Some resources for microtonality, just intonation, xenharmonic systems, being out of tune, and other tunings.
I’ve been thinking about microtonality and alternate tuning systems a bit recently. It’s not really my area of expertise but I’ve got a sense that an upcoming composition will need some understanding of Just Intonation. While I’ve read some Partch and Tenney in the past, and some Ben Johnston last year, I can’t say that I really understand it… or rather, I’m not sure I have a feeling for it as much as I’d like to. I need to re-read some things, certainly, but I wonder what I’ve missed in the past, or maybe I’ve been starting from the wrong point…
Given that I’m teaching a bit these days, I started thinking more about how I’d want to learn about microtonality if I were coming to it fresh… and what some of the useful resources might be useful for diving into this strange world of seemingly endless tuning systems. Now, I think listening is generally the route into an area like this, but I’m curious about how it’s explained and discussed, so I’m looking for books/readings/resources. I asked the
I had a sense of some of the key touchstones (Helmholtz, Partch, Tenney) that would crop up, but then in the sprawling comment threads lots more interesting material started to turn up. I thought I might list them here to make it easier to find things. This is of course by no means a comprehensive list of where to start with microtonality, but, if you’re curious, it might give you a nudge to go and read some things:
- Hermann von Helmholtz – On the Sensations of Tone (which, Stephan Mathieu tells me is wonderfully titled Tonempfindungen in its original German.)
- Harry Partch – Genesis of a Music
- Ben Johnston – Maximum Clarity (ed. Bob Gilmore)
- Bob Gilmore – everything, but in particular ‘The Climate Since Harry Partch’ and ‘Microtonality: My Part In Its Downfall’
- Tom Johnson – Other Harmony
- William Sethares – Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale
- Catherine Lamb (who gets my vote for the only person I actually want to read a book on tuning by) has a wonderful repository of tuning stuff here.
- James Tenney – everything, but in particular John Cage and the Theory of Harmony
- Marc Sabat – a lot of writings (I thought this ‘Fundamental Principles of Just Intonation and Microtonal Composition’ was good, from Sabat & Nicholson)
- John Fonville – ‘Ben Johnston’s Extended Just Intonation: A Guide for Interpreters’
- And, by extension, the Kepler Quartet’s recordings of Johnston’s string quartets!
- Michael Winter – ‘On James Tenney’s Arbor Vitae for String Quartet’
- An App, Wilsonic, that uses the tuning systems of Erv Wilson
- Xenharmonic Wiki – https://en.xen.wiki/
- J. Javier Goldáraz Gaínza on historical intonation and tuning [in Spanish]
- Ross Duffin – How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and why you should care)
- Kyle Gann – lots of JI stuff.
Lawrence Dunn offers these:
- Alain Danielou’s Introduction to the Study of Musical Scales. Seen from a hybrid North Indian/European perspective, Danielou’s writing is unique and still applicable and helpful today.
- Patrizio Barbieri, Enharmonic Instruments and Music, 1470-1900. Excellent historical study of tuning practices in keyboard and non-keyed instruments. Puts all of this into some sort of real-world context.
- There’s a review of the Barbieri, along with some other nice things in the one-and-only edition of the Huygens-Fokker Journal, edited by Bob Gilmore.
- I know you mention him, but Kyle Gann’s short essay on JI is probably the simplest general introduction. (Use a reader app to make it more legible)
- Great article by Ellen Fullman, one of the most original artists associated with JI working today.
- Lou Harrison’s Music Primer. Just a fabulous and unique contribution.
(I’ve not had a chance to read through all of this yet, so recommendations are not necessarily endorsements.)
Thanks to everyone who got back to me with suggestions. (*deep breath* @frozenreeds, @DrPAlvarez, @wednesday_club, @moderncomp, @stephanmathieu, @l_a_dunn, @azzigotti, @swayzeroundhaus, @aaronhnahum, @chayaczernowin7, @rchrdbkrmuso, @michaelbegg, @fantasticdrfox, @mugloch, @heathen_specs, @larrygoves, @_anthonyvine_)
What did I miss? Obviously, this is a massive field of musical thinking, so there’s no reason to try and cover everything. But if there’s some really useful introductory resources, I’d love to know about them. If you have any more ideas of where to look, please send me a message or tweet at me and I’ll update this list. (You’ll note that these resources are white-male heavy… I’m also interested in hearing about writings from those outside this particular demographic if you know of any!)
Finally, I’ll leave the last word to my sage colleague, Scott Mc Laughlin: