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Thread: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

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    Default Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Flynn Cohen has a really interesting Mandolin Monday post today no doubt most have seen. Can somebody knowledgeable please explain what's going on with "microtonal" frets? It's a little like listening to free jazz or some other unfamiliar music. I can tell that something complicated is going on, but I'm not sure I understand or get it. Maybe I'm lacking context.

    Last edited by Mandolin Cafe; Mar-29-2021 at 9:17am. Reason: correcting embed code
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    Purveyor of Sunshine sgarrity's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Not sure I get it either....

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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    "Mandolin Mondays #273 w/ Special Guest Flynn Cohen
    by dbmandolin, Today at 8:00am
    A bit of novelty on Mandolin Mondays this week! Multi-instrumentalist Flynn Cohen of Low Lily joins us for an original microtonal fiddle tune called "The Last of Biff" played on his modified vintage Gibson mandolin that has two partial-frets and one micro-tuned course."

    Partial frets are on the 3rd and 4th frets. I've never seen this before but for context I would compare it to the way a fiddle can play "tweener" notes. Sharper than C but not quite C#. Sharper than F but not quite F#. This allows for being in between major and minor.

    The partial frets can be seen well at the very end of the video.

    As for the microtuned course? I'm not sure. ...
    Last edited by Ky Slim; Mar-29-2021 at 9:23am. Reason: quotation

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    Purveyor of Sunshine sgarrity's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Maybe I should rephrase......I understand the mechanics of it. But why is this pleasing to the ear? Flynn is a great musician and I enjoy his music. But this isn’t listenable for me.

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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Ky Slim View Post
    .... for context I would compare it to the way a fiddle can play "tweener" notes. Sharper than C but not quite C#. Sharper than F but not quite F#. This allows for being in between major and minor.
    That's what a player of certain old-time fiddle styles told me once - some of the tunes had notes that were" in between" frets on a guitar, banjo or mandolin.

    I guess this method of fretting allows him to play those sorts of tunes, original or not.

    Quote Originally Posted by sgarrity View Post
    Maybe I should rephrase......I understand the mechanics of it. But why is this pleasing to the ear? Flynn is a great musician and I enjoy his music. But this isn’t listenable for me.
    One has to get used to pitches not found in common Western popular music. After listening to Arab or Persian music, this is a piece of cake to tolerate.

    As a footnote - many of the oldest Cajun fiddle tunes can't really be played on an accordion as those tunes have some "in between" pitches too.

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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Hmmm ... not particularly pleasing to my ear. I fiddle and get the tweener concept but only as part of sliding into or out of a key driven tone. Different strokes. Play on Sir it is obvious that you have excellent skills. R/
    I love hanging out with mandolin nerds . . . . . Thanks peeps ...

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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by DavidKOS View Post
    That's what a player of certain old-time fiddle styles told me once - some of the tunes had notes that were" in between" frets on a guitar, banjo or mandolin.
    Old Time musicians in the local Round Peak style played fiddle and fretless banjo to access all those notes.




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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Hmmm....
    I am wondering if this posted video may have something to do with the date this coming Thursday.
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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by DavidKOS View Post
    That's what a player of certain old-time fiddle styles told me once - some of the tunes had notes that were" in between" frets on a guitar, banjo or mandolin.

    I guess this method of fretting allows him to play those sorts of tunes, original or not.



    One has to get used to pitches not found in common Western popular music. After listening to Arab or Persian music, this is a piece of cake to tolerate.

    As a footnote - many of the oldest Cajun fiddle tunes can't really be played on an accordion as those tunes have some "in between" pitches too.

    Or certain Nordic music. Hardanger fiddle players often do this. And I've heard certain Swedish nyckelharpa players do similar. It's why the tangents can be changed where they meet the string. Of course, Ale Moller's instrument is set up to do this. While probably not the first, he's the first one I remember hearing about doing it.

    And besides Cajun, there are also certain Quebec tunes which have similar "in between" notes. As does Finnish music played on jouhikko.

    Really liked this Mandolin Monday because of it. Nice change of pace.
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    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    To my Western music-based conventional ear, this piece sounds out-of-tune and unpleasing. But that turns out to be a matter of convention, and folks have been arguing about this stuff since the days of Pythagoras -- and even before. To some extent, pleasing harmonies seem to be universal in humans, at least for intervals of octaves and fifths. But it gets complicated quickly after that, and even thirds are not universally agreed upon. As widely discussed, the just-tuned major and minor thirds tend to get a bit mangled by 12-tone equal temperament (12TET), and these may sound a bit 'off' to many experienced folks, even for those trained in the Western tradition. And there are plenty of other traditions where these are yet again different. And let's not forget that in a lot of American folk music, and particularly in Mixolydian tunes -- for example, those in the key of A, fiddlers will hit a note somewhere between C and C# for the third. The same goes for the flatted third found in the Blues.

    But even to those of us well accustomed to hearing American blues and Oldtime music, and to the Western classical tradition, the mictronal stuff in this video seems quite a bit out-of-tune. That doesn't make it wrong, per se, but it doesn't happen to suit my musical taste. And there are lots and lots of World Music traditions that use microtones, e.g., in the Middle East, India, and Far East. Many of those do not happen to suit my musical taste, either. But they are strong traditions, and I respect them.

    As folks all over the globe found out -- and solved! -- many centuries ago: virtually all Western music, and also a whole lot of Eastern microtonal music, cannot support having their pitches played in multiple keys, or across very many octaves, or in complex chords, without some form of temperament. For the case of Western music with 12 chromatic tones to the octave, the stand-out solution is 12TET. Anything short of that inevitably produces problems/gaps somewhere ("wolf" tones and suchlike) that sound terrible. No so-called "just" tuning, based on rational fractions with integers, can be possible. [Note: for those among you who like math, this happens because 2 and 3 are relatively prime, so no combinations of musical fifths, which require divisions into three parts, and octaves, which require divisions into two parts, is ever possible. The Circle of Fifths cannot "close" back to the same note (A through G) after going through all 12 keys, because no power of 3 can ever equal a power of 2.] All tuning systems therefore require certain compromises to be made, and no truly "just" tuning actually exists, despite the (mis)use of this name.

    Something very like that applies to microtonal music, as well. In practice, this music is usually restricted to a single -- or a handful -- of keys/modes, and some keys just don't work out.

    The "doctored" mandolin shown in Flynn Cohen's video likely only works for some music, played in one -- or at most a few -- keys. And it only works for music played in the lower octaves, as well, where the extra frets are located, and not in any upper octaves. And certain chords don't work. It is therefore rather restrictive, because it lacks the universality of 12TET. In my opinion, microtonal music is best played on stringed instruments that don't have frets, like those of the violin family -- or the Indian sarod, or the Chinese erhu.

    I'm a firm believer that the best tuning for fretted instruments is 12TET. Anything else leads to musical issues, somewhere, sometime, and somehow.

    That said, we should all enjoy the music we enjoy, and develop the best instruments we can to produce it!
    Last edited by sblock; Mar-29-2021 at 5:35pm.

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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Looks like it's for quarter tones common in music from or related to Middle Eastern, North African, Flamenco, Indian subcontinent etc.

    I've worked in India, Bangladesh, Syria, Egypt, Israel, UAE over the years and kinda got used to it but still unexpected coming from a normal-looking mandolin.
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    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Any mandolin player can have a microtonal string course ... just resist the urge to tune your mandolin and you'll be playing microtonally before you know it.
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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    I think for many of us it is listening to a mostly normally tuned mandolin with a few off sounding notes happening only once in awhile. I would think that the mandolin would have to be completely refretted microtonically like this guitar: https://www.microtonalguitar.org/

    I don’t know if it would be more pleasing to most of us but I think this tune has moments where the quarter tone notes stick out like a sore thumb in our ears.

    Here’s the Wikipedia page on the subject: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microtonal_music
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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Not pleasing to me, but I think that if you listened to that tuning long enough it would begin to sound normal.

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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    It might benefit from some of the”it makes it sound better “ combustible materials

    BTw, it has a big dose of Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom, one of my favorite tunes to play

    I experienced it similarly to some of Reggie Watts spoken word material, kind of disorienting and fun, not predictable.
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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    I like it. I said on another thread the other day, the 'ear' evolves. Once finding 'pleasure' - or a thousand other words connoting recognition - among things formerly unknown, it only expands one's 'world' - in the case of music it only means more color, possibilities, experiences..

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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Some people like listening to Stockhausen, when asked, Sir Thomas Beecham was reputed to have said than he had never conducted it but had often stepped in it.

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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Somehow reminded me of this :-)
    https://youtu.be/YSPFOz9noAI
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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    For me it’s more “tooth jarring” notes like that work very differently on fretless instruments the ability to “slur” is part of the design. This strikes me as simply gimmicky. If you really want that slur on a fretted instrument learn to bend the string.
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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Ray(T) View Post
    Some people like listening to Stockhausen, when asked, Sir Thomas Beecham was reputed to have said than he had never conducted it but had often stepped in it.
    Beecham was just annoyed that he wouldn't get to participate on Moody Blues sessions...passing on just when the music was starting to get interesting.

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by catmandu2 View Post
    I like it. I said on another thread the other day, the 'ear' evolves. Once finding 'pleasure' - or a thousand other words connoting recognition - among things formerly unknown, it only expands one's 'world' - in the case of music it only means more color, possibilities, experiences..
    I agree to a certain extent. Many people were horrified when jazz players turned to bebop but nowadays it sounds relatively normal—at least many of us are used to the harmonies and rhythms.

    I like Flynn's tune in general but want to play it on a normally tuned mandolin tp see what the difference. As a piece of music and as played it would be impossible for anyone else to play it without adding those extra frets. On the other hand I think you can still get a similar feel from that tune by flatting or sharping those same notes. It won't be exact by the actually frequency but I get a similar sense from modal tunes without calling in a luthier to adjust my instrument. I have heard some similar tunes played on a fretted banjo in a modal tuning.
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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    When the in between notes come through the use of string bending, as on a gutiar, it indicates an increased intensity to the music. A pushing beyond.

    With frets to get the in between notes I am not sure that meaning applies.

    Kind of nice, kind of interesting. Reading all the comments I expected something horrible and was pleasantly surprised.
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    Default Re: Looking for some insight into microtonal mandolin

    When listening to Flynn Cohen's microtonal tune The Last Biff from Mandolin Monday #273, it seemed somehow familiar to me. Today, it finally dawned on me exactly why that was. Cohen's tune bears an incredible similarity to the oldtime tune Polly Put the Kettle On.

    There's a superb recording of Polly Put the Kettle On, played on the mandolin by Jody Stecher, found on the album Chicken on a Rocketship, featuring the amazing fiddling of Chad Manning, and released in 2012. (it's available through Amazon Music; highly recommended. I have NFI).

    Here's an MP3 sample (just the first ~30 sec of the tune) that you can listen to, to see what you think:

    Sample of Polly Put the Kettle On.mp3

    To my ear, anyway, The Last Biff sounds like some badly mangled version of Polly Put the Kettle On! I wonder if you agree?
    Ah, the folk process...
    Last edited by sblock; Mar-30-2021 at 12:33pm.

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