Microtonal music for beginners

Discussion in 'Music Theory, Lessons & Techniques' started by bostjan, Apr 19, 2018.

  1. bostjan

    bostjan MicroMetal Contributor

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    Sorry for the thread rehash, since we've had a few of these, but the discussions keep popping up in other threads, so here's a place for your microtonal-related questions. I'd like this to be a place where there are no silly questions, and we all keep an open mind.

    I've tried countless times to get into microtonal music theory. Some resources I've received from Neil Haverstick (Stickman) and Jon Catler have been down-to-earth and useful. Most of the other resources I've found online are very dense and take a long time for me to digest, and I have to keep popping on wikipedia or cross-referencing other resources in order to follow along.

    The first question, I guess, is "What is microtonal music?"

    And, well, that's a tough one. Some people say anything that's not in standard tuning (according to a digital chromatic tuner) would be microtonal. Other people have certain requirements.

    Another question: "How does microtonal music work?"

    It's very difficult to answer, since we don't even really have universal agreement on what microtonal music even is. :lol: But, sometimes, microtonal music can sound totally normal, and other times it can sound totally weird. Ultimately, it's all about taking a different approach to the same ideas used in standard music theory, sometimes with some extra bits added on top.

    So, post your questions here!
     
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  2. bostjan

    bostjan MicroMetal Contributor

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    My first question for all of you: "What do you consider microtonal?"

    Here are some examples of tunings that might be considered microtonal or not, and some reasoning why...

    #1 Quartertone music. Also known as "24-EDO" (Twenty-four notes equally divided into an octave) or 24-TET (Twenty-four tone equal temperament), it's the tuning system achieved by placing a fret midway between each note on the standard fretboard. So, you'd have your same 12 notes in an octave you would normally have: A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#, plus one note in between each of those notes. This tuning is quite common in East Asia (Persia, the Arabic Peninsula, Iraq, etc.). My bet is that just about everyone considers this to be microtonal. It seems to be catching on with a lot of newer musicians, like Mononeon and King Gizzard (using a subset of the tuning, so some quarter steps are not available and some are).
    #2 Just intonation. So, here's where things get mathematical. Much older music, and some modern music (z.B. Barbershop quartets and a good deal of acapella music) is performed in such a way that "a fifth" (the power chord interval) is exactly 3/2 the frequency of the root note. In standard tuning, E is exactly 700 cents higher than A, but if you tune E by ear, odds are very high that you'll tune it 702 cents higher. That's because the "perfect" intervals by ear are not the same as the ones we use in standard tuning. Going beyond the fifth, and looking at the major third, which is the note that makes a major chord sound cheerful, the "by-ear" note is 386 cents, not 400 cents as it is in standard tuning. It's different enough to really notice. The question is whether all just intonation tunings are considered microtonal, just some of them, or maybe even none of them.
    #3 Well temperament. This is the method of tuning the standard twelve notes unequally in order to get some keys to sound better. The downside is that other keys sound not-as-good. But, honestly, most music is played in one of a few keys, and some keys are very rarely used. It's really kind of a compromise between just tuning and standard tuning, or, more accurately, since well temperament is older than standard tuning, one could say that standard tuning is well temperament taken to its extreme.
     
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  3. Winspear

    Winspear Tom Winspear

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    Good thread idea :) I'd suppose something I'd say to a lot of beginners who may be curious, is that indeed, microtonality can sound very normal. You are probably quite used to hearing it in acapella music, lead vocals to some degree maybe, eastern music or soundtracks influenced by eastern music etc. As has been said above, tuning notes by ear often comes out slightly differently to 12EDO.
    One thing I've noticed is that microtonality generally sounds much more ordinary to people when played by orchestras, vocal, eastern instruments etc. Play the same tunings to somebody on a guitar or piano and that's when it can start to sound strange to beginners - because we are so used to those instruments being forced into fixed pitch.

    My experimentation into micronality began with learning about the harmonic series and how single notes are constructed from it. I used Audacity to stack sine waves in this fashion. This helped me to learn about Just Intonation , as I'd always struggled reading about tuning ratios, but building a harmonic series myself helped me understand ratios more clearly.
     
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  4. The Omega Cluster

    The Omega Cluster n00b

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    Microtonal music is super interesting. There are countless ways you can come up with a microtonal scale. Common patterns are Equal Temperaments, Just Intonations, and Well Temperaments, like mentioned earlier, but you can make one totally arbitrary. For example, based on overtone series, or one that doesn't cycle at the octave, or one that is logarithmic, or whatever you can come up with. I didn't dig so far into microtonal music yet, my most thorough experiment was with Melopœia where I translated word-for-word, letter-for-letter text from English to 26-tone equal temperament. I took a few artistic liberties but most of the project was straight translation.
     
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  5. Winspear

    Winspear Tom Winspear

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    I consider anything that deviates from 12EDO microtonal even though it may not be intentional. Afterall, music started with microtonality and then we had to intentionally move away from it for simplicity. A singer might not be thinking about microtonality, they are just doing what comes naturally. But to copy them on a guitar or piano, you would have to think about/modify the instrument for microtonality - so surely that music must be considered microtonal.
     
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  6. bostjan

    bostjan MicroMetal Contributor

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    @The Omega Cluster 's 26 tone Tolkein stuff sounds really far out to me (and brilliant, BTW :yesway:). I don't think anyone would pick that apart and argue that it's not really microtonal. :lol:

    My released stuff have been focused on 19-EDO tuning - 19 notes equally spaced out over an octave. It's a very tame application of microtonality, even though the prime number of notes gives a quick impression that it'll sound weird. I see it as an alternative to standard tuning, rather than something shocking or confusing. I really advocate for everyone to try 19-EDO at least once and make a decision on what might be its strengths and weaknesses.
    My more mainstream stuff in cover bands and so forth has been focused on my own 12/24 hybrid tuning. Stick to standard tuning, but with a few optional notes here and there at quarter steps, and you'll get a good level of convenience in playing with a fair number of "Weird" options. To my ears, 24-EDO/quartertone notes sound a lot more striking than 19-EDO. There are some ways to play these notes in a maqam context, that is, to play ethnic scales that yield a certain sort of sound, but honestly, out of that exact context, and played on a guitar with heavy gain, the application never quite works out that well.

    From a heavier theory outlook, I just don't really know how to integrate nonwestern intervals like n2, n2, n6, and n7 into a Western context, so, rather than build scales out of 24-EDO, I tend to stick to standard scales and garnish those with "blue notes," to give a funkier or bluesier spice to a lick.

    For example:

    ----------------5------5---8-po-5------------------------------------------
    ------------5------8-----------------8---5-------5--------5----------------
    ----7^w-------------------------------------8--------8-------8---7/5------
    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Can be modified into:

    ----------------5------5---8-po-5-------------------------------------------
    ------------5------8-----------------8---5-------5--------5-----------------
    ----7^w-------------------------------------8.5------8--------8.5/8/7/5---
    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    In the key of Am, the first bend from D to E establishes a mushy area between the 4th and 5th intervals. The end of the lick, bouncing from Eb to E, then resolving to C (the minor third) reinforces the idea that this tonality is supposed to be a bit funky. Now, in the second lick, by replacing some of the time spend on Eb and E with Eb, Ed (half flat), and E, you don't really hear any bold new statement introduced in comparison with the first lick, instead, it's simply a little more playful in how it develops tension before it resolves.

    You can apply a similar idea with 19 notes, because you'll have D#, Eb, and E as distinct tones, but in a western musical set context, you are playing around with an augmented 4th, diminished 5th, and perfect 5th, but in this application, if used as passing tones, they work almost exactly the same way, and sound only a little bit different.

    To me, though, by conserving the tonal ideas from western music theory, but distinguishing different enharmonic equivalent notes (like Eb=D#) into a finer mesh, you don't really have to reprogram your thinking. That way, anything you played in standard tuning can be translated into 19 notes without any effort. The only pitfall I've really hit is with the "Jimi Hendrix chord" E7#9. It sounds pretty bad as E7#9 in 19, but quite a bit better if it's played as Emin/dom7, meaning that the #9, which is Fx (double sharp, since the major second in E is F#), is bumped up to the b3, or G. With 12 notes, Fx = G, so, no problem, but with 19 notes, Fx = Gb.

    I think it's an exciting time, now that some mainstream artists are screwing around with some quarter-tone stuff. The only potential downside may be that other tunings, lumped in as "microtonal" may become more difficult to track down as quartertone stuff gets more and more attention.
     
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  7. bostjan

    bostjan MicroMetal Contributor

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    I've long mused about how we could further break down tunings into different sorts. I think having the blanket "microtonal" for everything outside of standard is going to be a little confusing later.

    For me, the key points are:
    A) Are the notes equally spaced? If so, what is the basis unit (one octave, a fifth, an octave and a fifth, etc.) Or, if not, are they all spaced according to some common denominator, like if you had 12 notes in an octave, but they were selected out of 19-EDO tuning, just discarding 7 notes.
    B) How many notes are there in total?
    C) Do the notes approximate anything else, in specific, like JI?
    D) What is the closest difference (i.e. in cents) between notes?

    So, for example, Well Temperaments are a large group of different tunings that follow the same basic idea, and answer the above questions:
    A) No - no
    B) 12
    C) Yes, JI
    D) usually 90 - 98 cents

    I like to think that some equal temperaments with larger numbers of notes could serve as "hubs" for their own spin-off well temperaments and different approaches to just intonation.

    We are all familiar, I assume, with standard tuning, which has twelve equally spaced notes. In my mind, it approximates a set of just intonation notes that I call the modal set, which has major and minor second, third, sixth and seventh; perfect root, 4th, and 5th; and also a diminished fifth and augmented fourth (just the intervals you get from the "old church modes" of the major scale).

    I think 19 notes can also serve as a node, with its own (hypothetical) well temperaments, and it's own corresponding just intonation set of notes. The just intervals would be expanded such that every tonality (beside the root) would have an augmented and diminished tone. I think that 31-equal sort of compliments that same set, but expands significantly upon it.

    I blogged about this to some extent about here: https://sites.google.com/site/bzmmtuning/home/19edo
     
  8. Drew

    Drew Forum MVP

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    "Microtonal music" and "beginners" sound like a recipe for disaster to me, but I think your idea of launching into it through the framework of blues is probably sensible. :lol:
     
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  9. bostjan

    bostjan MicroMetal Contributor

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    Well, beginners to microtonal music, as opposed to those groups and threads that make me feel like someone who's never flown an aircraft before jumping into the cockpit of a 747.
     
  10. tedtan

    tedtan SS.org Regular

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    Personally, I'm looking at it from the perspective with the 12 tone octave as the foundation, so I wouldn't consider just intonation or well temperament to be microtonal. Just intonation is essentially derived from the naturally occurring overtone series of a vibrating string/column of air/etc. and well temperament and equal temperament are, as you noted, variations (compromises) to allow for playing in tune in multiple key signatures on the same instrument. In other words, these are all temperaments of a single tuning rather than separate, distinct tunings unto themselves, IMO*.

    So moving on to what would be microtonal, "micro" implies smaller than standard and "tonal" implies either 1) the number of tones within an octave, 2) the intervals within the tuning system, or 3) that the tuning system will produce tonal (e.g., functional) harmony. So, basically any tuning system with more than 12 notes per octave.


    * I can see the temperaments of the 12 tone octave being considered microtonal when the various intervals, for example the JI minor and/or major third along with the 12TET minor and/or major third, are used within the same piece of music, but this is not particularly common in Western music outside of blues, where many singers and soloists are adept at employing various "degrees" of an interval in order to build or release tension.
     
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  11. bostjan

    bostjan MicroMetal Contributor

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    I believe that's how the term came into being, and what it was originally intended to mean - something about very small intervals, but somewhere along the line, it was appropriated for other purposes.

    I also agree that well temperament or just intonation with 11 or 12 tones is not really microtonal. Those, to me, are really just different takes on standard tuning, and, in many cases, were standard tuning before they went out of fashion.

    To our Western ears, probably anything that isn't "normal" sounds "weird," and anything that sounds "weird" because of tuning is lumped into the same bin marked "microtonal." But, to me, something in 19-EDO and something in 18-EDO sound pretty different from each other. There are a lot of different tonal styles and sets built off of different tunings.
     
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  12. The Omega Cluster

    The Omega Cluster n00b

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    For reference, though, "microtonal music" is about anything that is not 12 equal tones per octave. Those saying that 12-JI or 12-WT tunings don't apply are usually either elitists or purists. Perhaps the term began as meaning intervals smaller than 100 ¢, but now that isn't true anymore.
     
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  13. bostjan

    bostjan MicroMetal Contributor

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    I used to be in a yahoo group (old fashioned message board via email) that had this debate, and it got rather contentious. It's my belief that there really isn't any agreed-upon definition one way or the other. Maybe we are getting to that point now that there's been a little more discussion about it. Part of it is the general sense of how tuning can affect things, in which case, even 12-equal standard can be part of that all-encompassing topic.
     
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  14. Winspear

    Winspear Tom Winspear

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    And let's not forget how in any given higher EDO or JI set, people are still often sticking to a ~7 diatonic or ~12 chromatic type subset for a piece of music, essentially resulting in something more like a retuned 12
     
  15. Tech Wrath

    Tech Wrath SS.org Regular

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    I think part of why it's hard to get into microtonal music etc. is that you can't really jump into it right away. Where do you even go for buying a microtonal guitar? What if you want a specific EDO? Not everyone has access to luthiers and money to do this and most people don't want to mod their own instrument. I think there needs to be more options for people to be able to experiment with it.
     
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  16. bostjan

    bostjan MicroMetal Contributor

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    Ibanez made microtonal guitars for a short time. You can also buy from Freenote.
     
  17. The Omega Cluster

    The Omega Cluster n00b

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    I agree that it's quite difficult for guitars and basses, but there are more than enough microtonal softwares to have fun and make microtonal music with a keyboard or even only with a computer. That's what I did with Melopœia, you can do it too!
     
  18. Bobro

    Bobro SS.org Regular

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    What I did, which I recommend to anyone, especially guitarists, for getting into microtonal music, is get a saz (got mine in Istanbul but you can order them online too). This is a kind of lute-like insrument. They are very inexpensive, especially the "little girl" saz, the cura saz, which is the one I got. The frets are tied on nylon wire, basically fishing line, so you can place them and move them wherever you would like and experiment to your heart's content. Once you have found a tuning you want to commit to, you can order a custom guitar neck from Ron Sword at Metatonal Music in Florida. Shipping and customs kind of dogged me a bit, but the prices are very good considering that you are getting a handmade custom item of the highest quality (the neck I got is superb).

    As far as theory, I approach it from ancient music and middle-eastern theory. On a 17-tone or 24 tone guitar you can play all the makamlar you'll find at maquamworld.org.

    I imagine that most people here are metal shredders, so I'd recommend "17-EDO" as a tuning for microtonal metal. It is easy to grok and you can still do killer power chords because the fifth is tempered the same amount away from pure ("Just") as in standard 12-tET, except it's a touch sharp of pure, not a touch low like in 12-tET. The augmented fourth and dimiished fifth are two different notes in 17 (they are the same in 12-tET). This means you can play a tritone on top of a tritone and not hit the octave- stacked augmented fourths brings you to a diminished octave, for the most "evil in league with Satan" sound there is. Why there are not hundreds of black leather and goat's heads kinds of bands playing in 17 equal divisions of the octave is a real mystery!
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2018
  19. bostjan

    bostjan MicroMetal Contributor

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    Out of all the equal temperaments that could be done on guitar, I personally feel that 34-equal is about the limit of where things get better with adding more notes. 17-equal is every other note from 34-equal, so it follows that it'd be a great option. What made up my mind that my first micro guitar would be 19-equal was the fact that there were no issues with standard notation. Some tuning systems, a certain fret is a G# when you are in one key, but it's A in another key... it's not a deal breaker, by any means, but it does make things just a little more complicated for a newcomer.

    I've dealt with Ron a few times, and he's been super reasonable and professional with me. I know he has a bit of a reputation online, but I get the feeling that he's maybe somebody who has some buttons people tend to press. Also, I honestly think that his work has improved significantly since he first got started.
     
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  20. Eptaceros

    Eptaceros Wayfarer Contributor

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    Maybe Ron finally learned his lesson when he got chewed out for selling bootleg band merch online and threatened people in retaliation. Either way, that guy can hop off a bridge for all I care, and I would always be wary of doing business with him.
     

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