Microtonal Music

Ancient Natural Harmony, Maqams and Just Intonation

In ancient times musicians could develop skills in producing perfectly harmonious music. Modern physicists call the intervals between these perfectly tuned notes "just intonation" because the wavelengths of acoustic sound they produce fit together absolutely perfectly.

With the 17th century European invention of the complex machine called the "piano" the system of "equal temperment" was invented so that musicians could transpose melodies into all 12 notes in the octave. Unfortunately, in order to accomplish this, the scales of all 12 keys had to be compromised so that they all are slightly out-of-tune. The result: our modern musical sound fields are flooded with "equally tempered" intervals and we no longer grow up in musically harmonious environments. We don't even know what we are missing.

These are the out-of-tune equally-tempered intervals we listen to today:

This is what out-of-tune equally-tempered waveforms look like: equaltemp


This is a simple recording of musical intervals of truly harmonious just-intonation:

This is what perfectly-tuned waveforms look like: just waves

Dr. Robert Smith described the newly invented "equal temperment" in 1759 as: "that inharmonious system of 12 hemitones, which produces a harmony extemely coarse and disagreeable."

And here are the words of Hermann Helmholz from 1852: "When I go from my justly-intoned harmonium to a grand pianoforte, every note of the latter sounds false and disturbing.... On the organ, it is considered inevitable that, when the mixture stops are played in full chords, a hellish row must ensue, and organists have submitted to their fate. Now this is mainly due to equal temperament, because every chord furnishes at once both equally­tempered and justly-intoned fifths and thirds, and the result is a restless blurred confusion of sounds."

Fortunately, the musicians in Egypt, Syria, and other parts of the indigenous Middle East, have preserved ancient systems of musical scales known as "maqamat" which have resisted the movements in Europe and America toward "equal tempered" music.

Cameron Powers has spent the last 35 years discovering and learning and mastering musical performance which traditionally employs these ancient "quartertone" intervals, sometimes learning musical pieces which may be as much as a thousand years old.

And yes, these ancient musical scales have flexibilities which allow the performance of "justly intonated" or perfectly-tuned music. It could also be said that musicians using these ancient scales also have the ability to use intervals which are not "justly intonated" and which produce dissonant vibrations similar to those found in modern "equally tempered" Western music. But there is a critical difference: the musician can be in control. He can perform perfectly harmonious intervals to create an ultimately soothing sound environment. Or he can deliberately introduce dissonance to put an edge or create "blues notes" for certain emotional moments induced by the use of these ancient modes.

Cameron Powers has written a "how-to book" for musicians called "Arabic Musical Scales: Basic Maqam Teachings with 2 CD's" which teaches a total of 45 different ancient scales. Having made numerous trips to study and perform in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, Cameron suggests: "The emotional repertoire in these ancient lands is more complex than what we now live with here in America. The pressures exerted by our mono-lingual, competitively-driven, musically out-of-tune dualistic culture which sees everything in black and white simplistic terms has robbed us of the ancient complexity of human feelings. My Egyptian friends enjoy a richer fabric of emotional realities and they have the music to go along with all of it."

Truly harmonious music, seldom heard in the Western world today, does not even require the musician to invest his own personal emotional enthusiasm. The music alone creates a magnetic attraction and a healing energy field. The possibility for "egoless" music then arises.

Here are some comments about just intonation by Kyle Gann:

"Just-intonation chords are much calmer, more passive; you literally have to slow down to listen to them. (As Terry Riley says, Western music is fast because it's not in tune.) I've learned to hear equal temperament music as a kind of aural caffeine, overly busy and nervous-making. If you're used to getting that kind of buzz from music, you feel the lack of it as a deprivation when it's not there. But do we need it? Most cultures use music for meditation, and ours may be the only culture that doesn't. With our tuning, we can't.

My teacher, Ben Johnston, was convinced that our tuning is responsible for much of our cultural psychology, the fact that we are so geared toward progress and action and violence and so little attuned to introspection, contentment, and acquiesence. Equal temperament could be described as the musical equivalent to eating a lot of red meat and processed sugars and watching violent action films. The music doesn't turn your attention inward, it makes you want to go out and work off your nervous energy on something.

On a more subtle level, after I've been immersed in just intonation for a couple of weeks, equal temperament music begins to sound insipid, bland, colorless. There are only eleven types of intervals available instead of the potential several dozen that exist in even the simplest just system, and you don't get gradations of different sizes of major third or major sixths the way you do in just tuning. On a piano in just intonation, moving from one tonic to another changes the whole interval makeup of the key, and you get a really specific, visceral feel for where you are on the pitch map. That feeling disappears in bland, all-keys-the-same equal temperament. As a composer, I enjoy having the option, if I'm going to use a minor third interval, of being able to choose among the 7/6, 6/5, 19/16, and 11/9 varieties, each with its own individual feeling.

Far beyond the mere theoretical purity, playing in just intonation for long periods sensitizes me to a myriad colors, and coming back to the equal tempered world is like seeing everything click back into black and white. It's a disappointing readjustment. Come to think of it, maybe you shouldn't try just intonation - you'll become unfit to live in the West, and have to move to India or Bali." (Or Egypt or Syria or Iraq...)

"Before the 20th century, European music had its own wonderful non-equal-tempered tunings, which unfortunately we've abandoned."

More Info from http://www.justintonation.net/:
Equal temperament was not adopted because it sounded better (it didn't then, and it still doesn't, despite 150 years of cultural conditioning) or because composers and theorists were unaware of Just Intonation. The adoption of twelve-tone equal temperament was strictly a matter of expediency. Equal temperament allowed eighteenth- and nineteenth-century composers to explore increasingly complex harmonies and abstruse modulations, but this benefit was short-lived. By the beginning of this century, all of the meaningful harmonic combinations in the equally-tempered scale had been thoroughly explored and exploited, and many composers believed that consonance, tonality, and even pitch had been exhausted as organizing principles. What was really exhausted was merely the limited resources of the tempered scale. By substituting 12 equally-spaced tones for a universe of subtle intervallic relationships, the composers and theorists of the 18th and 19th centuries effectively painted western music into a corner from which it has not yet succeeded in extricating itself.