“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are exploring the edges of just intonation, picking up the trails that were abandoned when such music as Ars Nova was superseded by the slow growth to dominance of tempered scales.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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