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Fretless intonation - even, just or microtonal?

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by Magman, Feb 6, 2004.

  1. I'm curious about peoples thoughts about the theory of intonation on fretless instruments and implications for the practice of playing.

    Fretted basses/pianos are typically in equal temperament, allowing easy key transposition. However, as far as I know, this actually means that the notes are actually mathmatically "a bit off" all over the board, depending one what key you are in. Guitars often have a problem with the G string for this reason, or chords up the next sound worse than down the bottom.

    Just intonation is more accurate, but how many players seek to achieve that?

    I presume, when playing with a piano or other even tempered insturment you have to follow that - but with other microtonal instruments (Violins or whatever) there are no such physical barriers.

    Also, some music isn't in a clear key... some simple one-chord instrumental rock might have only two intervals (lets say root and fifth), or root and octave. So what becomes the key then? Using an interval 20/100'ths of a tone above the root note will produce beating effects and be described as dissonant, but there are eastern scales which have these micro-intervals. Is it wrong? Is it wrong if the player doesn't hit the right microtone? Or does it by accident rather than intent? :) Is it down to the intent of the composer? And therefore, do I need to be very clear about what I want to play?

    Whats the difference between the listener not being used to the intervals the player is using, and the player not having good intonation?

    For those who make/play exlcusively even tempered music, the questions here are perhaps irrelvant, but for more "free" or "cut up" situations (hip hop, music concrete etc), deciding what to practice is more a complex problem (at least for me). Its very possible to combine sounds with complete disregard for classical harmonic theory and still make music which appeals to people. What are the implications of that for a bass player?

    Developing good intonation in even, just keys and bunch of microtonal scales is perhaps years of hard study. Maybe you have to pick your battles carefully.

    I hope these questions makes sense, to those interested.
    The rest of you probably think I don't get out enough
    ...you might be right :D
  2. It's always difficult to get PERFECT intonation on any fretted instrument. But since the microtonal aspect of the notes, will lead to a difference many people can't really hear. So if it has decent intonation, I think a musician should just keep doing what they do. And I think more often a musician goofs up a piece of music due to poor or off timing. So I really think it is important to have good intonation, but I don't think it is the end of the world if it is so many cents off.

    And also, I friend of mine wrote a song called "The Ham Sandwich Of Dissonance" It's funny crap. :D
  3. That reminds me of a gig a friend went to see, probably some underground grungy club - anyway he said a guy got up on stage, didn't bother to tune his out-of-tune electric guitar and just starting bashing out songs. The audience liked it a lot but my friend (a guitarist) just couldn't believe it.
    If it gets people going, it gets people going I guess... even if all the musos are at the back scoffing :)

  4. Flatwound

    Flatwound Supporting Member

    Sep 9, 2000
    San Diego
    Mag, it sounds to me like you're talking about "avant-garde" or "experimental" music. Still, intentionality is a big part of most of it that I'm familiar with. When Ornette Coleman said that in free jazz, every musician should be able to play any note, any time (or whatever he said, something like that), I don't think he meant taking shots in the dark, even though it sounds like that sometimes.

    When I play fretless, I end up on the even-tempered notes, because that's what sounds "good" in the music I play. I'm not Barre Phillips (who you should listen to if you haven't).

    Also, I might point out that there's often a philosophical base to music, and sometimes whether you like or dislike a particular piece will depend on your beliefs and cultural background. Whether you're trying to understand musique concrete , modern jazz, or death metal, it helps to know where the artist is coming from. Just as an understanding of Picasso's cubism or beat poetry is enhanced by a knowledge of the underlying ideas.

    So, in other words, what you play and how you play it depends a lot on what it is you're trying to say.
  5. I'll check out barre philips.

    I'm not only talking about avant-garde:: but you touch on subjects I've been thinking about a lot... if you intend on working with even tempered scales then it makes sense to develop 'muscular memory' around those. If you wanted to play some types of folk music (or indian classical) or something, this might actually be a hindrance.

    Wether something sounds good or not may depend on cultural influences a great deal as well...

  6. Passinwind

    Passinwind I know nothing. Commercial User

    Dec 3, 2003
    Columbia River Gorge, WA.
    Owner/Designer &Toaster Tech Passinwind Electronics
    Whether something sounds good or not may depend on cultural influences a great deal as well...

    Absolutely. I don't hear dissonance in the same way as I used to any more really, after listening to Ornette, AACM bands, MBASE, Moroccan disco, and so on, for a zillion years.It all sounds like music to me, pretty much. I realized a while ago that if I play with just a drummer, I have far fewer constraints on my fretless playing. However, I tend to play standard notes an awful lot of the time, probably due to my conditioning as a child of rock and jazz. I like playing perfect fifths (without the beat frequencies) and stuff like that, but to be honest, nobody notices even if you're playing with keys or whatever.

    I've been playing pretty weird music in local clubs in this particular area for about 12 years now. Even the country and classic rawk fans can hang with it at this point. And the bands tthat paly those styles still let me sit in, and seem to enjoy the results. To steal Ellington's quote from Bob Lee's sig: "If it sounds good, it is good."

    Interesting thread, thanks for the food for thought. I wish there were more radio stations in the US that exposed people to the sort of ideas you're alluding to.
  7. yeah, theres 1000's of years of music that is NOT even tempered! And yet listen to the radio generally and you don;t get that impression. The piano is a great instrument, but peculiarly its become highly limiting in some ways for western music (I would suggest much music of this time is derived from piano strutures).

    A lot af "avant garde" techniques hit the mainstream: a lot of hit singles are as "constructed" as any academic music concrete piece - computers are a big peice in that.

    I spent years creation purely "techno-y" computer type music but have realized that "real" instruments have a vibe that programming can't create and have got tired of purely electronic stuff... though I often loop and edit my own stuff.

    its pretty cool that you;re finding stereotypically conservative listeners can appreciate "weird" music. Maybe people are underestimated ultimately.

  8. pilotjones

    pilotjones Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2001
    There's yet another aspect to the problem of "where should I fret the string/what pitch should I play" question that you haven't addressed. That is the relaton of harmonics to fundamentals, and stretch tuning.

    When a real string vibrates, the overtones are somewhat sharp; they are not the ideal even multiples of the fundamental frequency. So beyond equal temper, a piano is tuned to stretch tuning. Basically, as you move from the center of the keyboard to the bass, the tuning gets progressively flatter; as you move from the center of the keyboard to the treble, the tuning gets progressively sharper. This is done so that the upper harmonics of those bass notes sound good with the fundamentals of the higher notes. The bass notes are made flat because their harmonics are sharp, and so these harmonics end up consonant with the fundamentals of the middle keys.

    Pianos with longer strings require less stretch, because their harmonics are shifted sharp to a lesser degree, and thus require less compensation.

    If a piano is tuned without the stretch, it sounds bad. In fact, it would sound bad even in a just tuning, when played in the key of the tonal center.

    This natural misalignment of fundamental and harmonics is one of the things that typical synthesizers do not reproduce, and is a reason that they don't fool our ears well.

    So, to really sound good with the band, you should play the low notes slightly flat!

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