Top Six Reasons to Wander in the Wilderness

Someone just wrote privately to ask why I use microtonality. Off the top of my head I came up with six things I love about it: 

1. the strangeness of some of the intervals, which give me the thrill of hearing phenomena that I can’t (as a music theory teacher all too used to analyzing music by ear) automatically process and label; 

2. the stretching of one’s pitch perception toward harmonics higher than the fifth (since the decision to stop with the fifth harmonic was an arbitrary academic mandate of the Italian 17th century); 

3. the ability to have lots of pitch variety within a very small space (since I’m a minimalist at heart – I rarely listen to Reich and Glass without wishing I could hear it really in tune); 

4. the extreme chromaticism available (as a lover of late Romantic music like Max Reger, for whom there never seem to be half-steps small enough); 

5. the pleasure of writing chord progressions never heard before (countering the deadening feeling in my equal-tempered music that there’s really nothing new I can do in the area of harmony); and 

6. the tendency toward hearing the actual sound in its totality, as opposed to the filtering out of acoustic beats we have to subconsciously perform to make equal tempered music make sense. 

As to why I write in just intonation instead of equal scales of 20 or more steps, I have a whole manifesto available about my idiosyncratic reasons for preferring that
On the other hand, I’m sometimes afraid of talking too much about microtonality, because people stereotype me as a microtonalist, and musicians sometimes shy away from commissioning me for fear I’ll write them something microtonal. I almost never write microtonal music for acoustic instruments (only when seriously begged to by people who want that, and sometimes not even then), and 3/4 of my music is in plain old vanilla equal temperament, which I have never lost my fondness for. Also, like my teacher Ben Johnston, I never, ever encourage student composers toward microtonality. It’s not for the faint of heart.


  1. says

    Also, as I think I heard you articulate once before I had fully formed the idea – you can have different versions of a similar interval (a minor third for example) that imply different harmonizations. Playing with these relationships allows microtonalists to pivot between tonal areas in a really fun way! (If you’re into that sort of thing.)
    And, yes, I’ve felt guilty for every composition student of mine who’s innocently asked me, “So, how should I notate these intervals?”
    KG replies: Yeah, that too, but I’m reluctant to let other musicians find out exactly *how* much fun I’m having. I just had to make a CD of microtones for the worried performers of your new piece!

  2. says

    A non-specialist lurker here with a question about this:
    >>the decision to stop with the fifth harmonic was an arbitrary academic mandate of the Italian 17th centuryKG replies: Because I’ve read the literature, in which theorists like Zarlino and Artusi (perhaps not both, I don’t remember) argued for the *senario*, the numbers 1 through 6, despite the arguments of mathematician Marin Mersenne to allow 7. The hoi polloi had nothing to do with it, it was an argument among tuning theorists. It’s all in Claude Palisca’s book Humanism in Italian Renaissance Musical Thought.

  3. says

    Thanks for the reply and the pointer to the reference book (which I see has 486 pages!). I’m probably missing something, but don’t see why some member of the European hoi polloi with a brass instrument couldn’t find that 7th harmonic and use it from time to time, and that it could have then spread through the culture if people liked hearing it.
    I’ve been looking at hunting horn music and the 7th harmonic is absent. I guess my question is why would some military/huntsman developing signals avoid the 7th harmonic just because of what some academic wrote. My understanding is that Handel was the one to bring the horn into the kind of music academics were concerned with. Before that it wasn’t considered a “musical” instrument, so academic strictures wouldn’t have obtained.
    KG replies: I wouldn’t interfere with your speculations.

  4. mclaren says

    Isn’t it hilarious how no one nowadays can actually bring hi/rself to use the forbidden e-word? Emotion? It’s like a dirty word in music criticism or musicology… The one thing people are never, ever allowed to talk about.
    So we can’t come clean and admit that we like microtonality because it lets us explore vibrant new emotions in music. No, we have to give all sorts of other reasons.
    The emotional quality of an 11/8 is just plain different from anything you can get in 12 equal.
    Today’s music critics and musicologists are like Victorians faced with sex, who hem and haw and mumble about “hysterical paroxysmic release” instead of just coming out and talking about orgasms. No, the word “emotion” just can’t be discussed in relation to contemporary music. No one is actually permitted to say that microtonal music lets the composer explore new ranges of passion, new moods, melodies and intervals which sound plangent and plaintive in entirely new and different ways than conventional Western music. No, we have to hem and haw about the different interferences of the periodicities, or some such. Future generations will look back at our neo-Victorianism and laugh themselves silly at our inability to discuss the effect of different types of pitches and musical intervals on the emotional impact of the music.
    Also — isn’t it odd that anyone who composes even one (1) microtonal piece gets forever tarred and marginalized as a “microtonalist”? It’s like those old race laws in the deep South, where if you had one ancestor who was black, even a great-great-great-great-great grandfather, you were considered a negro and forbidden to vote or own property. It’s wildly funny how eager our Western musical KKKulture seems to pigeonhole every composer…produce one microtonal piece and you’re “that microtonalist,” compose one atonal serial piece and you’re “that serialist,” compose one minimalist piece and you’re “a minimalist.” Safely stereotyped, neatly wrapped up in a sealed package whose contents are never ever permitted to leak out into another stylistic category.
    Somebody should compose a long piece that starts out using classical minimalism and segues gradually into atonal serialism using microtonal 13 tone equal temperament, then imperceptibly returns to classical minimalism in 12 equal. It would make the music critics’ and musicologists’ heads explode.

  5. Michael Kasper says

    I really like the comments. I think that what mclaren said about categorizing people can be very true. I think it would be funny to see the piece mclaren suggested and see what the critics say. By the way, how does one compose microtonally. I have tried twelve tone composition, minimal, and am working on Romantic. I was not a music student, but like to learn new styles. Is there a way to compose microtonally without using a lattice? What is the easiest program to use for someone who is new to composing microtonally? What website would you recommend for learning to use microtones in composition or with integrating with standard forms of composition? I love Romantic era music as well as the Impressionists, but would like to add some more colors and flavors of sound. What can you recommend to a beginner in this style?
    KG replies: I’ve never used a lattice in my 26 years of microtonality. I just calculate the harmonies I want. L’il Miss Scale Oven is the best program for retuning anything as far as I’m concerned. You might try the microtonal part of my web site: And the only Romantic-era composing I’ve done is the third movement of Transcendental Sonnets, for which I used Brahms’s Requiem as a model. Maybe someone else can recommend something.