Transcendent Tonality

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Since both consist of carefully managed and skillfully manipulated sound, music and language blend into each other.  This is most evident in song, of course, where language and tonality exist simultaneously.  But sometimes the human voice is treated as an instrument, and language recedes into the background.  On the other hand, something else human that is more ostensibly musical, namely whistling, can be used for the communication of ideas and information, tasks that are usually reserved for language.  See the great Wikipedia article on "Whistled language" and the masterful Wikipedia article on "Transcendental whistling", also this YouTube video:

"Whistled language of the island of La Gomera (Canary Islands), the Silbo Gomero". (10:20)

What made me think about these questions?  The answer is simple:  a friend sent me this video:

"QUANTUM 7 (Transcendent Tonality) 31 tone guitar " (6:24) Published on Jan 24, 2015

Stephen James Taylor performs at Kulak's Woodshed in North Hollywood, CA December 2014. Performed on a custom made 31 tone per octave baritone guitar made by Halo Guitars. The extended tonal palette allows for new ways of creating musical tension and release. Song available soon at itunes and

Now, I have a confession to make.  So enraptured was I by listening to this ethereal music at home early this morning that I completely lost track of time and missed my usual train.  Let that be a warning to all those who are about to watch this video if they also have something "important" to do in the offing.

After taking a later train and teaching my first class, I received from my friend another video, this one a 21:02 documentary titled "The Sonic Sky: An Introduction" that the guitarist made.  In it, we learn about the genius musical thinker and teacher Erv Wilson and view his work through "philosophy, art, acoustics, psychology, emotion, mathematics."  Stephen James Taylor somehow manages to guide us through the most rarefied and cerebral realms of musical theory without losing us along the way.  He takes us through the four planes of music:

The First Floor of Musical Consumption, Performance, Sensation and Feeling

The Second Floor: Music Theory

The Third Floor: The Tuning System or “Master” Scale

The Skylight Above the Third Floor: Note Filtering Process

On the third floor, we encounter microtonality and scales completely different from any that I had ever encountered before (Indian [22 tones], Indonesian [7], the Western chromatic scale [12], etc.).

After travelling with Taylor through the three floors of what might be called the House of Music and then breaking through into the vast and untrammelled Sonic Sky that is like a universe full of stars (sources of light / illumination), I understand better than ever before why the ancient Chinese made music the pinnacle of wisdom.

There was a Classic of Music (Yuè jīng 樂經), but it was lost already by the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).  Yet we know the esteem in which music was held by the ancient Chinese from passages in the classics like the following:

The Master heard the Shao in Qi and for three months did not notice the taste of the meat he ate. He said, 'I never dreamt the joys of music could reach such heights.'(D.C. Lau)

Analects 7.14

Shao is the music of the mythical emperor, Shun 舜.

Qi one of the Warring States.

Extensive commentary here.

Another instance of the sublimity of music in ancient China is the description of the performance of the Yellow Emperor's "The Pond of Totality" in chapter 14 of the Zhuang Zi (see Victor H. Mair, tr., Wandering on the Way [Bantam, 1994; University of Hawaii Press, 1998], pp. 132-136, available here).

Conversely, language studies in traditional China were referred to as "minor learning" (xiǎoxué 小學).


  1. chrisevo said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 5:18 pm

    Fantastic video. Also worth mentioning, a further combination of music and language: solresol, a constructed language meant to use the seven notes of a western major scale (or the seven colors of the rainbow) as its seven base syllables. Check the chart on the wikipedia article for a basic idea.

  2. Simon Wright said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 5:36 pm

    I wonder what he’d do with a [fretless guitar] (

  3. S Frankel said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 6:12 pm

    There are plenty of fretless stringed instruments all over the world. The violin, for example (used by South Indian musicians in radically different tunings). And, in the west, there's been a minor tradition of dividing the octave up into more then 12 pitches that goes back at least to the 16th century

    As for the Chinese considering language studies as "minor learning," well, so did the medieval west. The seven liberal arts, you will recall, were Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, Astronomy. The first 3 were the "trivium" (3-way), whence our word "trivial," since they were less important to the quadrivium. Since I'm a musicologist by training, this just seems like common sense to me.

  4. Stephen Hart said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 6:31 pm

    Just to throw in a few things for interested folks to look up:
    The Chapman Stick
    Fretless electric bass (Bill Wyman, eg.)
    Mountain Minor and other banjo tunings
    Literally countless tunings of ordinary guitars and banjos for specific songs
    The California Guitar Trio

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 9:43 pm

    From a friend who is a semi-professional jazz musician of long standing:

    This is amazing, Victor! The Transcendent Tonality is very mind-opening and ear-opening. I notice that throughout his music there is still a tonal center, a grounding, but the expanded tonalities are used to temporarily jump out of the framework of the tonal center. To my ear, they are still perceived as "tensions" that feel a need for "resolution" back to the tonal center. The psychological effect of the micro-tones is very strange and powerful.

    The whistling language is interesting, too. I have always fantasized about a language made up of only sounds, or music, or melodies of some kind. And here it is. Homo sapiens is such a wonderful species.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 10:13 pm

    Here is some microtonality theory plus many examples from the composer Kyle Gann:

    "Thirteen, My Lucky Number" (3/03/15)

  7. Julian Bradfield said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 4:54 am

    Harry Partch used a 43-note scale. If you ever get the chance to see and hear his recently revived music theatre piece "Delusion of the Fury", played entirely on custom-made instruments, do. It was the most interesting and enjoyable thing I've heard in the last five years of Edinburgh Festivals.

  8. Rachel said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 5:50 am

    I am going to have to watch this later with my daughter – we had been discussing tonal languages.

    Incidentally, this week's episode of Agents of SHIELD has a Japanese-American agent, Miriam May, posing as Chinese, speaking Mandarin with a white agent posing as her own nterpreter. To my untrained ear it sounds flatter than the Chinese I hear from native speakers at our local (Malden MA) Chinese-owned market, but I think that's also Cantonese. At one point, May's natural dryness definitely flattens out her Mandarin, flattening out the words translated as "we're screwed" entirely. As you're Language Log's Chinese expert, I'd love to hear your analysis.

  9. Jeffrey Kallberg said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 7:25 am

    I'm supposing Taylor has some knowledge of the 16th-century Italian music theorist and composer, Nicola Vicentino, who famously explored "microtonal" scales, and constructed an "archicembalo" with a 31-note-to-the-octave keyboard.

  10. KeithB said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 8:56 am

    Theremins also have no "frets".
    They have a whistled language in Turkey, too:

  11. David L said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 9:16 am

    @S Frankel: on trivium and quadrivium — it's not clear (according to a hasty reading of the wikipedia entries!) that the former was regarded as intellectually inferior to the latter. It was more, perhaps, that the trivium was Liberal Arts 101, and the quadrivium Liberal Arts 201, in the sense that the one was preparatory to the other. The value judgment meaning of trivial seems to have come later.

  12. Peter Erwin said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 9:22 am

    Incidentally, this week's episode of Agents of SHIELD has a Japanese-American agent, Miriam May, posing as Chinese, speaking Mandarin…

    I'm admittedly a few episodes behind on my Agents of SHIELD viewing, but… are you sure you don't mean the character Melinda May? Given that the character's middle name is Qiaolian, I think she's supposed to be Chinese-American, not Japanese-American.

    (The actress is Chinese-American; since her mother is apparently originally from Suzou, I would hazard a guess that her Mandarin would reflect that more than anything else.)

  13. Victor Mair said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

    From a graduate student:

    I really enjoyed the Language Log post, especially the guitar performance. That’s really an innovative, listenable use of microtonality – I’ve both listened to and played quite a lot of music that uses microtonality (if you don’t remember, I went to a music conservatory before coming to Penn!), though depending on the composer and his/her intentions, sometimes it’s not always so pleasant to listen to (or play).

    The question of how to divide an octave is a really thought-provoking one. As you mentioned, in Western music we use a 12 tone chromatic scale (though the earliest example of this is not Western – in fact, it is the set of bell chimes buried with Marquis Yi of Zeng 曾侯乙 around 433 BCE. As in much of Western music, though, it’s likely that the full spectrum of 12 tones was not used at the same time during performance, but rather to be able to play scales of fewer notes per octave in different keys), and different groups of people use varying divisions for different types of music at different times.

    But even among groups that divide an octave into the same number of tones, this can vary dramatically. For example, in Western music, there are (among others) both major and minor heptatonic scales – their difference is not in the number of divisions between the octave, but in the spacing between those divisions. Balinese pelog, another heptatonic scale, spaces the seven tones still differently. And the aural effects of all of them couldn’t be more different!

    And even for a single scale – the twelve-tone chromatic scale – western music faces a choice between equal temperament and just intonation. Just intonation means that the intervals are tuned according to ratios of whole integers (the way the Greeks did it). But, for example, if one tunes a piano with just intonation based on a certain note, then there are problems when a piece changes key – certain intervals will be out of tune and you can’t adjust the tuning of a piano on the spot like you can a violin (with one’s fingers) or a flute (with the lips or airstream). Pianos, harps, and other similar instruments are therefore usually tuned as close as possible to equal temperament, in which the space between the twelve notes of the octave are calculated to be precisely equal. This still leaves slight errors in intervals, but most human ears cannot hear these. Incidentally, the earliest calculations for equal temperament were apparently done in China, first rudimentarily by He Chengtian 何承天 in the 5th century, then the earliest exact calculation by Zhu Zaiyu 朱載堉 in the Ming. Most orchestras still use just intonation, though, since the majority of Western classical instruments can adjust their tuning on the spot and it just sounds a bit nicer. Whenever I play in an orchestra, for instance, unless we are playing something atonal, I am constantly thinking about what key we are in at the moment, and which scale tone of that key I happen to be playing so I can adjust accordingly.

    As for microtonal music, while this has certainly been used by non-western music for a long time (22 notes per octave in some Indian music, as you mentioned, 24 notes per octave in some Arabic music), and some European Renaissance thinkers wrote about (equally tempered) scales of more than 12 notes per octave, this didn’t really find its way into composition until the 19th century and early 20th century. Composers became so interested in quarter tones especially (24 notes per octave) for a while that there were special instruments constructed to facilitate playing these kinds of pieces. One early quarter tone piece that comes to mind is Charles Ives’ Three Quarter Tone Pieces (1923-4). It uses two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart to play series of “quarter tone chromatics.” The second movement uses some ragtime motifs and achieves the effect of sounding like a broken player piano:

  14. julie lee said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 3:54 pm

    Regarding the old Chinese classification of language studies as "minor learning" (小學 xiaoxue, "small learning"), am I correct to understand "major learning" 大學 (daxue, "big learning") as the study of morals or morality–namely, right and wrong, good and bad, in human conduct?

  15. peter said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 4:55 pm


    Au contraire, theremins do indeed have frets, but they are just invisible, like the finger boards on which they sit.

  16. julie lee said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 9:20 pm

    Oh, I just remembered. "Major learning" ("great learning", "big learning") is defined in the classic Confucian text "The Great Learning" (Da Xue) in the first sentence, "The Way of the Great Learning is to illuminate luminous virtue" (大學之道在明明德)。 So "major learning" in old china meant the study of virtuous conduct, or how to be a good person.

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