The Microtonal Thread

#1

Want to hear a secret? There are more than 12 notes out there! Pitch is a continuous spectrum, and there are an infinite number of pitches and pitch relationships, limited only by the precision of our ears. So, why just stick with the same old tuning? Lets mix it up!

I’ve been very into microtonal music and theory for some time, and since this is such an open-minded forum I figured I’d start a thread exploring this INCREDIBLY deep topic.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of microtonality, it’s the exploration and study of the infinitely-many ways that we can divide the pitch spectrum into usable musical chunks.

There are many, many approaches to creating new tunings, and I actually plan on uploading some primer videos to go over some of the theory, if people here are interested - but let’s start the conversation out simply with one of the most modern tuning approaches, and the one you’re most accustomed to - Equal Temperament!

Equal Temperament starts when you take a repeating interval, which we will call the “interval of equivalence” or “period” - usually this will be the octave. This interval tells us where the notes “start over” and the cycle repeats - in the tuning that you’re used to, this is what makes “C” the same note regardless of what octave you play it in. The octave is a good interval of equivalence because it compliments how our ears operate. Next, we take this interval of equivalence and we then divide it into equally spaced chunks - this is known as the “division”, or “generator”.

The tuning that you’re most likely accustomed to if you grew up in the west is known as “12 EDO” - “EDO” stands for “Equal Divisions Of The Octave”, which tells us that this tuning’s interval of equivalence is the octave. So, we get this common western tuning by dividing this octave into 12 equally-spaced parts.

But, who says we need to use 12, or the octave? In Arabic music, the octave is divided into 24 pieces, giving a “quarter-note” between each semitone. In Indonesia, they tune their gamelan with 5 equally-spaced notes per octave. Some tunings even ignore the octave entirely, using a perfect fifth or twelfth as the interval of equivalence instead! Every division has new harmonies and scales, and it’s own unique flavor - there is a whole world of possibilities out there to explore :smiley:

I’ll show a couple examples:

This piece was written by Easley Blackwood in 19 EDO - cutting the octave into 19 equally spaced pieces instead of 12. Notice that some of the intervals played sound familiar, and some sound quite alien, maybe even “out of tune” if you’re accustomed to 12 EDO. But listen more and you’ll notice further subtleties, and whole new harmonic possibilities! Blackwood is an incredible composer who spent much of his career exploring the possibilities of different equal temperaments.

This piece for 2 guitars was written in 22 EDO, another popular division due to it’s mix of familiar-sounding intervals and very strange ones. It’s well known for having a very “buzzy” sound. It’s a great tuning to start out exploring!

One of the great things about equal temperaments for electronic musicians is that they can be achieved on almost any synthesizer simply by adjusting the pitch tracking so that the required number of notes makes an octave (or other interval of equivalence). If you’re working with modular, you can also take any Pitch CV and put it into an attenuator to create divisions smaller than a semitone, or an amplifier to create divisions larger than a semitone.

I could go on but I’ll stop rambling here - I hope you don’t mind that this is an unusual way to start a thread, but I figure any discussion on something as complex and confusing as microtonal theory should start with some sort of primer and direction for those who don’t know the concepts at play. The microtonal community can be very insular and even pretentious sometimes, surrounding itself with complex jargon and math and sometimes getting lost in the theory - I’m hoping we can have an open conversation about microtonal tunings, and maybe even get some new people exploring microtonal music and theory :slight_smile:

By the way, if anyone has any questions, don’t hesitate to ask - I know a decent amount about microtonal tunings and theory, and if I don’t know the answer we can figure it out together :stuck_out_tongue:

Have you guys made anything in equal temperaments? What’s your favorite equal temperament tuning? Mine is 16 EDT, where the interval of equivalence is the “Tritave” (aka third harmonic, aka perfect twelfth). It has some really lovely harmonies, and the further up you go the more complex the relationships become, since there’s no true octave! Here’s something I made with this tuning, if you’re curious how it sounds: https://instaud.io/3h45

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All Things Lorre Mill
#2

Ahh, and I completely forgot! If you’d like to explore equal temperaments yourself, I highly recommend this online tool: http://sevish.com/scaleworkshop/

To create an equal temperament, click “New” at the top of the screen, then click “Equal Temperament”. It’ll ask for the number of divisions (whatever number you’d like - the bigger the number, the smaller the gaps between each note), and the interval of equivalence (“interval to divide”), which can be either a fraction (a ratio of oscillations, so 2/1 is an octave, 3/2 is a perfect fifth, etc - more on this later), or a value in cents if you put a “.” at the end (e.g. 1200. would be an octave). If you’re confused by this part, just leave it at the default “2/1” which is an octave, and is by far the most common choice.

Then click “OK” and you’ll be able to explore your new tuning by pressing keys on your keyboard. Have fun! :slight_smile:

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#3

Thanks for starting this thread @Allieway_Audio ! Love the piece you posted. This whole subject is something I’m fascinated with, and I am attempting to use more interesting tunings in my most recent music. Hoping to learn more about it progressively! I’ve been using the Teletype and my Tubbutec uTune with my Eurorack stuff, and some of the results I’ve gotten even with simple quantization have been incredible. A tuning I am definitely fond of is La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano- it’s so nice.

For anyone interested in more info online, check out the Xenharmonic wiki: https://en.xen.wiki/

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#4

Over on the Sequential Prophet Rev2 forum there’s a nice discussion about alternate tunings and their use in vintage emulations - while admittedly a niche concern when it comes to microtonality as a whole, I personally find the 28-ED5 tuning referenced in that thread to be very interesting sounding on it’s own, and it plays well alongside equal-temperament arrangements in many cases - if sounding slightly ‘detuned’ is what you want.

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#5

Thanks for starting this thread @Allieway_Audio ! Love the piece you posted. This whole subject is something I’m fascinated with, and I am attempting to use more interesting tunings in my most recent music. Hoping to learn more about it progressively! I’ve been using the Teletype and my Tubbutec uTune with my Eurorack stuff, and some of the results I’ve gotten even with simple quantization have been incredible. A tuning I am definitely fond of is La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano- it’s so nice.

I’m glad you enjoyed it! The uTune seems like a very powerful quantizer - if I had eurorack I’d definitely get one!

La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano is a very mysterious and unusual scale. For a long time nobody knew what it was or how it was constructed - this is a great video on it, which also introduces the basics of Just Intonation, for those who are curious:

For anyone interested in more info online, check out the Xenharmonic wiki: https://en.xen.wiki/

Xen wiki is an incredible resource, with the caveat that I feel many of it’s articles are written too densely, with too much mathematical jargon and a lot of assumptions of what the reader already knows. A lot of it’s users seem to think very little of those who can’t figure things out for themselves, which is not the best attitude IMO.

Over on the Sequential Prophet Rev2 forum there’s a nice discussion about alternate tunings and their use in vintage emulations - while admittedly a niche concern when it comes to microtonality as a whole, I personally find the 28-ED5 tuning referenced in that thread to be very interesting sounding on it’s own, and it plays well alongside equal-temperament arrangements in many cases - if sounding slightly ‘detuned’ is what you want.

Oh wow, these are some really unusual scales - thank you for sharing. I’ve experimented with tunings which repeat every 7th harmonic, but never every 5th harmonic! These types of tunings are crazy because they take so long to start over, tons of unique relationships that get stranger and stranger as you go up and down. It’s funny that 28 ED5 compliments 12 EDO - there are quite a lot of these funny coincidences in equal temperament. For example, a simpler variant of my favorite tuning, 8 EDT, is considered harmonically related to 5 EDO - they are pretty close, though still noticeably distinct, since they start to drift from each other the further up/down you go.

Another fun mathematical quirk of equal temperaments, by the way, is that scales which divide evenly share notes - for example, 6 EDO is considered a subset of 12 EDO, and it goes by another name: the whole tone scale! You could even say our 12-tone tuning is just a subset/scale of the Arabic 24-tone tuning in the same way :stuck_out_tongue:

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#6
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#7

: http://22shruti.com

#8

I spent quite a long time studying tuning systems way back in college. I became fascinated with them when Ivan Tcherepnin commissioned and used a custom built “enharmonic organ” (built by Dave Wilson, of the Wilson Analog Delay fame… but I digress). The organ was fully polyphonic (60+ voices), and could be tuned to any set of intervals. The thing was lush! (And I wish I knew were it was today…)

I have been generally drawn to approaches other than n-ED-m approaches. In particular, I’ve been highly inspired by the work of Harry Partch. His book, Genesis of a Music lays both a general foundation for approaching the subject of tuning and microtonality, and then offers a deep exploration of his developed system.

In particular, I really like how the character of intervals we “know” are changed, often radically, into something compositionally different by fine changes in the tuning. Listening to early music, played on a mean-tone tuned organ, as it was written for, brings a totally new appreciation for the 2nd.

In my own, past work, I used computers to enable me to play sequences of notes that matched a set of desired intervals of a given pitch as needed. Since these turnings weren’t equal-division, the result is that the work uses a large gamut of pitches, though never all at once. The effect is to emphasize a chord type rather than a scale. I also used carefully tuned 3rds in the Mac II start-up sound, which helped make it sound fuller.


Side note: I don’t believe that Gamelan tunings are equal-division. Arabic equal-division tuning is, even more than the western 12ED, a relatively recent invention. The historical 24 division scale is not equal-division.

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#9


it’s cool
how more 'abstract tunings
push music towards
'sounds
and
'rhythms
thx :slight_smile:

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#10

I’ve just barely played with microtonal tunings, with Scala files in ER-301. I was going to explore 5 EDO and 8 EDO to start, but got the math and logic wrong and used ratios 6/5, 7/5, 8/5, etc. After I corrected it I found I liked those ratios of integers better anyway! :blush: Then I read up a bit more and played in Scala itself instead of writing the files manually. There’s still a lot I don’t understand about it though – not even getting into the whole zoo of “hobbits”, “super magic dwarves”, “Godzilla” etc. that some tunings are named. :slight_smile:

Using it for arpeggios and generative wanderings in minimal electronic music is one thing, but it still is a bit mind-bending to think about writing more full arrangements with it. It’s kind of excitingly exotic territory though, and I’ll probably just dip into it from time to time.

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#11

:relaxed:
W - o - - o - - - o - - - - - w

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#12

thank you for this thread!

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#13

To speak of another microtonal Wilson, Ervin’s careful geometric tuning approaches are encapsulated brilliantly and beautifully in the Wilsonic App for iPad/iPhone. I found this entirely by accident and find the tunings beautiful and fascinating, as well as the relationships and mathematical / geometric presentation behind them.

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#14

http://www.anaphoria.com

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#15

Wilsonic also allows you to bounce tunings that you like to the free Synth One app.

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#16

@pleurodesis that’s fantastic about Synth One, thank you for the heads up!!

#17

I have been generally drawn to approaches other than n-ED-m approaches. In particular, I’ve been highly inspired by the work of Harry Partch. His book, Genesis of a Music lays both a general foundation for approaching the subject of tuning and microtonality, and then offers a deep exploration of his developed system.

Awesome! I love Partches work, and think Just Intonation is incredibly fascinating! I decided to start the topic out with equal temperments because they are a relatively simple introduction non-12EDO tonality, and offer a nice gateway into exploring new and unique tunings without having to listen for subtleties, while also laying a good groundwork for explorations of regular temperaments and historical tuning methods as well.

The appeal of equal temperaments over Just Intonation, as I’m sure you’re aware, is that equal temperaments work equally well (or equally badly, as it were) in any key, whereas Just Intonation often leaves many chords and keys completely unusable due to everything having to be tuned against a fundamental/root (without some severe comma gymnastics, that is).

However, you can go some really interesting harmonic places with Just Intonation have you listened much to the work of Ben Johnston? His music is some of the most beautiful and unique Just Intonation music I’ve ever heard - he seems to be one of the true masters of this way of working with pitch. Here’s one of my favorites, if you haven’t heard it - the ending is truly wonderful!

Side note: I don’t believe that Gamelan tunings are equal-division. Arabic equal-division tuning is, even more than the western 12ED, a relatively recent invention. The historical 24 division scale is not equal-division.

Yeah, gamelan tuning is far more complex than I made it sound there, it’s definitely not a perfect equal temperament - tuning methods depend heavily on region, and vary wildly. When I mentioned 5 EDO I was referring to the version of slendro tuning used in parts of Java, which is generally said to be based on 5 EDO with some tweaks by ear - the other major tuning, the pelog, is much more complex and unevenly spaced. Here’s an example of how a Javanese slendro sounds:

And here you can play in 5-EDO with a keyboard to compare.

Finally, here is a slendro tuning based on the average of many different regions on the same site.

So, not identical, but definitely close!

As far the history of temperament, this thread’s opening post was really only supposed to be an introduction to equal temperament, as well as the concept of a tuning with more/less than 12 notes per octave, since the concept can be a little mind-bending at first and ET is a nice way to get started exploring without getting confused by modes and wolf tones. I know that ET is a pretty recent invention, I just didn’t wanna get into the history of other forms of temperament, since the thread was long enough as is, haha! Historical attempts at temperament are fascinating though, it’s funny how we made so many attempts to make acceptable compromises only to finally just throw up our hands and go with an equal temperament - Bach would’ve been furious! :stuck_out_tongue:

I’ll likely go into the history of temperament a little more if I end up making a post explaining regular temperament, since it’s a method of tuning which really fascinates me, and explaining pythagorean tuning is a good way to introduce the concepts at play.

To speak of another microtonal Wilson, Ervin’s careful geometric tuning approaches are encapsulated brilliantly and beautifully in the Wilsonic App for iPad/iPhone . I found this entirely by accident and find the tunings beautiful and fascinating, as well as the relationships and mathematical / geometric presentation behind them.

Erv’s tunings are so different and fascinating, and they’re such unusual and untread ground - it makes me sad that more people haven’t explored them yet! They’re actually quite simple, but Erv suffers from a similar problem that many microtonalist do, in that he’s not so good at putting things simply or conveying the concepts at play in his tunings - his geometric shapes are beautiful, but they can be really scary and confusing to newcomers too, which is likely part of why his tunings haven’t caught on as much as they should’ve.

By the way, in case anyone in this thread is interested in exploring some of the more unusual tunings out there (including Eikosany and other Erv Wilson tunings), the microtonal artist Sevish has some incredible free tuning packs (with files in .scl and .tun format, iirc) that you should definitely check out, as well as writeups explaining the basics of the concepts behind each set. These scales have enough depth to spend many lifetimes exploring! :smiley:

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#18

I primarily make drone music and rarely use intervals beyond octaves. I’m really focused on the space between the notes and exploring that friction with frequency modulation. Instead of thinking of intervals it is more about manipulating harmonics/overtones. I think this approach is conceptually related. Thoughts?

Also, Has anyone checked out Jute Gyte? Microtonal black metal! Not easy listening…

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#19

Here is some microtonal music with a more prog rock flavor. This album was recorded with a guitar that had an altered fretboard to play in 24 EDO. I think it’s constructive to remember that microtonality need not be very challenging if you don’t want it to be.

Honestly I think even tempered analog synthesizer music ends up sounding a little microtonal because of the near omnipresence of oscillator detuning and small errors in VPO pitch CV. I found after carefully adjusting my set up to be digitally perfect microtuned, I was often having a listening experience similar to when I multed VPO to two destinations without buffering, or if I simply set course tuning of two oscillators to random pitches.

The exception to this was when I was doing microtonal studies of the harmonic series. Low order harmonics were very pentatonic in their feel and naturally had a lot of simple ratios to each other. High order harmonics again returned to the territory where I am listening to the pitches that my brain is not intuitively hearing the pitch ratios, it’s more just the rhythmic pattern that I am paying attention too.

Another approach I think is white interesting is using microtonal chords to create interesting drones. An artist who I think really has honed in on this technique is Acriel, who works primarily in Pd making generative microtonal patches. I find that when I am hearing the chord as a cluster it is not so dissimilar from a heavily detuned subtractive synth patch, but with more nuance.

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#20

To be unnecessarily specific, 8EDT is 5.04743802858EDO, 16EDT is 10.0948760571099EDO, and 25ED5 is 10.76691090999999EDO. Just a side fact. :slight_smile: