Microtonality: What Is It In Music?

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 26, 2022

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Microtonality is a term commonly used to describe music composed using intervals smaller than the traditional western semitone.

It attempts to break away from traditional music structure, focusing instead on unique intervals, thus creating more varied and expressive subjective soundscapes.

Microtonal music has seen a surge in popularity over the last decade as composers increasingly explore new methods of expression through their music.

What is microtonality

It is most often found in electronic and electronic-based genres such as EDM, but it also finds its way into pop, jazz and classical styles among others.

Microtonality expands the range of instruments and sounds used in composition, making it possible to create entirely unique sonic soundfields that can only be heard through the use of microtones.

In addition to its creative applications, microtonal music also serves an analytical purpose – enabling musicians to study or analyze unusual tuning systems and scales with greater accuracy than could be achieved with ‘traditional’ equal temperament tuning (using semitones).

This allows for closer examination of harmonic frequency relationships between notes.

Definition of Microtonality

Microtonality is a term used in music theory to describe music with intervals of less than a semitone. It is the terms used for intervals smaller than the half step of Western music. Microtonality is not limited to Western music and can be found in the music of many cultures around the world. Let’s explore what this concept means in music theory and composition.

What is a microtone?

A microtone is a unit of measure used in music to describe a pitch or tone that falls between the tones of Western traditional 12-tone tuning. Often referred to as “microtonal,” this organization is used extensively in classical and world music and is growing in popularity among composers and listeners alike.

Microtones are useful for creating unusual textures and unexpected harmonic variations within a given tonal system. Whereas traditional 12-tone tuning divides an octave into twelve semitones, microtonality utilizes intervals much finer than those found in classical music, such as quartertones, thirds of tones, and even smaller divisions known as “ultrapolyphonic” intervals. These very small units can often provide a unique sound which may be difficult to distinguish when listened to by the human ear or which can create entirely new musical combinations that have never before been explored.

The use of microtones allows performers and listeners to interact with musical material on a very basic level, often allowing them to hear subtle nuances that they would not have been able to hear before. These nuanced interactions are essential for exploring complex harmonic relationships, creating unique sounds not possible with conventional instruments such as pianos or guitars, or discovering entirely new worlds of intensity and expression through listening.

How is microtonality different from traditional music?

Microtonality is a musical technique that allows notes to be divided into smaller units than the intervals used in traditional Western music, which are based on half and whole steps. It employs intervals much narrower than those of classical tonality, subdividing the octave into as many as 250 or more tones. Rather than relying on the major and minor scale found in traditional music, microtonal music creates its own scales using these smaller divisions.

Microtonal music often creates unexpected dissonances (sharply contrasted combinations of two or more pitches) that focus attention in ways that would not be obtainable with traditional scales. In traditional harmony, clusters of notes beyond four tend to produce uncomfortable feeling due to their clash and instability. In contrast, the dissonances created by microtonal harmony can sound very pleasing depending on how they are used. This distinctiveness can give an elaborate texture, depth and complexity to a piece of music which allows for creative expression and exploration through different sound combinations.

In microtonal music there is also an opportunity for certain composers to incorporate their cultural heritage into their compositions by drawing from non-Western classical music traditions such as North Indian ragas or African scales where quarter tones or even finer divisions are employed. Microtonal musicians have adopted some elements from these forms while making them contemporary by combining them with elements from Western musical styles, ushering in an exciting new era of musical exploration!

History of Microtonality

Microtonality has a long, rich history in music stretching back to the earliest musical traditions and cultures. Microtonal composers, such as Harry Partch and Alois Hába, have been writing microtonal music since the early 20th century, and microtonal instruments have been around even longer. While microtonality is often associated with modern music, it has influences from cultures and practices around the world. In this section, we will explore the history of microtonality.

Ancient and early music

Microtonality — the use of intervals less than a half step — has a long and rich history. Ancient Greek music theorist Pythagoras discovered the equation of musical intervals to numerical ratios, paving the way for music theorists such as Eratosthenes, Aristoxenus and Ptolemy to develop their theories of musical tuning. The introduction of keyboard instruments in the 17th century created new possibilities for microtonal exploration, making it much easier to experiment with ratios beyond those of traditional tempered tunings.

By the 19th century, an understanding had been reached which included microtonal sensibility. Developments such as ratiomorphic circulation in France (d’Indy and Debussy) saw further experiments in microtonal composition and tuning systems. In Russia Arnold Schönberg explored quarter-tone scales and a number of Russian composers explored free harmonics under Alexander Scriabin’s influence. This was followed in Germany by composer Alois Hába who developed his system based on quarter tones but still adhering to traditional harmonic principles. Later on, Partch developed his own just intonation tuning system which is still popular today among some enthusiasts (for example Richard Coulter).

The 20th century saw a great upsurge in microtonal composition in many genres including classical, jazz, modern avant-garde and minimalism. Terry Riley was one early proponent of minimalism and La Monte Young used extended overtones included harmonics occurring between notes to create soundscapes that entranced audiences using nothing but sine wave generators and drones. Early instruments such as quartetto d’accordi were built specifically for these purposes with services from unorthodox makers or custom built by students trying something new. More recently computers have allowed even greater access to microtonal experimentation with novel controllers being designed specifically for this purpose while software packages enable composers to more easily explore infinite possibilities available within microtonality experimental music creation earlier performers would have shied away from controlling manually due to sheer numbers involved or physical limitations limiting what they could control melodically at any one point in time.

20th century microtonal music

During the twentieth century, modernist composers began to experiment with microtonal combinations, using them to break away from traditional tonal forms and challenge our ears. Following a period of research into tuning systems and exploring quarter-tone, fifth-tone and other microtonal harmonies, in the mid-20th century we find the emergence of pioneers in microtonality such as Charles Ives, Charles Seeger and George Crumb.

Charles Seeger was a musicologist who championed for integrated tonality – a system in which all twelve notes are tuned evenly and have equal importance in musical composition and performance. Seeger also suggested that intervals like fifths should be divided into 3rds or 7ths instead of being harmonically reinforced by an octave or perfect fourth.

In the late 1950s, French music theorist Abraham Moles devised what he termed ‘ultraphonics’ or ‘chromatophony’, where a 24-note scale is divided into two groups of twelve notes within an octave rather than a single chromatic scale. This allowed for simultaneous dissonances such as tritones or augmented fourths which can be heard on albums like Pierre Boulez’s Third Piano Sonata or Roger Reynolds’ Four Fantasies (1966).

More recently, other composers such as Julian Anderson have also explored this world of new timbres made possible by microtonal writing. In modern classical music microtones are used to create tension and ambivalence through subtle but beautiful sounding dissonances that just about evade our human hearing capabilities.

Examples of Microtonal Music

Microtonality is a type of music in which the intervals between notes are divided into smaller increments than in traditional tuning systems such as the twelve-tone equal temperament. This allows for unusual and interesting musical textures to be created. Examples of microtonal music span a variety of genres, from classical to experimental and beyond. Let’s explore a few of them.

Harry Partch

Harry Partch is one of the most well-known pioneers in the world of microtonal music. American composer, theorist and instrument builder Partch has been largely credited for the creation and development of the genre.

Partch was known for creating or inspiring an entire family of microtonal instruments including the Adapted Violin, adapted viola, Chromelodeon (1973), Harmonic Canon I, Cloud Chamber Bowls, Marimba Eroica, and Diamond Marimba– among others. He called his entire family of instruments ‘corporeal’ instruments– that is to say that he designed them with specific sonic characteristics in order to bring out specific sounds that he wanted to express in his music.

The repertoire by Partch includes a few seminal works – The Bewitched (1948-9), Oedipus (1954) and And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma (1959). In these works Partch blended just intonation tuning system which was built by Partech with percussive playing styles and interesting concepts like spoken words. His style is unique as it amalgamates melodic passages as well as avant-garde techniques with musical worlds beyond Western Europe’s tonal boundaries

Partch’s important contributions towards microtonality still continue to be influential today because he gave composers a way to explore tunings beyond those used in conventional Western tonalities. He created something truly original with his amalgamation of various strands from other musical cultures across the world – notably Japanese and English folk tunes – via his corporate style which includes drumming on metal bowls or woodblocks and singing into bottles or vases. Harry Partch stands out as an extraordinary example of a composer who experimented with thrilling approaches to creating microtonal music!

Lou Harrison

Lou Harrison was an American composer who wrote extensively in microtonal music, often referred to as the “American master of microtones”. He explored multiple tuning systems, including his own just intonation system.

His piece “La Koro Sutro” is a great example of microtonal music, using a non-standard scale made up of 11 notes per octave. The structure of this piece is based on Chinese opera and includes the use of nontraditional sounds such as singing bowls and Asian string instruments.

Other pieces by Harrison that exemplify his prolific work in microtonality include “A Mass for Peace,” “The Grand Duo,” and “Four Strict Songs Rambling.” He even delved into free jazz, such as his 1968 piece “Future Music from Maine.” As with some of his earlier works, this piece relies on just intonation tuning systems for its pitches. In this case, the pitch intervals are based on what is known as a harmonic series system — a common just intonation technique for generating harmony.

Harrison’s microtonal works demonstrate beautiful complexity and serve as benchmarks for those searching for interesting ways to expand traditional tonality in their own compositions.

Ben Johnston

American composer Ben Johnston is considered one of the most prominent composers in the world of microtonal music. His works include Variations for orchestra, String Quartets 3-5, his magnum opus Sonata for Microtonal Piano and several other notable works. In these pieces, he often employs alternative tuning systems or microtones, which allow him to explore further harmonic possibilities that are not possible with traditional twelve tone equal temperament.

Johnston developed what is called the extended just intonation, in which each interval is composed from a number of different sounds within a range of two octaves. He wrote pieces across virtually all musical genres – from opera to chamber music and computer-generated works. His pioneering works set the scene for a new age in terms of microtonal music. He achieved significant recognition among musicians and academicians, winning himself numerous awards throughout his successful career.

How to Use Microtonality in Music

Using microtonality in music can open up a whole new set of possibilities for creating unique, interesting music. Microtonality allows for the use of intervals and chords that are not found in traditional Western music, allowing for musical exploration and experimentation. This article will go over what microtonality is, how it is used in music, and how to incorporate it into your own compositions.

Choose a tuning system

Before you can use microtonality in music, you need to choose a tuning system. There are many tuning systems out there and each one is suitable for different kinds of music. Common tuning systems include:

-Just Intonation: Just intonation is a method of tuning notes to pure intervals that sound very pleasant and natural. It is based on perfect mathematical ratios and uses only pure intervals (such as whole tones, fifths, etc). It is often used in classical and ethnomusicology music.

-Equal Temperament: Equal temperament divides the octave into twelve equal intervals in order to create a consistent sound across all keys. This is the most common system used today by Western musicians as it lends itself well to melodies that modulate frequently or move between different tonalities.

-Meantone Temperament: Meantone temperament divides the octave into five unequal parts in order to ensure just intonation for key intervals—making certain notes or scales more consonant than others—and may be particularly useful for musicians specializing in Renaissance music, Baroque music, or some forms of folk music.

-Harmonic Temperament: This system differs from equal temperament by introducing slight variations in order to produce a warmer, more natural sound that does not fatigue listeners over long periods of time. It is often used for improvisational jazz and world music genres as well as classical organ compositions written during the baroque period.

Understanding which system best suits your needs will help you make informed decisions when creating your microtonal pieces and will also illuminate certain compositional options you have available when writing your pieces.

Choose a microtonal instrument

Using microtonality in music starts with the choice of instrument. Many instruments, such as pianos and guitars, are designed for equal-tempered tuning — a system that structures intervals using the octave key of 2:1. In this tuning system, all notes are divided into 12 equal intervals, called semitones.

An instrument designed for equal-tempered tuning is limited to playing in a tonal system with only 12 distinct pitches per octave. To produce more precise tonal colors between those 12 pitches, you need to use an instrument designed for microtonality. These instruments are capable of producing more than 12 distinct tones per octave using various different methods — some typical microtonal instruments include fretless stringed instruments like electric guitar, bowed strings like violin and viola, woodwinds and certain keyboards (such as flexatones).

The best choice of instrument will depend on your style and sound preferences — some musicians prefer to work with traditional classical or folk instruments while others experiment with electronic collaborations or found objects such as recycled pipes or bottles. Once you have chosen your instrument it’s time to explore the world of microtonality!

Practice microtonal improvisation

When beginning to work with microtones, systematically practicing microtonal improvisation can be a great starting point. As with any improvisation practice, it’s important to keep track of what you’re playing and analyze your progress.

During the practice of microtonal improvisation, strive to become familiar with your instruments’ capabilities and develop a way of playing that reflects your own musical and compositional aims. You should also take note of any patterns or motifs that emerge while improvising. It is incredibly valuable to reflect on what seemed to work well during an improvised passage, as these sorts of traits or figures can be incorporated into your compositions lateron.

Improvisation is particularly useful for developing fluency in the use of microtones as any technical issues you come across in the improvisational process can be addressed later during compositional phases. Projecting ahead in terms of technique and creative goals gives you more creative freedom for when something doesn’t work out quite as planned! Microtonal improvisations can also have strong foundations in musical tradition – consider exploring non-western musical systems deeply rooted in various microtonal practices such as those found amongst Bedouin tribes from North Africa, among many others!


In conclusion, microtonality is a relatively new yet significant form of musical composition and performance. This form of composition involves manipulating the number of tones available within an octave in order to create unique as well as new sounds and moods. Although microtonality has been around for centuries it has become increasingly more popular over the last couple of decades. It has not only allowed for greater musical creation but also allowed certain composers to express ideas that would have been impossible before. As with any type of music, the creativity and knowledge from an artist will be paramount in ensuring that microtonal music reaches its full potential.

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

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