It’s Just Intonation, but I Like It

In 1722, Bach published ‘The Well Tempered Clavier’. It became a famous and seminal work featuring preludes and fugues in all the 24 major and minor keys. That is, ‘all’, if you consider the twelve tone equal tempered scale to be the beginning and end of music as we know it. As much of a musical genius as Bach was, he didn’t invent the twelve tone equal tempered scale, but his work impacted massively on the system being widely adopted as the standard throughout Europe and over the next three hundred years it became the totally dominant harmonic form in Western music, almost obliterating other musical theories and harmonies. The great composers from Mozart to Wagner all agreed with him. But it wasn’t quite the be all and end all that it seemed.
The ancient Greeks employed a wider range of notes, including quarter tones not used in ‘the well tempered canon’ which allowed for a much larger spectrum of scales and did not seek to limit the harmonic vocabulary to only that which fell easily on to the ear. Whereas the equal tempered scales tended to sound either joyful (major scale) or melancholic (minor scale) the ancient Greeks had a much broader palette to work with adding harsh (Dorian scale), sensuous (Phrygian scale) and many more.
In the far flung corners of the world in some folk traditions, non European scales were played enthusiastically by many generations of local musicians, but in the main, by the beginning of the 20th Century, unequally tempered scales, based on harmonic principles, had been almost buried under the weight of European ‘high taste’. The old system of tuning, called ‘just intonation’, survived due to the perseverance of several composers, musicians and their supporters.
In 1912, Schoenberg included in his piece ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ the idea of ‘sprechstimme’ (literally speaking-voice) a way of singing that mirrored the rise and fall of natural speech patterns which would normally be well outside the limitations of twelve tone scales. Microtonal music became necessary to express this. The genius composer Harry Partch believed that music as an expressive force had been hijacked for three hundred years by twelve tone monopoly and he reinvented a whole musical system based on a 43 note octave and built an entire orchestra of instruments to play his compositions. He also was a fan of the ancient Greek enharmonic scale. Just Intonation was explored fully by forward (and backward) looking composers of the 1960s and 70s. Elodie Lauten, Terry Riley and particularly Lamonte Young.
Mainstream music is still almost exclusively equal tempered and when we hear ‘just intonation’ it can sound alien or aesthetically difficult to the ear. But I like it.


About makmedthemiller

multidiscipline artist
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