Our Songs Are About to Get a Lot More Notes

If you’ve taken any music lessons at all, you’ll know that we have twelve notes per octave to play with. Apparently, though, we’ve had it wrong for hundreds of years.

A quick bit of music theory. The ancient Greeks understood that there are an infinite number of musical notes–a nice idea in theory but not exactly practical when it came to composing. In order to standardize things, Western music veered toward something called “tempered tuning,” a standardized set of notes–fixed pitches based on hard-and-fast mathematical ratios–which made tuning instruments easier. This led to not only led to a way of writing music down–musical notation–but it allowed for things like symphony orchestras.

It was all very orderly. And it was very, very limiting. Tempered tuning took an infinite number of notes in an octave and reduced them to just twelve.

Well, so what? What human would want to deal with all those extra tones. Very few, actually–but if we’re talking computers, it’s a different story.

Dr. David Ryan, a mathematician and musician from Edinburgh, wants to use technology to tap into “just intonation.” This is a theory of tones that applies math to the way–a science, actually–instruments can be tuned. If you want to get all theoretical about it, JI “ensures that two notes in the same interval share the same harmonic series.” Dr. Ryan says that this removes the artificial restrictions Western music has placed on musical instruments. Programmed properly, a computer can exploit limitless harmonic potentials.

So what does just intonation sound like? Think of bagpipes. They used JI, which explains why they sounds so different. Here’s an example. More of Dr. Ryan’s can be heard here.

In search of the lost chord, indeed.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38156 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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