But What About the Microtones?

by Andre Fludd, January 18, 2017

From the moment I started studying South Indian classical (Carnatic) music as performed on the electric guitar, the biggest question I’ve received is “but what about the microtones?” Thanks to the work of the great Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and Veena Balachander in the 1960s, everyone from the metalcore guitarist to the international businessman knows something about Indian classical music; namely, microtones are what make Indian music different from Western music. The next logical assumption is that a Western fretted instrument like the guitar can’t possible fit in such a tradition. Yet, in the capital city of Carnatic music, Chennai, India, there are plenty of musicians performing classical music on guitar, mandolin, and even keyboard. Has South India secretly parted with their microtones? Well no, but some talented musicians such as Guitar Prasanna, and the late Mandolin Srinivas have taught the world a lot about how so-called microtones can be played on Western string instruments.

I would argue that the guitar is the most versatile Western string instrument, and that isn’t just because I’m a guitarist. In jazz it can be used to accompany a big band, mimic the solo lines of a trumpet, and some guitarists can even do both simultaneously. The guitar has a significant Western classical repertoire, and can recreate the music of many other classical instruments. And every teenager who enters Guitar Center on a Saturday knows that it is essential to nearly every rock, blues, and singer songwriter genre around the world. One of the reasons why the guitar is so versatile is because it has equal tempered fixed frets. This allows one to play any scale made up of the guitars 12 notes without retuning, which in turn gives way to advanced harmonic possibilities. Everything from the Well-Tempered Clavier, to jazz chord substitutions is possible because of this temperament system. Carnatic music is quite different.

When a Carnatic vocalist sings, for example, they do so against a tonic and dominant* drone as opposed to a chord progression. Not only are chord progressions not utilized, but singing to a drone also naturally gives way to a more in tune or true tempered sound. As such, the Carnatic tradition would not benefit from an equally tempered system, which is the first reason why, on a theoretical level, many Western instruments should not fit. Carnatic music is made up of a combination of songs and improvisations that are composed from ragas, or scales with built in melodic vocabulary, and gamakas (microtones), the second reason why Western instruments might appear to be an anomaly. But there are also some similarities between Carnatic and Western theory. Both traditions utilize the same seven primary pitches, and then build 12 total notes.** Moreover, in a single scale no more than 7 notes are ever employed at one time. Still, one could argue that scale temperament and microtones must separate the two traditions, but is this argument justified?

The hyperbolized comparisons between East and West have been around for hundreds of years, and extend dialectically far beyond music: traditional vs. modern, mysticism vs. science, and yes, melody vs. harmony. Luckily for us, music may be the area where these polarities are most easily dispelled. Let’s start with the classic musical examples: the piano, a product of the Western industrial revolution, and the very precise mathematical tunings that influence how a vocalist might otherwise naturally sing. In India, there is the polar opposite: a hand-made tambura (string drone instrument) that is carefully tuned by ear, allowing a vocalist to sing perfectly in tune using just intonation. But these narratives very colorfully ignore much of their respective traditions. For example, Western string quartets and choirs have no limitations in regards to temperament, while the Carnatic tradition’s most revered solo melodic instrument, the Saraswati veena, has fixed frets that are not perfectly intoned.

We move to Microtones, an oddly intimidating word that is usually reserved for Eastern music and maverick experimental Western composers. Yet, within Western music there are coloratura and glissando techniques, and in Carnatic music, ragas that are mathematical instead of phrase-based. Can a blues musician really be affective without bends, or gentle scoops from one note to another?

Every musician understands that intonation is extremely important, which is why we all spend countless hours attempting to perfect it. There is a very small spectrum of what is considered in tune in any genre of music, but a spectrum it is nonetheless, and many instruments fit into it. Moreover, although gamakas are often microtonal, they can be employed on a diverse array of instruments including Western fretted ones. In the case of Carnatic music, fretted instruments certainly have a lasting space, which has been demonstrated by successful musicians who pioneered their use: Guitar Prasanna and the late Mandolin Srinivas. When one listens to them play, it is clear that the beauty of Carnatic music is maintained in their music.

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Andre Fludd is a Ph.D. student of Ethnomusicology at the City University of New York, and a student of Carnatic (guitar) music, who presented some of this fascinating research at the Shastra Symposium 2016. Listen to him play “Abogi Varnam” here.

*Some ragas require the drone to be tuned to tonic and sub dominant.
**There are technically 16 notes in Carnatic music, but the 4 additional notes are a special category (vivadi swaras), which are derived from combining the original 12 with specific movements.

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