowardice, since people who misname 5-limit diatonic JI tunings as "microtonal" seem to envious of stealing the aura of daring and experimentalism which radiates from the word "microtonal" without taking any risk that their music might sound noticeably different from conventional western music -- and therefore risk getting shunned by closed-minded audiences.

J. Murray Barbour's definition proves important because it reminds us forcibly that numbers written down on paper do not suffice to define microtonality -- or, for that matter, music. As an example, consider the numerically-exotic just intonation tuning

1/1 17/16 9/8 19/16 24/19 4/3 27/19 3/2 19/12 32/19 16/9 32/17 [2/1]

These pitches seem at first glance, on paper, exotically different from the pitches of conventional western music. Look at all those strange new ratios! Wow! This must sound radically dissimilar from conventional Western tuning of 12 equal semitones per octave, right?

Wrong. None of these pitches differs by more than about 4 cents (1/300 of an octave) from the equivalent pitches in conventional western music, except for the diminished fifth, which differs by only 8 cents. Any piece of conventional western music played in the above "microtonal-looking" 19-limit just intonation tuning will sound for all practical purposes identical to the same piece played in the conventional western tuning of 12 equal semitones per octave.

The realm of microtonality is, alas, beset by paper theorists who can't play musical instruments and have never heard the tunings they purport to describe. And so we must be careful when looking at a tuning not to judge it "microtonal" simply because is looks different from our conventional western pitches. It must actually sound different to qualify as microtonal.

J. Murray Barbour makes an important point because most historical tunings (well temperaments, meantone tunings, etc.) sound for all practical purposes identical to the conventional western tuning except in rare specialized cases. (If you play a piece of music transposed far out of its original key on a 1/4 comma meantone tuning, you will hear some sour intervals. However, most historical compositions did not modulate extensively through all 12 keys until meantone tunings had gone out of popular usage, so this embodies an unrealistic example. Exotic exceptions, such as John Bull's Ut Re Mi Fa Sol La can always be found, but they are the exceptions, and not typical.) Consequently discussion of historical tunings, while valuable in its own right, has nothing to do with microtonality. Likewise, retuning modern instruments like the piano to various flavors of meantone cannot in any sense be regarded as "microtonal" and such practices have nothing to do with microtonality.

One again, the use of ancient Greek genera like the chromatic and diatonic genera to play diatonic conventional music may prove musically tantalizing for a variety of reasons, but this has nothing to do with microtonality. Those two Greek genera sound for all practical purposes identical to modern diatonic 7-note scales played in a modern conventional tuning. Thus, once again, using ancient Greek tunings like the chromatic or diatonic genus is not "microtonal" and has nothing to do with microtonality. Using the Greek enharmonic genus, however, is microtonal, since this tuning differs audibly from any conventional western tuning.

One further complication arises in defining microtonal music. Namely, distinguishing random mass ensemble effects and extended performance techniques from genuine microtonality. X. J. Scott has clearly and vehemently reminded musicians that "microtonal" music is not the same as "micro-atonal" music. That is say, there is a huge difference between randomly hitting any pitch willy-nilly, such as you might get by blowing on a kazoo while randomly sliding the pitch around, or waving your hand randomly in the control volume of a theremin, and actual microtonality produced by repeatably and reliably sounding a specific set of distinctly audible non-Western pitches. Scott's point remains important because much of what gets misnamed in contemporary Western art music as "microtonal" is in fact "micro-atonal," or randomly pitched music. The overall effect of randomly pitches music is a sense of pitch movement -- without any sense of specific pitches. Excellent examples include much of the tape music and musique concrete produced during the 1940s through the 1970s. Such music, while in many cases excellent and worthwhile, fails to qualify as microtonal because it sound no specific set of repeatable pitches. Instead, such music uses whatever pitches happen to be found -- perhaps the randomly detuned pitch of a train whistle recorded and slowed down, or a recording of someone randomly glissing on a violin. (Indeed, another term for musique concrete is "found music.) These kinds of aimless incoherent pitch variances fail to qualify as microtonal because they exhibit no audible structure. The listener does not hear anything but a chaotic mass of intervals without rhyme or reason. As a result, the listener cannot tell whether some of the pitches are the same, or different from, those of conventional western music: it's a haze of apparently arbitrary pitches used primarily for the effect of "pitch difference," not to sound specifically xenharmonic melodies or harmonies.

The important point about such music (tape music, extended performance techniques by the orchestra, etc.) is that retuning the individual random pitches even by large amounts (say, 50 cents) would make no difference to the overall effect of the music. In fact, many contemporary orchestral compositions which use extended performance techniques leave the specific choice of random pitches up to the performers, and as a result repeat performances of such compositions typically do exhibit large pitch variations. Regardless, the composition sounds the same -- and the reason is simple: because in such extended performance techniques, the individual pitches don't matter. What matters in such pieces is the ensemble effect, or, in tape music, the timbral effect. In genuine microtonality, however, the individual pitches matter a great deal.

The reason why such compositions (using extended performance techniques) sound the same even when played with greatly varying pitches in repeat performance is simple. Two performances of Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims Of Hiroshima, for instance, hardly sound any different...even though the individual pitches played by the orchestra are scarcely comparable. The overall effect is what matters in such music, not the individual pitches. Much tape music and musique concrete and a fair amount ofcontemporary music makes use of glissing effects. For instance, Iannis Xenakis' early orchestral pieces (Metastasis, Eonta, Kraanerg) or Penderecki's Threnody For the Victims of Hiroshima, akk make use of arbitrary pitch variations as a gestural or timbral effect rather than for their structural harmonic and melodic properties. Consequently, in many such compositions, the exact pitches are not even written down! Penderecki's score, for instance, merely uses thicker and thinner lines on an orchestral score to suggest general ranges of variation in pitch. This is clearly not microtonality because we are dealing here with glissandi or portamenti or other pitch variations used as gestures, rather than to produce audibly different harmonies and melodies which sound distinct from those of conventional Western music. Randomly-detuned pitches, especially those sounded in an orchestral ensemble, belong to an entirely different realm of music—the realm of aleatoric extended performance effects. Such gestural effects, while often musically valuable and useful, and often present in superb modern compositions, should not be confused with the specific structural use of non-Western harmonies and melodies as is found in, say, Ivor Darreg's 19-tone equal tempered prelude for guitar #1, or Kraig Grady's Farewell Ring (which uses one of Erv Wilson's CPS JI tunings) or Bill Wesley's Harmony 101 or Kyle Gann's Triskaidekaphilia (Tuning Study No.6) or William Schottstaedt's Colony V. Those latter compositions deploy a specific set of audibly non-Western pitches but nonetheless use relatively conventional harmonies and melodies. By contrast, Xenakis and Penderecki and tape composers like Pierre Henry and Tod Dockstader used non-western pitches as merely one among many audible effects in their arsenal of extended performance techniques to generate ensemble musical gestures in the service of a larger esthetic. To put it bluntly, tape music and mass random orchestral tone clusters are not meant to be heard in the same structural way as a Bach chorale, and listeners cannot expect to apply conventional methods of analysis of music theory to such compositions.

Finally, this raises the crucial issue of musical style. Javanese gamelan music sounds audibly different from conventional Western music: is it microtonal? Most people would say "no," and the evidence is clear. In record stores we never find Javanese gamelan CDs in a section labeled "microtonal music." Instead, we typically find Javanese gamelan CDs in the "Non-Western" section.

Inherent in the definitions of microtonality we have seen heretofore, we find hidden the implication that microtonal music involves the use of conventional Western compositional methods (which may indeed include contemporary methodologies such as tone clusters, or aleatoric systems) in the service of audibly and distinctly non-Western pitches. This proves important, because now that Western musicians have taken to building non-Western instruments and performing and even composing music which uses entirely non-Western pitches, yet which employs a different non-Western musical tradition, the definition of microtonality has become cloudier still. Composers like Barbara Benary, who use conventional Javanese tunings and conventional Javanese instrumental ensembles to compose and perform their own music, are not microtonal composers: they are, rather, Western composer who compose and perform in a non-Western tradition. Likewise, the Tuvan throat-singing so widely celebrated, while distinctly non-Western sounding, is nonetheless not microtonal. It belongs to a different musical tradition.

We must take care (when defining microtonality) not to indulge in the vulgar delusion that the Western world represents the aesthetic center of the universe. By calling "microtonal" all that which is non-Western, we subtly marginalize all musical culture other than Euro-North American musical culture. Not only is this unjust and unreasonable, it's stupid and ignorant. As sales of world music continue to skyrocket, it becomes ever clearer to music lovers in Europe and North America that the Western music tradition represents only a tiny fraction of the world's musical panorama. Non-western music offers vast beauties and amazing musical treasures, but we ought not to try to pigeonhole it as something defined by its opposition to Euro-American culture...since, after all, Western music remains by far the minority usage throughout the world. After all, well over 80% of the world's indigenous musical cultures politely refuse to use western tertian triadic harmony, decline to adhere to the Western belief in the harmonic series as the alleged basis of music, and pointedly rebut any application of mathematics or theory to their music. Indeed, as Jon Appleton has pointed out, most musical cultures throughout the world feel no need to explain or theorize about their music. Thus, many of the practices we Westerners consider essential to our music are not even found in the musical cultures of most other societies throughout the earth.

Other terms used instead of "microtonal", or in addition to it

Because of the slipperiness of the term "microtonal", other terms have been deployed to describe this great big teeming mass of adventurously different-sounding music. One such term is "macrotonal". Macrotonal music only uses intervals which are larger than the semitone (but not necessarily multiples of it). Dividing the octave eight equal ways, for example, is a macrotonal tuning. The Javanese slendro tuning, with 5 unequal (but not justly tuned) pitches in a stretched octave, represents another example of a macrotonal tuning. Non-octave tunings like a Pythagorean JI tuning of 19 just perfect fifths in the 3:1 also presents us with an instance of a macrotonal tuning.

Perhaps the most popular term other than "microtonal" is "xenharmonic".

What is xenharmonic music?

Xenharmonic is a term coined by the late Ivor Darreg, from Greek xenos "strange, foreign" + harmonikos "sound, harmonic" to classify music in tunings that are definitely aurally distinct from the typical twelve tone equal tuning.

Unfortunately, "microtonal" implies that you're using tiny intervals when you may not be, and "xenharmonic" has been called "so...negative." However, we must recall that in the original Greek, xenos can also mean "hospitable" -- a fact of which Ivor never tired of reminding those who objected to the term "xenharmonic." He pointed out "xenharmonic can also mean `hospitable to different tones.'" Ivor also suggested the term "neoteric" music earlier on, circa the late 1950s. One objection to this term is that it means "recent in origin," while many audibly microtonal tunings, like the Greek enharmonic genus, are anything BUT recent in origin!

"Non-Western" sometimes proves a popular sobriquet. It has, as mentioned above, the drawback of implicitly defining modern conventional Western tuning as a universal standard. Since the conventional Western tuning of 12 equal semitones per octave did not even come into wide usage until roughly 300 years ago, and now seems to be going the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon as more and more young composers use laptops and softsynths to generate music in tunings far outside anything inconventional western music, it becomes inadvisable to declare as a universal bedrock that which seems more like quicksand. As the history of all musical cultures shows, music changes, and often quite radically. The granite monuments deemed absolute for eternity in one musical era often vanish like smoke in the desert, leaving behind hardly a trace of their existence -- as the transformation of Western music proves. Western music started as an entirely melodic monophonic choral form based on pairs of conjoined tetraktys (sets of 4 notes) based on the number 4, and not recognizing triads as musical structures. In the early middle ages, Western music changed to a Pythagorean diatonic 7 note system based on the number 3 with occasional dyads involving perfect fifths, perfect fourths, and octaves (fauxbourdon). During the later middle ages, Western music changed yet again to a 12 note system of medieval modes in which the vertical perfect fourth became recognized as a point of musical stasis, while the major third was used as a musical dissonance but the major second was allowed as semi-consonance (Gothic era of Perotinus and Longinus). During the Renaissance period, these rules turned upside down, and tertian triadic harmony was employed for the first time, along with prohibitions against using the fourth as the final cadence because it was now judged a musical dissonance, while the major third became a musical consonance. Such radical transformations in Western musical usage over the years have continued to the present day, when such innovations as tone clusters, synthesizers, xenharmonic tunings, algorithmic composition, extended performance techniques, homebuilt instruments and sonification of non-musical datasets (as in The Earth's Magnetic Field by Charles Dodge) have in the 21st century become commonplace. Given the fact of such transilient change in Western music, it seems unwise to declare one particular aspect of Western music as a universal standard by which all other musics everywhere on the planet ought to be measured.

Another popular term is "alternative tuning". The problem with calling a tuning "alternative" of course is that it immediately raises the question "alternative to what?" Our conventional western tuning of 12 semitones to the octave is, arguably, an alternative tuning -- an alternative to the 7 tone equal tuning used by the Are-Are people of the Solomon Islands. Now, it's easy enough to object that the musical culture of the Are-Are people ought not to be held up as the universal standard for every other musical throughout the world... But isn't that what we Euro-Americans do when we dismissively describe non-12-equal tunings as "alternative"?

Toward the end of his life, Ivor Darreg coined yet another term -- "metachromatic". Meta means "above" or "beyond," while chromatic refers to the individual step of our musical scale. Some objection has been raised to this neologism as "excessively high-flown" and "too Greekified," but it has the distinct advantage of conveying the sense that the tuning sounds suitably different from conventional 12-equal without being specific on whether the scale-steps are smaller or larger than those in conventional Western music.

[mclaren 10/25/2006]

Yet another term is "ekmelic" - this one is used by the International Ekmelic Music Society in Austria. The term comes from the Greek music theory: "ek Melos" is translated "out of range" - that is what pitches that were not included in the ancient Greek sound system were called. In the same meaning, the term can be used today for music that contains sounds that are outside of our traditional, 12-tone equal tempered system.