Sexy 7ths, Ambiguous 11ths

We pre-empt your attention to the succeeding postminimalist rant to alert you to a fantastic interview Frank Oteri did with my teacher Ben Johnston over at New Music Box. Frank asks Ben about his new book edited by Bob Gilmore, Maximum Clarity (which I knew was coming but didn’t realize was out already), and alludes to something I’d never heard Ben talk about:

…possible meanings for various types of intervals: the 3rd overtone ratios of perfect fifths and fourths representing stability and strength; the 5th overtone radios of major and minor thirds representing emotions; 7ths representing sexuality; 11ths ambiguity; and 13ths death.

This makes a certain sense (although, 13 = death?), which Frank teases out well during the interview. For many years I’ve had a fascination with the “meanings” of prime numbers, such as those applied by the great/notorious qabalistic crackpot Aleister Crowley:

11: The general number of magick, or energy tending to change.

13: The scale of the highest feminine unity… or, the unity resulting from love.

17: The masculine unity….

43: A number of orgasm, especially the male…

61: The negative conceiving itself as a positive…

It’s so tempting for a just intonationist to try to apply qualitative aspects of numbers to tuning. One book I studied for that was Number and Time by Jungian psychologist Marie Louise von Franz. One of her examples, showing that the Chinese mind considers numbers qualities as well as quantities, was a story of a battle in which eleven generals couldn’t decide whether to attack, so they voted. Three voted to attack, eight not to – and they attacked, because three is “the number of unanimity.” I never got very far with that compositionally, though I do consistently use the 11th harmonic as a gateway between opposing states. The interview with Ben is well worth reading, though, and there’s a 1970 article by him too, which almost reads as if written yesterday.


  1. Henry Lowengard says

    This reminds me a little of that great little footnote in the back of Helmoltz/Ellis where each (12ET) key is given a personality. But there is a better (or at least real) relationship of more energy -> harmonic power in higher harmonics that could be plausibly inferred. I think musical “meaning” is heavily influenced by the acoustic structure of speech, but that’s quite a digression. As someone who occasionally plays the “Ultraviolets” (Blues using just 11ths), I can’t say that unacculturated upper harmonics provoke any specific feeling at all by themselves, but they of course lend power and timbre to any “power chord” they might be used in .

  2. says

    In response to Henry’s comment: obviously, the personality characteristics of the different keys doesn’t apply when they’re tuned in 12-ET. However, before 12-ET became the de facto standard tuning, various 12-tone well-temperaments were in common use, and in those tunings each key does in fact have its own unique set of intervals and thus its own unique character. I don’t have my copy of Helmholtz handy, but my guess is that they’re referring to that (… even if they *think* they’re referring to 12-ET!).

  3. Kevin says

    Sounds like synesthesia. When I hear people talk about personal numerologies, I always wonder if they are unknowingly synesthetic. Same when I hear people talk about auras.