Where does microtonality start?

In response to comments of David Dornig of Dsilton,

“…That is certainly important to explain to people who think that microtonality is only valid, if you could not approximate it in 12EDO or meantone temperaments. But than we must ask, where dose “microtonality” start. Whats the reference? Can it be objective or is it only a matter of the concept behind the music. Is a flat intonation of a blue note microtonal or not if one thinks in reference to 12 notes per octave? If those questions are settled, it would be easier to discuss.”

Where does microtonality start is a very interesting question.  Maybe lets start with a sub-question of this, which is “where is a microtone” defined.  In some of the discussions at miCROfest 2017 in Zagreb, it was said that a microtone is anything less than 100¢.  I believe that this definition is based on the visualization of 12-equal as a basis of tuning, which is subsequently a consequence of the atonal and serial conceptions of music.  This is not so much the size of the semitone, but the semitone being used as a measuring tool, as opposed to a difference tone between intervals with a small tone between them.

So there are a few places that microtonality could start.

  1. Music using steps smaller than 100¢
  2. Music that utilizes a greater variety of difference tones / enharmonics than are available in 12 equal music.  – this may include some historical tunings and well-temperaments
  3. Music that utilizes a higher harmonic spectra or limit, for example: utilizing the 7th harmonic functionally within the music


We also have the question of note bends in reference to 12edo and if they are microtonal or not.

I think that this goes back to the idea that “microtonality” implies a subcategory or music, where as 12 tone music can be interpreted as one of many choices of tuning of music.

Therefore, I don’t really believe that microtonality actually exists outside of an atonal sense, or, to extend, outside of a harmonically functional sense.  For example, in quarter-tone music, microtonality may exist in many compositions as the quarter-tones are being used as non-harmonic or non-functional sounds in the music.  I believe, in a strict sense of nomenclature, true “microtones” must be functional only by means of symmetry or serialism.

I believe that the broader, often “xenharmonic” principles, reflect more the aesthetic of fully studying the properties of the pitch spectrum and the totality of their relations.  In the set of the pitch spectrum, 12 equal is one approach to tuning which fulfils a set of useful properties.  These properties can also be fulfils by a vast number of other tunings, and also, each tuning will not overlap with another tuning completely in all categories.  So, therefore, we must choose a number of properties that we would like to fulfil, and decide to which degree we want to accommodate each property.

This leads to some follow up questions:

  1. To what degree can a major triad be “out of tune” before it is no longer a major triad, and how context dependent is this?  For example, we accommodate a 400¢ major third quite nicely (and this is made more difficult by the claim that the 81/64 pythagorean major third is in fact the functional third and not 5/4), and in 15edo we have the same third but a similarly sharp 5th (at 720¢), why is this 5th so much more undesirable than this 3rd?
  2. To further this, is accuracy of tuning importance to follow order of harmonics?  ie. octaves pure, 5ths near pure, 3rds close, 7ths existent, 11ths + irrelevant.
  3. How much is “out of tuneness” perceived relative to the system in place?  ie. the blue note in 12ed2 vs the 240¢ interval in 15ed2.

until next time


please check out some of the 31-tone music of Dsilton

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