What is your favorite tuning system? Why? Johnny Reinhard, Composer, Bassoonist, Director of the American Festival of Microtonal Music

 Johnny Reinhard
Johnny Reinhard in Kazan, Russia
Photo by Svetlana Sokolova

Here in the new millennium composers look about and wonder what connects them together. The answer appears to be the musical intelligence that they possess. Ever since Howard Gardner designated “musical intelligence” as the one of the legitimate human intelligences in his book Frames of Mind, I have been wrestling with its implications.

A quick Internet search reveals a pioneering, though shortsighted meaning for musical intelligence. It presently extends only to the “appreciation of musical patterns” like melodies and rhythms. Perhaps evidencing non-musical roots, it seems to me that talents in music may be only the tip of the iceberg, if not actually confused with actual musical intelligence. Those with musical intelligence use their talents to understand the world in a very special way.

For example, an astute camp music counselor can discern in the voice of a high school-age auditioner all sorts of things in only a few short moments. It is not so much that a musician can tell when the rhythm is faulty, or the pitch is off. Rather, more psychological concerns are identified and addressed. From the music alone, music intelligence can discern whether someone is a secure individual. Examination reveals whether the child has a sense of nuance, and to what degree. Even deception can be discovered in the music, possibly leading in unfortunate directions.

How many out there have scared the wits out of a dear one as a result of innocently overhearing something, accused however unjustly of involuntary judging? We seem to know what’s what with an almost telepathic certainty, admonished by the many that can’t read our frequency.

Theoretical understanding, instrumental virtuosity, compositional distinctiveness; these are the shop issues. Visiting music interstylistically, the foreign stuff, is still a rare pursuit, but I suspect it is gaining currency.

Musical intelligence takes the curious further than the modern piano. Charles Ives best epitomizes the curious musician, intelligent to what nature has to offer in direct proportion with humans history. Why not a preference for pianos that have “drifted pitch” for a composer who cried “are my ears on wrong?” Modest Mussorgsky was a fan of the out of tune piano, according to Shostakovich in Testimony. And Berg wrote for it in the last act of Wozzeck. But no, I’m not trying to encourage out of tune piano music.

With Ives’s “Universe Symphony” we have genuine polymicrotonality, which accounts for the possible inclusion of any, and every conceivable interval. Intervals hold true meaning for us musicians. I believe that following the technology avalanche of the past century it is incumbent upon us to taste some of the other flavors of the tuning rainbow, besides plain old twelve-tone equal-tempered vanilla. And there are many fine flavors besides the pedestrian quartertones. Just Intonation is arguably definitive consonance, or the key to the relationship between numbers and pitch, or the natural universal that jump starts the diversity of music around the world. And yet its melodies lose their angularity in the harmonic blend that produced them.

It would really jump-start our collective musical intelligence, as a nation, if the overtone series were taught as part of music school education. As Lou Harrison once suggested to me in an aside, wouldn’t it be wonderful if elementary schools taught fractions in the 3rd grade by singing ratios, rather than by just cutting up pizza pies? Then we musicians would have an audience in our future.

Why not a true tabula rasa to compose upon? What is the virtue of sticking to any single system of tuning? Why a system, and not an approach, or multi-systems? Why couldn’t one use–at any moment–a favorite interval? I have in mind a number of personal favorites, which constantly revolve according to the piece I am working on. Be not afraid, for there are no microtonal police to arrest lawbreakers. Any notation can be used with legitimacy. Microtones are eminently discoverable, with many published fingering charts available, and they are free on most every musical instrument, a few with specific modifications.

With the shrinking of the world, with the Basques on the same headline page as the Tamils of Sri Lanka, with Chechens and Kosovars more immediate than Indians or Iranians, we really need to integrate all possible tunings into one unified theory of intonation. To that end I present, and encourage a policy of polymicrotonality, utterly American in its freedom and in its possibilities. Rather than 12 notes in the octave, there are in this theory 1200 tones. These 1200 “cents” are at the very threshold of pitch differentiation in even the finest of the golden ears.

Musical intelligence demands a musical expression for newer meanings as a result of enlightened perspectives, virtually flooding our senses as the result of the shrinking world. Since the ineffable is still important in this increasingly complex world, it demands the necessary techniques to make sensible new musical meanings through new intervals.