experiencing “new” music: quarter tones

When we make use of (musical) sound creatively it’s not a bad idea to expose ourselves to as much music as possible. And as much sound as possible, for that matter.

In being exposed to new styles and systems of music we often will be forced (if that’s not too strong a term) to confront some of our basic assumptions about music. For example, it might be taken for granted that music will have some kind of melody with chord accompaniment. But when we listen to Gregorian chant we find that there are only melodies, and no underlying, simultaneous harmony whatsoever. We can listen to certain styles of Indian, Thai, and Gamelan music and — though they differ amongst themselves considerably — find that while they have harmonic accompaniment they lack any sense of chord progressions.

The assumption we are going to confront today has to do with how many pitches there are in an octave. Here in the West the scale has been divided (in different ways) into 12 pitches. On a piano for the last several centuries it is the case that there are 12 evenly spaced, or equal tempered, pitches.

This isn’t true globally. In Turkish, Arabic, Persian, and Indian music (to name a few) the are other tones in between these 12 pitches. Without delving into the musics of those cultures what we’re going to look at in this post is music made by composers here in the West who have embraced this idea and made use of it in their music.

A good place to start is with quarter tones. These are notes which are found between the semi-tones, or half-steps, of the standard Western scale. A whole tone (say, from the note C to D, or from F to G) is composed of two half- or semi-tones. Dividing these into two parts thus gives us four divisions, or four quarter tones, of the whole tone.

Some great music to listen to first is Ivan Wyschnegradsky’s (1893-1979) Twenty-four Preludes in Quarter Tones, no. 3. Try to listen with as open a mind as possible: initially it might be hard to get beyond the feeling that the music is simply “out of tune,” but in this piece the quarter tones help bring out the melancholic nature of the music.


Other composers who have written quarter tone music include Charles Ives, John Cage, Krzysztof Penderecki, Lou Harrison, and Henry Partch (to name a few).

And here’s a fascinating demonstration and discussion of music on some different contemporary synthesizers by the amazing Dolores Catherino. Her music makes use of even more notes than the quarter tones heard above: in fact she goes so far as to divide an octave into over a hundred parts (compare this to quarter tones which divide an octave into 24 parts). Tones like this are called microtones, and here Catherino refers to the use of them as polychromatic music.

One reason for using so many different pitches is to help mimic sounds in nature (like bird and whale songs) which don’t necessarily use discrete pitches but rather have sounds which exist on a continuous spectrum. If nothing else hopefully the sounds of these quarter tones and microtones will help us hear that continuity of sound, and inspire us to make use of it.

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