ENHARMONIC GENERA

When do we find the first documentation of an enharmonic genus?

The music of ancient Greece employed various rhythms and scales, some of which are not in common use today. Some melodies included an interval of a ditone above two microtones, called an enharmonic tetrachord. (Archytas worked out the tunings mathematically.)

This is difficult to describe and not easy to demonstrate on contemporary. To get an idea, play scales on a piano using only the following notes: A, B, C, E, and F. Then add two more notes, one halfway between B and C, one halfway between E and F. Maybe you're better off using a guitar. Various scales using those notes in sequence were employed in ancient Greek music.

Was that the only enharmonic genus?

There are other possibilities, putting the same intervals in different order. For example, subsituting G for A in the previous description provides possibilities.

Why did enharmonic scales fall out of use?

Scholars are not sure. We can speculate. Maybe it is difficult to distinguish quarter-tone intervals. Maybe quarter-tones would be acceptable in a different environment.

Most musical traditions have developed scales including intervals of at least two sizes between adjacent pitches, without which the music can sound sterile. Adjacent intervals may differ by various ratios in different styles and cultures:

As the ratio widens, music becomes more tense and emotionally charged. To a point, it retains an aesthetic logic. Yet there may be limits to what the ear will accept. The ratio of 8:1 between adjacent intervals in enharmonic scales represented at least a doubling of the most extreme ratio then known. It forced the listener to focus closely on fine quarter-tone intervals, then leap over other possible pitches of equal relevance before landing a ditone away.

Is there any new enharmonic music?

Some modern composers, such as Harry Partch, have experimented with enharmonic scales.

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Last revised: 28 August 2016

Last edited: 31 May 2019

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