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Notes & Letters column: A wonderworld of quarter-tones

by Sampo Haapamäki

"In diving into the world of microtones, I tried to make musicality my priority, listening as carefully and acutely as possible, in a natural relationship with other elements of music. A whole new world of harmony unfolded before me!"

I gradually became interested in microtonality in the early 2000s, at around the age of 20. To try out quarter-tone harmonies, I tuned my electric piano up a quarter-tone and used it together with an ordinary piano. I also did some experiments with the quarter-tone playback of Sibelius notation software and approached the world of quarter-tones via pitch sets and frequencies. I sounded out quarter-tone intervals and used them to form chords, and I constructed frequency-related harmonies first with a pocket calculator and later with OpenMusic software.

I listened to lots of microtonal music and tried to train my ear to recognise quarter-tone intervals and chords. In diving into the world of microtones, I tried to make musicality my priority, listening as carefully and acutely as possible, in a natural relationship with other elements of music. A whole new world of harmony unfolded before me!


Semitone splits

My first composition using all-quarter-tone harmonies was Haljennut (2004) for voice and string trio. It was commissioned by the Time of Music festival and is dedicated to Pasi Hyökki. The name Haljennut, which in English means ‘split’, refers to splitting a semitone (normally the smallest interval) into two quarter-tones.

Quarter-tones lend themselves rather naturally to microtonality, because they fall halfway between the traditional chromatic notes. Instead of a 12-tone equal temperament, they yield a 24-tone equal temperament. Since this doubles the number of notes, the harmonic potential is exponentially greater.

The resolution of 24-tone equal temperament is, to my mind, sufficiently precise to make, say, the notes of a certain spectral chord constructed on the frequency principle blend and sound good together. On the other hand, quarter-tones are not so small that the human ear cannot nowadays produce them fairly naturally in instrumental ensembles of many kinds.

Making a comprehensive study of 24-tone music, with all the different possible sounds, perspectives and dimensions, is a time-consuming process for the composer more accustomed to 12-tone equal temperament. There is also a certain threshold to embracing microtonality; it’s a leap into the unknown.

At the beginning of the 2000s I was still a fairly active pianist. Since quarter-tones cannot be played on a normal piano (at least in the traditional manner), this created a challenge for me getting used to microtonality. I felt that my experience with the piano was partly an obstruction. While playing a traditionally tuned instrument, I tended to revert from quarter-tone thinking to the chromatic harmonies obtainable on a normal piano. I was therefore forced to make a radical decision: I stopped playing the piano for some years so that I could dive deeper and deeper into the quarter-tone wonderland!


Quarter-tone instruments

Many composers nowadays are interested in microintervals. So, naturally, more instruments capable of producing them are being developed. I find that the physical quarter-tone instruments have helped my mind to latch on to microtonality. The special characteristics of these instruments have for their part stimulated, enabled and encouraged me to think in terms of microtonal harmony.

Over the past decade, several quarter-tone instruments have been designed, built or played in Finland. These instruments aim to have as wide a quarter-tone register as possible (24 notes per octave), to be ergonomic, and to produce a genuine acoustic sound.

Veli Kujala invented a quarter-tone accordion in 2005. It differs physically from a standard concert accordion in that it has quarter-tone reed blocks instead of the conventional ones, thus enabling the player to produce a complete quarter-tone scale over almost five octaves. The quarter-tone reed blocks were designed by Kujala and made by the Pigini accordion factory in Italy in 2006. 

Juuso Nieminen’s quarter-tone guitar was made by Keijo Korelin in Finland in 2014. It is an ordinary, normally-tuned 6-stringed concert guitar with added quarter-tone frets all along the fingerboard. The distance between adjacent frets on the string is thus a quarter-tone instead of a semitone.

Elisa Järvi and the undersigned began making plans for having a quarter-tone piano built about ten years ago. Over the years, the project passed through many stages before reaching fruition in 2014. The piano was made by Otso Haapamäki in Finland. It has a novel fusion keyboard with grey keys in addition to the black and prepared white ones. Installed on the fusion keyboard are optical PNOscan sensors from which the MIDI information is transmitted to two acoustic disklaviers tuned a quarter-tone apart.

Mikael Helasvuo has a quarter-tone flute incorporating the Kingma System patented by Eva Kingman from the Netherlands. Its mechanism is, among other things, based on double key-on-key pads foreign to the original Boehm mechanism. In this key-on-key system, the lower key acts like an ordinary one, completely opening the hole, whereas the hole covered by the upper key is only about half the size of the one covered by the lower one. A quarter-tone flute can play the full ‘chromatic’ quarter-tone scale in all the flute’s registers.

Lauri Sallinen has plans for having a quarter-tone clarinet made in the near future. One option would be the microtone clarinet developed by René Caussé, Franck Laloë and Alain Terrie, members of the Acoustique Instrumentale team at IRCAM in Paris. It differs from a normal clarinet in that the volume of the mouthpiece and thus the intonation can be rapidly altered with a separate foot pedal. Another option would be a quarter-tone clarinet that has more holes and keys than a normal clarinet, especially at the bell end, so that quarter-tones could also be produced naturally in the lowest register.

Quarter-tone repertoire

Understandably, only a few works have so far been composed for these new microtonal instruments. I myself have written two works using quarter-tone instruments. The quarter-tone accordion concerto Velinikka (2008) was a commission from the Gaudeamus Muziekweek and is dedicated to Veli Kujala; the double concerto Conception (2012) for quarter-tone guitar, quarter-tone accordion and orchestra is dedicated to Veli Kujala and Juuso Nieminen, and was commissioned by the Tapiola Sinfonietta.

Veli Kujala has composed Hyperchromatic Counterpoint for quarter-tone accordion and tape (2006–2009) and MiXi (2011) for quarter-tone accordion and string quartet. Works for quarter-tone accordion have also been composed by Teppo Hauta-aho, Jouni Hirvelä, Sami Klemola, Hannu Pohjannoro, Joachim F.W. Schneider and Yasamune Toyotomi. Jukka Tiensuu has composed a chamber concerto, Ember (2000), for Mikael Helasvuo’s quarter-tone flute. Hopefully, more new works for quarter-tone instruments will be composed in the future!



It would be great if quarter-tone instruments could play together as an ensemble. The instruments would be ones specialising in quarter-tones, but this would not, of course, preclude the use of smaller or larger microintervals. Commissions would naturally help to build up repertoire. In an ensemble, the special characteristics of several quarter-tone instruments would together create endless fresh musical potential.

Featured photo: Saara Vuorjoki