The intent of music
How would one go about restoring this mysterious and dangerous tritone to a modern scale? And how about the other notes of the scale? How would you know exactly which pitches to use?
The answer has to do with the intention of the composer or musician. If the intent is to entertain, to tell a story or express a sentiment with lyrics, or to write TV or movie music, then its enough to start with a standard instrument - a piano or guitar, usually - and begin composing. This is what nearly every composer and songwriter does here in the West. Its the usual and habitual way of writing music, and hardly anyone thinks twice about it. After all, all the notes are right there "in" the instruments. The composers job is to select which notes to use and in what order and with which rhythms. Music has been written like this for several centuries. The instruments and styles of music have changed, but the notes havent.
But what if the composers intention wasnt just to entertain? What if he or she wanted to, for example, widen or even alter - at least while the music was being played - the consciousness of the listeners? Or what if the goal was, say, specifically to use that tritone, the devils interval, to evoke a spiritual experience of some kind?
To begin with, that tritone interval isnt on a piano, a guitar, or any other modern Western instrument. Yes, the two notes, in our example C and F#, are there, but are these actually the same pitches (or more to the point, the same relative pitches) that were supposedly so heretical?
It isnt the same interval, and the reason has to do with how we tune our instruments. There are normally twelve notes in every octave these days. (Other cultures, for example, had/have five or seven notes per octave.) That means, for example, on a piano one can start with Middle C and count twelve keys before the next C is encountered, either going up or down the keyboard. There are thousands of ways to select the twelve notes within an octave - Indian raga music alone is said to have over 5600 different tunings, and this music only uses seven notes in an octave, instead of twelve. It isnt the note names that differ in different tunings, but different pitches (the highness or lowness of the notes sound) that are emitted when particular keys are struck or fretted strings are plucked. What makes a tuning unique is that the intervals among the notes in an octave are different.
Guitarists use the word "tuning" to mean what notes (pitches) sound when the open, unfretted strings are played. There is standard tuning, an open E tuning, often used when playing slide guitar, a D tuning, and several more. But on this website we are using the word "tuning" in a completely different sense. For a guitarist to really play in a different tuning, the fret spacing up the guitars neck would have to be changed: some frets would be closer together, some farther apart. By contrast, a sitar, the "lead" instrument in Indian music, is built with movable frets. The desired tuning is achieved when the frets are spaced in the exact way that determines (defines) that tuning.
So whats the big deal? Why should the intervals between notes make any difference? Notes are notes, right?
What makes a difference is the effect the intervals have on listeners: physical, mental, emotional and more subtle effects. Something of what we are getting at here is apparent in music written for movies. The music sets up and intensifies the emotional responses of the audience the director is trying to create. Perhaps the most famous example is the theme music to Jaws, but all movies exploit music to create mood. The next time you rent a mystery, action or suspense movie, try watching the most dramatic scenes with the sound turned off. They are noticeably less mysterious and dramatic. Many action sequences just seem silly without music.
So movie soundtrack music is one clear example where specific music is composed to create specific emotional responses in listeners. And whereas nowadays this music is intended to enhance a story (the plot of the movie), or even to lead us through the story, in times past different music was used to accompany other stories, rituals and ceremonies. So we can begin to see that specific music in the right settings might be very powerful, and that this power can be directed by the musicians and storytellers.
The big deal with different tunings is that not only can emotions and feelings be created, but ones whole conscious inner landscape can be affected. Here are some examples:
- Anxiety and the effects of stress can be greatly reduced or even eliminated.
- Memories of childhood and other times can be evoked.
- Contact with Divinity in whatever terms and concepts one prefers or understands this can indeed be made. Or this contact may be with ones own higher self.
- Inner vistas and concepts can emerge which are inexpressible in words.
It is not that music in various tunings causes any of this. Rather, an inner space is opened into which ones consciousness can enter. It is roughly analogous to a darkened room where a light suddenly goes on. Things that were already there can be seen more clearly. Also, perhaps, the light is warming and comfortable. The music is the light; what is newly seen is what was there all along.
The Mesopotamian tunings
The tunings Ive been concerned with (and have written an album in) came from ancient Mesopotamia. There is much to say about the earliest civilization in this area that we have any record of the Sumerians who were living in cities with a complex social structure and complex culture by 3500 BCE.
But here is a mystery in itself that has interested me for years: These seven Mesopotamian tunings are mathematically very sophisticated (which I discuss in detail in the Ancient Music and Mesopotamian Temperament sections of this site). What were the Sumerians doing with them over 5500 years ago? From whom did they get them? There is no clear historical record of earlier civilizations on the planet except perhaps in the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan. (The dynastic Egyptian civilizations didnt start for 500 years after the Sumerians.)
Perhaps the Sumerians invented them, along with the mathematics necessary to express them in writing. They certainly seem to have invented a great many other things. But the heart of the mystery is this: The Sumerian civilization, written language, mathematics, agriculture, law, accounting, shipping, astronomy, and medicine (they practiced brain surgery, for example) it all seems to have sprung up at once, almost overnight. There is no record of the slow growth of their civilization that one would expect.
The second aspect of the mystery is that we dont know where the Sumerians as a people came from. They do not seem to have been related to the surrounding ethnic or cultural groups. This is a difficult question to answer at the dawn of recorded history, but we have only been aware of the whole Sumerian civilization for less than 100 years, so there are certainly more discoveries to be made.
Finally, it is strange to note that the subsequent Mesopotamian civilization the Babylonians and Assyrians were successively less sophisticated than the earlier Sumerians. Why should this have been? It would seem that later peoples would have built upon, expanded and developed the ideas and techniques of the earlier peoples of the same region, but exactly the opposite was the case. (This same pattern of decay also happened during successive Egyptian dynasties.)
It was exactly as if the earliest knowledge was gradually lost over two millennia, despite extensive written records on dozens of subjects which are still extant in the form of thousands of clay tablets, although many of them have yet to be translated due to lack of scholarly manpower. Is it possible, as some have speculated, that Sumer (and Egypt) sprang from an earlier civilization for which we have no record? Was this the shadowy Atlantis that Plato mentioned, that was destroyed by a flood or some other kind of disaster? Or was it the Dravidians who lived in the Indus Valley for centuries, at least, before the Sumerians? Whichever civilization it was just begs the question, which gets larger the farther back in time we go: Where did the originators of these tunings get the mathematical tools needed to devise them? It seems we must give up any lingering notion that these any of these people were merely primitive potters and toolmakers. They were mathematically sophisticated with complex civilizations we do not yet understand. And perhaps we have things to learn and rediscover from them.
We may never know just where the tunings came from, but we are extremely fortunate to have the Sumerian records, which include these seven musical tunings. And to have the broad cultural knowledge that what came later in time was not necessarily more developed or more correct than what came later. One major piece of evidence for this is are these tunings, which still 5500 years later still have a remarkable effect on us.
For further reading
- The Ancient Music section of this site, which discusses tuning in more detail, along with some basic (and painless) music theory, and the mathematics (also painless) of how these tunings were derived. Indian ragas, modern blues and atonal music are also discussed.
- The Mesopotamian Temperament page which derives the tunings mathematically. The twelve-note master tuning called Mesopotamian Temperament is described from which the other tunings are themselves derived. With this information and suitable instruments, any musician can perform music in these tunings.
- The Sumerians section of this site, which looks at their civilization and our current ideas about it in more detail.
- The Links page, which, besides many Web links, includes an annotated bibliography with sections on Sumer, music theory and traditional and more recent speculative theories.