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Posted by on Jul 22, 2013 in Consonance, Just Intonation, The Lattice, The Notes, Tonal Gravity | 0 comments

Consonance and Dissonance

I just passed the 10,000 photo mark on the stop motion animations, good thing I’m not hand-drawing them like Winsor McCay!

The one I’m working on, Real Girl, has a lot of dissonant notes in it. The melody ranges far from the roots and makes some slightly dizzying harmonic jumps. I want to use it as a framework for discussing consonance and dissonance. While it’s in progress, I want to lay down some groundwork.

The Wikipedia article Consonance and Dissonance is really thorough. Here’s a quote from the introduction:

In music, a consonance (Latin con-, “with” + sonare, “to sound”) is a harmonychord, or interval considered stable (at rest), as opposed to a dissonance (Latin dis-, “apart” + sonare, “to sound”), which is considered unstable (or temporary, transitional). In more general usage, a consonance is a combination of notes that sound pleasant to most people when played at the same time; dissonance is a combination of notes that sound harsh or unpleasant to most people.

This definition has two distinct concepts in it — the “stability” of a harmony, and whether the notes sound pleasant or unpleasant together. I used to think of consonance/dissonance as a linear spectrum, with consonant notes at one end and dissonant ones at the other.

After working with the lattice, and reading Mathieu, I now see consonance as having two distinct components, that do not necessarily track together:

  1. How the notes sound together, away from any musical context. The range would be from smooth and harmonious to rough and grating.
  2. The stability of the interval. Does it create a sensation of rest, or does it feel restless, ready to move?

I propose that these two qualities can be directly seen on the lattice as follows:

  1. The way the notes will sound when simply played together is a function of the distance between the notes in harmonic space (how far apart they are on the lattice). The farther apart the two notes are, the less harmonious they will sound when played together.
  2. The stability of the interval is a function of the direction of the interval on the lattice (whether it’s generated by multiplying, dividing, or a combination of the two). Intervals generated by multiplying (moving to the East and North on the lattice) are restful, those generated by dividing (moving West and South) are unstable and restless.

The interval quality is also powerfully affected by which primes (3, 5, 7) are used to generate the interval, but I hear this as a sort of flavor or color, rather than as consonance per se.

The first component, the sound of the notes simply played together, is a property of the interaction of those frequencies in the ear. It isn’t dependent on the musical context in which it appears.

The sense of stability or instability, on the other hand, depends entirely on context. This sensation comes from the direction of the interval, which implies that the interval must start somewhere (the tonic or root) and end somewhere (the harmony note), so as to have a direction. One note is home base, the other is an excursion from that base.

Here a couple of examples to show the difference.

The perfect fifth is the most consonant interval on the lattice that actually involves a distance. (Octaves and unisons are more consonant, but on the lattice, they cover no distance at all — multiplying the frequency of a note by 1 gives a unison, which is of course the same note, and multiplying or dividing by two gives an octave, which, by a miraculous quirk of human perception, also sounds like the same note, harmonically.)

To make a fifth, you multiply by 3. You can then then multiply or divide by 2 at will, (which doesn’t add any distance) to put it in the octave you desire. The frequencies of the two notes in this video are related by a ratio of 3:2. There is no context, just the two notes sounding together.

This is clearly a consonant interval. There is a smoothness, a harmoniousness to the sound that I imagine would be perceived as such by anyone in the world. Two notes in a ratio of 3:2 will sound like that no matter what the context.

So how do stability and instability enter in? It happens when there is a reference note, which can be the tonic (the main key center around which everything is arranged), a root (a local tonal center that changes from chord to chord), or even a bass note, which, if it is not the root of the chord, shifts the harmonic feel of the chord.

The music in this next video establishes that the tonal center is the 1, and then introduces the 1-5 interval.

The interval sounds stable; the ear does not crave a change. There is resolution.

In the next video, the music establishes a new tonal center in the ear. Now it sounds like the 5 is home. Listen to what happens when I introduce the very same 1-5 interval:

The interval is exactly the same, and the effect is quite different. There is tension. Something’s gotta move!

I can make this point more clearly by resolving the tension. Hear the unfinished quality, and how it resolves?


In the first video, home base is the 1, and the 5 is an overtonal note — that is, it is generated by multiplying the home note by 3. It sounds restful and stable.

In the second video, the tonal center is the 5, and the 1 is reciprocal, that is, it is generated by dividing by 3.

So the same exact interval can be stable or unstable according to harmonic context, even though the “degree of roughness” is the same. That’s why I think Wikipedia’s two-part definition is referring to two different things, which should be thought of separately.

Next: Consonance Experiment

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Posted by on Jun 19, 2013 in Consonance, Just Intonation, Resonance, The Lattice, The Notes |

The Compass Points

There are two basic directions on the lattice: multiplication and division.

If I start with a note, and then multiply it by 3, or 5, or 7, I will get a harmony note with overtonal energy. Such a note is in the natural overtone series of the original note.

Overtonal energy is stable, restful, it belongs where it is and wouldn’t mind staying there.

If I divide by 3, 5 or 7, I get a completely different kind of note. I call this division energy “reciprocal,” after W.A. Mathieu’s suggestion in his amazing book Harmonic Experience.

Reciprocal energy is restless, unstable. The note wants to move, or for the music to come to it, until it is overtonal.

On the lattice of fifths and thirds, there are two axes, fifths and thirds, and two directions, overtonal and reciprocal.

This makes four total directions one can move on this lattice. Each direction has own characteristic flavor, or energy. I use the following names for these energies, mostly after Mathieu.

  • Dominant = East = Overtonal fifths
  • Subdominant = West = Reciprocal fifths
  • Major = North = Overtonal thirds
  • Minor = South = Reciprocal thirds

Compass Points

Every interval has its own unique recipe of moves in these four directions. The perfect fifth has pure dominant energy, the major third pure major. The minor third, b3 on the lattice, is a compound note — dominant and minor.

It’s interesting to look at the minor third (b3) from the viewpoint of tonal gravity. On the horizontal axis, dominant/subdominant, the b3 is overtonal, stable, restful. On the vertical axis, major/minor, the note is reciprocal, unstable, restless.

Tonal gravity is stronger the closer you are to the center. To make a minor third, you multiply by 3 (an overtonal jump of a fifth), and divide by 5 (a reciprocal jump of a third). I know, 3 generates fifths and 5 generates thirds, a confusing coincidence.

Fifths are closer to the center, harmonically, than thirds are, so the overtonal energy is stronger than the reciprocal.

This makes the minor third a stable note, although less stable than the major third. Songs can end on a tonic minor chord and they will still sound finished.

Next: Leading the Ear

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Posted by on Mar 6, 2013 in Just Intonation, The Lattice, The Notes | 0 comments

Rosetta Stone

Almost all Western music, including my own, lives in the world of tonal harmony. This means:

  • There can be, and usually are, multiple notes playing at the same time.
  • There is a key center, or tonic, around which the notes are arranged. The tonic doesn’t always sound — it’s an intangible presence, the home from which you leave on your harmonic journey, and to which you will hopefully return.

The multiple notes can have different functions:

  • Roots are the fundamental notes of chords. A G chord has its root on G. Roots are local centers that move the ear around the lattice as they change.
  • Harmonies flesh out the chord. In a G major chord, the harmony notes are B and D. They stake out more lattice territory and add definition to the chord. Is it a G major, minor, seventh? The harmonies establish this.
  • Melodies dance in the harmonic field set up by the tonic, roots and harmonies. They have more freedom than the others. Melodies travel fast and light, and though they can sing the same notes as the others, they can also travel farther afield, further embellishing the chord, or leading the ear toward the next chord in the progression, or lingering on the last one after it has changed.

All this action is happening in two musical spaces at once.


Melodic space is the world of scales. It’s organized in order of pitch. The piano keyboard is a perfect representation of melodic space.

full lattice all-01

Harmonic space is the world of ratios. Multiply a note by a small whole number ratio, and you have moved a small distance in harmonic space. Multiply by large numbers, and you have moved a large distance. The lattice is a map of harmonic space.

The two worlds are not the same. Often, they are opposites. The perfect fifth is a small move harmonically but it’s a mile in the melody — bass singers have to jump all over the place in pitch. Small melodic moves tend to be big harmonic ones. A chromatic half step, the distance between the 3 and b3, is only 70 cents, less than the distance between neighboring keys on the piano. But on the lattice, it’s a long haul — down a third, down another third, and up a fifth.

Writing and arranging a song is sort of like designing (rather than solving) a crossword puzzle. There are two intersecting, independent universes, Up and Down. To design the puzzle, you work back and forth between the two, massaging them until they don’t conflict, and each one makes sense on its own.

All of the notes live in both harmonic and melodic space. They may have a foot in one more than the other — the roots tend to move small distances on the lattice, the melodies usually move small distances in pitch, and the harmonies tend to bridge the two, moving melodically while staking out the form of the music on the lattice. But every note moves in both spaces, all the time.

Rosetta_stone_(photo)A great advantage of the lattice is that it serves as a sort of Rosetta Stone, a bridge or translator between the two worlds.

The Rosetta Stone was carved in 196 BC and rediscovered in 1799. It immediately became famous because it repeats the same text three times, in three different languages. It was the key that allowed scholars to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The lattice bridges the two musical spaces by means of the patterns it presents to the eye.

When two or more notes are plotted on the lattice, they will form a particular visual pattern. Any time you see this pattern, no matter where on the lattice it is, the relationship between the notes of the pattern will be exactly the same, in both harmonic and melodic space.

3-01For example, this pattern shows an interval of a major third. The ratio of the frequencies of these two notes is 5/4 (or 5/2, or 5/1 — twos don’t count, they just shift the note by an octave). Any time you see two notes in this formation, no matter where they are, you know they have the following relationship to each other:

  • Harmonic space: When the notes are sounded simultaneously, they will have the characteristic sound of a pure major third.
  • Melodic space: When you move from one note to the other, you are traveling a distance of 386 cents, or about four semitones on the piano.

Getting familiar with these patterns, and learning to recognize them wherever they are, has made it easier for me to think in harmonic and melodic space at the same time, which makes writing and arranging music much easier.

Next: Tonal Gravity

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Posted by on Feb 12, 2013 in Just Intonation, Resonance | 0 comments


I recently read Mickey Hart’s beautiful book, Drumming at the Edge of Magic. Hart is best known as one of the two drummers of the Grateful Dead. His book tells the story of his lifelong fascination with percussion, and of his investigations into the ancient connection between rhythm and the human spirit.

Toward the end of the book, Hart introduced a concept that was new to me — entrainment.

It seems that if two vibrating systems are allowed to interact, and if their frequencies are already somewhat close to each other, they will become synchronized. The faster one slows down, and the slow one speeds up. Here’s a demonstration:

One of the greatest joys in my life is making music with other people. It’s great to play solo, but something different happens when two or more people make music together. I think a part of the reason is that the musicians, and often the audience, entrain with each other. They each keep their own time, and it won’t be identical at first. But as they listen to each other, and feel the common rhythms, their grooves start to adjust until they are literally on the same wavelength, and something happens inside them, one of the flavors of ecstasy. It is a bonding experience, and I feel a different connection with anyone I’ve entrained with in this way.

The beauty of this is that it’s a physical principle, which means it’s not something you have to “try” to do. Just relax and pay attention to what the other band members are doing, and if you are in the same room and have a chance to influence each other, the laws of nature will pull you toward entrainment. Do it long enough and everyone involved, including the listeners, is likely to experience a trance state. Hart should know, the Dead accomplished this thousands of times over their long career.

800px-Seattle_Center_-_Kobe_Bell_02AIn his book, Mickey Hart talked about entrainment in the context of rhythm. But I immediately connected it with harmony. I sang Christmas carols professionally for years, with the Dickens Carolers quartets in Seattle. When all four voices blend perfectly, there is a delicious sensation of being a single voice. Once, four of us were walking back to the car from a show, and we ran across the Kobe Bell, a landmark feature of Seattle Center. We all stood with our heads up inside the bell, found a key that resonated with it, and sang O Holy Night. It was one of the peak experiences of my life. The bonding that occurred was almost frightening.

I think that singing harmony is like dancing together, only very fast.

Next: Resonance

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Posted by on Jan 29, 2013 in Background, Just Intonation | 0 comments

“Untempered” vs. “Just Intonation”

Even though I love just intonation, I have a couple of problems with the term itself.

One is grammatical. It’s a noun, and sometimes I want an adjective, as in “the just intonation version compared with the equal tempered version.” Kind of awkward. How else would you say this? “Justly intonated”? “The version in just intonation”? I haven’t found a construction that satisfies me.

The other reason is cultural. If you search “just intonation,” and start reading, you will get the distinct impression that just intonation is something avant-garde, esoteric, on the fringes. It’s as though equal temperament is the basic system of music, and just intonation is a modification of it. The word “microtonal” has similar connotations.

In fact, equal temperament is the newcomer, a development of a few hundred years ago that facilitated the flowering of a particular kind of music in Europe, and has spread, I think, because it makes so many things so much easier.

Equal temperament is built upon just intonation, not the other way around. If I put my music in the “just intonation” or “microtonal” category, I’m in great company — Harry Partch, Ben Johnston, Kyle Gann. These composers are exploring the edges of just intonation, picking up the trails that were abandoned when such music as Ars Nova was superseded by the slow growth to dominance of tempered scales. Ars Nova is amazing music, terribly neglected now. I like it better than either earlier or later European music — some of it sounds like jazz or bluegrass. Check out this exquisite piece by the group Ensemble PAN, performing some of the last of such music, from early 15th century Cyprus.

I’m not a classical composer, I’m a folk-pop singer-songwriter. I’m interested in such things as modulation, and exploring the edges (especially the world of the prime number 7). But my interest in JI comes from wanting to play music that is more accessible by virtue of being in tune, and thus having a more direct route to the heart and soul. My interest is in communication, and in musical joy. Untempered music simply speaks more directly to my heart.

Think of Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon’s Graceland album. I get goosebumps even listening on these tiny computer speakers. Untempered music is not avant-garde at all. It’s the ancient miracle of resonance and joy that happens when we hear in-tune harmony.

Of course I still need a noun, and I’ll continue to use “just intonation” when it’s the word that works. But I have my adjective. I’m calling my music “untempered music.”

Next: The Untempered Major Scale

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