Mictrotone Phenomenon


Photo by Michael Preston

Written by Michael Preston, The Woodgrove Outlander

What exactly is music? There are an infinite number of factors that can affect one person’s answer to this question, but one of the biggest factors isn’t one that comes to mind immediately: geography.

In the Western world, we have a tendency to classify music as anything that utilizes a semitone scale. These semitones are the notes ( C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G# – A – A# – B ) that occur in every song from country to pop music. The Western semitone scale is comprised of 12 notes, all of which are separated by 100 cents. A cent is defined by Wikipedia.com as, “a logarithmic unit of measure used for musical intervals.” In layman’s terms, this means cents are the range of pitch between each note in any scale. In the Western semitone scale, this distance of 100 cents is called a half-step. In summation, the Western semitone scale embodies an octave scale of 12 notes with a total of 12 half-steps, or, technically speaking, 1200 cents. In the Western world, we are used to hearing music that is written utilizing the semitone scale, but it is not this way in every part of the world.

In the Eastern world, scales are subsumed by something partly forgotten in the Western world: microtones. These scales vary widely by geography. They can be constructed of any number of cents greater than 10 and less than 400. This is because the human ear cannot perceive tonal changes that are less than 10 cents, so a scale with divisions of less than 10 cents would be pointless. In addition, assuming it is a 12 note scale, a scale greater than 400 tones would not work because there would too few notes to form chords. Some Eastern cultures operate off of a 50 cent scale, while others such as South Asia have a chromatic scale separated by 22 cents each. Although there are a wide variety of possibilities, Eastern scales are typically made up of more rather than less notes than the Western semitone scale. These extra notes, since they are almost never heard in Western music, are perceived as dissonant or random by most Western listeners. Despite this, some people aren’t turned away from it.

In jazz music, specifically big band and swing jazz, microtones occur all the time. This is because the standup bass, which is often played in big band jazz, has no frets. Because there are no frets, the bassist can play microtones in between the notes typically fretted on an electric bass. In recent years, this fretless concept has been heavily applied to electric guitars as well. Some metal bands use fretless guitars to achieve certain dramatic sounds and unique effects, but for the most part the use of microtones has been long forgotten in Western music.

Ever since the plunge in popularity of jazz music in America, microtones almost never appear in the top 40s music chart. During the reign of jazz and swing in the 1920s, microtones were in full swing. As the bassist played with the band, they would occasionally, whether they knew it or not, hit microtones. Although it may not have been intentional, microtones were prominent during the reign of jazz. In the Eastern world, microtones are still going strong, but the Western world is a different story. Only time can tell if microtones will ever be at the vanguard of Western music like they once were.