Teaching out-of-tune

by Patrick Lauppe

Pianist and composer Dan Sedgwick ’03, a teaching assistant for the music department, is offering the Wintersession class Practicum in Xenharmonic Listening. This class deals with musical tuning systems other than the traditional Western one you’ll find on any but the most out-of-tune pianos. He and his associates use new musical notation, pictured here, to accommodate additional tones. I spoke with Sedgwick about his class and about expanding one’s musical horizons beyond the traditional Western tuning system.

Can you explain the concept of this class?

A chromatic step didn’t come from nature: We invented it. As a result, there’s a lot of music from around the world in which there are notes that you just can’t fit on the piano. If you transcribe it to our Western notation, you find that there are notes that just don’t quite sound the same. This is true even with straight-ahead pop music. Someone like Adele, for instance, is using lots of blues elements. She’s not singing fifths, really; she’s singing blues fifths. She’s found a specific context in which those fresh, interesting intervals and relationships are useful. We’re interested in naming those intervals that she’s using and creating additional contexts for them. We’re also interested in intervals that are currently not being used at all. Can we create contexts for them and make them musically useful?

Is there anything in particular you have in mind?

Sure. We’re all familiar with singing the lowest harmonics of the overtone series: the ‘do,’ the ‘sol’ and the ‘mi’ of the scale. But if we go just a little bit further there are other resonances that will have that same effect of sounding very much locked-in or in-tune, despite the fact that they aren’t at all related to the Western tuning system.

How do students generally respond to these other resonances?

Everybody has different ears. I’m often surprised at different people’s sensitivities. What’s really interesting is some people will have a visceral reaction when I play an unfamiliar interval: They’ll make faces when they hear one they don’t like. Then other people will say that it basically sounds the same as a standard Western interval. It’s hard to predict the sensitivity, although I think you can definitely develop that sensitivity. It’s something that I’ve worked to develop.

Do you think developing this new musical vocabulary has made you more receptive to forms of music that use alternate tunings, like Indian classical music or something that you might have previously found unfamiliar?

Yeah, definitely. It opens up a new way of listening to, composing, and improvising music in any tuning, even if it’s the one you’ve been using all your life. Even after working with alternate tunings for a while, I don’t consistently compose in weird tunings. I write a lot of music in very traditional tunings. But I’m thinking about the properties of the tuning all the time, which I wouldn’t have been able to think about if I hadn’t been exposed to other tunings and their properties. You need a broader context to truly understand the tuning that you’re the most familiar with.