2 weeks to-go : #12 countdown

Posted in Food for Thought by seán on November 18, 2012


Above: Reminder illustration by Andy Ross

Two weeks to-go to submit for matzine#12! To help set your minds in rich places we [Seán & Stephen] will offer you a weekly fragment from our own investigations, while at the same time building up to the fast approaching 1st december



Above: Opening scene from A Clockwork Orange. Listen to the main theme, an electronic transcription of Henry Purcell‘s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, composed in 1695, re-worked by the Moog and Carlos 1970

One of the earliest electronic synthesizers [admittedly heavily augmented here with additional modules]. This is an important instrument genus as it practically allowed musicians to compose sounds of specific frequencies [Hz] with complete confidence. Ironically, when this machine became available, musicians used its kind to mimic the tuning of the modern piano, rather than explore the lost scales and tunings of previous centuries musical instruments.

“It seems that for most users of synthesizers the extra freedom has not had much effect, in the sense that most music involving synthesizers is written using the equal tempered twelve tone scale. A notable exception is Wendy Carlos, who has composed a great deal of music for synthesizers using many different scales.” – Benson, Dave (2006). Music: A Mathematical Offering, p.207.



Above: The Moog synthesizer used by Wendy Carlos to compose the A Clockwork Orange soundtrack. Image from

In her 1986 song “Beauty in the Beast” Wendy Carlos experimented with three unusual equal temperments, none of which produce octaves in their progressive stages. Approximate dissonance, rather than consonant harmonics reveals landscaped sound I figure impossible via the ubiquitous TET tuning of the modern piano. You can listen to the song at this link Beauty in the Beast – by Wendy Carlos.

“A youthful ear can hear ten octaves of sound, spanning a range from about thirty to twelve thousand vibrations a second. The Average ear can distinguish sounds a seventeenth of a tone apart. From top to bottom, we hear about fourteen hundred discriminable tones.”  Dr. Oliver Sacks, Musicophelia, Picador, 2008, p141

I’m fascinated by the limited cognitive associations I have with the sound of alternative tunings in this song: I’m reminded of a Hollywood sound-effect for a machine running out of batteries, the pitch sliding downwards, and of a evil carnival merry-go-round, no doubt also a Hollywood implant. Though having now listened to this song maybe five times, my sense of musicality; structure and comfort with the tonal intervals is improving; I’m finding it increasingly easy to appreciate positively – a strong indication that a human mind and ear which has been invariably indoctrinated in modern piano tuning for two decades is not marginalized. As Dr. Oliver Sacks writes

“Our auditory systems, our nervous systems, are indeed exquisitely tuned for music. How much this is due to the intrinsic characteristics of music itself – it’s complex sonic patterns woven in time, its logic, its momentum, its unbreakable sequences, its insistent rhythms and repetitions, the mysterious way in which it embodies emotions and “will” – and how much to special resonances, synchronizations, oscillations, mutual excitations, or feedbacks in the immensely complex, multilevel neural circuitry that underlies musical perception and replay, we do not yet know”  Musicophelia, xii

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