Why Just Intonation?

I stumbled into the world of Just Intonation music by mistake…   it was like seeing a brand new world for the very first time.  One that had long existed in beauty, splendor, and majesty. But for me it was unknown and unexplored. Powerful and glorious, but unused and ignored.


I stepped into the wardrobe and experienced  new and exciting possibilities that were previously inconceivable.  Standing there transfixed in this new world, I experienced new flavors of melody and harmony.  All very wonderful and exciting.

12 notes per octave… I never knew music could be built on anything except this.  It was to me the universal truth of what music really was.  The foundation.  But to my dismay, I had been living inside of a 2-dimensional monochrome world, while the portal to a shiny new bright and colorful reality was staring me straight in the face.

Now don’t get me wrong. 12ET can of course produce some beautiful music.  I will always play and listen to music based on it.  But it is just one way of looking at things.  Just Intonation opens the doors to an unexplored world of sound and the relationships between pitches.  These are real and meaningful musical harmonies that most musicians have never heard.  In Just intonation you have a wealth of harmonious treasure, far more so than what 12-ET can offer.  There are so many different ways to combine tones that are just not possible with 12 equally spaced tones per octave.

We are accustomed to hearing 12ET even before birth, so hearing music based on Just Intonation is probably going to seem a bit strange to us at first.  But the reality, believe it or not, is that 12ET is out of tune, and because it’s an equal temperament with only 12 notes, that also limits us in what we are allowed to do creatively. Surprised?  Or unfazed?  Just Intonation is just so much richer and deeper in many different ways.

There are some equal temperaments that are amazing.  72 is probably my favorite and I’d put it up against JI any day.  Our good old 12ET exists within it, but in what I like to call 6 variations. 

I took some time looking these places up, so please allow me to elaborate.  If playing in 12-ET is like swimming in a swimming pool at a hotel resort, then playing in Just Intonation is more like swimming out in the Hanauma Bay in Oahu Hawaii, or in the charming rivers of Bonito, Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil.

Bonito, Mato Grosso do Sul – Brazil
Bonito, Mato Grosso do Sul – Brazil
Bonito, Mato Grosso do Sul – Brazil

Sure the resort swimming pools are nice, but the latter are more natural,  and far more exciting in my book.  They may be a bit more dangerous and less tame, but the possibilities of experiences that can be had far exceed anything in a closed up and manicured hotel resort swimming pool.  The trade off is that it’s not as easy to compose and play complex music in Just Intonation.  The way I see it, creating and preparing the scale tones and how the intervals will relate to each other will be just as much an art and science as actually composing and playing the music itself.  Also you’ll need to use MIDI instruments and software that allows for micro-tonality. Or have your instruments modified, or new ones designed. This is not for everyone.

With 12ET or most other equal temperaments  for that matter (or at least ones that are octave based and cycle), you’re dealing with intervals that are always the same distance apart. Which can be constant and stable, but limiting in this aspect.

Just Intonation scales are a bit different.  A chromatic scale can have intervals in it that are all different in sizes.  This mean that there’s more “danger” for running into some dissonance that you’ve never encountered before. That can be a bit unsettling and scary at first, but there is also the possibility to find and experience beauty and excitement that would never have been.

12ET has helped us move forward in music in some amazing ways.  But I truly believe that it would be very unfortunate if we stop there.   We can do more.

Much exploration, adventure and discovery await us if only we’d open our minds, our hearts and our ears to something different than what we’re accustomed to.

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