Language, Tonality, and the Grammar of Western Music

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“Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
– Genesis 11:7

Part 1: Music and Language

Music_and_Language_brain_areas_compare_and_contrast

 

Over the past five years, I’ve been exploring (slowly) the world of music that exists outside of conventional Western tonality – which is to say: music not tuned to a piano. Most all of the music we hear and listen to (with a few exceptions) is tuned in 12-tone equal temperament (hereafter referred to as 12-ET). 12-ET is, simply put, the notes on the piano. C, C#/Db, D, D#/Db, et cetera (click here for a detailed explanation of 12-tone equal temperament). Most conventional instruments are fretted in this tuning, and even fretless instruments are rarely used to play something other than 12-ET.

As lifelong listeners of music, we know on an implicit level, before the first listen, what an album will sound like. I’m not speaking of our assumptions about instrumentation, arrangements, or melodies and harmonies in any given genre. I’m speaking directly of the one implicit assumption we all have when we approach new music: tonality. We take 12-ET for granted, never considering that music could be written using a completely different tonal base.

We do this because we are exposed only to music written in 12-ET from a young age. During the critical, formative periods of our young years, we exclusively experience music written in conventional 12-ET tuning. As we progress in our musical experience, we often look for new, challenging sounds (especially we in the metal community); but what we do not always look for, and indeed, something we may not even consider, is to change the basic framework of Western music. We approach new music with the same presuppositions we approach reading new concepts or writing using more complex language; that is, from an English standpoint.

Let’s explore further the similarity between our understanding of music and our understanding of language: we are exposed to language very early on in our lives, and it continues to be a subject of speculation how young children acquire language as quickly as they do. What we do know for certain is that children exposed to language are able to learn it, and eventually speak in complex sentences, conveying the meaning in their thoughts to other people in their social circles. Initially, we give this acquisition of knowledge little thought; it’s only later in life that we start giving grammar lessons, or spelling bees, to ensure our children’s understanding of language is of a high enough calibre to be able to communicate effectively in reading, writing, and speaking.

How often have we remarked “she is out of tune” or “he can’t carry a tune”? We recognize tonality as though it were a language, a common ground of comprehension, and interact with music based on that implicit assumption. 12-ET is our first music language, and to break from its mold when challenged with an alternate musical language is difficult – more difficult, in ways, to learn a second language, since encountering a different language is more common in life than encountering an alternate tonality.

Tonality is our way of understanding music — it is essentially our grammar. It is the framework, the rule, through which a wide variety of statements can be made. When we encounter a new tonality, we are as lost as we would be speaking with a person whose language we couldn’t understand. We may be able to grab onto a few things here and there, but as far as understanding goes, we’d be hopelessly unable to make any kind of meaningful communication.


Part 2: Acquisition

PosnerRaichle

There have been many theories of language acquisition, most of them dealing with how infants learn their first language. I’ll focus on only two of these theories here: Blank Slate and Nativism. Blank Slate theorists maintain humans are born with nothing more than instinct, and any bit of knowledge, including language, can be taught at any time – ergo, a first language can be learned at any point in a human’s life. Nativists argue that language is too complex for infants to be able to understand as rapidly as they do, so in each individual there must exist a genetic predisposition to learn language at a young age. (I feel it necessary to point out this is both a generalization and a fraction of the study of language acquisition. Anyone more interested in the field of languages can find a great deal of research on the subject via a quick Google search; however, exploring its nuances is not the object of my intent.)

As it’s quite difficult to find any children who haven’t had enough social interaction to not have learned a first language, most theories on language acquisition stay theories. However, there has been one case – a simultaneously fascinating and particularly unhappy case – of a girl pseudonymously called Genie who never learned a first language. This case provided the world of linguistics with one of its only chances to examine the Blank Slate vs. Nativist debate.

Genie grew up with a viciously abusive father who hated noise. At 20 months old, Genie’s father kept her locked in a room, either strapped to the toilet in a homemade harness or in a crib, strapped into a sleeping bag, under a metal grate. He refused to speak around her, and would either beat her when she would make noise, or he would bark and growl and scratch her.  Genie’s father would beat her brother and mother if they spoke too loud or too close to Genie. She lived this way until she was 13, at which point she was rescued.

Her story is incredibly sad, though she did survive (and is still alive today). However, her particularly horrific circumstances provided scholars with an unprecedented opportunity to study a child who never learned a first language. Because Genie’s father ensured, through force, her silence, at the time of her rescue she had not learned how to speak. According to the Blank Slate theorists, Genie ought to have been able to learn her first language at any time in her life, though she suffered from severe issues stemming from her traumatic childhood.

This ended up not being the case, striking a huge blow to the Blank Slate theorists and marking a triumph for the Nativists. Genie was never able to learn a “first language” (her nonverbal communication was excellent; however, linguists don’t consider nonverbal language to be a “first language”), which aligned with an earlier theory proposed by Noam Chomsky: there is a specific time in a child’s life in which they are able to learn a first language; after that time, the child stops learning language and learns grammer, explaining why a second language can never be learned like a first language. Genie’s case seemed to support this theory, though the debate continues to this day.

If we take Genie’s case and Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition and apply it to tonality, our common language of music, an interesting thought occurs. What if, as I suggested earlier, language is like music? What if we’re taught the language of music at a young age, a specific tonality, the tonality that becomes our framework for understanding music for the rest of our lives? 12-ET is our “first language.” We learn it as infants, and spend the rest of our lives understanding our world in our tonality. To learn a second tonality is to learn a second language: it is no longer natural past a certain age.

This would explain why out-of-tune-ness is so difficult for us to digest, and why auto-tune is so prevalent in modern music. We are so accustomed to our “language” we can’t interact with music outside of it.  In interpersonal relationships it’s much more difficult to avoid having to communicate with people who may speak a different language, yet in music the understanding is one-sided: the music doesn’t care if you understand it, and you may feel you don’t need to bother. If you move to a different country where nobody speaks your language, existence will be quite difficult. If you put on an album that speaks a different “language”, you can simply turn it off rather than bother with attempting comprehension.


Part 3: World Language

World Languages

Across the world there are some 6,500 languages spoken. It is a given that travelling to a different location will raise some questions about how to communicate. Beyond the language difference there are myriad cultural differences, social customs, policies, laws, architecture – the list is unending. In this, the key point of cultural difference that I wish to outline is music; specifically, the tonality of music.

Is it not fascinating that different cultures employ different tonalities in their folk musics? Indian music utilizes quarter tones. Western music primarily relies on 12-ET. Mongolian throat singing uses a harmonic overtone series which does not include the majority of the full 12-tone scale. Across the world different tonalities are used as are different languages: to communicate to those who understand. And these people understand their own language. As outsiders, we hear quarter tone music and it sounds exotic, or strange, or just plain wrong. And yet they understand it, in a way that we do not (and, likely, a way we never will). This is their “first language”, and unless we grew up in a “bilingual” home (a concept I will revisit later) we will never understand their “language” in the way they do.

For example, let us take folk music from the island of Krk, Yugoslavia (which can be heard here). While it is clearly music (much in the same way Swahili is clearly a language), it is music that is incredibly foreign to our ears. When we try to pick out the “grammar” of the music, the tonal centre, it becomes apparent we are dealing with different rules, different understandings than our own. The spaces between the notes themselves are not anything like the regulated and ruled spaces in 12-ET. The music becomes a different language, one easily understood by the people of Krk, but one foreign and difficult to understand to our Western ears – albeit one difficult to understand without the benefit of “second language acquisition.”


Part 4: Second Language Acquisition

VivaLing-SLA-Learning-drivers-for-children

Why learn a second language? There are many situations in which understanding a second language would be helpful. Even if there is no practical reason for learning a new language, the insight one gains into a different culture and people group by understanding their language is unparalleled. Language can tell us about the history of entire groups of people, yet is fluid, alive, and flowing – enough to be unique from country to country, or even changing within cities or between streets. Spanish, for example, is spoken all over the world, yet pronunciation and grammar rules can change from country to country, or even within a country. The language, while still falling under the umbrella of “Spanish” (which in turn comes from Latin, or is a “Romantic” language), takes on a highly personal, highly specific form in specific contexts.

So why learn a second musical language? For many of the same reasons. While there may be no obvious practical reason to immerse yourself in microtonality, understanding it opens up doorways to different cultures, different experiences, different sounds. There is, literally, a world of different tunings available to listen to. People, even in Western music, have been experimenting with microtonality for quite some time. Certain musics from around the world are based off of these different “grammatical” rules, giving them an odd, yet beautiful sound — once an understanding of the musical language is achieved. Many different parts of the world understand and experience music differently than we do. Is this not an experience that, as avid listeners of music, we desire? Why limit ourselves to conventional tonality when there are so many fundamentally different sounds to hear?

When we learn a second language, it becomes exponentially easier to learn a third. In learning a second language as adults, we don’t simply learn words and grammar, we learn the tools that allow us to grasp a second way of communicating. Once we have those tools, it is simpler to tackle a third, fourth, or even fifth language, because the method is in place. The same is true of music. Say you only listened to pop rock for fifteen years, at which point you were introduced to heavy metal. Initially, it would be mind boggling. It would probably sound like noise, rife with screaming, distortion, and all manner of things completely foreign to pop rock. But, if you stuck with it, little by little you’d perceive chord progressions, words, even melodies. And suddenly it’s no longer noise, but music. Once you’d realized there were other genres of music out there besides pop rock, and you’d gotten yourself to a place of fundamental understanding of heavy metal, moving out into, say, hip-hop would be significantly easier. Or folk. Or any other genre — because the building blocks fundamental to understanding new concepts are there. The same is true of understanding microtonality. Once your understanding of its “language” shifts from experiment to true comprehension, moving to newer, more complex forms of tonality will not be nearly as difficult.


Part 5: Experimentation

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If music truly is, as I have speculated here, a second language, something that we learn as kids and then can learn again as adults, and there is a plethora of “languages” to be learned, why would we not expose our children to these “languages”? If the Naturalism case for language acquisition is correct, then we limit our children when we exclusively expose them to 12-ET. Is it not better to raise a child bilingually (provided the parents are bilingual) than unilingually? The child will grow up speaking and understanding two natural languages — clearly a desirable trait. In the same way, we should desire our children understand more than one musical language.

So expose your children to different tunings at a young age. Allow them to have an understanding of that different language that you never got to have. I believe that exposing children to microtonality (that is, tunings outside of 12-ET) will only benefit them in the long run. Children who hear two languages growing up are able to speak two languages, not as something learned in a classroom, but as something implicit, something completely natural. I hypothesize children who hear different tonalities growing up will be able to “speak the language,” or have a natural implicit understanding of tonalities that we, in our exclusive exposure to 12-ET, never had the option to have.

But this doesn’t mean we can’t learn. If we can learn a second language, then we can learn a different tonality. And while the prospect of learning a second language can be daunting, difficult, and frustrating, just remember we’re all here because we love music. We may not have a passion for language, but what we all do have a passion for is music. When you care about something deeply, then learning about it becomes not a chore but a privilege, not a job but a hobby. And if there’s a world of microtonal music out there that I don’t understand, then I’ll be damned if I don’t want to understand it. When we stop challenging ourselves, when we stop learning languages, we stagnate. It’s the death of creativity and personal growth. Too often people dismiss music because it doesn’t align with their very narrow paradigms of what they like, or what they have deemed as good — I believe this is a childish mistake. I implore you to not make this mistake, and instead continue to learn the language of music, to expand your vocabulary, and to continue to grow.


Header image from “Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz” by John Stump.

Thanks to Christian Molenaar for showing me a song featured in this article, and for generally exposing me to excellent microtonal music.

Images Via, Via, Via, Via, Via)

  • Nerd.

  • Dubs

    Hey Guacamole, thanks for this article. I had a point earlier when I read it that I need to re-find, but I do have a question. Do you think we can comprehend the language of microtonality without playing instruments? It seems to me that that detail is like the difference between fluency and simple understanding.

    • Guacamole Jim

      I think that being able to play an instrument would help, like being a scholar of language helps understand its rules – but people who don’t know how to play music can still listen to and enjoy it, and people who don’t understand the complex history of a language can still speak it and make themselves understood. I think that, in the same way, it’s not necessary to understand how to play instruments in order to speak the language of alternate tonalities, but it would help.

      • Dubs

        Your article here actually helped me understand microtonality way more than other stuff I’ve read.

        • Guacamole Jim

          That’s great to hear, especially considering I didn’t even go into the math side of things (mostly because the mathematical microtonal stuff is way over my head) – I understand microtonality from a.. well, a language perspective. Math has never been my forte, so I’m glad my (maybe slight odd) view of it is relateable.

    • Boss the Ross

      Hmm, interesting point. I believe that a person would be able to realize when microtonality is being utilized, much like hearing another language, and hear the major differences and obvious similarities. For example; the latin based Romantic languages share similar root words and can be partially understood between speakers without having complete knowledge of the opposing language. But it would take someone who studies and understands music, much like a linguist, to notice the intricacies of each.

      The comparison between music and language and music as a language that is presented is quite phenomenal.

    • The Tetrachord of Archytas

      I think you absolutely can because the harmonic language is never the point with music. Nowadays it can be, because we, especially westerns, treat things like gimmicks and also like museum pieces, so we hear microtonal things and were like, “oh I get that, its microtonal” kinda like how guac mentioned hearing things in your first language. So a lot of western types who write microtonal kinda have that see what I’m doing sort of philosophy. But in any real, especially non western, setting, the harmonic language is not the important part of the piece. Those languages are basically the cultures way of understanding the right way to interpret the physicality of the sound universe. so instead its the architecture of the piece youre listening to, and its function in society, which is more important elsewhere because in places like Africa for example, they don’t have a word for art in the sense that music in inseparable from daily existence. Its better to just immerse yourself in content, if youre interested. All throughout history, there’s always been the understanding that human beings resonate with the sound world somehow whether its scientific or spiritual or whatever.

      • Dubs

        Hit me with some literature, my man. I’ll read.

        • The Tetrachord of Archytas

          Totally, when I get home I’ll dig through some stuff.

        • The Tetrachord of Archytas

          I actually meant sound content for immersing yourself BUT..so books man. You’re gonna find a lot of bias all over the place in this topic, because at its core, Equal Temperament is kind of an industrial tuning, as in capitalism has sort of enforced that. Tuning and Temperament changes over time generally relate to art and cultural shifts, but the sudden dominance of ET has sort of a bit to do with the Industrial Revolution and the idea that more instruments can be sold if they are all in the same tuning. But mixed in with that is the elitist idea of social evolution, so people need to have this idea that music has evolved, because in our society evolved equals better like iphone 6 is better than 5 so who needs it. You have composers like Milton Babbitt who basically say that since math and science have evolved beyond the comprehension of average people so should music. So there’s a lot of different things rolled up into this.
          “How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony” by Ross Duffin is great. Not too heavy handed just trying to paint the picture that essentially that Mozart (among others) heard much richer versions of his music than we do because of the change in tuning standards.
          “Genesis of a Music” by Harry Partch is super dense and intense as far as the whole thesis goes.
          “Audio Culture-Readings in Modern Music” is a good collection of essays.
          “Tuning and Temperament” by Barbour is good too, he tends to be on the elitist, looking at music history through a german centric lense side.
          You could also just read “Silence” by John Cage which will answer both none of your questions and all of them and make you wonder what music is

  • ChuggaChuggaDeedleyDoo

    I’ll think I’ll stick with semitones and equal temperament–women love that shit

  • You know, I could take that Yugoslavian music a bit more seriously if the instruments weren’t so buzzy/tinny

    I did find Cvice mi poje pokrilo much more palatable, at least because of the familiarity of sung voices. I’m going through a few more because I eat this shit up.

    Here’s a nice marriage of western music and overtone singing for you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o87rD29rl-4

    • Well, this sounds very cool. The wall of sound effect made by the choir puts it in a different mood than regular “grandiose religious choral” vibe.

    • The Tetrachord of Archytas

      I’ve actually sung this in choir and did the overtone singing at the end

  • That was a beautiful ending, Guac.

    Cool opinion and insightful material. I didn’t understood why Eastern music sounded so alien for me, and now I think I understand it because you explained everything in a more conceptual way. Thanks a lot for this piece. I like it very much.

  • Flying Hairy Uvula Of Doom
    • Not sure why you would doxx yourself, bro.

      • Flying Hairy Uvula Of Doom

        What’s a doxx?

        • Exactly.

          • Flying Hairy Uvula Of Doom

            *scratching my head*

            How am I supposed to ‘dock’ myself? Isn’t that a 2 player game?

          • DVRKBEVRD

            time for more top bunk research

          • Flying Hairy Uvula Of Doom

            Nah, Wednesdays are 2 Girls 1 Cup Night. No time for complex research on the bunk.

  • Good lord, that story about Genie is fucked up.

  • Stockhausen

    This is the sort of article I imagine myself writing before I realize I suck and can’t. Nice work!
    I think that Ben Johnston is a really great first step into microtonality or just intonation. His piano and string works rule.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwQxCi6pSEk

    • Stockhausen
      • The Tetrachord of Archytas

        I saw this performed live, pretty interesting. My big problem with this guy is that he writes music that is basically written for ET and then just puts it in just, as opposed to writing the kind of music just lends itself to. Kinda subjective, but since just is essentially about perfect intervals, music that focuses on that would be more appropriate i guess.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXHzxMJrf9g&list=PL4sapy99eYWo6UDWqwWD3_56r8UZWFHgn

    • You could always visit some Schoenberg pieces as well if you want to stick with 12-ET but still get that atonal sound

      • Stockhausen

        There’s still a tonal center to microtonality, and especially to just intonation.

        • I should have said an “alien” or “unfamiliar”

          • Stockhausen

            A pound of flesh as penance. Yours or anyone else’s, doesn’t matter.

    • Guacamole Jim

      Man, I think you probably could have done this article better than I. Also, Ben Johnston >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    • Stocky, I have a question:

      How did this Ben Johnson guy managed to make microtonal music with a piano? Guac said in his post: “12-ET is, simply put, the notes on the piano. C, C#/Db, D, D#/Db, et cetera”; so I instantly clicked with the piano as a western tonal made instrument.

      • DVRKBEVRD

        my (100%) guess is that the piano would be tuned outside the normal tones

        • Don’t know if it’s the same I am thinking. Like when some guitarrists make microtonal guitars with the fixed frets. Like the one Guac linked in the article.

          • Guacamole Jim

            There are pianos that are tuned to different tonalities, so I understand your confusion. When I refer to “the notes on the piano” I just mean the standard, Western piano tuning of 12 notes per octave.

          • DVRKBEVRD

            yeah, i was just guessing that rather than tunin the piano or guitar to the regular scales, they would be tuned somewhere in between whole and half tones.

            so if a guitar string is supposed to tune to E it would be tuned somewhere in between E and F or between E and Eb.

            i could be completely wrong tho

      • The Tetrachord of Archytas

        Check this out, its literally a well tuned piano (different type of tuning that ET) from an old famous composer guy

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRlfFsbS7UM

      • Stockhausen

        It usually is, but composers throughout the years have slightly altered the tuning of pianos to fit their alternate tunings. It can be really startling when piano tuning is so distinctly altered like it is here.

  • Dubs

    This seems a good time to remind folks Jute Gyte writes microtonal metal.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gQo9m0hfEk

    • Will listen when I’m done binging Croatian songs about losing your wedding crown

    • Edward/Breegrodamus™

      I was just cruising the comments to see if anyone brought up JG. That would have been my sole contribution. Death.

    • Stockhausen

      My appreciation for Jute Gyte has really grown in the past 9-12 months. My first listen to his stuff was like “lol nah brah.”

      • Dubs

        Interestingly, I took to it almost immediately. I’m not sure why.

    • Jeroen Paul Thesseling has experimented a little with microtones in his bass style. I really recommend and like Ensemble Salaszhar.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-StE_N8aUCM

    • Capra Hircus Hubertus

      Haven’t given this band a thorough look yet, but I’m enjoying this track, It’s my kind of weird.

      • Dubs

        I definitely recommend you dig deeper. Microtonality lends itself well to the skronk.

  • DVRKBEVRD

    Science.

  • Dubs

    Interestingly, Bulgarian folk music has actually won a Grammy here. I present The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrcgDhpS3uo

    • This is fantastic!

    • Guacamole Jim

      I’m a huge fan of Bulgarian Polyphony.

  • YourLogicIsFlushed

    Excellent stuff here guac. Great reminder that even though we here are interested in just about every genre, there are still whole universes that go unexplored. I am not sure if I have much of an interest in jamming Indonesian folk music, but that Brendan Byrnes song is pretty sweet.

    • Guacamole Jim

      I have Mr. Molenaar to thank for introducing me to Brendan Byrnes. Micropangaea took me completely by surprise – I don’t know how many times I listened to it. It was amazing to me to hear someone doing microtonal music in a pop setting that still managed to sound good.

  • Flying Hairy Uvula Of Doom

    Can’t really think of much in the way of microtonal music I’ve ever heard (I remember Bjork mentioning it a lot, but can’t think of a song off hand). Coil’s ‘Worship The Glitch’ has quite a few parts that could be considered microtonal.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUp8tUlftW8

    • This being the result of one of their less productive acid trips . . .

      • Flying Hairy Uvula Of Doom

        I’m thinking ELPH probably more to do with the album than them, but I dunno. Tapir would probably be the one to ask on that, since he’s the Coil expert.

  • Stockhausen

    Also, Harry Partch was a bizarre and fascinating dude. He was willfully homeless for a lot of years, built almost all his own instruments to accommodate his 42-note one octave scale, and was generally a nut job. Intensely interesting music too.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLd7imfQJDo

    • DVRKBEVRD

      what is this, Mos Eisley Cantina on friday night?

    • YourLogicIsFlushed

      It sounds liked there are constantly two different people playing in a room full of random instruments. One guy who really knows how to play every one, and also one toddler, switching instruments at will. I dig it.

    • Flying Hairy Uvula Of Doom

      Has a sorta tin pan alley feel to it at the beginning, but writ much larger. Very very interesting. I think I remember Danny Elfman mentioning him as an influence.

    • The Tetrachord of Archytas

      Ever read Genesis of a Music? its his major written work, pretty intense and interesting anti capitalism kinda stuff

  • Here is an interesting piece I have been drawn too of late.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PctrIaxXIF4

    It does not really pertain to the topic… but since everyone is posting sophisticated things… I felt obliged to horn in on the action.

    GL

  • Capra Hircus Hubertus

    ..

  • Boss the Ross

    Well, I’m officially not writing any more posts for the Toilet. How the hell am I supposed to compare to this.
    Outstanding work Mr. Guacamole.

    • Just keep posting killer bands and you’ll be fine.

      • Boss the Ross

        Will do!

    • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

      BRING THE FUCKING RIFFS BOSS!

      • Boss the Ross

        I will strive to bring aforementioned FUCKING RIFFS to the fullest of my capabilities.

    • Guacamole Jim

      Thanks very much, amigo! You’re making me all embarrassed…

      • Boss the Ross

        This piece was great man, no reason to be embarrassed

      • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

      • Flying Hairy Uvula Of Doom

        Quite an interesting and complex piece. Took me a couple of reads to wrap my head around it.

  • Dubs

    Guacamole Jim and I were discussing this post before it went live and how Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language games seems to also address this topic. Wittgenstein would seem to indicate that our inability to understand a certain piece of music boils down to us not knowing the proper language of that music. In another context, I feel that we all struggle with this at times when trying to describe music, especially if we aren’t musicians ourselves. Hence we develop absurd metaphors and hyperbole (e.g. this sounds like a buzzing swarm of locusts) to explain something because we may not be able to actually discuss the guitar phrasing or the drum fills or the notes the vocalist hits. I think we in the metal community have developed, and in many ways accepted, a dialect of symbolism in order to engage the music we love, one that incorporates certain musical descriptions (e.g. blastbeats, tremolo riffs) and non-musical descriptions. It’s almost a hybrid language, like Creole.

    • Guacamole Jim

      And Wittgenstein would totally agree with you – the language we use to speak about music is not arbitrary. Blast beats are a thing, but it only makes sense if you play the language game of modern heavy metal.

      To go deeper into what I’m trying to say in the article, microtonal music itself can be considered a language game. There are people who understand it, and there are people who don’t – which doesn’t make the note choices arbitrary or “wrong,” but it does mean the language game of microtonality has to be learned like any other language game (learning what a blastbeat is, etc.), and outside of context, it is meaningless.

      • Dubs

        What’s interesting to me is that since artists like Jute Gyte have gained more traction in metal, we’re having to expand our rule-set for the changing language game.

        I think you could also make an argument that the ever-growing list of subgenres is a symptom of the language game driving, but in a different way than what I previously indicated. We want to strictly classify this music we enjoy into discrete sets with individual dialects in order to have the ability to discuss each band more clearly.

        • Guacamole Jim

          I wonder if you could equate subgenres with accents – all part of the same language, but with very subtle differences not easily noticed to someone who doesn’t play the language game. To keep with the parallels, black metal vs. death metal could be Venezuelan Spanish compared with Columbian Spanish. To someone who doesn’t know the language, it’s all unintelligible. Yet to those who speak the language, the differences become clearer and clearer.

          Then we could get into a sociological vein: why do different accents and dialects occur? There’s something here about humans existing as social creatures and a focused hyper specificity that would come from existing in a smaller community that manifests itself in accents (and, we would say, in subgenres).

          • Dubs

            Now we’re getting into an interesting discussion of how people groups have historically formed. If you look at history, divisions often occur based on geography, religion, tribe, and language.

          • The Tetrachord of Archytas

            This is a cool idea. I think part of where the answer would fall apart would be artists’ intent, as in the development of sub genre, since genre is such a weird subject nowadays. But I assume at some point around the genesis of death metal, there was a culmination of people who were wanting to hear something specifically that that metal had not quite got to. So there was something behind it other than just region

          • Vladimir Poutine

            I think what you’re getting at with dialects specifically has a lot of potential; the analogy might be that accents are to a spoken language what “style” or “artistic voice” are to a musical artist, e.g. choosing different points of emphasis and production techniques. These distinguish the particular accent or artist without seeming to subvert the rules that connect different artists (e.g. how we can tell that Emperor and Burzum are both black metal, despite stylistic differences). Dialects, on the other hand, might be analogous to subgenres in that they actually do change some of the rules noticeably- not completely, as different subgenres and dialects can still be identified as belonging to the same language or primary genre, but enough so that there are noticeable asymmetries between them, e.g. how Baring Teeth and Bolt Thrower are both metal, but seem to obey entirely different rules of composition and performance.

          • Pentagram Sam

            Great article dude! The comment about accents got me thinking. English is the most used language for alot of metal and rock music despite coming from many many diff countries. One thing that always fascinated me when listening to live albums is how the vocalist would be talking in their native language (German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Portugese) and then go into really clear English singing.

            Some singers, like Timo Kotipelto, still have a strong accent that actually becomes a part of their own distinct voice.

            There’s this bad ass band called Pretty Maids from Denmark and on this live album, singer Ronnie Atkins does alot of talking in Danish and then goes into English singing. What strikes me as really unique about this guy though, is that his singing voice sounds VERY North American. I mean, dude sounds like hes from New York or something. How does something like THAT happen? Just throwing this out there in an attempt to join this intellectually stimulating discussion, hey hey

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oMayfOyo_Q&list=PLE3l-USWJNwv_jTGcPgM1y5IY2Ayzb1zG

          • Dubs

            I’ve noticed that too. Rammstein is one of the only bands I can think of where the singer still sounds German when singing English.

        • The Tetrachord of Archytas

          Maybe, but an important thing to think about is that we recognize it as metal because of dynamics, rhythm, and instrumentation so that tonality doesn’t really mean the game has changed per se.

  • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

    My name’s King Shit of Fuck Mountain. I’ll be dead in roughly 30-40 years. I like riffs and partying.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9T75cDONmE

    • Someone’s awfully confident in their ability to stay alive for a significant amount of time.

      • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

        Hey, I said roughly bro.

    • Mr. Ward’s finest drum work.

      • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

        You think so? Serious question.

        • Not really, just that section at 3:00 always gives me serious goosebumps. Always loved that sped up section. Just chaos!

          • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

            Totally. That part comes out of fucking nowhere!

          • Yep, right back into skull crushing doom! So heavy.

    • more beer

      Upvote for many more hate filled years!

  • Boss the Ross

    I once watched a documentary about a German instrument maker that would use crazy household objects and draw his music instead of using the traditional methods of staffs and notes. But i totally forgot this guys name. Does this ring any bells with anyone?

    • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

      Unless it’s scat porn, I want no part of what you’re selling.

      • Boss the Ross

        You probably don’t want this then.

    • Flying Hairy Uvula Of Doom

      Tom Waits did that when he was growing up, but I know that’s not who you’re talking about.

      • Boss the Ross

        Tom Waits is the Man, but not the man I’m thinking of.

        • Flying Hairy Uvula Of Doom

          Using household instruments (amongst other things, like jackhammers, buzz saws, etc.) plus German made me think of Einsternzende Neubauten, but that’s not it either.

  • Flying Hairy Uvula Of Doom

    This also comes to mind for microtonal stuff (to some degree):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GqyC9AEKdg

  • Does anyone know where KJM has gotten to?

    • Flying Hairy Uvula Of Doom

      We’ve been asking that for about 2 weeks now. All I know is that he posted some Scissor Fight videos, Joe took them down, and that’s that. Haven’t seen him since.

      • Dubs

        Like I told y’all last time, Joe didn’t take them down. KJM deleted them on his own. Dude will come back when he wants to. He isn’t banned or anything.

        • Thanks. I was just making sure he was OK.

        • Flying Hairy Uvula Of Doom

          Ah, didn’t catch your reply about that, or at least don’t remember it. My bad. Keep in mind that I have the memory and attention span of a methed out fruit fly.

    • more beer

      He said he will be back in a few weeks in an email to me.

  • megachiles

    I’ve only been able to skim this so far, but holy shit it’s boss. Learning new things on the internet is almost the ultimate high.
    Great article, Jim!

    Chris Black also just dropped a new Dawnbringer EP: https://dawnbringer.bandcamp.com/album/xx-2

    My body wasn’t ready.

    • that Dawnbringer is waaay better than I expected it to be. Thanks!

      • megachiles

        Usually I jam the heck out of his new releases, but the last Dawnbringer album just didn’t stay with me. I’m hoping this has some more staying power.

  • 2busyatwork2readthisnovel.sadface.jpeg
    https://media.giphy.com/media/xTk9ZvM0T4qqoFbzIk/giphy.gif

  • Max

    I remember reading somewhere that the producer for Leadbelly (can’t remember his name) was also a travelling musicologist. The story might be untrue, but apparently, he discovered that different cultures’ degree of incremented tonality was correlated with how hierarchical their society was.

    So, for example, the West is a pretty class-based society, and the chromatic scale has a relatively high number of intervals. India, of course, is VERY class/caste-based, so their scale is microtonal compared to ours. More egalitarian cultures had simpler scales; all the way down to the Pygmies – quite possibly the most egalitarian culture on earth; their children are raised communally so they don’t even necessarily have the concept of “parents” let alone chieftains or village elders – who are monotonal and sang only one note. Again – I’m not sure of the accuracy of this.

    • Guacamole Jim

      Dude, if that’s accurate, that’s absolutely mind-blowing and you need to write about it.

      • Max

        There was something else: He also supposedly found that when it came to groups of voices singing (ie choirs), patriarchal societies tended to be less about strict harmony and more about the volume of the “lead” guy – a Pavarotti-type situation; whereas matriarchal societies tend to be more focused on pitch perfection and harmony between different parts of the choir, with no “divo/diva”.

    • Pete Seeger?

      • Max

        A little before Pete’s time, dude.

        • I think I was thinking Charles Seeger. Same dif, right?

          • Max

            I’m gonna have to look this one up. I’ve got a book about the history of recording that devotes a whole chapter to the guy and Leadbelly. It’s pretty much the earliest example of “white producer exploiting/promoting black artist”.

          • Christ I am an asshole. I just looked it up because I can’t remember my own name. RJA likely has your answer. I was on some outside train of thought around Alan Lomax.

          • RJA

            Alan Lomax may indeed be correct sir.

          • Max

            Sounds right.

    • RJA

      Moses Asch

      edit: I’m assuming
      edit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_Asch pretty good read.

    • This is really curious, Max!

      Can you find a source of this to expand this?

      • Max

        I intend to.

    • Boss the Ross

      That’d be an interesting study.

    • Dubs

      There’s a division in linguistics regarding the accuracy of some of Whorf’s language theories, and my understanding is that many modern linguists have thrown them out, but back in the early 20th century, Whorf theorized that different culture’s scientific advancements were limited by their language. His argument was that if a culture lacked the vocabulary to describing the different tenses of time, it would be impossible for them to develop a proper methodology of physics and certain disciplines of math that require derivations. I think the reason his ideas have been rejected is because they can lead to some frankly racist views.

      • Max

        They obviously can, but you can’t help wondering if there’s some validity to the theory. I truly believe that anybody of any ethnicity can master any discipline if they have the talent (“race” is just a social construct anyway); but you do have to wonder why certain civilizations advance further in technology than others (allowing, of course, that “advance” is itself a subjective assessment).

        • Dubs

          It’s definitely something I’ve pondered. The idea that native language shapes native thought (and in the case of your example, music) rather than the opposite is very intriguing.

          • Max

            Well, apparently even space is a cultural construct; in the sense that people who have never lived in buildings with corners apparently won’t recognize when they’re lead into a room that features them.

    • The Tetrachord of Archytas

      I’d be interested in that. Though I’d say based on my studies that it develops on how a cultures spiritual philosophies (which would relate to patriarchy for sure) interpret the reality of overtones and harmonics.

    • palmsies

      That is one of those weird ethnomusicological theories that was hip to explore in the first half of the 20th century, but no current ethnomusicologist would ever take something like that seriously today. Even the evidence it’s premised on is false – show me Pygmy music that is “monotonal.” “Pygmy music” is of course diverse in itself, but I know of none that consists of only one tone. Here is an example of Aka Pygmy music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKLxFmnYO_I

      • Max

        Well, there it is – soundly debunked. As I did point out, I wasn’t sure of the accuracy of Lomax’s claims.

  • Dubs

    Son of Wulf and I were just discussing metal bands that uses microtonality. We came up with Jute Gyte, Voidcraeft, Blut Aus Nord, and AEvangelist, but I’m sure there are more. It’s interesting that microtonality seems to stay within the realm of black metal, despite the rich potential for it to be delivered by voice in more classic metal styles. perhaps that can be attributed to the fact that metal tend to view the voice as less important than the instruments.

  • Boss the Ross

    Also I would like to take this moment to say Mongolian throat singing and it’s overtones are amazing.

    • It would be cool to see how much microtonality plays game in this band:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEv_aEwVvak

    • Flying Hairy Uvula Of Doom

      The singer for my best friend’s grindcore band does Mongolian throat singing (and no, that’s NOT a pitchshifter he’s using).

      https://myspace.com/intestinalpazuzu/music/songs

      (sadly, there’s no videos of them on Youtube, at least as far as I know)

      • Boss the Ross

        I try my hand, or vocals rather, at throat singing. It’s fun and relaxing.

        • BobLoblaw

          Learned how to during the long drive to work. Fun stuff.

          • Boss the Ross

            I bought a cd of The Gyuto Monks a while back and just tried singing along.

          • BobLoblaw

            I was introduced to it on the Live at the Quick album by Bela Fleck.

  • The Tetrachord of Archytas

    I highly recommend the book “How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony and Why You Should Care” Surprisingly easy read for how the title sounds.

    This is a topic I became pretty obsessed in my undergrad composition years. I had to do studies in ancient tunings and that kinda stuff and it really changes how you hear things. I’d say you did a great job with this article in keeping it mostly scientific and keeping it related to language, because, long story short, outside of language, tuning and temperament boils down to the spiritual/philosophical interpretations of the overtone series and mathematics of harmonics.

    There’s a branch of composers that have rejected ET starting in the pre minimalist sort of time

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hcos1twObz0

  • Not sure if Skaphe works with microtones but it does sound like there are some nonWestern tonalities going on in there. To these stupid ears anyway.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmHqSwpSnLQ

    Also, I believe Xasthur used to detune some of his instruments, which I guess resulted in some other tonality?

    • Guacamole Jim

      It for sure sounds like there’s microtones going on in this. Really cool, thanks for posting!!

  • Eliza

    As a person who is currently learning languages different from my native language, this article was a fascinating read.

  • Crab Nicholson

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzeG2Gflkk4 Micro-Tonal Death Metal (MTDM), anyone?

  • Waynecro

    This is a really, really great article, dude. Thanks!