I keep working my way closer to recording in strict just intonation. Here’s one I did today, of my song Breakup Songs.
The acoustic guitar is in equal temperament, and the bass and vocals are untempered. I love singing harmony when the fretless bass is playing lattice notes. Sometimes I feel like I’m sliding along a groove in the tonal gravity field.
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.
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.
Here’s how that tuning compares with the equal tempered scale:
The black numbers show the pitches of 12-tone equal temperament. They are equally spaced, like inches on a ruler.
The red numbers show the tuning of the untempered major scale. They are spaced in the way they naturally turn out when you generate them with small whole number ratios. As is so often the case with the natural world, they don’t line up too well with the nice human grid lines we love.
The way I see it, when you play in equal temperament, you’re playing the grid lines on the map.
When you sing or play the untempered notes, you are visiting the actual territory.
I’ve read that it’s not possible to combine the two, but I disagree. It’s a matter of showing the ET instrument who’s the boss. My favorite example is Ray Charles. Here’s a video from 1976. He’s playing the piano, laying down those grid lines, and the rest of the band is too, but when he sings, his voice owns the sound, and the sound becomes him. A great, dominant singer will infuse the whole combo with that soul.
Another great example is Ella Fitzgerald. Want some goosebumps? Check this video out.
In harmonic space, the clearest name for each note is its ratio — 5/3, 3/2, 4/3, etc. Precise and unambiguous. But the ratios don’t give a very good idea of how to go about playing or singing those notes.
There are a few instruments, such as the left hand keyboard on the accordion, that are organized for harmonic thinking.
The rows are arranged in fifths, and the first two rows are a major third apart, just like the lattice.
For most music making, though, we need to know the pitch of the note. Instruments and voices tend to live in the world of melodic space — scales and pitches.
Here’s what the simplest, most harmonically consonant major scale looks like on the lattice:
One can convert the ratios to pitches using the formula for cents. The ET values are in parentheses.
1 = 1/1 = 0 cents (0)
2 = 9/8 = 204 (200)
3 = 5/4 = 386 (400)
4 = 4/3 = 498 (500)
5 = 3/2 = 702 (700)
6 = 5/3 = 884 (900)
7 = 15/8 = 1088 (1100)
Note that the 1, 2, 4 and 5 are very close to their ET equivalents. Most ears would be unable to tell the difference.
The third, sixth and seventh, however, are all noticeably flat. Or perhaps I should say their ET namesakes are noticeably sharp.
I think this explains a lot about rock music, which depends heavily on power chords (roots and fifths with no thirds) and 1-4-5 chord progressions. The notes of a 1-4-5 power chord progression are 1, 4, 5 and 2!
As Eddie Van Halen said in his terrific Guitar Magazine interview, “Really, the best songs are still based on I-IV-V, which is so pleasing to the ear. Billy Gibbons [of ZZ Top] calls me now and then, and he always asks, ‘Eddie, have you found that fourth chord yet?’ [Laughs].”
Of course the I-IV-V is inherently satisfying, it’s that great rocking chair between reciprocal and overtonal territory, in the most consonant part of the lattice, as close to the tonic as you can get (harmonically).
But I think the special appeal for rock music is that, in ET (and guitar is essentially an equal-tempered instrument), the 1, 4 and 5, and also the fifth of the 5 (the 2) are all in tune. Whatever one might think of ZZ Top’s simplicity (and some do scoff), it’s undeniable that they are fiercely in tune, and harmonically their music strikes a deep chord in the psyche, pun intended.
If the bass and rhythm guitar stick to those roots and fifths, the voices and lead guitar can play all the other notes, because they can be bent and wiggled until they sound right.
This works just as well in traditional country music. Let the bass player nail down those roots and fifths, and the voices (and the fiddle) can sing in-tune harmonies as sweet as you please.
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.”