Another perspective on microtonality: traditional vs non-traditional intonation

Traditional intonation means tuning systems which are informed by culture and emerged over time due to technical, material and social reality. For example 12-equal, maqamat, ragas, slendro etc.

Notice how I put (for example) 12 and maqam in the same pot, despite one being considered microtonal and the other not. But indeed these systems are more comparable to each other than to non-traditional intonation.

Why traditional intonation rules

Traditional intonation is powerful because there are large repertoires of traditional music to use it. Instrument designs are well known and produced in quantity. Music teachers have mastered traditional intonation and can readily teach it.

Some instrument makers simply tune newly-built instruments to recordings of similar instruments in the past. I have heard this is sometimes true of gamelan. That’s one way intonation can be passed down through a culture.

When you get into another culture’s traditional music, you can’t help but learn about their language, spirituality, food and other things. So people do find this a rewarding fun time.

When you listen to traditional music and realise that other people tune instruments differently, it may open a gateway to more broadly caring about intonation in music.

My own gateway into valuing intonation was by enjoying gamelan music. But actually the reason I’m still here is because I later discovered non-traditional intonation and I love it.

What is non-traditional intonation?

Non-traditional intonation is more about an individual musician’s needs for the music. Often the tuning is bespoke designed for a specific composition.

Intonation is just another musical parameter that us musicians use to more finely hone our expression. Intonation is the same kind of thing as tempo, dynamics, timbre. Learn one more thing and improve your craft.

You can’t walk into a guitar shop and buy a 17ed2 guitar off the shelf. That’s why musicians who work with non-traditional intonation are necessarily tinkerers and builders who face unique challenges. Or they pay big sums for bespoke instruments.

Performers who are faced with the task of playing music written in non-traditional tuning systems often must learn new techniques to get at those new pitches. No doubt that is a barrier to getting stuff played in unconventional tunings.

Non-traditional intonation (e.g. triple Bohlen-Pierce, 22ed2, Carlos Alpha, 88cet, blackwood[10] etc.) is less explored, so there exists less repertoire, fewer instruments, fewer music teachers to guide you. Are these downsides, or opportunities?

(Random aside, but imagine if a currently non-traditional tuning system became traditional somewhere in the future, wouldn’t that be cool? An island of people jamming in dekany scales? A valley of the Bohlen-Pierce flutes?)

Building instruments is hard, but digital music tech is better at adopting new tuning functionality. This makes it easier to try out both traditional intonations of other cultures, and non-traditional tunings that will get everyone thinking in new ways.

The point of it all

The online tuning discussion space is broadly split between traditionalists (including historians) and non-traditionalists, with some overlap but not particularly much. We’re all here because we appreciate intonation, but we’re not always on the same page about the point of it all.

Is microtonality just about using small melodic runs? Is it about using non-12 tunings? Is it about using non-Western tunings? Is it about preservation of tuning customs? Is it a new frontier of previously unheard melodies? Ask and you shall get different answers.

My approach in the past was to see microtonality as music that uses tunings that are non-12. But after many years, the 12 vs non-12 dichotomy seems less pertinent than I was originally made to believe.

Microtonality as meaning “non-12” leads people to confusion

When you start thinking of microtonality as “any tuning system that isn’t 12-equal” then you have a combination of well-beloved traditional intonations with experimental non-traditional stuff. But these are unlikely partners.

When I release an album of 100% non-traditional intonation stuff, isn’t it just as fair to call it non-maqam as it is to call it non-12?

And yet, I promoted a lot of my old music as “not 12” because that was the thing to do in microtonal circles. Now I am starting to realise the traditional vs non-traditional dichotomy is more pertinent.

Paraphrasing something said to me recently IRL: “people from other cultures must understand your music more easily because their music is microtonal too.” On this face of it, this must have sounded reasonable, yet I don’t have any evidence for the claim. Could it be that the 12-vs-non-12 framing make this assumption sound more reasonable than it is?

The first time I heard Bohlen-Pierce music it sounded weird to me. When I played it to my friend who mastered santoor in North Indian classical music, it sounded weird to him too. It makes no difference that BP and ICM are both considered microtonal. BP sounds weird to all.

Paraphrasing from a recent Facebook microtonal group post: “I am used to ancient Greek modes so why don’t I get Balinese music?” Just because both are labelled microtonal, doesn’t mean there is no relearning for your ear to do.

Thought experiment: A Turkish person walks into a shop, buys a saz and records a hit tune with a melody in makam bayati, using all the techniques they learned from their music teacher. People enjoy the music, everyone is having a good time.

A French person walks into a shop, buys a guitar and records a hit tune with a melody in the minor scale, using all the techniques they learned from their music teacher. People enjoy the music, everyone is having a good time.

In both the hypothetical examples above, the musicians walked a well trodden path, and fair play to them; they shared the love of music. The Turkish example is awarded the (perhaps desirable) label “microtonal”, whereas the French example is not. And yet I consider both of them to have followed traditional intonation and both of value.

And then I’m over here recording tunes in glacial[7], CPS scales, machine[6], 88cet, 4L3s, which are all microtonal, so people consider my music to be closer to the Turkish example than the French, when I’m actually unconventional towards both. Don’t you find that perspective to be nonsensical?

Another thing is – I do love 12-equal! I mostly listen to video game soundtracks and dig up 80s and 90s dance music. I’ve had all kinds of feelings and experiences to music in 12. I will always enjoy music in a range of different intonations, including 12.

The positive case for intonation

What I want to convey is that there is a positive case for intonation as a way to further hone your musical expression. I also want to convey that when we define microtonality negatively as being in opposition to one particular tuning system then we cause confusion about how those other varied tuning systems fit in together. I did my best to share this perspective on microtonality, and while I’m not a very good writer I still hope it made you think a couple thoughts.

I have a new album of non-raga, non-maqam bangers called Big Sway and invite you to listen to it as an approachable introduction to non-traditional intonation.

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