in-tune music and nomenclature

Since entering the world of microtonal music many years ago, I have found that there are many different perspectives on “what is microtonality”, “what is not microtonality”, and what other things we can this thing that some people are calling microtonality but hesitate because the word is not accurately describing the work they are doing.

On the wikipedia page for Xenharmonic music (another term used often synonymously with microtonal music, but implying “different” harmony rather than “micro” or small toned harmony, as often intervals in microtonal music are “bigger” than notes they would be compared to, such as the super-major third) it reads: “John Chalmers, author of Divisions of the Tetrachord, writes: “[sic] music which can be performed in 12-tone equal temperament without significant loss of its identity is not truly microtonal.””  While I do not fully disagree, this puts an air of subjectivity into this realm which from one point of view could combine the entire plethora of baroque tunings and 1/x-comma meantones as “not microtonal”, as well as diatonic 19 and 31 tone music, or even n-edo music which approximates diatonic progressions.  This is where the loss-of-identity element comes in, because one could argue that if the same piece was played in 12edo or 19edo, that both tunings have a very obvious and clear unique identity in relation to one another and that one could not switch tunings without an obvious loss of identity.  However, without careful listening, one might not know that an adjustment in tuning was made (as equal temperaments are in a sense artificial constructs anyways, and both 12 and 19 equal can be playing in a 5-limit meantone based system which has inherent functionality outside of the specifics of the tuning of a fixed pitch instrument).  So from this standpoint, these tunings are in fact the same because we are supposedly processing the information in the same functional manner.  But in the end, they are not, because the timbral aspects of the instrument and the technical aspects of the musician also affect the tuning and perception of the tunings of an instrument.  In addition, these ambiguous boundaries can be used as compositional devices to explore this fuzzy boundary.

This can be extended a step further when playing diatonic progressions in 15-equal for example, such as in the Bad Canada song: Hot Mary, which is essentially an A F#m E D progression, and can be played as such in 12 or 19 equal as well.  However, it really really does not sound that same.  I have had people argue to me that it is silly to play this song in this tuning because it is just an out-of-tune 12 progression.  And yes — it is possible to hear it as such, but it is also something else: it is a progression of triads with significantly sharp fifths, which have a beating near in sync with the sharp thirds (which are the same as in 12 equal), it also is a progression which share 3 roots which are a part of the 5 equal scale, and carry a certain odd symmetrical imbalance between the I IV and V chords, it also have a 160¢ step between the E and the F#, a xenharmonic or microtonal step by any accounts.  Neither 12 nor 19 equal can effectively replicate this combination of properties  — and yes this combination is somewhat arbitrary and definitely not an optimization of anything other than exactly itself, but it is not played in 12 without a loss of identity either.

So, while I agree that the pursuit of the integration and usage of higher complexity and higher limit harmonic structures in music is great and interesting goal, the usage of tuning as a compositional device for a variety of purposes and effects is at the heart of what I strive to do, as a mis-tuning, and alternate-tuning, or as an exploration of truly new tones and relations.

With this I propose to call this, as I have been doing so already, “intentionally tuned” music, or “int-tuned” music”, or “in-tune” music.  This last bit of word play will again bring some challenges with performance and it must avoid being used as an excuse for music play unintentionally out of tune.

In the end, however, the tuning of a piece is generally only part of the composition, as are all of the other factors, and so I hope we will soon get to a point where it is realized that 12-tone equal tuning is neither optimal nor unique in utility, and it really more of a colonial remnant which is not accurate in describing more current music and is a weak tool for creating more, and instead of relying on electronic tuners to make our instruments equal arbitrarily tuned so that we do not need to consider the sound of the tuning, we actually learn to tune our instrument how we would like to hear them, and continue to explore the beautiful patterns and alternate timbres that we can create, and just call it “music” which by nature should include intentional tuning.

But for now we will call things many things as we do.

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