Music has been described as a universal language. This is a nice way of saying that people all over the world play music. But as a practical matter, every culture develops its own music. When a European or American listener, steeped in pop or classical music, listens to a Balinese gamelan, the nuances of the language are entirely lost. We can tell that it sounds weird and exotic, but we don’t know what’s being said.
Certain aspects of our music perception, such as the ability to perceive and remember a series of pitches, appear to be innate. Other aspects are surely learned. If you’ve been raised on music in the European tradition, you’ll have no trouble following the logic of a I-vi-ii-V7 progression. To an Indian who had never listened to anything but the classical tradition of his culture (music for sitar, tabla, and so forth), this chord progression would have no meaning.
I’m still exploring, in a desultory way, the harmonic resources of 31-note equal temperament. The exotic intervals and bizarre chords are intellectually appealing to me — and yet, I’m not finding it easy to build up any enthusiasm for writing actual music using this scale.
The perception of the new pitch intervals in this tuning is not difficult to master. The problem, I’ve started to think, is that I don’t have any harmonic syntax to work with. There’s nothing like a I-vi-ii-V7. Here’s an analogy from the realm of language. The brain has no trouble perceiving the words “cat,” “hat,” and “back.” But in the absence of syntax, there’s no reason to prefer the sentence, “The cat in the hat is back,” to the non-sentence, “Hat the in the back cat is.” Using 31ET, I can string together the words “cat,” “the,” and so on in any order I like, but none of the orders will have any particular meaning.
Another way to look at it is to understand that musical meaning arises when the composer does something unexpected. If nothing unexpected ever happens, you’re just playing scales, and that won’t have any meaning or satisfy listeners. But until you have a well-developed set of expectations — that is, until you understand the musical language — anything that happens will be equally unexpected.
Consider the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Our expectation (and the expectation of audiences in Beethoven’s era) was that a piece would begin with a definite rhythm, tempo, and meter, and then continue for a while with that same tempo and meter (though probably with some rhythmic variations). Beethoven violates our expectation in a basic and dramatic way: He gives us four notes that set forth a definite rhythm and tempo, and at least imply a likely meter — and then he stops! Then we hear the same rhythm again — and again he stops. He creates a dramatic, emotion-filled moment precisely by violating our expectations. If we had no expectations with regard to how music starts and continues, the opening of the Fifth Symphony would have no special meaning.
The 31-note tuning has very good triads and 7th chords. You can, in fact, play a I-vi-ii-V7 progression using this scale, and it will sound, if not completely familiar, at least clearly identifiable. But if you’re going to do that, why not just write music in standard 12-note equal temperament? The point of using a microtonal scale is precisely to open up the possibility of new kinds of melodic and harmonic relationships. These relationships are easy to find — they’re lying there in plain view, like jewels on the carpet. But sadly, they have no meaning beyond, “Ooh, that sounds weird and exotic!”
Still, there may be ways to create a set of expectations within the context of a single piece of music, after which one might interject unexpected elements. I’m not done looking at the possibilities, I’m just reporting on the unfolding situation as I discover it.