Saturday, October 20, 2007

The End of Tonality?

Chicago is home to the Midwest Microfest. Founded by Aaron Krister Johnson and Chris Bailey, the organization is dedicated to the exploration and promotion of music that uses microtonality. As you might surmise from its name, microtones are tones that are "found in between" the tones that we have come to accept as the universe of tones for all Western music. Twelve tones to the octave and nothing more: C, C-sharp/D-flat, D, D-sharp/E-flat, E, F, F-sharp/G-flat, G, G-sharp/A-flat, A, A-sharp/B-flat, and B. If you look at this list, you might be wondering why a D-sharp would sound the same as an E-flat, etc. Well, to those composers who use microtones, they don't.

Needless to say, other cultures have used all kinds of tones for as long as there has been music. But in the Western Tradition, a decision was made long ago that tones that are mathematically precise in their distances from other tones sounded the best to our ears and so should be used, the rest discounted. Thank you Pythagoras. So, we ended up with a chromatic scale of twelve notes. But, using those twelve doesn't mean that a sound won't be produced if a violin student doesn't place his or her finger at the precise position. The question comes, "Why is that flubbed note any worse than the ones we're used to?" In a sense, that is what microtonality tries to answer - there isn't anything wrong with that note.

I found out about the Midwest Microfest by listening to NPR. You can find a link to an interview with co-founder Aaron Krister Johnson at their homepage linked above. In it he makes a statement that stuck with me and compelled me to write this entry. They were discussing the Second Viennese School's crisis with tonality and how Schoenberg and Berg felt that everything had been done already. Johnson said that Schoenberg's abandonment of  tonality entirely was a direct response to the strict definition of tonality in use in Western music. If you are only allowed to use twelve notes in any combination, eventually you will run out of ideas, even if you make precise rows of twelve notes. What Johnson states convincingly is that instead of atonality, a different approach to Schoenberg's dilemma would be to expand tonality beyond the twelve. In the interview, Mr. Johnson mentions new compositions that have used as many as 18 or 19 tones to the octave. I think Schoenberg could have done something with that.

The only problem is that these new notes sound really off key, and our Westernized brains demand the tuning we are comfortable with. That is thanks to another discovery - equal temperament. If you don't know about that, just research and listen to the Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach, and his adoption of that tuning scheme. There were others, and the one used in microtonal composition is called "pure tuning." Just listen to the interview for more details. The point is that if the sounds are there, and if there is a composer out there who can convincingly use them in a true piece of musical art, we just might be on the brink of a whole new universe of music.

1 comment:

JimPlamondon said...

The author states that "The only problem is that these new notes sound really off key, and our Westernized brains demand the tuning we are comfortable with."

There is some evidence that what the ear seeks is not any tuning in particular, but rather the alignment of tuning and timbre.

Check out this paper:

The subsequent work of this paper's author, Bill Sethares, shows -- rather conclusively -- that the music of other cultures shows a similar relationship between tuning and timbre. Thai & African music uses a 7-tone equal temperament tuning because their marimba-like instruments emit a spectral pattern which aligns well with that tuning; a similar co-evolution has apparently occurred between tuning & timbre in Indonesian gamelan music.

Thus, the music of all (most? many?) cultures appears to be based on an alignment of tuning and timbre.

This has important ramifications to composers of modern classical music. Sethares' latest work -- the first paper of which is to appear in the Winter 2007 issue of the Computer Music Journal, and another in the early 2008 Journal of Mathematics and Music -- expands the framework of tonality by expanding it beyond the Harmonic Series to include continua of pseudo-harmonic tunings & related timbres. These continua enable new usical effects -- polyphonic tuning bends, new chord progressions(!), temperament modulations, etc. -- which were never before possible, but which fit snugly within the expanded framework of tonal harmony.

If it is true, as Schoenberg and others claimed, that by the early 1900's the theory of tonality had been completely worked out -- leaving no new territory for composers to explore -- then this new expansion of tonality offers great opportunity to today's composers.

For more information, see

P.S.: The above-references forthcoming papers were co-written by Andrew Milne of The Tonal Centre, Bill Sethares, and me.