It’s Not Just

Here’s a puzzle. With a modest investment in a computer and software, it’s quite easy to make music in which our familiar 12-note equal-tempered scale is replaced with alternate tunings of one sort and another. Alternate tunings are a rich resource for musical expression. And yet, I’m hard-pressed to find anyone (other than Robert Rich) who is composing and recording music that uses alternate tunings.

My own interest is in just intonation (JI for short). This is a system of tunings in which the frequency ratios between notes are based on whole numbers. Twelve-note equal temperament (12ET, as it’s called) is based on an irrational number — the 12th root of 2. All of the intervals in 12ET produce harsh-sounding “beats” when two notes are sounded together. In just intonation, the intervals are pure, so the sound can be stable and restful, yet also oddly exotic.

This morning I went looking for JI music on the Web. Eventually I spotted a couple of YouTube videos. The first one was appallingly awful. The second had at least the merit that the fellow was playing a fast-moving melody on a 16-key home-built instrument, but the composition and the sound quality were woefully deficient.

The websites that have information on JI obviously haven’t been updated since the early days of the Web. They’re primitive graphically and full of broken links. And almost nobody is posting any actual music. Bill Alves has a few pieces on his site, but I couldn’t listen to them, because the Quicktime music player is still broken in Windows 7. I get a black bar rather than a playback widget.

And Bill’s is a name I remember from the ’80s, as are most of the other names I ran into. David Doty suspended publication of his JI newsletter in 2006, and nobody has picked up the torch. Wendy Carlos did some beautiful pieces in alternate tunings on Beauty in the Beast, but her website shows no new recordings in recent years.

The lack of interest in JI and other tuning systems arises, I think, from four basic facts.

First, 12ET is pretty good. It has a well-developed system of harmony theory, so you don’t have to roll your own. Expressive harmonic resources, up to and including the further reaches of jazz harmony, are at your fingertips.

Second, existing instruments are happy to play in 12ET. You have to sort of coax them to do anything else. It’s extra work — and why go to all that trouble when a tuning system is readily available that’s both expressive and easier for your listeners to understand?

Third, other musicians won’t get it. You’re unlikely to find a group to play with, because they won’t want to mess about setting up your tunings. They’ll all be happily playing in 12ET, which they understand very well indeed.

Fourth, the modern world is jam-packed with fun stuff to do! There are dozens of neat ways to make music with your computer without ever tapping the world of alternate tunings.

Those factors certainly sway me. On paper, I’m very interested in JI and would like to see it flourish. It fascinates me. But the three new computer-based pieces I’m working on right now are all in 12ET. It’s easy to use, and I understand the harmony theory. If I were writing in JI, I’d have to make up the harmony theory as I went along.

I’m tempted to do exactly that. But who would care or even notice if I did? Probably nobody.

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