Unusual Microtonal Instruments, Part 4

So far, we have examined a large variety of microtonal instruments. We have yet to discuss the keyboard and its role in producing microtonal music. In some ways the piano style keyboard is the victim of its own success. Its twelve keys per octave arrangement has become so common that many have forgotten that there are other alternatives, but imagine what you could do with this alternative keyboard controller from H-Pi Instruments.

Tonal Plexus

This keyboard features an impressive 211 keys per octave. I can't imagine a situation where this wouldn't be sufficient. This same company also sells the Tuning Box, the world's first microtonal midi converter. You can use it to retune electronic keyboards or software synthesizers. It can store over 500 tunings. This is a great idea. This could save a person a lot of time and money shopping for equipment with microtonal capabilities.

If this all sounds new and unusual, you might enjoy visiting their instrument galleries that feature a long history of keyboards capable of playing more than 12 notes per octave. For example, here is a modern reconstruction of a sixteenth century harpsichord that has 36 keys per octave split between two manuals.


Here is a 31 tone to the octave pipe organ.

Fokker organ

Here is a closeup of a 22 tone just intonation harpsichord keyboard with unusual split keys.

Just Intonation harpsichord

See also:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 5


Quarter Tone Piano

Normally, a piano has notes that are a half tone apart. If you take two pianos and tune one of them a quarter tone sharp, you can use them to play 24 tone equal temperament. These videos demonstrate 3 quarter tone piano pieces by Charles Ives.

24 tone equal temperament is a somewhat controversial tuning. It's similarity to 12 tone equal temperament makes it an obvious choice for study, but many people don't like it. They point out that the in between notes tend to be rather dissonant. This tuning is regarded by some as one of the least interesting. Well, I haven't formed any strong opinions about it myself. I have had very little success with it, so far, but I recently had some ideas that may be productive. I can say that I like these pieces and hope you will enjoy them, too.

Charles Ives-3 Quarter Tone Pieces-Largo

Charles Ives-3 Quarter Tone Pieces-Allegro

Charles Ives-3 Quarter Tone Pieces-Chorale

Many thanks to Daniel Stearns for bringing these to my attention. See this page for more information on these pieces.


Unusual Microtonal Instruments, Part 3

I have already discussed several microtonal guitars in this series. This next guitar is one of the most unusual. Dave Keenan is the inventor of the Choob, a tubular (choobular?) electric guitar.

Microtonal Choob

This picture is of the first microtonal choob. It has eight strings and is tuned to a seven limit schismatic temperament. One of the chief advantages of this design appears to be the ease with which you can setup a microtonal fret layout or even change it if you aren't satisfied. The frets are monofilament that are threaded through drilled holes. You can drill new holes if you want to change the fret layout.

The use of a light weight tube requires some wet sand for ballast and an internal truss wire system to counteract the tension of the strings. There are also plans to include a neon tube to light up the frets at night.

It looks like the curved fretboard would make it difficult to play, but the reports I've heard indicate that it's much easier than it looks. The curved design also makes it possible to use a bow. I don't really need a microtonal guitar at the moment, but if I ever decide to get one, I will definitely consider this new design.

Another recently invented microtonal instrument is the udderbot. The invention of the instrument was a collaborative effort that took place in the vicinity of Jacob Barton. I don't know much about it since it's new and the web site is still under construction. I could describe it, but I thought it might be more fun for you to try to guess its general appearance based on the name, udderbot. You can then check the website for pictures and further information.

The udderbot was used at the 17 tone piano project, phase 3. Recordings of the concert are archived here.

See also:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 4
Part 5


15 Tone Gamelan (a new version of an old piece)

Jon Lyle Smith suggested that my Study for Bells might work well with gamelan sounds. He was also nice enough to render the midi file for me. Here is the new version. I'm impressed with how it turned out. It sounds very different than the original.

I had also thought that gamelan sounds might work well with this piece. The tuning of 15 tone equal temperament contains a subset of five tone equal temperament which resembles the Indonesian slendro scale. This makes gamelan sounds a logical choice, although the particular scale I used also has some striking differences from traditional gamelan scales. This piece doesn't sound much like authentic gamelan music, but it does provide an interesting study of the pairing of an unusual tuning with the beloved gamelan sound. I'm grateful to Mr. Smith for providing this audio file. Click here to listen.

See also:
Two Gamelan Transcriptions for Piano
Wikipedia article on gamelan music
Study for Bells in 15 Tone Equal Temperament


Unusual Microtonal Instruments, Part 2

Neil Haverstick is a well known guitarist whose compositions include explorations of exotic microtonal realms. He uses a large variety of microtonal guitars including 19, 31 and 34 tone equal temperaments and fretless guitars tuned to the harmonic series. Here is a collection of his 34 tone guitars. Notice how close the frets are to each other.

You can visit him at his website or My Space page. You may also enjoy visiting microtones.com for more information on microtonal guitars.

Dante Rosati uses a just intonation guitar, a harmonic guitar and a very unusual prime guitar that uses ratios of purely tuned prime numbers up to 199. You can also hear some of his music at his Zebox page.

Doctor Oakroot plays a rough edged type of blues on homemade guitar-like instruments. Some of the instruments are based on Pythagorean tuning and one uses 17 tone equal temperament. Here's a video of him playing a homemade guitar.

Doctor Oakroot-Snake in the Grass

If you are interested in making homemade instruments, you might like to read his article on how to make a diddley bow (a cool, but simple, instrument with microtonal capabilities).

See also:
Part 1
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5


Unusual Microtonal Instruments, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I received a surprising email. It was from a TV show in Britain. I was asked if I would be willing to be consulted about an upcoming segment on unusual musical instruments. Apparently, a researcher discovered my ancient instrument blog through an Internet search and concluded that I was some sort of expert on the subject. (I'm just an amateur collector and connoisseur of musical instruments.)

I replied that I would be delighted to share whatever knowledge I had. I then waited to be contacted. I began to think about some of my favorite unusual instruments like the bazantar, stalacpipe organ, sarrusophone, LEGO harpsichord and even the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra.

I thought I should also do some more research on instruments that are specifically designed to make microtonal music. Of course, many unusual instruments are microtonal, but this isn't always intentional. I posted a request for assistance at a few microtonal music groups. I received a good number of emails describing some great instruments, many of which I wasn't familiar with. I never was contacted again by the TV show, but I am pleased to offer these microtonal instruments some modest publicity here.

Kraig Grady is a well known microtonal composer who has found it necessary to make his own microtonal instruments.

His Lake Aloe is a vibraphone-like instrument that is tuned to a type of extended just intonation. It has a dreamy otherworldly sound. You have to hear it. See this page for an mp3 sample and for more detailed information on his instruments and tunings.

There are several varieties of microtonal guitars. The following picture compares the fret layout of a normal guitar with a guitar that uses Lucytuning, a tuning system based on pi.

This fret layout allows for slightly different tunings of sharp and flat notes. See this site for more information on Lucytuning.

Ethan Tripp, the author of one of my favorite blogs, Of Sound Mind frequently chronicles sonic experiments that sometimes involves homemade instruments.

This instrument is loosely modeled on a Thai phin. It also represents the beginnings of his microtonal explorations. The frets are made from "zip-ties". This simple, but elegant, solution allows him to easily move the frets and thereby change the tuning. This project is described here.

See also:
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Changes at this Blog

Perhaps you didn't realise that this blog has, or rather had, a sibling. This blog and another blog, Resources for the Microtonal Composer, were started at the same time. This was a result of my compulsive urge to organise and classify. It seemed that the term microtonal was just too vague. I wanted a general microtonal blog where I could share my music and discuss theory. I also wanted a different microtonal blog where I could discuss specific aspects of making microtonal music. I had big plans. I thought I would regularly try demo versions of software with microtonal capabilities and write reviews. I wanted to warn people about the mistakes I had made. I even began making some simple microtonal software. I figured that blog would make a great launching platform.

I should have been able to predict the results of all this. I ended up lavishing time and attention on this blog and couldn't seem to find the time to properly maintain the other one. This blog grew strong while the other grew weak. And then the unthinkable happened...

While I was distracted and preoccupied, a barbaric act of cannibalism occurred. This blog engulfed the best content of its smaller sibling, leaving only a few pitiful scraps to wither in the digital sun.

Well, I try to remain philosophical about this. This will allow me to better maintain this blog. I will still write about issues of microtonal music production, I just won't have to worry about doing so on a regular basis. I may even finish that microtonal software. If I do, I'll release it here.

Still, the precedent worries me. This blog also has a cousin, Lutes, Viols and Other Ancient Instruments. It was actually more popular than this blog until recently. Now, strengthened by its recent conquest, I see this blog looking in that direction with hungry and envious eyes.

Who knows what the future will hold?

The following is a list of the new articles added to the archives. I kept the publication dates the same.

What is Xenharmonic Music?
Embrace the Controversy
L'il Miss' Scale Oven™
Take advantage of Free Music Software
Tonescape Tuning Software Now Available
Two Gamelan Transcriptions for Piano
Wendy Carlos Discusses Microtonality


The Seventeen Tone Piano Project

The seventeen tone piano project is an ambitious undertaking that involves tuning two pianos to share the notes of seventeen tone equal temperament (seventeen equally spaced notes to the octave instead of twelve). This is an unique and exotic tuning. It is characterised by fifths that are somewhat sharper than purely tuned fifths. (Twelve tone equal temperament and mean-tone tunings have somewhat flat fifths.) It also has a neutral third in addition to versions of major and minor thirds.

That's enough theory, it's better to listen to it, so I have included this video of phase two of the project.

Seventeen Tone Piano Project, Phase Two

Phase three is scheduled to be performed this coming Monday. I'm excited because I have submitted one of my own pieces for the concert. It's a gentle nocturne. I tried to write a piece that contrasts with the reputation of 17ET as being somewhat rough sounding. Time will tell if I succeeded or not.

Update: Recordings of phase 3 are archived here.