Saturday, April 02, 2011

Intonation Game

I just came across an interesting intonation game that offers electronically-generated pitches and asks you to determine whether they are too high, too low, or just right. I wonder if these pitches were generated acoustically, on an actual violin, if it would be as easy to tell whether they matched. I also wonder if it is even possible to sustain an exact pitch on a stringed instrument, microtonal or otherwise, for more than a fraction of a second, since acoustic sound waves are living and moving entities.

This brings up my previous thoughts about the actual ability for anyone to truly play microtonal music accurately.

Related posts:

Bohlen Pierce Scale
Microtonal Ramble
Lend Me Your Ears

Nobody has answered the question I asked at the end of the Bohlen-Pierce Scale post.
Can anyone (who doesn't have perfect pitch) explain how a person with only a western musical background could sing microtonal or alternative-scale music accurately.
I'm still waiting!


Prent Rodgers said...

Perhaps I don't understand your challenge, when you ask: "Can anyone ... explain how a person with only a western musical background could sing microtonal or alternative-scale music accurately." I could just as easily ask how a person with no medical training could perform open-heart surgery, or someone who doesn't know the violin play first chair in the Philharmonic. Why would you expect someone with no training to perform at an expert level?

Elaine Fine said...


It isn't a challenge. I really want to know! The reason I specify a Western music background is that there are scale systems in Middle Eastern and Far Eastern cultures that would not serve as points of reference for me as a person brought up in the Western musical system of diatonic music made of half steps and whole steps.

I'm posing this question to performing musicians who specialize in microtonal music and composing musicians who write microtonal music.

David Kulma said...

Lots and lots of work, using pitch references, drones, repetition, as we do with 12 tone equal tempered music. It is just asking you to have a more discerning ear, which is learnable. We can only sing in 12TET, because we practice for years. Western music's tuning system isn't any more "natural" than any other, it is just what was passed down.

It seems you believe that putting in this amount of work is ludicrous, as being able to play in tune and discern the pitches in music you already play takes a lot of effort.

I personally can hear the notes and their differences in Ben Johnston's music, and believe with practice, I could replicate the results.

Elaine Fine said...


What leads you to believe that I think putting work into playing microtonal music is ludicrous? What I want to know is HOW you go about using your ear to "check" yourself when playing microtones. I want to know how, if given a sample acoustic pitch, you could sing or play a pitch on an acoustic instrument that is exactly a quarter tone higher or lower, and replicate the process. I imagine that on a stringed instrument it would be possible to judge pitches relative to the open strings, and on the violin, which has natural fingertip-width half steps, by the physical distance (unless reaching the pitch in question is a leap). I imagine that it would be more difficult on the cello.

I believe that the musicians of the Kepler Quartet do it accurately, but I really can't tell you for sure if what they are playing truly represents the correct divisions of the octave. If I were asked to judge whether they were playing Ben Johnston's music in tune or out of tune, I would not be able to report with honesty.

I don't think that playing microtonal music is a question of having a more or less discerning ear, since in diatonic music we are constantly adjusting our pitches to play "in tune." I suppose that you could say that string players use "adjust intonation." It's a question of finding a technique that works dependably enough so that the intentions of a composer who works with microtones are replicated.

Please let me know, after you have practiced (and on an acoustic instrument or a voice) how you achieved accurate microtones!

I know that Milton Babbitt could hear everything, and he could let people know when something wasn't right. He's not alive anymore, so we lost the source. Johnston is alive, and I imagine that he can hear (perhaps not replicate, but hear) where he wants the pitches to be, but he won't be around forever.

Daniel Wolf said...


The musician trained only in 12 tone equal temperament still has some very useful tools for learning to hear and play alternative tunings. The first is simply using comparisons to 12tet intervals: for example, learning to play quarter tone intervals as the neutral position between major and minor thirds, then sixths, and then, eventually, seconds and sevenths. The second tool is in the alternative tuning we work with (and against, as the case may be)) all the time anyways — the natural harmonics of stringed instruments, the partial tones of brass, the overtones of singers. These are the basic building blocks of just intonation and good musicians are already well-aware of the differences between the intervals found in these and the intervals in 12tet in terms of both melodic interval size and harmonic quality. Finally, the practice of musicians in adjusting intonation through the elimination of inteference beats is yet another way into and for optimizing performance in alternative tunings.

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks Daniel. What about smaller divisions than quarter tones? I like the neutral position idea (which I'm excited to try), but it still seems like it might be inexact when dividing an octave into more than 24 quarter tones.

I suppose it is actually listening FOR beats rather than trying to eliminate them that is the name of the game.