Over time I’ve noticed that I get asked this question more and more:
How do I start writing microtonal music?
This always comes from musicians who have enjoyed listening to microtonal music, and are comfortable composing in their own twelveness, but haven’t found the courage or motivation to start experimenting for themselves.
My answer is always the same.
First you gotta get set up with the right tools for the job. In a few hours or less you can set up some free microtonal synths.
The real thing to do, is get ANY microtonal scale up on your instrument, and then play. It’s fine to choose the scale at random. Keep playing until you find something you like about it. Start building up layers over this. This helps you to find how parts of the scale connect with other parts.
After you become a little comfortable with the scale, just try out a different scale and you may find something even better than before. Then over some days or weeks try another and another. Just experiment.
Your composition skills (or lack thereof) shouldn’t hold you back during this time. This is because when you write microtonally you’ll have to discard a lot of the ‘rules’ you already know. Old habits become unable to reinforce themselves. That’s kinda the point of going to all this effort.
Nobody can guide you through microtonal music the same way that they guide you through playing an instrument or learning music theory. There is no established method, instead you get a bazillion competing schools of thought about how to organise and play from the infinite number of scales that are possible. A well-trodden path simply doesn’t exist for you – you make your own path or you don’t enter this forest at all. But if you do make it inside, you’ll find the sweetest fruits. So it’s totally up to you to start trying.
After going through many creative cycles you get to learn about what scales work for you. If you’re the studious type you may be able to read tuning theory concepts and slowly start to grasps small aspects of it.
For me, it was a lot of listening, and a lot of loading randomly-selected scales into my synth to see what I liked and didn’t. A whole lot of failed experiments, and a few that worked. Reading about microtonal tuning theory is overrated, but it can be a starting point for finding interesting scales. If you have nothing more than a good ear, perhaps it’s you who will excel the most in this unknown territory.
And that’s how to start writing microtonal music. It didn’t take anything more than getting your toes wet with a few randomly-selected microtonal scales.