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Quarter tone

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Title: Quarter tone  
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Subject: Neutral sixth, Neutral second, List of pitch intervals, Consonance and dissonance, List of quarter tone pieces
Collection: Musical Scales, Quarter Tones
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Quarter tone

A quarter tone About this sound play  , is a pitch halfway between the usual notes of a chromatic scale or an interval about half as wide (aurally, or logarithmically) as a semitone, which is half a whole tone.

Trumpet with 3 normal valves and a quartering on the extension valve (right).

Many Ivan Alexandrovich Wyschnegradsky, and Iannis Xenakis (see List of quarter tone pieces).


  • Types of quarter tones 1
  • Playing quarter tones on musical instruments 2
  • Music of the Middle East 3
    • Quarter tone scale 3.1
  • In popular music 4
  • Ancient Greek tetrachords 5
  • Interval size in equal temperament 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

Types of quarter tones

Composer Charles Ives chose the four-note chord above as good possibility for a "fundamental" chord in the quarter-tone scale, akin not to the tonic but to the major chord of traditional tonality.[3]     or About this sound play  

The term quarter tone can refer to a number of different intervals, all very close in size. For example, some 17th- and 18th-century theorists used the term to describe the distance between a sharp and enharmonically distinct flat in mean-tone temperaments (e.g., D–E).[4] In the quarter tone scale, also called 24 tone equal temperament (24-TET), the quarter tone is 50 cents, or a frequency ratio of 21/24 or approximately 1.0293, and divides the octave into 24 equal steps (equal temperament). In this scale the quarter tone is the smallest step. A semitone is thus made of two steps, and three steps make a three-quarter tone About this sound play   or neutral second, half of a minor third.

In just intonation the quarter tone can be represented by the septimal quarter tone, 36:35 (48.77 cents), or by the undecimal quarter tone, 33:32 (53.27 cents), approximately half the semitone of 16:15 or 25:24. The ratio of 36:35 is only 1.23 cents narrower than a 24-TET quarter tone. This just ratio is also the difference between a minor third (6:5) and septimal minor third (7:6).

Quarter tones and intervals close to them also occur in a number of other equally tempered tuning systems. 22-TET contains an interval of 54.55 cents, slightly wider than a quarter-tone, whereas 53-TET has an interval of 45.28 cents, slightly smaller. 72-TET also has equally tempered quarter-tones, and indeed contains 3 quarter tone scales, since 72 is divisible by 24.

Composer Ben Johnston, to accommodate the just septimal quarter tone, uses a small "7" (7) as an accidental to indicate a note is lowered 49 cents, or an upside down "" (7 upside-down) to indicate a note is raised 49 cents,[5] or a ratio of 36/35.[6] Johnston uses an upward and downward arrow to indicate a note is raised or lowered by a ratio of 33/32, or 53 cents.[6]

Playing quarter tones on musical instruments

A quarter tone clarinet by Fritz Schüller.

Because many musical instruments manufactured today are designed for the 12-tone scale, not all are usable for playing quarter tones. Sometimes special playing techniques must be used.

Conventional musical instruments that cannot play quarter tones (except by using special techniques—see below) include

  • Most standard or unmodified non-electronic keyboard instruments, such as accordions
  • Fretted string instruments such as guitars, bass guitars, and ukuleles (though on these it is possible to play quarter tones by pitch-bending or with special tunings)
  • Pitched percussion instruments, if standard techniques are used, and if the instruments are not tunable
  • Western wind instruments that use keys or valves
    • Woodwind instruments, such as clarinets, flutes, and oboes (though with many of these, it is still possible using non-standard techniques such as special fingerings or by the player manipulating their embouchure, to play at least some quarter tones, if not a whole scale)
    • Valved brass instruments (trumpet, tuba) (though, as with woodwinds, embouchure manipulation, as well as harmonic tones that fall closer to quarter-tones than half-tones, make quarter-tone scales possible; the horn technique of adjusting pitch with the right hand in the bell makes this instrument an exception)

Conventional musical instruments that can play quarter tones include

Experimental instruments have been built to play in quarter tones, for example a quarter tone clarinet by Fritz Schüller (1883–1977) of Markneukirchen.

Other instruments can be used to play quarter tones when using audio signal processing effects such as pitch shifting.

Pairs of conventional instruments tuned a quarter tone apart can be used to play some quarter tone music. Indeed, quarter-tone pianos have been built, which consist essentially of two pianos stacked one above the other in a single case, one tuned a quarter tone higher than the other.

Music of the Middle East

While the use of quarter tones in modern Western music is a more recent and experimental phenomenon, these and other microtonal intervals have been an important part of the music of Iran (Persia), the Arab world, Armenia, Turkey, Assyria, Kurdistan, and neighboring lands and areas for many centuries.

Many Arabic maqamat contain intervals of three-quarter tone size; a short list of these follows.[7]

  1. Shoor (Bayati) About this sound play  
    شور (بیاتی)
    D Ehalf flat F G A B C D
  2. Rast About this sound play  
    C D Ehalf flat F G A Bhalf flat C
    with a B replacing the Bhalf flat in the descending scale
  3. Sabba About this sound play  
    D Ehalf flat F G A B C D
  4. Siga About this sound play  
    سه گاه
    Ehalf flat F G A Bhalf flat C D Ehalf flat
  5. ‘Ajam
  6. Hussayni

The Islamic philosopher and scientist Al-Farabi described a number of intervals in his work in music, including a number of quarter tones.

Assyrian/Syriac Church Music Scale:[8]

  • 1 - Qadmoyo (Bayati)
  • 2 - Trayono (Hussayni)
  • 3 - Tlithoyo (Segah)
  • 4 - Rbi‘oyo (Rast)
  • 5 - Hmishoyo
  • 6 - Shtithoyo (‘Ajam)
  • 7 - Shbi‘oyo
  • 8 - Tminoyo

Quarter tone scale

Quarter tone scale on C ascending and descending. About this sound Play  
Composer Charles Ives chose the chord above as good possibility for a "secondary" chord in the quarter-tone scale, akin to the minor chord of traditional tonality. He considered that it may be built upon any degree of the quarter tone scale.[3] About this sound Play  

Known as gadwal in Arabic,[9] the quarter tone scale was developed in the Middle East in the eighteenth century and many of the first detailed writings in the nineteenth century Syria describe the scale as being of 24 equal tones.[10] The invention of the scale is attributed to Mikhail Mishaqa whose work Essay on the Art of Music for the Emir Shihāb (al-Risāla al-shihābiyya fi 'l-ṣinā‘a al-mūsīqiyya) is devoted to the topic but also makes clear his teacher Sheikh Muhammad al-‘Attār (1764-1828) was one of many already familiar with the concept.[11]

The quarter tone scale may be primarily a theoretical construct in Arabic music. The quarter tone gives musicians a "conceptual map" they can use to discuss and compare intervals by number of quarter tones, and this may be one of the reasons it accompanies a renewed interest in theory, with instruction in music theory a mainstream requirement since that period.[10]

Previously, pitches of a mode were chosen from a scale consisting of seventeen tones, developed by Safi 'I-Din al-Urmawi in the thirteenth century.[11]

In popular music

The Japanese multi-instrumentalist and experimental musical instrument builder Yuichi Onoue developed a 24-TET quarter tone tuning on his guitar.[12] Norwegian guitarist Ronni Le Tekrø of the band TNT used a quarter-step guitar on the band's third studio album, Intuition.

Ancient Greek tetrachords

Greek Dorian enharmonic genus: two disjunct tetrachords each of a quarter tone, quarter tone, and major third. About this sound Play  

The enharmonic genus of the Greek tetrachord consisted of a ditone or an approximate major third, and a semitone, which was divided into two microtones. Aristoxenos, Didymos and others presented the semitone as being divided into two approximate quarter tone intervals of about the same size, while other ancient Greek theorists described the microtones resulting from dividing the semitone of the enharmonic genus as unequal in size (i.e., one smaller than a quarter tone and one larger).[13]

Interval size in equal temperament

Here are the sizes of some common intervals in a 24-note equally tempered scale, with the interval names proposed by Alois Hába (neutral third, etc.) and Ivan Wyschnegradsky (major fourth, etc.):

interval name size (steps) size (cents) midi just ratio just (cents) midi error
octave 24 1200 About this sound play   2:1 1200.00 About this sound play   0.00
semidiminished octave 23 1150 About this sound play   35:18 1151.23 About this sound play   −1.23
supermajor seventh 23 1150 About this sound play   27:14 1137.03 +12.96
major seventh 22 1100 About this sound play   15:8 1088.27 About this sound play   +11.73
neutral seventh 21 1050 About this sound play   11:6 1049.36 About this sound play   +0.64
large just minor seventh 20 1000 About this sound play   9:5 1017.60 About this sound play   −17.60
small just minor seventh 20 1000 About this sound play   16:9 996.09 About this sound play   +3.91
supermajor sixth/subminor seventh 19 950 About this sound play   7:4 968.83 About this sound play   −18.83
major sixth 18 900 About this sound play   5:3 884.36 About this sound play   +15.64
neutral sixth 17 850 About this sound play   18:11 852.59 About this sound play   −2.59
minor sixth 16 800 About this sound play   8:5 813.69 About this sound play   −13.69
subminor sixth 15 750 About this sound play   14:9 764.92 About this sound play   −14.92
perfect fifth 14 700 About this sound play   3:2 701.95 About this sound play   −1.95
minor fifth 13 650 About this sound play   16:11 648.68 About this sound play   +1.32
lesser septimal tritone 12 600 About this sound play   7:5 582.51 About this sound play   +17.49
major fourth 11 550 About this sound play   11:8 551.32 About this sound play   −1.32
perfect fourth 10 500 About this sound play   4:3 498.05 About this sound play   +1.95
tridecimal major third 9 450 About this sound play   13:10 454.21 About this sound play   −4.21
septimal major third 9 450 About this sound play   9:7 435.08 About this sound play   +14.92
major third 8 400 About this sound play   5:4 386.31 About this sound play   +13.69
undecimal neutral third 7 350 About this sound play   11:9 347.41 About this sound play   +2.59
minor third 6 300 About this sound play   6:5 315.64 About this sound play   −15.64
septimal minor third 5 250 About this sound play   7:6 266.88 About this sound play   −16.88
tridecimal minor third 5 250 About this sound play   15:13 247.74 About this sound play   +2.26
septimal whole tone 5 250 About this sound play   8:7 231.17 About this sound play   +18.83
whole tone, major tone 4 200 About this sound play   9:8 203.91 About this sound play   −3.91
whole tone, minor tone 4 200 About this sound play   10:9 182.40 About this sound play   +17.60
neutral second, greater undecimal 3 150 About this sound play   11:10 165.00 About this sound play   −15.00
neutral second, lesser undecimal 3 150 About this sound play   12:11 150.64 About this sound play   −0.64
15:14 semitone 2 100 About this sound play   15:14 119.44 −19.44
diatonic semitone, just 2 100 About this sound play   16:15 111.73 About this sound play   −11.73
21:20 semitone 2 100 About this sound play   21:20 84.47 About this sound play   +15.53
28:27 semitone 1 50 About this sound play   28:27 62.96 About this sound play   −12.96
septimal quarter tone 1 50 About this sound play   36:35 48.77 About this sound play   +1.23

Moving from 12-TET to 24-TET allows the better approximation of a number of intervals. Intervals matched particularly closely include the neutral second, neutral third, and (11:8) ratio, or the 11th harmonic. The septimal minor third and septimal major third are approximated rather poorly; the (13:10) and (15:13) ratios, involving the 13th harmonic, are matched very closely. Overall, 24-TET can be viewed as matching the 11th and 13th harmonics more closely than the 7th.

See also


  1. ^ Touma, Habib Hassan (1996). The Music of the Arabs, p.16. Trans. Laurie Schwartz. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0-931340-88-8.
  2. ^ Julian Rushton., "Quarter-Tone", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).
  3. ^ a b Boatwright, Howard (1965). "Ives' Quarter-Tone Impressions", Perspectives of New Music 3, no. 2 (Spring-Summer): pp. 22–31; citations on pp. 27–28; reprinted in Perspectives on American Composers, edited by Benjamin Boretz and Edward T. Cone, pp. 3-12, New York: W. W. Norton, 1971, citation on pp. 8–9. "These two chords outlined above might be termed major and minor."
  4. ^ Julian Rushton, "Quarter-tone", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).
  5. ^ Douglas Keislar; Easley Blackwood; John Eaton; Lou Harrison; Ben Johnston; Joel Mandelbaum; William Schottstaedt. p.193. "Six American Composers on Nonstandard Tunnings", Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 29, No. 1. (Winter, 1991), pp. 176-211.
  6. ^ a b Fonville, John (Summer, 1991). "Ben Johnston's Extended Just Intonation: A Guide for Interpreters", p.114, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 106-137.
  7. ^ Spector, Johanna (May 1970). "Classical 'Ud Music in Egypt with Special Reference to Maqamat". Ethnomusicology 14 (2): 243–257.  
  8. ^ Asaad, Gabriel (1990). Syria's Music Throughout History
  9. ^ "Classical 'Ud Music in Egypt with Special Reference to Maqamat", p.246. Johanna Spector. Ethnomusicology, Vol. 14, No. 2. (May, 1970), pp. 243-257.
  10. ^ a b Marcus, Scott (1993)."The Interface between Theory and Practice: Intonation in Arab Music", Asian Music, Vol. 24, No. 2. (Spring - Summer, 1993), pp. 39-58.
  11. ^ a b Maalouf, Shireen (2003). "Mikhii'il Mishiiqa: Virtual Founder of the Twenty-Four Equal Quartertone Scale", Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 123, No. 4. (Oct. - Dec., 2003), pp. 835-840.
  12. ^ Yuichi Onoue on
  13. ^ Chalmers, John H. Jr. (1993). Divisions of the Tetrachord. Hanover, NH: Frog Peak Music. ISBN 0-945996-04-7 Chapter 5, Page 49

Further reading

  • Bartolozzi, Bruno (1967). New Sounds for Woodwind. London, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Bousted, Donald (2002). "Microtonality, the Recorder and the Quarter-Tone Recorder Manual". The Recorder Magazine 22, no. 3 (Fall): 99–102.
  • Bousted, Donald (2005). "Next Step Quarter-Tone Resources: Melody". The Recorder Magazine 25, no. 3 (Fall): 88–91.
  • Caravan, Ronald R. (1979). Preliminary Exercises and Etudes in Contemporary Techniques for Clarinet: Introductory Material for the Study of Multiphonics, Quarter Tones, and Timbre Variation. [Oswego, N.Y.]: Ethos Publications.
  • Ellis, Don (1975). Quarter Tones: A Text with Musical Examples, Exercises and Etudes. Plainview, N.Y.: Harold Branch Pub. Co.
  • MacDonald, John (1822). A Treatise on the Harmonic System Arising from the Vibrations of the Aliquot Divisions of Strings According to the Gradual Progress of the Notes from the Middle, to the Remote Extremes: Explaining Simply, by Curved Delineations, the Manner in Which the Harmonic Tones, Half and Quarter Notes, Are Generated and Produced on Every Corresponding Part of the String; and under a Copious Explanatory Description Illustrated by Musical and Appropriate Plates, Giving an Easy and Familiar Adaptation of the Whole to the Purposes of Composition and Instrumental Music, and More Particularly, to the Practice of the Violin, Tenor, Violoncello and Double Bass, on All the Strings, and in Every Compass of These Instruments, by Every Practical Mode of Execution; with Some Musical Animadversions Introductory of the General Subject, Briefly Alluding to the Rise and Progress of Music, and to the Corrections of Temperament: and Stating Various Improvements of Instruments, Experimentally Ascertained: Concluding with an Application or Two of the Principle of Musical Notes, to Purposes of Utility, and a Reference to Terms Less Generally Noticed. London: Printed for the Author, and Sold by T. Preston.
  • Möllendorff, Willi, and Joe Monzo (2001). Music with Quarter-Tones: Experiences at the Bichromatic Harmonium. [United States]: J. Monzo.
  • Rees, Carla (2007). "Eva Kingma and the Quarter-Tone Flute". Pan: The Flute Magazine 26, no. 4:23-29.
  • Rewoldt, Todd (2000). "Altissimo Quarter-Tones for the Alto Saxophone". Saxophone Symposium 25:56–69.

External links

  • "quarter-tone / 24-edo",
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