Microtones and microtonal music

Microtones are musical notes, or music intervals,  smaller than semitones. This means anything from quarter tones and onwards. (microtones, 2017) Music composed of microtones originated from the Sumerians and it is part of middle eastern music.  (microtones, 2017) The interesting thing about microtones is that for most people when they hear it, it sounds out of tune or uncomfortable. (microtones, 2017)

 There are two theories for this. The first one is that these tunes haven’t become a habit for ourselves yet, therefore, since we are not accustomed to it just yet, we don’t necessarily hate it, but we don’t love it either. (Testing a spectral model, 2016)  It’s similar to what we discussed in class about Stravinski’s music not being accepted, and even go as far as to cause chaos within the audience. Microtonal compositions have the power to arouse a disturbance within an audience as well, and personally, I have experience wanting to scream when listening to Penderecki’s threnody piece. So essentially habituation is one of the reasons why we hear something weird in microtonal music. The second reason can be explained with math. In music, there are two spectrums: the harmonic and the inharmonic. (Testing a spectral model, 2016) While the harmonic spectra are typically composed of whole numbers, the inharmonic one is composed of mostly decimals. (Testing a spectral model, 2016) Microtones are anything form ¼, ⅛… etc. therefore, music composed of microtones while being predominantly decimals and fall under the inharmonic spectra. (Testing a spectral model, 2016) An interesting fact is that humans can hear anywhere from 20 to 20,000 Hz, however, differentiating between some of the pitches can be extremely hard. (Modulation of auditory cortex, 2012) The average human does not have a perfect pitch, however, A study conducted by the Montreal neurological institute showed how 9/10  people could achieve a perfect pitch. (Modulation of auditory cortex, 2012) The experiment consisted of taking 20 individuals with no musical training and randomly assigning 10 to be a control group and 10 to musical training of repetition, to see the effects in recognizing pitches. (Modulation of auditory cortex, 2012).

Making microtonal sounds is also not as simple or as common, in fact, most instruments have to be accommodated in order to be able to play microtones. It is also incredibly hard to sing in microtones, and not everyone can do it, but Jacob Collier can. He is an English musician that has focused on modernizing microtonal music by making covers of famous songs. Recently in 2016, he created what is known as the negative harmony, which is part of the inharmonic spectra. The negative harmony is manipulating temperament and expanded tunings to do polarity and shadows. Essentially this is going from very high notes to very low notes within short time spam. 

The way we are able to hear these many different tones is by the sound wave that emits different frequencies traveling from the cochlear nerve to the cochlear nuclei in the brain stem on the ipsilateral side, there is also contralateral means opposite side. (Modulation of auditory cortex, 2012) With hearing, the auditory information crosses over to both sides, and each cerebral hemisphere’s process stimulates both. (Modulation of auditory cortex, 2012)  The cochlear nucleus is where most of the crossover happens, and this is the primary path.  the secondary path is for the few neurons that stay on the ipsilateral side. (Modulation of auditory cortex, 2012) However, both ascending auditory paths lead to the neuron’s synapse in the superior Oliver complex. (Modulation of auditory cortex, 2012) the signal continues to be relayed along the lateral lemniscus, to the inferior colliculus. (Modulation of auditory cortex, 2012) in the midbrain, from the inferior colliculus, the information is relayed to the medial geniculate nucleus of the thalamus. (Modulation of auditory cortex, 2012) At this time most of the neurons stay on the ipsilateral side. the information then continues into the auditory cortex. the auditory cortex is tucked into the lateral sulcus. (Modulation of auditory cortex, 2012) And there, the auditory Corrigan contains the primary auditory cortex,  which is organized tonotopically. in other words, it’s arranged by frequency.  (Modulation of auditory cortex, 2012)

There are representative sound healers that believe that microtonal music can be a healer. Scientist Linda Louise Nielsen wanted to test if these stories have any truth. (In search of… 2001)  Along with the California institute of integral studies, she conducted an experiment where they took experiential responses to microtonal singing and overtone chanting over a four-week period. (In search of… 2001) The results showed positive physical, mental, and emotional responses. (In search of… 2001) They discovered that  Overtone chanting led to higher physical movement, and  Microtonal singing led to insights with regard to life processes and increased creativity. (In search of… 2001) Lastly, they both led to emotional resolution and uncovering emotions. (In search of… 2001)

I looked further into microtonal music and found a playlist that consisted of softer melodies. I’ve been repeatedly listening to the playlist for about a week now and I can say that I found myself a little more at peace after listening to it. 


  • Linda Louise Nielsen. 2001. In Search of Healing Voices: An Exploration of Sound Healers and Vocal Healing Practices. California Institute of Integral Studies. California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, 2000. Available from: https://www.elibrary.ru/item.asp?id=5302810
  • Robert J. Zatorre, Karine Delhommeau, and Jean Mary Zarate.  05 December 2012. Modulation of auditory cortex response to pitch variation following training with microtonal melodies. Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada Department of Psychology. available from:https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00544/full
  • Scott McCormick.  August 23, 2017. Microtones: the note between the notes. Disc makers blog. Available from: https://blog.discmakers.com/2017/08/microtones-the-notes-between-the-notes/
  • Andrew J. Milne, Robin Laney, David B. Sharp. January 11, 2016 .   Testing a spectral model of tonal affinity with microtonal melodies and inharmonic spectra. Sage journals. Available from:https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1029864915622682

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Aakash Parthasarathy says:

    Hi Michelle, I thought this was a really great post. It was really amazing how you talked about how humans are not accustomed to hearing certain tones, but that microtones (the “weird” tone) are actually somewhat therapeutic despite the unsettling it brings us. I thought that the way humans kind of discarded something useful to them because it was different from the norm was very interesting.

  2. Elaine Leung says:

    It’s so interesting to read a mathematical approach on a topic as liberal as musical expression! Microtones is a whole new concept to me, and I really appreciated how you explained its origins as well as its effect on people. Even though humans have a wide range of frequency that they can hear, I find the common inability to differentiate between tones in the inharmonic spectrum such as microtones being a reason why humans are uncomfortable when listening to microtonal music fascinating. Your mentions of the studies on perfect pitch and microtonal music as well as a real life example of microtonal singing were really helpful applications to further understand microtones, and it was cool to read about the countless places sound waves travel in our brain to allow us to hear different tones.

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