Monday, July 19, 2010

Help Wanted: Microtonal Music

We all have our musical blind spots - deaf spots? - and I've discovered in the last couple of years that one of mine is microtonal music. I've heard works by a few composers who write microtonal music and I've read a little of what they're written about scale development and related issues.

I simply don't know how to listen to it. By that I mean that even with repeated hearings, it just sounds out of tune to me. I believe I am not hearing the pitches in their proper relationships. I clearly need more practice, but I also need help.

I'd appreciate a couple of things from anyone who would like to comment.
  • Pointers to works I should hear.
  • Advice on how to listen.
Thanks in advance!


jodru said...

Take a gander at Orchester Finalisten by Stockhausen. There's lots of lovely slow-moving microtones in that piece. It's all on top of one of his greatest sound collages, too!

Another good warmup for the ear is Stockhausen's Montags Gruss. This is an absolutely fantastic reworking of the Rheingold prelude, but with overdubbed basset horns. You're literally swimming in a sea of micro-tones, and it's just gorgeous.

I have the same problem with approaching micro-tonal music. The 'warmup' aspect is key, for me, because once you really start listening, you'll realize how enormous a half step really is. The distance from E to F is gargantuan!

It just takes a while for my ears to really focus on the smaller steps.

Elaine Fine said...

I'm still waiting for a productive response to this post about the bohlen-pierce scale, and singing microtonal music in tune. I'll be watching this post for comments. I have a feeling that there are more people interested in microtonal music because it is "difficult" than people interested in it because it is beautiful.

For a microtonal experience from a composer who actually hears everything he writes, I would start with <a href=">Easley Blackwood</a>.

Sibyl said...

Really hoping someone gives you the right advice: I could use the pointers, also.

rootlesscosmo said...

I know almost nothing about this and am looking forward to the Easley Blackwood, but Aaron Copland's early piano trio, "Vitebsk" (which has an interesting back story), uses quarter tones in t he violin and cello parts. When I've played it, the violinist always warns the audience in advance that "we're not out of tune, it's supposed to sound like this" and demonstrates, but we've had walkouts.

Daniel Wolf said...


Microtones (or better: an alternative tuning) are materials, not a style or genre. Early music played in historical tunings or temperaments and barbershop quartet singing are, strictly speaking, microtonal, but are perhaps heard simply as varieties of tonal music in which the intonation has been optimized for some combination of economy and sensory consonance.

That said, there is some music which goes beyond optimization of a conventional tonal palate and takes explicit advantage of the wider variety of relationships available in an alternative tuning. Knowing some of your musical preferences, I would recommend Harrison's Scenes from Nek Chand, the Johnston 4th quartet, Ligeti's Hamburg Concerto, and Tenney's Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow as a beginning. These are each, in their own way, oriented towards just intonation, using intervals found in the lower regions of the harmonic series and you might find a way into these intervals through your own singing practice, that is learning to isolate individual harmonics in your own singing voice, singing against a drone and locating intervals with less beating, and best of all, singing with others. At a minimum, learn to recognize and produce just major thirds and harmonic sevenths would be very useful.

There is, of course, a huge body of music in which the harmonic series plays a reduced or negligible role in the intonation — the Bartok violin duos are one place to start, with their melodic use of quartertones; the more exotic of the Blackwood etudes as well —, but I find that the acoustical yardstick provided by the harmonic series intervals is extremely useful for orienting oneself in more complex intonation environments.

Elaine Fine said...

But you have to play those quarter tones in tune, or they turn into some other kind of microtone!

Anonymous said...


Music, of all the arts, is the one that does not and should not require explanation or education. If it works at all it should talk directly to the inner listener, beneath the layers of pretension or persona.

If the music has more going for it that simply satisfying the short-term pretensions of elitists and pseudo-intellectuals then it will survive on its own merits, if not it will die out as the fad passes and audiences move on.

Also, music is not literature. A child doesn't need to know anything to enjoy and appreciate music. I'm not talking about instant gratification, nor am I saying that the experience cannot be deepened or improved with time, but you do hear people criticising those who don't "understand" certain strands of modern music where the suggestion is that they lack the intellectual capacity or taste (whatever that is) to appreciate it.

Music ultimately should be able to transcend education and intellect and culture in a way that literature, for instance, cannot (or cannot always).


Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, great discussion. Jodru, thank you; excellent advice, and I will get those pieces.

Elaine, I see what you mean about your blog posting, will follow the links to the Globe article.

rootlesscosmo, ha, to the Copland. What is the back story?

Daniel, you're right. I was imprecise in describing what I was talking about. And thanks for the advice and musical pointers.

J. - I'll be commenting on what you say in a separate posting.

la rose said...

I find that learning to play unfamiliar stuff (systems or genres) — going through the rehearsal process or the learning-from-scratch process — makes listening (when not also playing) more enjoyable. Working on the music will teach you how to listen to it. That's a big investment, of course, and it's hard to say whether it'll pay off if you're not that grabbed by the music in the first place. And if you play piano... well, there are ways to make a MIDI keyboard "talk," as it were.

I was involved in a concert of Joe Maneri's music a few years back and that was my first introduction to 72-tone equal temperament. I performed a solo flute piece and did much practicing with a tuner and alternate fingerings. I don't know if I would have enjoyed discovering his music any other way.


rootlesscosmo said...

Here's that back story:

Between the 1880's and the 1920's, a group of Russian ethnographers, both Jewish and Gentile, launched a project to collect and preserve the culture of the Jewish Pale of Settlement, including stories, materials, and music. One of the group was S. Z. Rappoport, who published, under the pen name "S. An-sky," the play "The Dybbuk,"

drawn from traditional stories he had heard, along with a traditional melody, which is given in some editions of the play and was included in the first New York production in 1929. Copland, just back from Paris, saw the play and was moved to compose the trio "Vitebsk" which incorporates An-Sky's tune. (An-sky was born near Vitebsk, in what's now Belarus.)

Several years ago the Russian musical historian Izaly Zemtsovsky gave a series of lectures under the sponsorship of the UC Berkeley Music Department, surveying that ethnographic project, including An-Sky's part in it. I had the opportunity to give him a recording of the Copland piece, of which he said (with a tone of mild surprise) "You know, it's good music!" To tie the bundle even more neatly, Professor Zemtsovsky was born in Vitebsk.

Anonymous said...

I think there are two very different approaches to the problem.

One is the classical quarter-tone (subdivide the equal-tempered twelve-tone scale). Ives and Hauer would be classic examples of that - the aesthetic for that would come out of the tonal / atonal worlds that you are probably familiar with.

The second approach is the alternate tuning approach - like Partch or Johnston. In some ways this is like listening to non-western not equal tempered twelve tone music. The tunings of a gamelan for instance, or the equal tempered 7 note scale of Thai and some African music. That would require coming to with the aesthetics of the composer (in the case of Partch) or with the aesthetics of a culture (the Javanese, the Thai, etc.).

There is a fascinating book by Pieter Van Der Merwe entitled Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music that looks at the interrelationship of equal tempered 7 note scales (from Africa primarily) and 12 note equal tempered scale (Central Europe) and how that became the blues type scale.

Office of the Cultural Liaisons said...
for your consideration

Paul Muller said...

Dave Seidel created and posted a piece at ImprovFriday this week using just-intonation pentatonic scales.

Very accessible. The piece is titled 'Sumeru' and there is a link on the front page here:

Lisa Hirsch said...

la rose - thank you, belatedly. Paul and Office of Cultural Liaisons, thank you as well. (I have to say, when I saw the latter comment in my email, my first thought was "This must be spam." I'm glad I followed the link!)

Anonymous 2 who describes two different approaches - thank you too!