Architecture of Tonality Article

Architecture of Tonality
Unifying the Systems of Harmony

This piece explores the principles behind a proposal for unifying the systems of harmony to benefit the explorations of musicians, teachers, sound practitioners and all people with ears.

AOT Article Architecture of Tonality

This piece by Alan Tower, co-founder of the Resonance Center, provides a view into the development of his work on unifying the three systems of harmony.

A friend and I taught each other guitar in the early 70’s, learning as we went. Two decades went by and the first of my three most influential music teachers showed up, demonstrating to me and others a radical new approach to sound and music. A few years later the second and third teacher arrived, in part helping contextualize my understanding of the first teacher’s work. Through embedding myself in what each had to offer, and then standing back for a view of the larger soundscape that together they represented for me, the Architecture of Tonality was born, catalyzed by a 2011 experience in a Bavarian Cathedral.

I am currently a full-time musician with around 20,000 hours spent making up acoustic music for solo and group play. I’m mostly in heaven when in the middle of creating a new piece for a new album.

When my friend and I began making up music for solo acoustic guitar, we found ourselves naturally drawn to so called “open tunings”, where the instrument is tuned to a six string chord. For us this increased the beauty and richness of the sound, though we didn’t know why. I later started playing piano, and found that certain standard intervals for example, the major third C-E, everyone plays didn’t sound good to me, and so didn’t use them. What was going on?

In a fundamental way everything relates to our individual experience, our perception of pitch, our own psychoacoustic response. As one of those teachers put it from another direction, “The overarching question is: How does our ear derive sense and meaning from its input signals?” While this is a vast and fascinating subject, I will take the liberty to jump ahead and present an approach, based upon my experience coupled with accepted tenets of music, that opens the door to a more unified understanding of harmony. My intention is for this offering to contribute to new openings for musicians, teachers, sound therapists, and listeners alike.

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Over the years I learned there were basically two different kinds of harmony systems in the world. The oldest one I will call Proportional Harmony, also known as Just Intonation, arose naturally with people of all cultures, as it derives from the geometry and physics of nature, the natural vibrational proportions our ear and body easily recognize and resonate with. This approach eventually became more codified in India and the Middle East as the primary system, involving the playing of resonant “in tune” notes in relationship to a constant drone. The younger kid on the block, starting around the 1600s and solidifying by the 1800s amidst controversy, which I will call Tempered Harmony, commonly known as equal temperament, now dominates the Western World, and has impacted the Proportional Harmony world in a number of ways. It is a breakthrough system for designing and tuning instruments geared towards equality among tonal centers and the creation of chords. At its core it’s designed for change, calling forth modulation in different ways. Modulation often creates a certain freshness or excitement, and for a composer provides interesting work in both leaving home and coming back home to the original tonal center.

These abilities such as chords and modulation, are not a focus in the world of Proportional Harmony, which is more about staying put, like the beautiful tones over a drone. Its strength lies in the richness of sound and emotion, in part the result of being in tune at its core, a foundation of the system. The Tempered Harmony approach, in order for its benefits to be achieved, requires a permanent altering of pitches away from the geometry of nature e.g. this occurs in how the distances between frets of a guitar are organized, and how the notes of a piano are determined by a piano tuner. As a result all the notes are out of tune to varying degrees except the octaves. This was the compromise, which is something mostly unknown by the public, and by a large number of musicians as well. The music shines best when it’s moving along in tempo, helping mitigate the tuning issue that comes with the territory. The Proportional Harmony approach, because it is based on a consistent unchanging ground, a drone, with notes intimately in tune with this drone, conversely has a refined ability to go slow, allowing us to bask in the purity of the sound, bringing different benefits for our body and psyche.

Proportional Harmony <--->.Tempered.Harmony….

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On a personal level music based on Tempered Harmony tends to have less of its effects in my body, being more active in engaging my mind with its outward-facing chordal journeys, while Proportional Harmony music is more active in my body and tends towards the inner experience realm.

For those interested in the story of this PH <---> TH arc, or the journey of “tonal harmony from its natural origins to its modern expression”, W.A. Mathieu undertakes it expertly in his groundbreaking book for musicians, Harmonic Experience, or Bridge of Waves for the layperson.

Much later it dawned on me that most musical instruments actually vibrate somewhere along a gradient between these systems. A good wind player, for example, can raise or lower pitch by changing her embouchure, and a violin player is not constrained by fixed frets and so is able to shift pitch as desired. The guitar, a Tempered Harmony instrument, can be nudged over towards the world of Proportional Harmony by using an open tuning, bringing the best of both systems together (see diagram next page). Aha! So that’s what was going on back then when I was learning guitar in my late teens. This example is included with others in a chart called Explorations Between Worlds accompanying another chart entitled Architecture of Tonality – Unifying the Fields of Harmony, for which this article is the introduction.

Now this is where it got most interesting for me. I began to play the Soundstone in the last month of 2010. The SoundStone is a heavy hunk of sculpted granite developed by German professor Klaus Fessmann, cut into partial slices such that individual blades may be brought into vibration by rubbing them with the hands, using water for creating friction. The principle is akin to the glass harmonica, though producing much more powerful and organic rolling vibrations. I found it amazing that rock that has been silent for millennia could sing in this way!

Architecture of Tonality SoundStone

However, after a few weeks of play, I reluctantly decided it wasn’t for me, because I was not able to create music for it in the way I was accustomed. It just didn’t make sense – the tuning and the chords that were possible. Then one day I realized the SoundStone was a completely different animal, actually from another tuning universe which I will call Elemental Harmony, recognizing this is also where instruments like Gamelan and gongs live. Elemental Harmony is a system partly based upon the physical vibration of raw material, involving more chaotic and unpredictable fluctuations, calling forth a different way of thinking about and feeling sound. This Architecture of Tonality came forward in the Summer of 2011 during a concert I was playing with Professor Klaus Fessmann, SoundStone maestro, in a Bavarian cathedral near Iffeldorf, Germany. The concert began with Klaus spinning vibrations up into the arched ceiling on a Stone his son had sculpted called the Egg. Soon thereafter, a Celtic Harp came in, and finally the voice of a remarkable woman singer wafted over our heads. I had been invited to improvise with the group, but I was so stunned with the beauty of this trio of sounds in that church space, it was some time before it felt right to contribute anything. It was in those moments of pure listening that the seed of this work germinated. The SoundStone had opened up for me a new field of harmony, Elemental Harmony, which brought into view a trio of resonant fields that were distinct but also had overlap, like the purple, blue and orange in the AOT Chart, becoming unified as One Harmony.

Architecture of Tonality Harfe SoundStone

The piano and the SoundStone evidence some fascinating connections between Tempered Harmony as the dominant system, and Elemental Harmony as a generally unrecognized tonal system. The piano, as a foundational Tempered Harmony instrument, actually incorporates some of the Elemental Harmony flavor with its non-harmonic fluctuations occurring regularly, due to notes being slightly out of tune amidst many vibrating strings. This points to a developing idea that many instruments touch all three systems of harmony in some way. There is much here to research and try out in the area of adapting instruments between these fields. Many musicians already intuitively understand this concept, and experiment with it in their playing quite naturally. The Architecture of Tonality brings this larger picture into a more coherent view, presenting creative and exciting openings in a number of directions.

Later I realized that many of the instruments that fall in the Elemental Harmony category are “fixed pitch” (not designed to move between tonal centers as with Tempered Harmony), while the SoundStone, an Elemental Harmony instrument, somehow redefines modulation through its very design (an observation by one of those teachers mentioned earlier). In another direction, one of my goals is to investigate with the Soundstone maker how to build and tune an Elemental Harmony instrument using principles of Proportional Harmony, as this could bring forth a way for beginning players and audiences to more immediately be caught by the beauty and tonal richness of the stone.

The addition of Elemental Harmony to the two previously recognized two systems creates a triangular relationship, mediating the historical competition between Tempered Harmony and Proportional Harmony with a more integrative map of harmony and resonance. This competition, of sorts, is another fascinating story I will explore in a future piece.

Developing methods for moving an instrument from its core system of harmony towards another should open up interesting new directions for musicians, teachers, instrument makers, sound practitioners, and the wide world of listening ears.

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For anyone interested in pursuing this line of inquiry further there are two charts available which provide a more in-depth treatment on this website.

Associated Charts
Architecture of Tonality – Unifying the Fields of Harmony
Explorations Between Worlds

Alan Tower   8/2012