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.

Decent Sampler adds support for tuning

Microtuning Support for Decent Sampler

Version 1.8.0 of Decent Sampler offers microtuning support via the Tuning menu. You need to supply it with an scl and kbm file, which can be easily generated with Scale Workshop, Scala, or other tuning creation tool.

Surge XT 1.2 improves tuning functionality yet again

Surge XT is a software synth plugin. Version 1.2 is now released. This version improves upon its tuning functionality, accessibility and other things. An excerpt from the changelog reads:

Major Feature: Tuning Upgrades

  • Surge can act as an OddSound MTS provider (‘master’) allowing the Surge tuning editor to provide tuning to an entire session.
  • Remediate yet more edge cases in our internal tuning, including keyboard mapping larger than a scale.

Screenshot of Surge XT software synthesiser

The short explanation is, if you are using synths that support tuning via MTS-ESP, Surge XT can now act as the MTS-ESP master, which means that you specify your tuning within Surge XT and then the other synths will follow the same tuning. This is intended to be more convenient than loading the same tuning data into multiple instances of various synths.

Surge XT is free and available on Linux, Windows and macOS.

Scale Workshop 2 tutorials

With the recent release of Scale Workshop 2, lead developer Lumi Pakkanen has started producing video tutorials to demonstrate what this tuning application can do. Learning some Scale Workshop basics will aid you in your study of musical tunings. The first two videos are below. For the rest, you’ll have to follow Lumi’s youtube channel.

1. Basic synth interface

This tutorial demonstrates the on screen keyboards where you can play microtonal scales in your browser.

2. Data entry

This tutorial will answer a lot of questions about how you can enter your own scales from numerical values.

Learn Scale Workshop

Microtonal piano roll for Bitwig Studio

Since Bitwig Studio is a pretty good DAW for making microtonal music, you might find yourself working with a musical scale that contains more or less than 12 notes. Particularly if you’re working with a large scale, you will want the piano roll to visually reflect what you’re hearing. You might have thought this was not currently possible in Bitwig Studio but I have found the quick workaround for you. All you need is to watch the tutorial video below and then spend a few minutes setting up your custom piano roll.

The tutorial music is Yeah Groove from my very recent album Morphable, in 26 tone equal temperament.

New images in the gallery

I just added some more of my fractal artwork to the gallery page. Go check them out!

Upcoming Sevish album – Morphable

My new album Morphable will be available on 5th August 2022. Nine new electronic microtonal beats from the harmony hacker.

Front cover artwork for Morphable album by SevishIf you want to hear one of the tracks today then you can! Yeah Groove can be played on youtube:

Scale Workshop 1.5 released

Scale Workshop has been updated this weekend. Let’s take a look at what this useful microtonal web tool is capable of.

Screenshot of Scale Workshop 1.5

Launch Scale Workshop in a new tab

Key functionality

  • Create your own microtonal scales by direct data input, or use one of the many generator methods to aid your discovery.
  • Export tuning files in a large variety of useful formats.
  • Hear the scale by using your qwerty keyboard as an isomorphic keyboard, or use MIDI input (requires a browser with web MIDI support).
  • Import Scala scl file and convert to various formats.
  • Collaborate and share your scale easily by copy and pasting the URL which automatically has your scale encoded.

Recently added features


With a web MIDI compatible browser, you can use Scale Workshop to enable microtonality on your hardware synths and sound modules. This is achieved by 16 channel note output with pitch bend on each channel.

Rotate modifier

Rotate your scale so that a different interval becomes the new 1/1.

Improvements to the virtual keyboard

When using the mouse cursor, you can now play the virtual keyboard stylophone style, i.e. click and drag across the keyboard to hit a sequence of notes.

Export REAPER Note Name Map

REAPER supports custom piano roll layouts. You can now export a txt file from Scale Workshop to import directly into REAPER.

Export tuning to Korg Monologue/Minilogue XD

Export your tuning to Korg Librarian format. This can be imported into the Korg Librarian software so you can write it to your synth.

Better precision

Scale Workshop now has better handling of large numbers and ratios.

Better synth

Issues with the synth audio dropout are resolved. Various new waveforms are added. The default waveform is changed to semisine which is more ideal for auditioning tunings than the previous triangle.

User guide updated for 1.5

As this version is a major milestone for the app, we have made sure to update the documentation to cover all the new features.

The future of Scale Workshop

Early development work has started for Scale Workshop 2. This involves a complete rewrite from scratch and a new UI. The project will remain on the permissive MIT License so that synth developers can re-use parts of Scale Workshop’s code to add microtonal functionality to their own projects. Scale Workshop 2 is intended to be released when it reaches feature parity with Scale Workshop 1.5. Scale URLs will remain backwards-compatible. Scale Workshop 1.x will receive no new features except for bug fixes.

Get involved

Watch Lumi’s music theory analysis of Gleam

Gleam is perhaps the iconic Sevish track (or so I am told), but have you ever wondered how it was made? Lumi’s recent video analyses Gleam from a music theory perspective, explaining how I used 22-tone equal temperament (22ed2) to make a catchy piece of music.

Sevish’s scale impressions

Here are some of my thoughts on various microtonal scales. These thoughts are my own subjective impressions and there’s no need to take them seriously. Enjoy!

Equal-step tunings

  • 1edo – wide-open featureless space
  • 2edo – dual opposition
  • 3edo – dreamy flashback, bells
  • 4edo – cartoony horror, staircase
  • 5edo – open, bright colour, ease
  • 6edo – cartoony wonder, tension
  • 7edo – flat, comfort, bright colour
  • 8edo – moist shit
  • 9edo – bells, chimes
  • 10edo – vivid, open
  • 11edo – pure, warped, intuitive
  • 12edo – nostalgia, comfort, jazzy, transparent
  • 13edo – warped liminal space
  • 14edo – multicoloured
  • 15edo – wonky
  • 16edo – expressive
  • 17edo – angular, intuitive, colourful
  • 18edo – bright colour, I still haven’t explored this one
  • 19edo – flat, wonky, uncanny, pale
  • 22edo – chill, trippy, hyper-jazz
  • 23edo – bright colour, unstable
  • 24edo – something you think should be familiar is now wretched, hyper-jazz
  • 29edo – expanded wonky wonder
  • 31edo – rest, clarity, transparency, and once you get this far out, each edo has the capacity for extreme variety
  • 314edo – way too many notes. this is the point where you’ve gone too far

Bonus, here are some temperament impressions too

  • blackwood – jazzy, dirty, trippy barbershop pole effects
  • machine – sparkly, pure, unusual
  • mavila – face swap, expectation and surprise
  • porcupine – an otonal- and Arabian- influenced diatonic without being either of those things

What are your own impressions?