Rant on Optimization and microtonal misconceptions

So I have found a train of comments of “microtonal” music that have a certain tendency, that while it is coming from a good place, I believe really just shares a different aesthetic of music than the goal of many composers with interest in tuning.

I will try to explain these two points of view, and they are easiest described as the optimization path and the colour path / free path.

The optimization best often hails 12edo to be the best for most circumstances, with the sometimes allowance for 19/31/53 etc, other high accuracy/resolution tunings, so long as the music uses these new intervals in a way dictated the the classical meantone tradition.  This train of thought believes that tuning to near Just Intonation / tuning accurately to harmonic approximations is the goal of a tuning system.

There are a few problems with this.  Firstly, of all the well-tempered systems for classical era music, there is obviously no “best” system, and each has its own way of dealing with progressions, especially in the context of the music of the composer and piece.  Secondly, if a perfect system is truly desired, we have adaptive just intonation, which is exactly that; the problem being the difficulty of application in many settings.  Thirdly, any high-resolution tuning is really just a combination of the two previous problems.

On the other hand, to choose tuning systems not on an overall optimization, but on compositional preference of the notes and patterns existent in a tuning, has no need to fulfil any requirements other than to be as it is.  This method also denies the optimization is really a possibility, as essentially each system has its own parts which are optimized.  Which do you want to be optimal?  Is this always in order from lowest to highest harmonics?

Yes, many things in 15 or 17 etc can be played in 12, and in 12 is sounds debatably “better”, but only if lack of beating is what qualifies as “better”.  Each tuning has a quality of its own, and “improves” certain notes, and really always at the expense of others.  This was the whole idea of well-temperaments in the past, and why there were so many.  The ability to choose the tuning of a piece, allows the composer to choose which colours to use and how they will relate.  We no longer need to base our aesthetic judgements on tempering the 5th to the 3rd.  Of course we can, and we can expand this as we wish.  But we are asking for infinities now.

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