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Microtonal Music

  In so-called tonal music—for example the classical music of the Western world—the octave is divided into 12 equal semitones. Microtonal music explores smaller divisions than semitones: quarter-tones, sixteenth-tones, thirty-second tones and divisions of less mathematical symmetry 19 divisions or 31 divisions to the octave, for example. To the innocent ear, especially to one used to tonal music, microtones tend to sound merely out of tune; they are, however, common in non-Western music, and in such Western manifestations as ‘blue notes’ in jazz. They are easily sung, and played on string instruments and electronic instruments (where the player can select the pitch of each note); woodwind instruments and keyboard instruments have to be specially built, or tuned, to produce them. For these reasons—and also, some people claim, because tuning by semitones in some way conforms to the ‘natural’ laws of acoustics—microtones tend to be mainly a colouristic device, and thorough-going microtonal music, at least in the West, is a rare and experimental phenomenon. KMcL  



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