The Muscian’s Palette

Imagine a painter's palette having only 12 colors. "The artist could create an infinite number of paintings, but the paintings would be limited to those 12 colors. In the same way," says Scott Heffner, "almost all of Western music consists of only 12 tones."

As a result, according to Heffner, a music education major, most students come to class with a rigid concept of what music should sound like. "Just about everything composed during the last 300 years, from pop music and ad jingles to Beethoven, follows the same structural principles."

older man plays guitar while sitting

Western tradition organizes major and minor scales around a central key. This key can be any one of the 12 different tones, or notes, of the Western octave (counting both the traditional do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti—the white keys on the keyboard—and five additional tones represented by the black keys). So a piece composed in the key of C uses the basic scale, do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do, with C as the "do." All the other tones in the piece are heard in relationship to C.

At the start of the 20th century, some musicians began challenging this tradition. Music, like painting, became more abstract and individual. One new type of music that arose was atonality. Atonal music is composed without a key, giving each note in the scale equal importance and allowing the composer to choose the relationship between the tones. It and other novel arrangements have had a hard time gaining acceptance. "Once our ears become accustomed to particular sound patterns, anything different does not sound right," says Heffner. "This is the case with a lot of the classical music of the 20th century, which poses a problem for the music teacher." How can students be motivated to listen to unfamiliar music?

Heffner designed a study to test the role repeated listening played in how willingly students accepted unusual forms of music.

"Finding the right music for the experiment was tricky," said Joanne Rutkowski, associate professor of music education and Heffner's adviser. "Scott couldn't just play music from different cultures, such as African or Asian music, since they now serve as influences for pop. He needed something completely alien." Heffner decided on a form of music that uses "just intonation," instead of typical tuning techniques.

The idea of how to tune an instrument goes back thousands of years. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras observed in the sixth century B.C. that harmonious tones are produced when the lengths of vibrating strings are whole number ratios. Further, he realized that these ratios could be applied to other musical instruments to produce similar harmonies. To produce the note A, a plucked string must vibrate with a frequency of 440 Hz. To produce the note E the string must vibrate at 660 Hz, or three-halves A. The ratio of three-halves produces the perfect harmony between the two notes. Due to the limitations of instruments, a perfect ratio is not always possible to achieve, and therefore most instruments are tuned a little off. Tuning in just intonation keeps the notes in perfect ratio, and therefore perfect harmony.

"It's different," says Heffner, "the students are unlikely to have heard it before, and it is the kind of music I like. If a casual listener were to compare just intonation to normal tuning methods, they might not notice the exact details of the pitch variations, but they would notice that the just intonation had more energy."

Heffner had a group of freshman music students listen to "just intonation" compositions 20 minutes a week for eight weeks. "I tested a student's motivation to listen to a form of music by having them answer a series of questions, such as, 'On a scale of one through five, would you listen to this music in your free time? Would you buy a CD of this music?'" The test subjects answered these questions after the first and last times they listened.

Heffner expects the group to become more open to the music after the sessions, and is already looking to build on the results. "What I eventually want to know is if there is a peak level of exposure at which students become most receptive to unusual forms of music. I'm assuming there is also a point of diminishing return, beyond which there is no appreciable change in one's opinion of a particular piece."

Why is this important? "The purpose of music is to create a response in the listener," says Heffner. "There are certain things which we, as listeners, tend to associate with music. For example, the major tonality is often thought to be happy, and the minor sad. When we allow ourselves to become open to new sounds, then we have opened the door to new forms of expression."

Scott Heffner graduated in August 2000 with a B.S. and honors in music education from the Colleges of Arts and Architecture and the Schreyer Honors College. Joanne Rutkowski, Ph.D. is associate professor of music education, 206 Music Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-0419; rvi@psu.edu. Writer Daniel DeJoseph is a pre-medicine major with a minor in English who will graduate with honors in English in May 2001.

Last Updated January 10, 2014