Bug Zapper, justly intonated

Here’s an assertion: music’s ability to please us comes from the window it opens into the deepest underpinnings of reality. Beauty is truth, and math is about as deep a truth as we know — particularly the concept of number, the integers. When we listen to music, we are appreciating the beauty of numbers in real time. We are perceiving the fabric of the universe, and the experience can be transcendent.

Almost all music is generated by the small prime numbers 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7. Every  relationship between two notes is a ratio between two or more of these numbers.

Notes consist of vibrations at a certain frequency. The faster the vibration, the higher the pitch. A unison, two Cs sounded at once, is 1:1. The two notes vibrate at the same rate. An octave is 2:1. One goes twice as fast as the other. A fifth, C to G, is 3:2 — G vibrates three times for every two vibrations of C.

When two notes are synchronized perfectly, they resonate — there is a distinct quality, a richness and emotional impact that comes from the two notes dancing in step with each other. This is just intonation.

The modern system of 12-tone equal temperament is not tuned this way — quite. The notes are detuned slightly, in a way which makes composing a lot easier and gives us our 12-note keyboards that can play in any key.

It took about five hundred years for equal temperament to be accepted, and there’s a reason musicians resisted it. The detuning, while slight, causes the notes to dance very slightly out of step, and they fail to actually resonate. A sort of veil is cast over the harmonies, and some of the emotional impact is lost.

I’m in the process of retuning all my music to just intonation, and sure enough I think it has gained a great deal. Here’s the refurbished Bug Zapper.

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