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Posted by on Mar 14, 2014 in Equal Temperament, Just Intonation, The Lattice | 3 comments

A Harmonic Journey: ET and JI Compared

The Harmonic Lattice can be viewed as a map of harmonic space. Music moves in harmonic space, just as it moves in melodic space (the world of scales and keyboards). The two spaces are very different from each other.

In melodic space, such as a piano keyboard, when two notes are close together, it means they are close in pitch.

In a harmonic space, such as the lattice, when two notes are close together, it means they are harmonically related.

“Harmonically related” means that one note can be converted into the other note by multiplying and dividing by small whole numbers. A note vibrating at 100 cycles per second is closely related to a note at 300 cycles per second. In melodic space, these two notes are far apart, but in harmonic terms they are right next door to each other — they harmonize.

In my video, Flying Dream, I animated the movement of one of my songs on the lattice. Now I’ve animated a composition of W. A. Mathieu’s.

Mathieu is the author of Harmonic Experience, an astonishing book that takes music back to its origins in resonance and pure harmony, and then uses the lattice concept to bring that harmonic understanding forward into the world of equal temperament. For me, the book opened the study of music like a flower.

The lattice, and my stop-motion animations, have given me a sort of musical oscilloscope. Instead of the music being some sort of black box, I can see inside it, get a visual image of what is going on harmonically. The new tool has made songwriting, improvising and arranging much easier.

I’ve animated Example 22.10 from the book. It’s intended to be an illustration of unambiguous harmony — the chord progression moves by short distances on the lattice, so it is clear to the eye and ear where you are. I think it’s a beautiful piece of music in its own right, a one-minute tour of a huge area of the lattice. It uses 28 different notes!

There are two versions of the video. The first one, in ET, has a soundtrack of Allaudin Mathieu playing the piece on his beautifully tuned piano. This is perfect equal temperament. It uses twelve notes to approximate the twenty-eight notes that the piece visits.

For the second one, in JI, I retuned the piano to the actual pitches of the lattice notes. Now, magically, the piano has all 28 notes. There is a whole new dimension to the music. In the JI version, I feel:

  • Slight vertigo when the music moves quickly
  • Satisfaction when a spread-out (tense) pattern collapses to a compact (resolved) one
  • A great sense of homecoming at the end
  • Stronger consonance and dissonance than in the ET version.

The four voices, from lowest to highest, are red, green, orange and yellow. It’s fun to follow one voice at a time.

This lattice is notated differently. It’s my usual system, but with letters instead of numbers. C is the tonic.


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Posted by on Sep 24, 2013 in Consonance, Equal Temperament, Just Intonation, Septimal Harmony, The Lattice, The Notes | 7 comments

Three Flavors of Seventh Chord

Chords and other collections of notes have consistent, recognizable shapes on the lattice. A major chord is a triangle sitting on its base, a minor chord is a triangle on its point. Yesterday’s post has videos showing these chords.

In the songs I know and write, the next most common chords after major and minor triads are seventh chords.

By convention, a “seventh chord” means a triad, with a minor seventh added. If the added seventh is a 7, or major seventh, it’s called a “major seventh” chord.

A minor seventh is an interval of ten half steps, or two shy of an octave. There are three different minor sevenths in the inner lattice, and each one makes chords with a different sound and function — that is, if you are playing in just intonation, or untempered. In equal temperament, the minor sevenths all sound the same, but there is still profit in knowing that they are different, because they function differently in chord progressions.

The three notes are:

  • The b7, at 1018 cents. The ratio is 9/5.
  • The b7-, or dominant-type seventh, at 996 cents. The ratio, octave reduced so it lands in the same octave as the tonic, is 16/9.
  • The 7b7, at 969 cents. This is 7/4, the harmonic, or barbershop seventh, a consonant note that appears in the actual harmonic series of the tonic.

Here are some movies in just intonation, so you can hear the differences.


First, the b7, added to a minor chord.

A pretty sound, I like it! In equal temperament, this note is at 1000 cents, 18 cents flat of the b7, a clearly audible difference. Here’s the same movie in ET:

Both the b3 and b7 are decidedly flat. The b3 especially sounds different, a lot more dissonant and “beating.”

I wrote a post a while ago, exploring this minor seventh and how it sounds in an untempered chord progression. It’s here.


The next minor seventh is enormously important. This is the dominant-type seventh, b7-, 996 cents. It is fortunate that it is so close to the equal tempered note, 1000 cents, because that means its effect is barely diminished in ET — and it is a really important note in classical music.

The reason it’s called a dominant-type seventh is because it most often shows up with the dominant, or V chord. The note two steps south of the 5 is the 4 — and when you add a 4 to a V chord you get this:


The 4 is a powerful note in this context. It has strong tonal gravity, with reverse polarity. I’ve written several posts about this — here’s one  about polarity, here’s one about the use of dominant seventh chords.

Here’s how the chord sounds when it’s built on the 1, in just intonation.

There is strong dissonance when that seventh comes in, and it’s dissonance with a purpose — the chord “wants” badly to resolve somewhere. In this case, it wants to resolve to the 4, the empty space in the middle of the chord. The 1, 3 and 5 are all in the harmonic series of the 4 — that is, they all appear in its “chord of nature,” the overtones that accompany a natural sound. So these notes sort of point to the 4. They point to the 1 even more strongly, though, until that b7- comes into the picture.

When you add the new note, the b7-, something new happens. This note points hard to the 4, and in a different way. It’s as though it says, “home is over there, go!”

Here’s a more detailed discussion.

The entire note collection “wants” to collapse to its center, like a gravitational collapse. The b7- helps to locate that center on the 4.

This effect is often used to move the ear to a IV chord. For example, if you want to start the bridge of a song on the IV, it helps to hit a I7 first. If you’re playing a song in G, and want to go to a C chord, a quick G7 will make the change seem more inevitable. Here’s that move in slo-mo.

The pull of the dominant-seventh-type chord is so strong that it is the sharpest tool in the kit for changing keys, or modulating. Classical composers use it for this constantly.


The last of the three is a beauty. This is the 7b7, the quintessential note of barbershop harmony, the harmonic seventh, 7/4. The b7- is highly dissonant, the b7 rather neutral, and the 7b7 highly consonant. It sounds (and looks) like this:

This is a resolved chord. In fact, if the consonance and stability of an interval are determined by the smallness of the numbers in its ratio, these are the four most consonant notes of all — 1/1, 3/1, 5/1 and 7/1.

Here is another opportunity to compare just intonation with equal temperament. The harmonic seventh and the dominant seventh sound exactly the same in ET. I believe that a good composer knows, consciously or not, which one is meant.

A good example is the “… and many more” ending so commonly added to Happy Birthday. It is clearly not a dominant type — it’s intended to mean the end of the song, even to put a stronger period on it than the major triad by itself. It’s a quote, or a parody of blues harmony. Play it on the piano and it will be tuned exactly like a I7 chord, but the ear can tell, by context, that there is no move expected, to the IV or anywhere, because it’s heard that little melody a thousand times, and it belongs at the end of a song.

But the signal is so much clearer when the tuning sends the message too! The 7b7 is at 969 cents, a third of a semitone flatter than the piano key.

By the way, I think this is why a common definition of “blue note” is “sung flatter than usual.” I believe the blue notes are the world of multiples of seven, and these just happen to be flatter than the closest notes in the worlds of 3 and 5, the basic lattice.

Here is a video of the 7b7 chord that starts with the harmonic seventh, goes to the equal-tempered seventh, and back to the 7b7.

Quite a difference. ET works because it implies the JI note, and the ear figures out what it’s supposed to be hearing. But the visceral impact is lessened a lot — in this case, IMO, completely.



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Posted by on Sep 10, 2013 in Background, Equal Temperament, Just Intonation, Recordings, Septimal Harmony, The Lattice | 2 comments

Premature Nostalgia: Making Friends With Equal Temperament

I just recorded a new song, and it’s a perfect example of how equal temperament and just intonation can get along together.

Here’s the cut:


Reading this blog might give you the impression that I’m “against” equal temperament and “for” just intonation, or untempered music.

True, discovering untempered music has been like sailing to a new world. It’s delicious to have 20 or more notes to work with instead of 12, each with its own individual personality.

Equal temperament, however, is a fabulous invention. The lattice of fifths and thirds does not quite repeat. If you start with any note and go in any direction, you will soon encounter almost the same note again, but it will be off by a comma, a small interval, from the original note.

There are no two notes tuned exactly alike on the entire infinite lattice.

Equal temperament flattens out the lattice just a hair so it does repeat. Now there are only twelve notes to work with, and they imply the untempered ones in the ear. This innovation makes lots of things possible in music. Beethoven and Mozart could not exist without it.

It’s sometimes said that equal temperament and just intonation are incompatible with each other, because the notes will be out of tune. I say they can get along fine, you just have to show ’em who’s boss.

I submit for your consideration: Ray Charles.

Ray Charles’ piano is an equal tempered instrument. Ray Charles’ voice is most certainly not. He is singing the exact resonant notes, those blue notes, all tuned just like a gospel choir, which is what he grew up loving. Ray is boss. His voice establishes the tonality of the song. The backup singers, the horns and the standup bass all agree, this song is in the harmonic pocket, and it resonates.

That leaves the piano slightly out of tune, but who cares?

Notes that are slightly out of tune don’t necessarily sound bad — that’s the basis of the “chorus effect.” No two singers in a choir are exactly in tune with each other, and the resulting complexity is a huge part of the sound of the choir.

So if the tonality is established in the ear, maybe the equal tempered notes, which are only a bit off after all, will just enrich the sound a bit.

Listen to how “Hit the Road, Jack” starts off. First the piano intro. ET. Then the horns kick in, and they start to establish the soul of the tune. Then come the backup singers, that gospel choir. When Ray’s voice finally joins them, the pocket is waiting for him, and he proceeds to own it. The piano is now a background instrument.

I think that’s the secret. Put untempered instruments up front, and ET instruments more in the background. This asserts the untempered tonality in the ear.

Playing acoustic guitar and singing is a great playground for this. The acoustic guitar is, in its bones, an equally tempered instrument. Fretted instruments drove the adoption of ET in Europe, even before keyboards did. The voice is the archetypal untempered instrument. It can do anything.

If the guitar is boss, the song will be in equal temperament. If the voice is boss, you can establish any tonality you want (blues, Gypsy, whatever), and the guitar will tag along. You can retune it in the ear, just like Ray retunes his piano.

Here are some tricks for making friends with acoustic guitar (or any tempered instrument):

1) Sing solidly in tune, with the tonality coming from you, and not from the guitar. Don’t follow the guitar, lead it. The song is the melody, it is your voice, and you are accompanying that voice with guitar notes.

I like to think of the guitar as playing the grid lines on the map. The guitar notes are perfectly equally spaced, and are excellent reference points. The guitar tells me where I am. We completely agree on one note, the tonic. I use the tonic on the guitar as my true home base.

My voice is playing the actual territory.

2) Sing louder than the guitar.

This isn’t all that easy. The guitar is projecting outward, so it sounds louder to the audience than it does to me. The voice is right there in my head, so it sounds quieter to the audience than it does to me. If I sound balanced to myself, the audience will hear way more guitar than vocal. I hear this all the time at open mics.

I’ve found that in an acoustic setting, I have to sing twice as loud as my guitar (from my own point of view) for it to sound balanced out in front of me.

It gets easier with more JI instruments. In “Premature Nostalgia,” the fretless bass and backing vocals are all in strict just intonation. The guitar is truly a backing instrument, and the tonality of the song feels secure.

3) There is a third, more subtle thing you can do to bring the guitar closer to just intonation. The most clearly out-of-tune note on acoustic guitar is the major third. It’s already 14 cents sharp even when perfectly tuned, and the slightest unintentional string bend will take it into some really grating territory. Choose chord voicings that de-emphasize major thirds, and your guitar will sound a lot sweeter. I wrote an article illustrating this effect, here.

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Posted by on Aug 7, 2013 in Consonance, Equal Temperament, Just Intonation, Septimal Harmony, The Lattice, The Notes | 0 comments

More Mirror Twins

Mirror twins are pairs of intervals, exactly opposite each other on the lattice.

The two intervals are reciprocals of each other, which means their ratios are flipped — if one is 5/3, the other is 3/5.

Harmonic distance is the same for each interval — the only difference is polarity. Listening to mirror twin pairs gives a good idea of what polarity sounds like.

The clearest example is the fifth/fourth pair, multiplying and dividing the tonic by 3.

Beautiful, consonant notes, one with overtonal energy, and the other with reciprocal energy.

The next closest pair is the major third / minor sixth. This has a different flavor. Now the tonic is multiplied and divided by 5.

The overtonal third feels stable and restful, though not quite as much so as the fifth. These notes are a bit farther from the center than the 5 and 4. The reciprocal sixth sounds more dissonant than the 4.

The next closest note to the center is the septimal flatted seventh, or harmonic seventh. The ratio of this note is 7/1, and its mirror twin is 1/7. I have not yet consciously used the mirror-seventh, and it’s not on my drawing of the lattice. The note is the septimal major second, at 231 cents, a dissonant interval indeed. The yellow lens shows where I would put it on the lattice.

Oy! That should put to rest the idea that just intonation is all about consonance! The septimal major second is nastier than anything equal temperament has to offer. I like the word “untempered” for this music because it better captures the wild and wooly nature of JI. “Just Intonation” sounds a bit stuffy to me, and the natural intervals of whole number ratios are anything but academic, they are burned in at a very basic level. Equal temperament is brilliant, but it’s actually the headier and less visceral of the two. IMO.

The next pair is a little further out — each note requires two moves on the lattice.

The ratios are 9/1 and 1/9. I still hear the 2 as stable, though it is less consonant than the previous notes. The b7- is suitably dissonant. It cranks up the tension in dominant-seventh-type chords, the workhorse tension-resolution chords of classical music.

I hear the effect of both tension and resolution diminishing somewhat, as tonal gravity gets weaker farther from the tonic.

These last two videos each contain a minor seventh. One is overtonal, the other reciprocal. The septimal flatted seventh, or harmonic seventh, is a stable, resolved note, the signature of barbershop harmony.

Septimal sevenths abound in this music, and they are sweet and consonant and stable.

The b7-, on the other hand, is dissonant and tense. It makes the ear want to change.

In equal temperament, these two notes are played exactly the same. ET weakens and obscures the difference, but it still can come through because of context.

The common “… and many more” tag, sung at the end of Happy Birthday, is a great example. That last note, “more,” is a harmonic seventh, 7/1, the stable, beautiful barbershop note at 969 cents. If you play “and many more” on a piano, the ear will hear the last note as a septimal seventh, only with less impact, because it is very sharp, at 1000 cents.


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Posted by on Jun 23, 2013 in Equal Temperament, Just Intonation, Septimal Harmony, The Lattice, The Notes |

The Septimal Minor Third

At the very end of the chorusBe Love showcases one of my favorite notes, the 7b3.

Most of the notes of the inner lattice can be approximated on the piano, but not the septimal minor third. It’s in between the keys. Blues pianists can evoke it by trilling between 2 and b3, but only variable-pitch instruments can actually hit the note.

Here it is in context:

It’s fun to sing this part of the song, stretching out that septimal note and tasting its flavor.

The passage illustrates the harmonic function of the note. It’s the septimal flatted seventh of the 4, also called the harmonic seventh or barbershop seventh. This is a beautifully consonant note, a great addition to a major chord. It’s generated by multiplying by seven. I use it here as a harmonic seventh over the IV.

Relative to the 1, the 7b3 is a compound note. To get there, you divide by 3, and then multiply by 7. The ratio is 7/6, octave reduced. The pitch is 267 cents, between the 2 and the b3. Here it is on the scale. The colored notes are in just intonation, the black ones are in equal temperament.

Scale with 7b3

Over a I chord, the 7b3 sounds bluesy, restless, gutsy — it’s the insistent melody note in Taking Care of Business. It’s at the heart of the guitar riff in Dizzy Miss Lizzy (George often bends it up to the major third), it’s Jagger’s haunting first “ooooh” of Gimme Shelter. Gimme Shelter

The Stones’ music is a feast of 7b3’s. So is Led Zeppelin’s. These septimal notes are found everywhere the blues has left its impression.

There’s an old question: why do the minor melody notes of the blues sound good over major chords? The web is full of discussions as to why this is so.

I think it’s because the blue minor third is not the b3, but the 7b3. The regular minor third is a reciprocal third, and harmonically it doesn’t fit with major chords — it’s in a different part of the lattice.

But the 7b3 is an overtonal 7th, built on the 4, generated by multiplication. The major notes are made by multiplying by 5. Times 5 and times 7 go together very well. The harmonic seventh chord is a thing of beauty.

There’s an implication for blues guitar. You can’t play this note in the classic minor pentatonic blues box. You can play a b3 (bend it a little to tune it up), or a 3 (bend it harder), but not a 7b3, it’s flat of the b3, and you can’t bend down.

minor pentatonic

You can play a 7b3 by grabbing the 2, one fret below, and gently bending up to it. The following box works great for septimal notes. They’re all laid out under the ring finger. Bend them by less than a half step.

major pentatonic

This box makes it easy to play the classic bit of melody, 7b3 – 2 – 1. All three songs I linked to earlier have this melody in their bones — BTO, the Stones, the Beatles. It’s everywhere. Here it is in Be Love.



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Posted by on Mar 5, 2013 in Equal Temperament, Just Intonation, The Lattice | 0 comments

Why Equal Temperament?

full lattice all-01The picture to the right shows the lattice of fifths and thirds, a map of untempered harmonic space, extending to infinity. The map shows how to venture farther and farther from home, the tonic, and stay perfectly in tune no matter how far you roam.

Every single note in this infinite matrix is tuned to a different pitch. You can go out to Mars and beyond, and you will never see the same note twice.

In pure vocal music, this is not as hard as it seems. The voices will tune up to each other, and it’s natural to sing the pure intervals. So if the piece makes its way to the far north, by small steps, the voices may be singing something like a #3, #7 and ##5, and it will be a nice pure major chord.

Want to hear this in action? Here’s a video of a piece by Guillaume de Machaut. I find this music exhilarating. Check out the astonishing note at 3:00. It’s not jazz, not classical, not blues, it’s adventurous harmony on the lattice of fifths and thirds.

In the 1300’s, before temperament started taking over in Europe, there was a flourishing of untempered music, both secular and spiritual, called Ars Nova. Machaut was one of the greatest composers of that era. In Harmonic Experience, Mathieu shows a map of a Machaut piece that wanders amazingly far on the lattice, staying in tune all the way.

The only instruments that can really play like this have infinitely variable pitch. Voice is top dog, although the fretless stringed instruments can do it too (standup bass, violin, etc).

vogel2For instruments of fixed pitch, such as pianos, organs, guitars, lutes and accordions, the tuning of the lattice in just intonation is an absolute nightmare. How do you accommodate all those pitches? The keyboard to the right gives it the old college try. (Photo is from a gallery of such keyboards at H-pi Instruments.) Yipe! ltbb_035-44k

Fixed pitch instruments work just fine if you stay in a small part of the lattice, and stay in one key. But after Ars Nova, European composers and listeners got more and more interested in wandering the map, and in changing keys, or modulation. So they started to look for compromise tunings, in which one note could represent several nearby ones, close enough in pitch that the ear would tend to interpret them as the pure note.

For example, there are two major seconds on the inner lattice. In just intonation, the 2 (ratio 9/8) is tuned to 204 cents. The other major second, 2- (ratio 10/9) is tuned to 182 cents. If the major second on your instrument is tuned to, say, 193 cents, it will be right in the middle and you can use it to play both notes, slightly but perhaps acceptably out of tune.

There are many possible ways to “temper” the scale, and each one compromises different notes. Over the next few hundred years after Ars Nova, tunings evolved through a bunch of meantone tunings, which detuned fifths and left thirds quite pure, through well temperament, which spreads out the detuning enough that it becomes possible to play in all keys. During this lattice study I discovered, to my surprise, that Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was not written for equal temperament. In ET, all keys sound exactly the same, but if Bach is played in the original tuning, each key sounds slightly different. Such key coloration was an integral part of the music, and composers took it into account.

Finally, by the last half of the 1700’s, equal temperament had become pretty much standard.

Twelve-tone ET completely flattens out the lattice, so that each block of twelve tones (the different colors in the top picture) is tuned exactly the same. It’s sort of like a map projection, in which the the geography is slightly distorted so that the curved surface of the earth can be represented on a flat page. In ET, the fifths are very much in tune (only off by 2 cents), and both major and minor thirds are considerably compromised (off by 14 and 16 cents respectively, quite audible). The minor seventh (Bb in the key of C) is the farthest off of the ET notes, 18 cents. Click here to hear the JI and ET minor sevenths compared.

This is how the central portion of the lattice looks in equal temperament (in the key of C):

12ET central-01

Whew! Familiar territory. There’s the tonic major chord, C-E-G, and the relative minor, A-C-E, and so on, and it’s easy to see how they relate to each other.

When you start expanding the ET lattice, it’s a simple repeat. Starting with the 10/9 major second:

12ET 2--01

No pesky commas, it’s just another D. Note that a new chord has appeared, the minor chord on the second degree of the scale — D-F-A, called the ii chord and very common in jazz. Here’s the whole lattice, converted to ET.

ET all-01Now the blocks repeat exactly. Think of the lattice as a horizontal surface, extending to the north, south, east and west, and imagine the pitch of the notes as the vertical dimension. The untempered lattice has a tilt to it — up to the east and down to the west, by 22 cents per block, and down to the north, up to the south, by 41 cents per block. The equal tempered version is flat. You can wander at will, and play everything with just 12 pitches.

I oversimplified the ET names in order to show the repetition. For example, in the yellow block just north of the center, Ab really should be G#. In ET, these are exactly the same in pitch, but calling the yellow one G# helps in understanding where it is on the lattice and how it might be used in a composition. The following lattice shows a more informative way to name the ET notes. The pitches of the notes in the blocks are still exactly the same — 100, 200, 300 cents and so on. A C## is just the same as a D, in equal temperament. The same in pitch, but not in function.

ET all real names-01

This lattice explains why classical music has such oddities as double flats, double sharps, and weird notes such as E#. Why not just say F? E# and F are tuned the same, but they are in different places on the lattice, and if you see an E#, you know you’re in the northern zone.

Beethoven, who helped usher in the Romantic period, used equal temperament to roam the lattice like a wild tiger. Some of his music goes so far out on the map that quadruple flats appear. Click here for some crazy Beethoven stuff — the text is pretty dense but just look at the music notation!


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