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Short History of Natural Harmonic Music

[Denny Genovese] Natural Harmonic Music ] [ Short History of Natural Harmonic Music ] Moods of Tunings ]

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by Denny Genovese

This work began in ancient Greece, when Pythagoras experimented with vibrating strings and found that pitch is inversely proportional to length. He also found that the pitches related by small numbered ratios blended more readily with each other than those with large number ratios.

Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, musical scales were conceived as various combinations and sequences of pitches related by the ratios of 1, 2, and 3 (the first three harmonics of the Natural series). Music produced with those pitch materials had a relatively somber mood (even when the object was to express joy), where octaves fifths and fourths were the most consonant, while thirds and sixths were dissonant! This was because the formulas used for those intervals were derived by compound ratios of two and three, which multiplied successively produced very high numbered ratios of frequencies. Failure to exert the discipline required to sing the so-called "Pythagorean" intervals, and inadvertently singing the much more natural thirds of the harmonic series, was considered a sin. This era was characterized by the Inquisition.

In the 1500s, singers in England began to intone their thirds and sixths using frequency ratios that included the number five (enter the fifth harmonic). This interval was simpler than the medieval thirds and so the sound was sweet, rather then harsh. On the continent, the sweet music was called the "English Sound" and became very popular, very fast. Within a Century, European culture was flowering as never before, and we now call it the Renaissance.

The seventh harmonic found it's way into American Music via African songs, sung by slaves. This brought yet another quality into Western Consciousness that might be called frankness, or even Spiciness.

At the same time however, the popularity of keyboard instruments grew. These early instruments were rigid in pitch and were not capable of playing the increasingly sophisticated music of the times in perfect tune in all keys. There were not enough keys on the keyboard for that. Though other choices might have been made, the problem was approached by compromise: All the pitches were slightly detuned so that while none of them retained the psychoacoustic qualities of the Harmonic ratios from which they had been derived, the scales sounded the same, no matter what key they were played in. The subtle beauty of seven limit tonality, which had been developed over such a long course of time, was quickly replaced by the subtle tension of the compromised "Tempered" tuning which pretends to be "normal", while fitting into a rigid and limited set of artificial possibilities, none of which offer the undisturbed strength of small number ratios of frequencies.*

By the dawn of the 20th century, this "tempered" keyboard tuning had became the norm for all Western Music, though unaccompanied singers, string ensembles and certain wind ensembles continued to play the true Harmonically derived pitches.

Most 20th century composers and musicians accepted the 12 tone equal tempered scale as "normal" and lost awareness of the profound effects music had on their ancestors. It was thought that Tonality had reached a dead end, as everything that could be done with the twelve notes of the piano scale had been done already. Schoenberg and his followers declared that music was to become intellectual, and that emotion needed to be found in other parameters of music, while tension and relaxation in the realm of pitch  was to be avoided. Social tension mounted in the ensuing decades, as Industrialization and mass production flourished, and sensitivity was seen as weakness. There were two world wars, economic catastrophes and a general disregard for Nature which brought about profound environmental trauma.

Yet, a handful of 20th century composers and musicians rediscovered the Natural Harmonic intervals, and created music with them. Henry Cowell saw the historical progression of music and culture with each newly accepted higher numbered harmonic, and wrote a book about how the use of still higher harmonics could solve the riddle of the 12 tone "squirrel cage", and make possible music with more possibilities for moods and feelings than had ever existed in the past. Harry Partch completely reinvented his music, by not only introducing the ninth harmonic in his compositions, but the 11th, as well. Partch also used the mathematical inversions of the harmonic series, to double his pallet of tonality. Lou Harrison expanded his reach to include even higher numbered harmonics in some of his work. Partch and Harrison built special instruments so that they could play their music with the natural intervals.

Ivor Darreg understood the effect that the intervals used in music had on it's "mood," and experimented with a great number of scales and intervals, played on original instruments designed for the purpose. Ivor documented his impressions of those effects.

In 1976, while following Partch's advice to learn about pitch relationships through the experience of building my own instruments, I (Denny Genovese) accidentally invented the Fipple Pipe. This is a long tube with a recorder-like mouthpiece that has a flute-like sound. It has no finger holes, but is played by varying the breath pressure in order to excite different harmonics of the tube's resonant frequency. This is the same phenomena that operates in valve-less brass instruments such as the bugle, early trumpets and modern trombones. The melodies played on these instruments consists of the natural unaltered harmonic series intervals, which extend to the 17th harmonic. This scale, while having similarities to the diatonic, has a semi-sharp 4th (11th harmonic), a semi-flat 6th (13th harmonic) a very flat 7th (7th and 14th harmonics) as well as the "normal" sounding Major 2nds (9th harmonic), Major 3rds(5th and 10th harmonics), Perfect 5ths(3rd, 6th and 12th harmonics), Major 7th (15th harmonic) and minor 2nds (17th harmonic). Combinations of pipes in keys related by harmonic ratios, enable open ended possibilities of melodic and harmonic movement in "hocketing" ensemble arrangements.

That was the beginning of a lifelong quest to explore the Harmonic Series for music making, with a sensitivity to the subtle differences in "mood" that the various modes and inversions of this scale provide, as well as those available through combinations. It is the purpose behind my custom instruments and the methods I use to play them.

* An intermediate form of temperament existed in the early days of the piano, that is not as extreme as twelve tone equal temperament. This tuning, called Meantone, has true sounding thirds, but with the fifths somewhat flat. Ralph David Hill has produced some recordings of piano music in meantone, and they are available on this website. Other forms of tuning also exist, including Equal Temperaments of various numbers of tones per octave. Each tuning has it's virtues and problems. I use the Natural Harmonic Series as the basic scale for my music, as it serves all of my musical needs and suits my taste perfectly.

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