Quartertone exercise

July 8, 2019, 7:57 PM · In a recent thread on modal playing, one writer commented on using quartertones in improvising.

Tricky enough, I thought.

And I came across this video today:


Now, it is not quite "improvising", but it sure highlights "tricky".

Replies (30)

Edited: July 8, 2019, 9:56 PM · I'm sorry but I think quartertones are mostly B.S. I understand that in some ethnic music one hears these things, but that music is not based on traditional diatonic scales with quartertones added -- they're more like variants on a pentatonic concept (but not necessarily a conventional 1-2-3-5-6 pentatonic) where the intervals are warped, and usually the same ones all the time, so if you listen to it for a while, you can acclimate to that harmonic framework.

I listened to a bit of Katz's instruction there, and you can tell that he has not, himself, practiced and grooved the scale that he is teaching to the young student. He has a fingering concept (which might not work too well on the violin), but his quarter-tone intervals were quite varied throughout his one-octave scale. Contrast that to the sparkling certainty with which he laid down the traditional chromatic sequence A-A#-B-C. And notice the student couldn't even play the chromatic sequence with correct intonation reliably! What level of cello student has to go fishing for A#? The professor must have been aghast. How's the lad going to master quarter-tone scales?

In scale-like passages the melodic line conveys harmony to the listener. I do not foresee a future where most concertgoers will be able to listen to music laden with quarter-tones and come away with anything other than "Well, it was different, but I was glad when it was over."

July 8, 2019, 11:52 PM · I am pretty sure there is not an established ethnic music tradition that uses the tempered quarter-tone (50 cents) as a passing tone between adjacent notes. There are music cultures with things that sound like quarter-tones to westerners, like the "out-of-tune" 7th partials on brass instruments, frequency ratios between the 6/5 minor third and the 9/8 whole step. In some moslem music cultures there is what we call a neutral third, about halfway between the minor and major third. They got their music theory from the ancient greeks, by the way. One of the Indonesian Gamelan tunings is an approximately equal-tempered pentatonic, each step being about 240 cents. It caught the interest of Debussy when he heard it at the Paris International exhibition. What these non-western music cultures have in common is the lack of chordal accompaniament.
Edited: July 9, 2019, 12:58 AM · Ernst Bloch's Piano Quintet, considered one of his best works, uses quarter tones to interesting effect, and I wouldn't describe the work as "ethnic" (he was Swiss-American) or unenjoyable; if anything it reminds me of Bernard Herrmann's soundtracks for Hitchcock.


July 9, 2019, 3:25 AM ·

My 1.14159 cents:

The 12 tone tempered scale is already an artificial compromise to "imitate" natural intervals .

The Hindu and Carnatic "sruti" are not used as a scale but as variants of the scale, and always against a drone.

Bloch's piano is 12-tone, only the strings have 1/4-tones.

Harry Partch's microtonal viola has frets.

The only really interesting tempered microtonal scale has 53 "tempered commas", which allow amazingly pure-sounding intervals, since the steps are close to both the Pythagorean and Syntonic commas.
Minor tone=8, major tone=9, diatonic semitone=5, chromatic semitone=4,
melismatic semitone=3...

July 9, 2019, 7:30 AM · The Czech composer Alois Hába (1893-1973) specialised in microtone music - he was even a professor of microtone composition at a conservatory. Almost all of his large output is still battened down under heavy copyright restrictions, but two of his quartets are available on IMSLP - only to users in the USA, apparently (hmm!).

His Quartet No 1 Op 4 need not concern us here because it is not microtonal, but quarter-tone Quartet 2 Op 7 is. Of particular interest in the Universal edition of Quartet 2 (on IMSLP) is that Hába in his preface explains his notation and - praise be! - provides detailed fingering in the quartet parts.

Most of Hába's output, including his 16 quartets and other chamber music, some of it in 1/5 and 1/6 tones, is available on CD. I find his music quite listenable and not too difficult to get used to.

July 9, 2019, 8:04 AM · https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRsSjh5TTqI
July 9, 2019, 1:05 PM · In the video that Gordon Shumway linked, in the first tune, it was interesting to listen to. There, you've just got a few frets that are inserted into an otherwise ordinary guitar, and you can get accustomed to how those particular intervals sound. The music he played on the other guitar where the frets are everywhere just sounded like a tune strangely lacking in harmony.
July 9, 2019, 1:21 PM · There is a wonderful bagpipe concerto by "P.D.Q. Bach" where the strings have to imitate the "off" notes of the soloist!
July 9, 2019, 2:09 PM · Wow - thanks for this; even if you don't use it for 1/4s it will surely help for chromatics.
July 10, 2019, 7:07 AM · I think a better exercise for practicing chromatics is to play in broken whole-steps. Kind of like broken thirds helps you with diatonic scales.
July 10, 2019, 7:07 PM · As I mentioned once before, Armenian violinist Samvel Yervinyan uses quartertones in a lot of his playing, and it is ethnic stuff. But it works well with Yanni's material.
Edited: July 10, 2019, 8:02 PM · Paul, it would be just terrific if you would post a video in which you demonstrate how to best learn and use quartertones.

I must confess I didn't see virtuoso teacher Katz demonstrate that he has not "practiced and grooved" the scale he was teaching.

While we are waiting, I suggest that most uses of quartertones in our Western music culture would be to colour traditional tonal material, mostly in melodic contexts. Perhaps it might compare with "licking" the b5 into place in a blues context, (opposed to emphasising the b5, as beginners do).

The quartertones might be all the more valuable for being occasional, not frequent. Perhaps?

Other writers here have mentioned the music of other cultures. It is really interesting (I think) to follow the evolution of tonal music, modal music, and other music material from Hellenic roots, the translation of music theory from "Greek" to Arabic, to Latin (C8th), and so look at the divergence of material that was "theorised" from the time of Pythagoras.

Harmony is one great point of difference in these systems, as Joel pointed out.

Edited: July 11, 2019, 6:18 AM · Graeme, just for the record, I find Paul's comments on Mr Katz' demonstration correspond to what I hear..

I have been delving into Haba's music on U-toob: real 24 and 36-tone writing.
As with truly atonal 12-tone music, the notes become "neutral" and can seem randomly chosen, if the melodic and harmonic shapes do not manage to give them sense.

Edited: July 11, 2019, 8:06 AM · Graeme asked me to indicate how I would recommend learning and using quartertones.
My answer: Not at all.
If I wanted to play one of those ethnic styles that has a flat or sharp note here or there,* I would play those notes flat or sharp as needed, practicing in their unique flatness or sharpness as my skill allows. I would not be thinking of them as quartertones at all, because I don't really think that's what they are. I think that term is a crude westernization of what they are. Like saying "Peking" and "Bombay."
*They are cool to listen to once in a while, but I have enough trouble with diatonic intonation and already a sufficiency of hobbies.
Edited: July 11, 2019, 1:15 PM · I find Haba's quarter- and sixth-tones effective in Bartok-like sinuous melodies, but in arpeggios they just sound a bit "off".

Charles Ives' 1/4-tone pieces use the "cracked bell" jangling of chords.

July 11, 2019, 3:50 PM · I'll leave Ives to the pros. I can virtually guarantee that quartertone scales and arpeggios are not regular student fodder in the top conservatories. If I am wrong, then sorry, but they are wasting their time.
July 11, 2019, 6:02 PM · In one or two spots as I recall in the wonderful "Ballade" (and I suspect in other of his sonatas, but for sure , the "Ballade") Ysaye calls for quarter tones.
Edited: July 12, 2019, 5:45 AM · There are beautiful recordings with Kayhan Kalhor and Yo-Yo MA playing music with quartertone scales!
Yes, it's world music, but it works great with big ensembles also :)


July 12, 2019, 6:55 AM · Microtones have had their chance in western classical music but seem to have gone the way of serialism - just too "artificial" to gain general acceptance. On the other hand I have a 3-string (6-course) fretted instrument that I brought back from Turkey and has graced a high shelf gathering dust ever since (I think it's called a baglama or saz). The octave is divided into 17 non-equal sections, fret 7 equivalent to the western fourth and fret 10 to the fifth. Certainly not "artificial" - no-one in their right mind would devise a scale like that!
July 12, 2019, 7:14 AM · @Steve
You have to embrace the music, not the instrument. I have a charango, but I never play it, as I never play Andean music.
As for modern microtonal music, if the microtones don't form part of your modes (generalisation of scales), they aren't in the music, and probably never will be.
July 12, 2019, 7:44 AM · What Gordon said.
July 12, 2019, 9:55 AM · @Gorden, er, not quite sure what you mean there. Embracing some baglamy music on youtube, although it's clearly centred on the keynote and the fourth above, most of the rest of the scale sounds out of tune to my ears. I disagree with Paul in his first post - in this music I don't think the closer intervals are "warped" (implying ours are the correct ones) but simply different. Of course it all goes back to the harmonic series, but listen to the first minute of Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings to hear where that leads you if you apply it rigorously.
July 12, 2019, 12:22 PM · The only time I've practiced 1/4 tones was when Adams' Dr. Atomic symphony was making the rounds a few years ago. He used them to create a special effect that he described as "sea-sickness."

However, I was fine-tuning my vibrato recently and, as usual, I checked in with Simon Fisher's "The Violin Lesson" to see if there was anything new and interesting or old and forgotten that I should be doing and I discovered a really neat interval exercise where you play fingered micro-tones of diminishing width. 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/8, etc.. Eventually you start using the same finger instead of neighboring fingers, shifting, then sliding, then rocking.

I can't see much use for practicing scales like this, but it's certainly mentally expanding in terms of how you think about the distances between whole and half steps while playing regular tonal music. I've historically tended to think of a half-step as a kind of "musical pixel." In fact, my early teachers encouraged this thinking with cues like "a half step is the shortest distance between two pitches" and "when your fingers are as close to each other as they can be that's a half-step."

Visualizing the string as a long array of very tiny pitches that you skip over to play half steps gives a much roomier sense of space than does visualizing the string as an array of shrinking half-steps.

July 12, 2019, 1:19 PM · What a pity we don't all have fingers of the same thickness......
July 12, 2019, 1:44 PM · Nate B, your phrase "musical pixel" is clever. With vibrato, expressive intonation, and other nuances (such as the occasional quartertone and such), it's clear that we've entered the HD age!

It's also interesting what you said about Simon Fischer's advice. For a long time I could not figure out how to get nice vibrato in higher positions, especially with my fourth finger. Then one day I was listening to Anna Karkowska. Now, I cannot listen to her violin playing for more than about 10 seconds at a time, but I thought, what if I gave myself permission to slide just the tiniest bit during my vibrato? I don't think I actually do slide, but something changed -- the pressure I'm applying to the string, or the tension in my hand and fingers -- not sure what it was, but giving myself that permission revolutionized my high-position vibrato. I won't claim it's pro-level, but I've had a lot of compliments on it. So even though Karkowska is ordinarily the object of most violinists' derision, I owe her a minor debt of gratitude.

July 12, 2019, 2:48 PM · Sadly, Anna Karkowska passed away in February 2018.
July 13, 2019, 12:26 AM · Paul Deck, 1080P intonation! :D

I think sliding is a good way to practice vibrato. In fact, I still warm up my vibrato practice with a guitar position sliding exercise that Mr. Kendall taught me many moons ago as a small Suzuki student.

Simon Fischer's approach to vibrato completely changed how I think about it; he pointed out that the great old violinists did not vibrate by *oscillating* between a pitch and a slightly flatter one, but by *pulsing* the same pitch. I guess that is drifting pretty far from this thread's topic though.

Edited: July 13, 2019, 5:14 AM · Check this out. I heard this choir on the radio last night.
As far as I could understand, the song is about the sea voyage from island to island, and the quartertone descents represent the waves falling away from the side of the boat.

(here I need to confess that my ears can't tell if they really are quartertones, but the radio presenter was confident that they use quartertones, if not here, then elsewhere)

Edited: July 14, 2019, 3:16 PM · If you don't get out much you can always try generating and listening to microtones of frequencies of your choice, together with scales thereof, on an audio editor such as the free 'n' easy but decidedly effective Audacity (in its menu go to Generate/Tone).
July 15, 2019, 4:48 PM · Trevor, I hadn't thought of that; that's a great idea! I will do that as soon as I get home from this trip and have access to my linux thinkpad.

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