Weblog No. 2



In Europe and other parts of the world we are used to twelve equal intervals in an octave, since Andreas Werckmeister created the  well-tempered tuning and Johann Sebastian Bach composed systematically in all  keys in the Preludes and Fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Since then we are so used to 12 equal intervals in an octave that we easily could overlook the fact that this way of tuning is only one of many possibilities. 

Other cultures often have  different tunings; the intervals between the pitches in a mode are more varied and often differ from the tempered minor second existing in the western world. Intervals such as the ones in Persian, Turkish, Arabic and Indian music are normal for ears that are used to them. 


As I got used to traditional Turkish music in particular, I find it extremely tasteless to listen to music in those traditions being performed on well-tempered instruments like the  piano or vibraphone. On these instruments with their fixed tuning,  adaptation to non-western tunings  is almost impossible.

Almost….. because years ago I met a Palestinian accordeonist who had filed the tongues of his instrument in such a way that he could play the pitches right in arabic music. It shows how  these different traditions exclude each other in tuning. 

In the 20th century many composers in the western tradition have tried  to use micro-intervals,  meaning intervals smaller than the traditional minor second, and  the result was not always convincing. But yes, there are exceptions. For example the Greek-French composer Yannis Xenakis used pitches and intervals not existing in well-tempered  tuning in practically all his works,  and never the Impression was created that his pitches were ' out of tune’  because his musical language was far removed from the traditional dichotomy in melody and harmony, mostly closer to the structure of hailstorms, or sounds of war, this last influence being not so strange because he fought in the Greek civil war in mid 20th century. 

Another composer convincingly having escaped  the well-tempered  tuning is the rather unknown Dutch composer Sander Germanus. Amazingly so, because his compositions  have stronger ties with the traditional way of creating melody and harmony, ties that are absent in Xenakis’ works. 


This is a chapter from ‘Memoires of a composer’ to be published in Dutch, February 2018 by  Prometheus, Amsterdam . .