In Search of the Microtone

Originally Published in 2014 on

The edifice of Western music is built upon order.  Like a stained glass window, the orchestration can be stunning in its vision and precision, clear lines defining the landscapes of harmony.  Composers from Bach to Lennon to Janelle Monae build their empires of sound upon the foundation and rebar we call notes, intervals, scales, modes, and chords.  Harmony stems from geometric balance, every Ra Ra Ah Ah Rama you’ve ever heard unfolding like fractals in the audio field. Yet what is often omitted in Western music, that we might find in, say, a classical North-Indian raga, is the idea of tonal fluidity.  Precise imprecision.  That in between “notes” exist infinitesimal tones offering an expressive power that lies beyond the exactitude of diatonic scales.

These in-between sounds are referred to as microtones.  Today there’s a fascinating array of approaches to exploring microtonal sound.  Non-Western classical music has historically evolved through folk processes rather than pen-and-paper calculations, but harbors a rigor and meticulousness nonetheless.  In the following clip, legendary musician Ravi Shankar offers his perspective on the duality and fluidity of the raga, and, by association, the use of microtones:   

Note the emphasis Shankar places on the “classical” nature of the raga.  The practice is rooted in generations of craft and tradition.  There are seventy-two “modes,” we might relate to scales.  Yet in the nature of the ritual, that these are oral traditions without fixed prescriptions or meanings, we also find fluidity.  The method of expression is performative and improvisational.  As Shankar puts it, the Raga is “rounded,” without corners.  Microtones are used to sand down the edges and dust the performance with emotion, with expression. It’s no coincidence that Shankar struggles to articulate with words a concept he’s been expressing his entire life.  The grain is too fine for words. 

There is, however, an increasingly precise exploration of microtonal process using mathematical and technological paradigms.  A beautifully clear illustration of this approach can be found in the following clip, where a helpful Youtube-er outlays some of the nuances of an H-Pi microtonal midi keyboard, representing recent innovation in music technology: 

This video demonstrates how three miniscule variations on a single note – the C note – form a micro-melody that increasingly reveals itself as it is played, continuously defining its shape.  This is why we hear microtonal music in the context of deep listening: in guided meditations, at the acupuncturist’s office, or in head shops.  Microtonal variations reward the most mindful of listeners the way a Chuck Close painting rewards those who view it closely; the finest details reveal as much as the canvas at large.

As easy as it would be to leave it here, as an East vs. West narrative, the truth is that microtonal expression is almost an inevitability of music making.  Even on the fixity of a fret board, notes are bended, atmospheric shifts affect the accuracy of tunings, and sound waves mash together to make funky, malformed tone-stews.  Nearly every Pop record you listen to will likely present microtonal variations, sometimes even as unintended consequences of the recording process. Alternatively, some artists harness the creative power of today’s tools to produce more complete soundscapes that articulate the architecture and the micro-process all at once.  Two recent releases reveal how today’s artists, whether they realize it or not, trade in the business of the microtone. 

Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal

Parquet Courts is a Brooklyn-via-Texas indie rock four-piece that recalls the adventurous simplicity and weirdness of the Minutemen.  They craft their punk-influenced tunes with the traditional formula: guitars, bass, drums, and vocals.  But if we are going to talk about Parquet Courts, we should start with lead singer Andrew Savage.  This man’s voice is the first thing that stands out to the listener.  The aesthetic is like a depressed Fred Schneider, a dry-heave monotone that follows on a long leash behind the melody carved by bass and guitar.  

Important Question: when he sings, is Savage “off-key?”  More important question: does it even matter a little bit?  What we hear is a performer who locks into the flow of the performance.  He is not overly concerned with the concepts of being “sharp” or “flat,” but rather that his words and his voice fuse into each song.  Each time his voice strains like a Park Slope version of William Hung, we feel it skulking around the chords, not necessarily on top of them.  He is a drunken ballerina, and each footstep shatters into the sound field leaving tiny tone shards behind him.    

Of course, as an indie rock band there are also those guitars, lovely and mangled. Guitar distortion empowers a note to reach both higher and lower frequencies than an otherwise unamplified pluck.  This allows these tiny tones to ricochet and agitate each other on subatomic levels.  They hum in wanton vibration.  The dudes in Parquet Courts are particularly adept at controlling these vibrations – check out the decaying harmonica in “She’s Rolling,” or the lovely feedback that decorates “What Color Is Blood.”  While a sitar or sarangi might attempt to harness the ripples of each microtone so that they flow into one another, Parquet Courts freezes the river and smashes it into icicles.  Microtones again emerge as shattered shards, detritus in the icy wake. 

Hundred Waters – The Moon Rang Like A Bell

Hundred Waters’ new collection, The Moon Rang Like A Bell, is melodic in the familiar sense.  They are an electro-pop four-piece from Gainesville, Florida, whose recent effort recalls the morose splendor of Majical Cloudz’ Impersonator. It is composed around the anchoring power of lead singer Nicole Miglis’ vocal genius, and uses a vast array of electronics to enhance this strategy.  Harmony is a vital component to the record, as is conventional melody.  Yet in the margins of this music we can see microtonal distortions emerge.  Note how the central melodic figure in “Down From The Rafters,” strains with minute distortions and what sounds like a reverse delay.  It shifts and warps with counter-melodic phrases that connote dying violins.  When each note is struck, it doesn’t rest; it shakes and shivers.  Most notably, the song “Broken Blue” uses distorting effects and a pitch bend to achieve a microtonal ripple along the surface of the repeating keyboard melody.  Similar tiny pitch bends can be found in the repeating keyboard phrase encircling “No Sound.”  More than anything else on the album, this effect most clearly evokes that lachrymose feeling of microtonal dressings.  The listener is meant to drift along until the tranquility turns to rapids and then stills itself once more.  All the while our ears are tethered to the ephemeral sweetness of Miglis’ vocal performance, and the floating, drifting sensation remains.  Here these tones tread in pools of reverb, expansive in their decay.  They are at once precise and imprecise. 

As listeners, we might choose to take note of this kind of nuance as part of a mindful, reflective practice that notices, accepts, and experiences.  We might also allow microtonal process to pass by our understanding, simply reveling in the clearly delineated drops, riffs, and hits that Pop music trades in.  What the listener cannot escape is that they are there, that the sound field is infinite and infinitely small.  Any time we make waves in the waters, they ripple in ways that will rest at the edges of our perception.  We might choose to strike a gamelan, find Middle C, or noodle around mixolydian modes.  There are always tones between the tones, moments between the moments, gradients between the smallest blues.