What is microtonal music?
The notion of microtonal music represents music that uses different tone ratios than the ones tradionally used in Western music.
Microtonal music is a collective name for various kinds of music that use tone
systems different from what is customary in Western music.
The normal Western scale one can imagine the best using a piano keyboard: from one octave to the
other there are twelve keys present, which produce the same amount of tones.
The distance from one key/tone to the next is called a semitone; twelve of
these semitones make full an octave.
Why microtonal tone systems?
Why would one choose a (complicated) microtonal tone system, while Western music has flourished for centuries with the relatively simple twelve-tone system? The answer to this question is twofold. In the first place microtonal music creates much more refined nuances with respect to pitch, intervals and chords, and it can be refreshing employing these new sounds and harmonies in musical compositions. In the second place, this aspect hasn't been mentioned here yet, in some microtonal systems certain traditional intervals can be realised much purer than in the twelve-tone system, which because of its restrictions had to make a compromise with respect to purity. Microtonal systems based on the latter point of departure, are called just intonations. These just intonations are often very complicated systems, which can also lead to the development of new instruments.
Is it out of tune?
What sounds out of tune and what not is merely a matter of habituation. Something sounds out of tune if it's impure, but what's pure is a matter of agreement, of a certain norm. It is an agreement of a certain group of people in a certain cultural domain. The longer this norm serves as a value, the more one begins to believe it is the only true norm, like a physical law. For example in the 16th century people were used to meantone tuning, and found equal temperament to sound rather out of tune. Now that we are used to it, we sometimes have to get used to the special character of meantone tuning when we hear it.
Not a new style
Microtonality is not a certain style in music. It concerns only the material
with which composers work. But by the use of microtonal tone systems usually
music originates that has a wholly new sound, which cannot be brought under the
usual denominators of the music of the twentieth century. Though, even if most
microtonal works have been written in this century, in particular after around
1920, a small number is already of much older date, going back to the sixteenth
century. In that century it were the theoretically interested composers, who in
their attempts to revive the Greek enharmonic tetrachord, wrote the first
microtonal music, if we leave the Greeks themselves out of consideration; of
their music almost nothing has survived.
Which music is called microtonal music?
In classical music microtones occur more often than one would probably think
initially. Think for example about vibrato, glissando, small intonation
adaptations by string players and microtonal ornamentations by singers. Still
this doesn't make this music microtonal. This is the case if it is based on a
microtonal tone system. We call a tone system microtonal if it contains
intervals which are smaller than a minor second (semitone), or are not a
multiple of it, in other words: "fall between the piano keys". So the tone
system doesn't necessarily need to have more than 12 tones per octave.
|More about microtonality
Early example of a unusual division of the tone, or in other words an early form of microtonality: the division of the whole tone in 5 steps (in stead of the usual two), by Fabio Colonna, 1618.