Robert Estrin - piano expert

What is Quarter Tone Music?

Learn an interesting way of understanding and playing music.

In this video, Robert tells you about "Quarter Tone Music." Have you ever heard of it? Watch this video to learn it today!

Released on December 30, 2015

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, and welcome to and I'm Robert Estrin, with a great viewer question. "What is quarter-tone music?"

This is very interesting and if you've ever heard it, it has a really interesting sound.

First, let's talk about Western music, the music we're all familiar with, from Bach to the Beatles and beyond. All music is based upon 12 tones. And those 12 notes are all we have, for all the music you know, unless you're into some other world music, which we'll talk about in a moment.

Well, the idea of quarter-tone music, instead of things based upon the smallest interval of a half-step, which is the smallest distance between any two notes on a piano or other instrument, then you put notes between the notes. Now, how is this achieved?

With some instruments, it's a very natural thing. On a violin, for example, since there is no frets, if you've got the ears, you could actually nail those notes between the notes. There are some guitars that are outfitted with additional frets to get the notes between the notes. And I've seen some piano compositions where they'll actually de-tune two pianos to one another. One, at standard pitch. And one, a quarter step apart. So, by playing the two keyboards, you can get quarter-tone music.

Well, what's the significance of this? Well, in reality, not a great deal. This isn't to say that there isn't some highly interesting music that makes use of this, but let's talk about the derivation of the 12 tones to begin with.

Western music is built on 12 notes. You basically go, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and you have your sharps or flats between them, for 12 possible notes. Where did this come to be? Well, if you look at other cultures' music, they have many, many more notes. There are certain scales, Middle Eastern scales that have notes between the notes. Indian music has many, many different notes. And in fact, people who grew up with Indian music, they can hear pitches that Westerners cannot hear. Just like there are certain people from the North, Eskimos who can recognize different levels of white because of all the snow and all of that. Well, people who grow up with the different scales that have more than just 12 tones, can identify many more pitches than we can even hear. To us, it just sounds like out of tune playing but it's much more than that and it's incredibly expressive. If you've ever heard any Persian music that makes use of intervals that are just a little bit nuanced.

Now, here's where it gets really interesting, because we're used to what is called tempered tuning. In fact, because the piano has to quantify those 12 notes, actually, everything is slightly out of tune, unlike a singer or a string player who can nuance the pitch from each key, making intervals pure. A piano is a compromise.

Now, because we've grown up with piano and other tempered instruments, we actually hear tempered pitch as being correct, even though it is flawed. Which is to say, that a perfect fifth or a major third, or any interval on the piano, is actually slightly out of tune in all keys, but equally out-of-tune in all keys. Whereas, a string player or a wind player will naturally make the subtle adjustments to make the intervals purer.

So indeed, we're already talking about a compromised tuning system when you talk about 12 tones. Arbitrarily divide those in half and you've got something that is a curiosity, but nothing fundamentally true about that type of tuning.

Unlike Indian music and other world music that have tunings, that have a real beautiful language to them, that is definitely worth exploring. And I recommend it very highly to listen to micro-tonal music. Try put throw it out into your browser in YouTube and see what you come up with. And you'll be amazed at the different sounds that you've never heard before.

So, I hope this has been enlightening about the significance of quarter-tone music and and other micro-tonal tunings that are available in different types of music around the world.

Again, I'm Robert Erin, here at and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Meera Thadani on July 28, 2021 @8:34 pm PST
Truly enlightening and well explained. Here is a link to a book which may interest you. Written by a physician and physicist who explained the theory and physics of sound.
Robert - host, on July 29, 2021 @9:22 am PST
Thanks for the link to the book - I'll check it out.
Maria * VSM MEMBER * on January 2, 2016 @8:12 pm PST
Thanks Robert, that was very enlightening! I have a better understanding of tempering now, as well as not being afraid to listen to Quarter-tone music. I always wondered why Indian ragas appealed to me- as a violinist and violist I think I now know! Thanks for making it clear.
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