On Just Intonation

Drums & Drones is composed according to the principles of Just Intonation.

What is Just Intonation?  It is a type of tuning system based on the naturally occurring acoustic phenomenon known as the overtone series.

What is the overtone series?  Overtones are ‘building blocks’ of sound, kind of like a type of ‘musical DNA.’  Almost every sound is actually made up of a string of quieter subsidiary sounds.  For example, the tone in a person’s voice is actually composed of several tones rather than just one.  These ‘secondary’ tones are called overtones.  An important factor in what distinguishes one sound from the next is the prominence of different overtones.

How are overtones related to Just Intonation?  Overtones exist in a very specific order known as the ‘overtone series.’  This series can be thought of as a specific type of musical scale.  What is fascinating is that the structure of the overtone series is the same for every sound no matter what, the only thing different is the prominence of different overtones along the chain.  This structure follows a very specific formula in the same way a musical scale follows a type of formula.   The structure, or ‘intonation,’ of the overtone series is different than that of 12-tone equal temperament, the scale system to which we are most accustomed.  The formula for the structure of the overtone series  is Just Intonation, or “nature’s tuning system” as it is commonly known.

What is the structure of Just Intonation?  A key component of Just Intonation is the way in which its pitches are structured.  All of the pitches in a Just Intonation ‘scale’ are derived naturally from a single root pitch.  This root pitch is known as the fundamental.  By dividing the fundamental into whole equal parts the subsidiary tones are derived.  For example, if we divide the string in half then we get two parts in relation to the whole.  Each half will vibrate twice as fast as the fundamental.  If we divide the string into three equal parts then each third will vibrate three times as a fast as the fundamental.  With each new division of the fundamental there is a new pitch.  All of the tones of Just Intonation fit neatly together like this and exist in whole number relationships with one another.  In contrast, the relationship between pitches in 12-tone equal temperament is the irrational ratio of the twelfth root of two.

Why should I care?  Just Intonation treats the natural acoustic properties of sound with great care and respect.  Remember: sound waves are physical objects, and that just because they can’t be seen they can be felt.  The relationship between these vibrations, these sound waves, is very important.  When sound waves are in tune they are vibrating in a repeating and supportive cyclical relationship with each other.  When they are out of tune then the cycles of their vibrations are out of phase.  The physical and physiological power of sound opens up in an amazing way when all of its vibrational elements are ‘in tune.’   And, that brings us to the beginning… Just Intonation is the key to the lock… Or this lock at least:)… But it’s a big lock:):)


A performance of La Monte Young’s epic piece, “The Well-Tuned Piano:”


And, guitar innovator Jon Catler: