MusicWords Logo

Just Intonation, Part 1

Just intonation is a general term for a variety of tuning systems -- ways of tuning the notes of the scale in relation to one another. If you can't quite imagine why you would want to do that, keep reading. I'll try to make it clear.

In the course of this tutorial you'll be able to download a few short audio examples that I hope will explain just intonation in a way that words never could. The simplest way to talk about the idea may be to point out that intervals (two tones sounding at once) have subjective, emotional qualities. A perfect fifth sounds solid, a minor second sounds harsh and unsettled, a major sixth sounds sweet, and so on. Just intonation is a tool that allows us to explore the emotional qualities of intervals in greater depth than is possible with the conventional method of tuning the scale.

In a certain sense, just intonation is simple and natural. That's what makes it a wonderful discovery. All you need is a synthesizer with a tuning table to unleash whole worlds of sonority that you may never have known existed. At the same time, it's also a deep and complicated subject. Books have been written about it. Since most of you probably don't want to read an entire book (and I don't want to write one), I'm going to structure this tutorial in such a way that you can jump in at any point that interests you, learn what you need to know, and move on.

Depending on your needs and inclination, you can read about:

Before you dive in, though, you might be wondering -- what's the point? Do you need just intonation to make your life complete? Probably not.

The way I look at it, music is an unbelievably huge box of toys. You can aspire to dizzying heights of subtlety, or just bang on things as hard as you can. It's music either way. You can strive to reproduce flawlessly styles that are hundreds of years old, and play on replicas of instruments that were in use at the time, or you can throw out all the rules, plug in a computer, and do something that's never been heard before. It's music either way. You can play by yourself in your room, or get together with 60 or 70 other people in an orchestra. You can be icily analytical, or wallow in raw emotion. It's music either way.

With so many choices available, I'd be a fool to try to over-sell just intonation. It's a fairly esoteric subject. Get a hundred musicians together in a room, and not more than one or two of them will be interested in it, or even know what it is. (And the two who do know will get into a passionate argument about which tuning system is better.)

But if you're the kind of musician who likes focusing on the subtleties of sound; if you enjoy knowing a little about theory rather than just playing what feels right; if you don't mind playing for small audiences, or are content to have music as a hobby; and if you have access to an instrument that can be retuned in precise ways without too much difficulty; then just intonation may be exactly what you've been looking for.


Except where noted, all contents of are (c) 2006 Jim Aikin.
All rights reserved, including reprint and electronic distribution rights.