Dial M reader Michael Ethen, a musicology graduate student at McGill University, sent me a very funny, Spinal-Tap-like Youtube moment this morning. Van Halen is starting to play their old hit "Jump"* at an arena concert and the synthesizer intro goes all microtonal:
Apparently, the reason for this train wreck is that the synthesizer intro was played back at the wrong setting — 44.1 Khz as opposed to 48 Khz. I'm not really sure what this means, but I'll just reproduce it uncritically from more informed sources. Interested parties are directed to this blog post, which goes into the kind of technical detail normally reserved for JFK assassination theorists' quarrels over ballistics. Whatever the reason, though, the result is pretty funny:
I can’t tell which is funnier, this long-hated cheesebag-anthem turned
into a much more interesting, atonal mess in front of thousands of
paying customers or the hilarious soldiering on of the Van Halens as
they look at each other from inside the trainwreck. Eddie tries to
transpose on the fly and match the wildly fucked up keyboards but the
great thing there is the difference in pitch is non-musical – about 1.5
semitones sharp. So there’s no frets he can choose to fix the problem!
If Harry Patch were alive he'd blow a gasket at this point — a microtonal difference in pitch isn't "non-musical," it's just outside the universe of equal-tone temperament. Partch looked at guitar frets like they were the bars of a musical prison, and microtonal composers ever since have talked about how liberating it is once you start hearing microtonal intervals as musical sounds and not noise. Composer/blogger Kyle Gann compares hearing music in just intonation (where the semitone divisions of the octave are not all the same size) to seeing in color after living in a black and white world:
My teacher, Ben Johnston, was convinced that our tuning is responsible for
much of our cultural psychology, the fact that we are so geared toward
progress and action and violence and so little attuned to
introspection, contentment, and acquiesence. Equal temperament could be
described as the musical equivalent to eating a lot of red meat and
processed sugars and watching violent action films. The music doesn't
turn your attention inward, it makes you want to go out and work off
your nervous energy on something.
On a more subtle level, after I've been immersed in just intonation for a
couple of weeks, equal temperament music begins to sound insipid,
bland, colorless. There are only eleven types of intervals available
instead of the potential several dozen that exist in even the simplest
just system, and you don't get gradations of different sizes of major
third or major sixths the way you do in just tuning. On a piano in just
intonation, moving from one tonic to another changes the whole interval
makeup of the key, and you get a really specific, visceral feel for
where you are on the pitch map. That feeling disappears in bland,
all-keys-the-same equal temperament. As a composer, I enjoy having the
option, if I'm going to use a minor third interval, of being able to
choose among the 7/6, 6/5, 19/16, and 11/9 varieties, each with its own
Far beyond the mere theoretical purity, playing in just intonation for long
periods sensitizes me to a myriad colors, and coming back to the equal
tempered world is like seeing everything click back into black and
white. It's a disappointing readjustment. Come to think of it, maybe
you shouldn't try just intonation – you'll become unfit to live in the
West, and have to move to India or Bali.
Composers love saying stuff like this — "if only you could experience music as richly as I do . . ." Still, it's an interesting thought.
*a sentimental favorite of mine — I remember sitting in our basement rec room when I was 15 years old and watching it on "Friday Night Videos," which was (I think) the first Canadian broadcast to show music videos (this was before MuchMusic, the Canadian MTV clone, started up). This was the summer I was dating my first girlfriend, and "Jump" was kind of "our song."** God, that's kind of embarrassing.
**On second though, more like "my song vis-a-vis my girlfriend, though she may not have been aware of it." This doesn't make it any better. Why am I telling you this?