Microtonal music

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Microtonal music is music using microtones—intervals of less than an equally spaced semitone. Microtonal music can also refer to music which uses intervals not found in the Western system of 12 equal intervals to the octave.

Contents

Terminology

Microtonal music can refer to all music which contains intervals smaller than the conventional contemporary Western semitone. The term implies music containing very small intervals but can include any tuning that differs from the western 12-tone equal temperament. The following systems are considered to be microtonal: the traditional Carnatic system of 22 śruti; much Indonesian gamelan music; Thai, Burmese, and African music using seven tones in each (approximate) octave; and blues and/or rock music which makes extensive use of blue notes. Also, music using just intonation, meantone temperament, or other alternative tunings may be considered microtonal.
Other terminology has been used (and is still used today) by theorists and composers. Micro-intervals is commonly used to speak about intervals smaller than the semitone, and sometimes macro-intervals for non-multiples of the semitone greater than it. Ivan Wyschnegradsky used the term ultra-chromatic for micro-intervals and infra-chromatic for macro-intervals (Wyschnegradsky 1972, 84-87). Ivor Darreg proposed the term xenharmonic (from the Greek ξένος, foreign, and Greek ξενία, hospitable) for any scale other than the 12-tone equal-tempered scale. (See xenharmonic music).

Usage

One reason composers of microtonal music explore alternate tunings is that each unique division of the octave or pseudo-octave creates new interval relationships and thereby new sound possibilities. Just-intonation scales such as Partch's 43 tone unequal scale start with the (non-tempered) diatonic Western scale, and many of them extend it, in Partch's case up to the 11th partial (Partch 1979, 93, 119-137). Some microtonal scales, like the 19 tone or 31 tone equal-tempered scales, contain intervals that are close to those within diatonic scales. Other equal divisions of the octave, such as 15-, 16-, and 17-tone, may also support a diatonic basis for Western musical notation and tonal theory, and have other viable intervallic relationships (Blackwood 1991). For example, although 19-note equal tuning provides the same diatonic chordal relations as are found in 12-note equal tuning, the available chromatic progressions are quite different, because of the closed circle of nineteen fifths, as opposed to twelve. In 12-note equal tuning, a modulating sequence in successive descending minor thirds will return to its starting point at the fourth transposed repetition, but in 19-note tuning the initial chord in not found until the nineteenth transposed repetition, creating a rather confounding but not disagreeable effect (Blackwood 1991, 171).

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