Join us for a journey – with lots of videos – and travel to the notes in between the notes to the beautiful, mind-bending world of microtones.
Looking for something different? Feeling bored with the usual scales and chords? Ready to go down a musical rabbit hole from which you may never emerge? Join us for a journey in between the notes to the beautifully mind-bending world of microtones.
What is microtonal music?
In the West we call music “microtonal” if it uses notes that aren’t found in traditional Western tuning, known as twelve-tone equal temperament, or 12-TET. A microtone, in other words, is a note that exists in between the keys on a piano.
Although there is essentially no limit to the number of notes between two Western semitones (e.g. C and C#), musical theorists have broken up the interval between two semitones into 100 parts, called “cents.” Humans can differentiate tones that are 5-6 cents apart, which means we can hear as many as 20 notes in between C and C#.
Microtonal music is an immense topic. Frankly, “immense” doesn’t do justice to just how much information exists. If you really want to dive in, visit this website on microtonal theory, and you’ll begin to see how vast these waters are.
I’m not going to discuss music from other cultures. India’s music, for example, features 22 unequal notes called shrutis, in an octave. As wonderful as the music from India, Turkey, Indonesia, and other countries is, Western audiences don’t really hear that music as “microtonal;” we accept those non-Western tones as simply being “exotic.” We’re also going to ignore discussions about intonation, which we explored in greater detail in our article on guitar tuning. Nor are we going to delve into the ol’ 440 vs 432 debate, because… wow.
A note on nomenclature, since it can be confusing. Microtonal music is also known as xenharmonic music and polychromatic music. You may have heard the term “quarter-tone.” A quarter-tone is specific microtone, one that is exactly halfway between two Western semitones, so for example, “C half-sharp” is a quarter-tone that is 50 cents sharper than C.
We are surrounded by microtones
One of the complaints people usually register is that microtones sound bad or out of tune. This can certainly be true. But we can sometimes forget that we hear microtones all day every day. Birds chirp, bells ring, and sirens wail, all in microtones. English is a very musical language. Our pitch rises and falls as we stress certain words, or ask questions. And yet people don’t speak in 12-TET (unless they’re on Broadway). They speak in microtones.
Beyond these daily microtonal sounds, we hear microtones in our music all the time. All blues-influenced music features “blue notes,” which are microtonal, especially in the vocals, guitar, and sax. These microtonal bends make the music come alive.
Musicians often turn to microtones when they want a certain effect, for example, the “honky tonk” piano sound, which can be found in the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon” among other places. (The piano starts at 1:55 in the song.) Here again is a kind of microtone – in this case, “out of tune” pianos – that we accept without thinking it’s ugly. In fact, for certain styles of music, we prefer the out of tune sound.
In Tune piano:
Out of tune piano:
What about “real” microtonal music?
So, we accept small doses of microtones in Western music when it’s used for effect. But, when most people think of microtonal music, they think of pieces like this:
… and most people simply tune out.
However, there exists a wide range of microtonal music, running the gamut from amazingly beautiful to wonderfully tense to head-twisting… all the way to damn challenging. The thing is, the more you listen to it, the more your ears acclimate to the new intervals, and the less “weird” it sounds.
So let’s dive in to some microtonal examples, and then explore how you can create your own music.
Vocalist and arranger extraordinaire, Jacob Collier, takes modulations and chord substitutions to ridiculous heights in his beautiful and astounding a capella version of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” One of those modulations is to G half-sharp (the quarter-tone between G and G#). This happens at 4:20, and then he glides, glacially, back down to G (switching to Just Intonation, no less!) at 5:20. Because his harmonic palette is so rich and his chord progressions are so disorientingly beautiful, you can be forgiven for not noticing this microtonal modulation, but it’s there. This video shows the transcription, though it’s perhaps more fun to watch 10 Jacob Colliers singing the song, which can be found elsewhere on YouTube.
Film scores have always been at the cutting edge of music, so it’s no surprise that microtones have been employed there. In some cases, microtones are employed sparingly, to add even more tension to a scene, like this example, from Hans Zimmer’s fantastic score for Dunkirk. In other cases, microtones are employed to a much more obvious and dramatic effect. Take Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” which has been used frequently in movies and, memorably, in the mind-blowing, trailblazing experience that was Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return. Skip to the 3:00 mark for some nice microtonal action.
Jazz, which uses so many blue notes, is a great vehicle for exploring microtonal harmonies. This piece, by saxophonist Philipp Gerschlauer, uses Harry Partch’s famous 43-tone unequal scale to moody effect.
Since microtones can be hard to play on “regular” instruments, electronic music is a very common microtonal genre. Here is a rather soothing piece, created by algorithm, using a 53-TET scale.
Aphex Twin known for pushing the boundaries of electronic music and has explored microtonal music for a while. Richard D. James has also helped Korg develop microtonal presets for their popular Monolog synth.
Sevish is another interesting microtonal artist. This heavenly piece uses an 8-note scale in 22-TET.
Going further out there (or rather, “farther in”), Composer Dolores Catherino uses a 106-note scale to dreamy effect. Buckle your seatbelt for this one.
Microtones have played an active role in rock since Sonic Youth first appeared in the early ‘80s. Perhaps the most famous recent rock album to feature microtones is King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s Flying Microtonal Banana.
There are numerous death metal bands that have fallen in love with xenharmonic tension. Check out the excellent Jute Gyte, an artist, I have to confess, I’d never heard of until I started researching this article.
One genre that seems underrepresented: microtonal hip-hop. Hip-hop seems like a natural fit for xenharmonics. Rappers don’t typically sing, which is often the challenge with microtonal music, so that’s not an issue; and hip-hop has been pushing pushing musical boundaries since the days of Public Enemy. We’ve already seen how microtones can create incredible tension, which, again, seems perfect for hip-hop, so, I issue a challenge to all you pioneering hip-hop artists out there: bring the microtones!
Ready to microtone?
If you are looking to create your own microtonal music, there are several keyboards available: Starr Labs makes some of the most popular. There are also many apps available for smartphones and iPad, ranging from free to less than $50.
Here are just a few links to YouTube demonstrations.
Perhaps your next question is, “OK, I can now create microtonal music; how do I make is sound good?” Well, as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, there are oceans of concepts and theories to swim through. (Though here is one short video to get you started.) Heck, even choosing a scale to work with can be daunting. I mentioned Partch’s 43-note scale earlier in the article. This is a Just Intonation scale, meaning it is an unequal scale derived from the natural harmonic series. It’s a popular choice because it gives you all those just thirds and perfect fifths people love so much. (Again, see the guitar tuning article for more on this.) However, it can be tricky to play this scale on guitar and other instruments, which is why Partch invented many of his own instruments.
There are several equal temperament scales that are popular, including 19-TET, 31-TET, and 53-TET (which, for some reason, is more often called 53-EDO (Equal Division of the Octave)). 31- and 53-EDO are great for giving you intervals that closely approximate just thirds and perfect fifths, while also giving you a lot of notes to work with, so you can sound as pretty or as out there as you want. Here’s an example of a Bach tune in 31-TET, which sounds fairly “normal.”
22-TET is a moody scale where no interval is quite right, but they’re also not so out there that it makes you dizzy. (See the Sevish video above.)
Mostly, though, your best bet is just to get an app and dive in. If you’re into it and you want to learn more, look up Erv Wilson, as he’s considered the father of modern microtonality.
UPDATE: Musician and author Neil Haverstick contacted me regarding his wonderful book, called “Harmonics and Spirals: The Code of Music.” It’s filled with theory and tons of amazing and surprising information about microtones, tuning, and scales. I loved it. If this article has piqued your interest, this book should be your next stop. Visit www.microstick.net to get your copy. (Neil’s music is wonderful, too, so check that out.)