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Discoveries Along The Pitch Continuum


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Growing up in an Iraqi-American household in Chicago, I was exposed to many musical influences from an early age: first Louis Armstrong, then Lutheran Hymns, then the Beatles, then Hendrix, then Miles. Arabic music, though constantly playing in the background during family gatherings, did not capture my attention until I was in my mid-teens and my sister Dena started a Middle Eastern music ensemble, called Salaam. I was intrigued by their music, but knowing that it used 'quarter tones,' it seemed impossible for me to approach Arabic music on the trumpet, until I discovered recordings of Egyptian trumpeter Samy El-Bably playing quarter tones. I had one opportunity to meet him in Cairo in 1999, a year before he passed away.

In 2001, I bought a trumpet with an extra tuning slide that could be used to facilitate these tunings, and I now felt ready to study Arabic music seriously (I would eventually abandon this instrument when I learned how to create quarter tones on a standard trumpet). I was anxious to discover a music with new tunings, as I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with equal temperament. I observed while playing in blues bands that the guitarists and harmonica players would bend and land on pitches 'between the notes' to great effect. And I encountered some flaws of equal temperament while playing in brass sections of symphony orchestras, where it was often necessary to adjust pitches from their normal positions in order for chords to resonate, sometimes harming the melody.

The short version of the history is that equal temperament was developed in Western Europe at a time when harmony was well established, and composers wanted to modulate from one tonal center to another using fixed-pitch keyboard instruments. In order for this to be possible, a compromise was reached in which 12 notes were spaced evenly apart, and all intervals (other than unisons and octaves) would be, to varying degrees, off from their most resonant tunings. The listeners' ears would have to adjust and eventually learn to hear these approximate pitches as being in tune.

Arabic music does not contain chords or harmony, but is built on modes, known as maqamat (sing. maqam) that, like Western scales, consist of seven notes made up of two tetrachords. The primary difference is that Western scales consist only of half step, whole step, and 1 1/2 step intervals while maqamat contain all of these plus 3/4 step intervals. So there are shades between what we know of as minor and major. On further investigation, I found that the pitches of maqam have gradations subtler than a quarter tone and that performers play each note exactly where it resonates best in relation to a single, fixed tonic and according to their own taste.

During my several years of intensive study of the Iraqi maqam, I put the trumpet down while I learned to sing and play the santour. As I became more familiar with these sounds, a whole world opened up as I became more sensitive to pitch and I began to develop a physical sensation of pitch as resonance. I was later able to reintegrate the trumpet with this new understanding.

When I met and began collaborating with tenor saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh in 2008, he had already spent 25 years developing a personalized vocabulary that integrated the Persian dastgah (counterpart to the maqam) in a system wherein tonal centers could move freely as in Western music while intervals remained fluid as they are in the East. He introduced me to some of his melodies. "No half steps, no barlines," were the only rules. They presented a challenge, first to my ears, then to my fingers, which had to find new techniques to play them. He also introduced me to the concept of 'intoning,' wherein two notes tuned slightly apart from one another are sounded simultaneously to create a pulsating effect. We would spend hours together exploring the harmonic effects of intervallic combinations. Eventually, I began hearing new melodies and harmonies as an ecstatic pitch world on a steady continuum of frequency revealed itself.

We would discuss the inherent contradiction in the term 'equal temperament.' How can a system be called equal when it discriminates against so many sounds? When it only allows for black and white notes while other shadings and colorings are rendered nonexistent? Of course, the 'equal' refers to the space between the notes. And no doubt many great musical masterpieces have been composed in this system over the past few centuries. But it is not the only way of doing things. I would eventually discover that, like Arabic music, most of the world's musical styles use culturally-specific pitch sets, many of which are now being lost and are giving way to equalized tuning.

I am now at a stage where I am finding melodies and harmonies along the pitch continuum that 'ring true' with me. I have discovered realms of emotion and consciousness through pitch-flexible music that I never reached when limited to 12 notes. When all possibilities of pitch are integrated, the music opens its embrace to include all sound, all emotion, all feeling. Borders and judgments melt into a realm where all is accepted as part of the current manifestation of the creation. And then! It reaches full circle: equal temperament becomes a singular, beautiful symbol in 12 sections; another, equally viable system, integrated among the vast array of the world's musical cultures and another playground for humankind's endless genius and boundless creativity. For in the end, it is not the notes that we play, but our spirit, mind, and humanness that inform the music we make.

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