If you are interested in making microtonal music and use a computer, you should know something about Scala. Scala is a free program that allows you to retune certain soft synths, keyboards, and sound modules. It may be that you can use it with some hardware or software that you already own.

Learn more at the Scala Home Page

Equal Temperament

Few people give much thought to the actual notes that are used to produce music. A piano owner usually hires a professional to tune their piano. It is rare for a piano tuner to ask what kind of tuning is desired. It is assumed that the piano will be tuned to the common standard, called twelve tone equal temperament. The customer may not even be aware that there is more than one possibility.

It is amazing to me that there is so little attention given to the fundamental building blocks of music. Modern musicians may spend years studying how to arrange notes to make beautiful music, but they may give little or no thought to the notes themselves, how they are tuned and and placed within the octave.

Scientists have spent billions of dollars investigating the building blocks of matter. They perpetually seek out new elementary particles and try to discover their bizarre properties.

Its strange that this kind of curiosity that is so common among scientists is so rare among musicians.

Why is this? Why has our modern system of tuning become so ingrained that it is usually taken for granted.

First, we should consider the nature of twelve tone equal temperament. Some claim that this is an entirely arbitrary tuning that violates natural acoustic principles. This is a compelling argument because you cannot derive it simply and directly from natural acoustic principles like you can with just intonation or pythagorean tuning.

Does this mean that equal temperament is entirely arbitrary and artificial? I would say no. Equal temperament was not designed by a committee or invented by an entrepreneur.

Equal temperament grew in the rich soil of western musical thought. It developed in response to strong cultural forces, acoustic realities, and the practical needs of composers and musicians. It represents a remarkable compromise between competing interests and goals. I do not view it as arbitrary but rather as a solution that grew organically out of its environment.

This partially explains the overwhelming success of equal temperament. It is adapted very well to the way we currently make and think about music. It packs great diversity and freedom into a scale of only twelve notes. It also provides a convenient standard that allows many different instruments to play together in the same tuning.

However, I feel that some criticism is called for in regards to modern views of equal temperament. Equal temperament may be an effective compromise but it is not the only solution. There is no reason to artificially limit our musical language to a mere twelve equally spaced notes. Equal temperament cannot accommodate the full range of emotional expression that is possible in music.

Equal temperament has many good qualities, but this alone can't account for its level of success. We have become somewhat lazy and complacent. Tuning used to be the subject of passionate debate and energetic experimentation. Now, most people are content to have only one choice. The overwhelming success of twelve tone equal temperament is partly due to apathy.

Fortunately, it is becoming easier to experience alternative tunings. There's a large quantity of recordings available in historical and ethnic tunings. It's also becoming much easier to produce experimental microtonal music with computer software.

Music can be a very personal experience. We still have much to learn about how the brain and human body respond to and interpret sonic vibrations. These responses are complex and vary from person to person. Alternate tunings are a way to explore, more deeply, the relationship between music and the listener. Twelve equally spaced notes to the octave are simply not enough.


Embrace the Controversy

In the past, the subject of tuning has provoked heated passion and enthusiastic debate. This is partly because music has often been regarded as more than just pleasant sound. Music was viewed as inseparable from the nature of the universe, an ideal attained in the heavens and emulated on earth. Bad music or improper tuning was a crime against nature and a danger to the fabric of society.

There was a fascination with whole numbers and the simple fractions they made. It was discovered that musical tones whose frequencies formed simple fractions like 2/1, 3/2 or 4/3 sounded especially pleasant and harmonious. Musical scales that employed these ratios were viewed as natural, a reflection of the divine order of the cosmos.

We now know that nature is far more complex than the ancient mind could have imagined. The ancient view was challenged by the Pythagorean discovery of irrational numbers. Previously, it had seemed self evident that all numbers were either whole numbers or ratios formed by whole numbers. Alas, there is an infinite quantity of irrational numbers that cannot be expressed as the ratio of two whole numbers. The ancient view of the cosmos was seriously flawed.

This "inconvenient" fact of nature would eventually influence how music was made. Purely tuned intervals based on simple ratios sound nice and so does the music based upon them, however, these simple ratios have unexpected mathematical properties that make them unsuitable for certain types of musical expression.

Purely tuned instruments have problems when they modulate from one key to another. Some keys sound good and other keys contain harsh dissonances.

What can be done to avoid this? There's a couple of possibilities. You can just live with these harsh dissonances. You can simply avoid modulations that result in these dissonant intervals. Or you could add extra purely tuned intervals to increase your freedom of modulation.

Another possibility is temperament. You can detune or temper the notes in a scale so the different keys sound either more alike or exactly alike, except for absolute pitch. Our modern system of twelve tone equal temperament allows unlimited freedom of modulation with only twelve notes to the octave. All the keys sound the same, but this system contains no purely tuned intervals, except for the octave. All the other intervals are irrational.

This is where the controversy lies. There are great practical advantages to our modern tuning system, but many people long to hear purely tuned intervals.

Some people have formed very strong opinions in favor of systems that use purely tuned intervals, perhaps viewing any sort of temperament as unnatural. Others view purely tuned intervals as impractical.

I personally don't see the need to limit myself to just one side of this question. I realise that any musical system will have some measure of tension in it because of competing musical forces. I find this to be natural and desirable. Music is dynamic and personal. Ancient theories about beauty in music may be incomplete or even wrong, but our growing understanding of music is truly exciting. This controversy about tempered verses justly tuned intervals is part of what makes music interesting.

If you make microtonal music, or are thinking of doing so, this issue is of great importance to you. You can experience for yourself the difference between tempered and purely tuned intervals and come to your own conclusions about how to express yourself musically.

I suggest you keep an open mind during your exploration. Microtonal music is full of surprises and you may find that some of your preconceived ideas will be challenged by your discoveries. I personally have gained quite a different view on tuning since I began my exploration. I have had some beliefs that I never thought of questioning until I made discoveries that caused me to think in a new way. This is part of the fun. Embrace the controversy!

See also Equal Temperament


What is Xenharmonic Music?

Xenharmonic music is a type of microtonal music that uses strange or foreign harmony. It generally does not refer to microtonal music that is similar to twelve tone equal temperament.

Linguistically, this is kind of a mess. Xenharmonic music is a useful term, but not very precise. Whether a certain tuning is xenharmonic can depend on how it's used or how it's perceived by the listener.

The term xenharmonic music may be vague, but the attitude of a composer who identifies his music as xenharmonic may be more clearly defined. Frequently, such a person will explore types of musical expression that is new and experimental.

Many traditional microtonalists look to the past for inspiration and take a very conservative approach to their selection of scales or musical styles. They may view modern twelve tone equal temperament as a deviation from pure and natural principles and long to experience the musical joys of simpler times. This is usually not xenharmonic music.

A xenharmonicist tends to go in the opposite direction, perhaps exploring nontraditional, justly tuned intervals or using scales with unusual dissonances. A truly enthusiastic xenharmonic composer will take nothing for granted. He may try music that weakens or eliminates the concept of the octave. He may use scales that feature severely detuned fifths or that use the tritone in unexpected ways.

These terms can give the false impression that these two different types of microtonal music are mutually exclusive. I prefer to view microtonal music as more of a spectrum, where some is more xenharmonic and some is more traditional. It's somewhat rare and, probably, unwise for an individual to devote all their attention to one extreme end of this spectrum.

Microtonalists are an extremely varied group of people that are lumped together in one inconveniently vague term. Many people, including myself, have spent time trying to think of better, more precise terms to describe our craft, without much success.

Maybe this is OK. We are all in the same boat, regardless of our differences. Many people are unaware that we even exist. Inconveniently vague and simplified terms may be all that the public can handle at the moment. Give them a little time time to discover us, and then precise distinctions may become more important.

I for one, am not too concerned about these differences. I have great respect for anyone who is willing to challenge the supremacy of twelve tone equal temperament. Some of our ideas may be flawed. We may make some mistakes, but in music, these mistakes can teach us as much as our successes. If we are humble we can all learn from each other.


Is Dissonance as Bad as People Think?

I was playing a recording of some of my microtonal music to a friend. Suddenly a very peculiar expression came upon his face. He then placed a finger into one of his ears. I didn't know how to interpret this. If he had placed both fingers into both ears I would have understood and turned down the music or turned it off completely. Well, it turns out he was deaf in the other ear, but to his surprise, he could actually hear this song with his bad ear. This was the first time he could hear anything with that ear for many years. He plugged his good ear to analyze better the hearing in his bad ear. He reported that he could hear portions of the song pretty clearly.

Why is this? Of course I don't know for sure. I'm not a doctor. But I have some ideas based on my study of music. The piece being played was written in thirteen note equal temperament. The vast majority of music we hear today is written in twelve tone tone equal temperament, a tuning that is considered to be fairly harmonious or consonant. Thirteen note tuning is, on the other hand, extremely dissonant. Some people consider it to be one of the worst possible tunings and, based on conventional harmonic theory, it is simply awful. I disagree with this assessment, but I would rather discuss, for now, possible reasons for this specific tuning's peculiar effect on this individual.

Most tones from an instrument are actually made up multiple overtones all playing at the same time. This is one reason why different instruments often sound so different even when they are playing the same note. The fundamental notes may be the same but the overtones are different or have different intensities.

Things get interesting when tones are combined. They interact in complicated ways. New combination tones are created and the new waveforms that result can be very complex.

The amount of complexity that results from tones interacting with each other can be reduced if the frequencies of the tones are simple ratios of each other. We consider these tones to be harmonious, whereas tones that interact in a more complicated way are considered dissonant.

Now I should point out something obvious. Since dissonant interactions are more complicated, they are harder to understand and, therefore, less well understood. Dissonance has also been a neglected subject. Harmony has been the subject and goal of most music theory. Harmony is a far easier subject to study and is often considered to be a lofty goal in itself. Harmony is tied up up with all sorts of romantic notions of what is pure and beautiful about the universe.

Dissonance, however, is vilified, often with no real understanding of what dissonance really is.

What's remarkable is that our modern tuning system of twelve equally spaced semitones in an octave ever caught on. Early on it faced passionate opposition because it deviated from so called pure and natural intervals. But it does have technical advantages and was eventually adopted, largely as a matter of convenience.

This is a strange irony. Our romantic notions of harmony really haven't changed much since ancient times, but most people view our modern tuning system with its introduced dissonances as a manifestion of perfect harmony, a realization of their romantic ideals. Of course this irony goes largely unrecognised because most people don't realise the true nature of our modern tuning system.

Of course some people are fully aware of this contradiction. The elimination or reduction of the dissonances in modern twelve tone tuning is a major force behind the modern microtonal movement. But it turns out that dissonance is harder to eliminate than it might seem. Different scales often just introduce different dissonances. (I'll save that story for another day) Others consider our modern tuning to be the best possible compromise. They may lament the impure intervals but consider them to be necessary imperfections.

Do we have to be content with this state of affairs? Is dissonance just a necessary imperfection, an unavoidable wart of nature? This is too big of a question to answer today, but if we return to the beginning we can at least give ourselves some food for thought. I believe one of the reasons my friend could hear that song in a strange tuning is because of the peculiar dissonances of that tuning. Somehow, it appears that the complex vibrations of that tuning interacted with his damaged ear in a complex way and caused it to send messages to his brain.

I have said almost nothing about the possible beauty or musical uses of dissonance, but I hope that I have at least demonstrated some of the power and mystery of it.

I know I have raised more questions than answers, but don't despair, this blog is new and there's a lot more coming. Stay tuned!


What is Microtonal Music?

Microtonal music is any music that uses a tuning other than standard twelve tone equal temperament.

Twelve tone equal temperament is the basic piano tuning that we are used to. It really works quite well, which partially explains the fact that it is the only tuning many people are aware of.

I am a restless individual, however, and am not content with the the so called norm. A lot of microtonal music is based on various historical or ethnic tunings, but I am especially intrigued by certain experimental tunings that are hardly ever used. I am currently writing a symphony in twenty-six note equal temperament, an obscure tuning with strange properties. I hope to have some links to my music soon.



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