A Guide to Xenharmonic Artists

Microtonal music is music that uses pitches that fall between the standard 12 notes used in western music. Xenharmonic is a synonym of “microtonal”, but it often connotes a deliberate effort to incorporate microtonality in a noticeable and essential way.

Xenharmonic isn’t a musical genre exactly, but a characteristic that can apply to music of any genre, from hip hop to pop to rock to metal. However, it is a genre, in the sense that there are people who are especially interested in producing or consuming xenharmonic music. And xenharmonic music does have a predilection towards instruments for which microtonality is easiest to achieve–namely electronic synthesis, guitar, and voice.

Besides its musical characteristics, the most notable thing about xenharmonic music, is that it is outsider music. If you look for xenharmonic music, most of it is not commercially produced, and is instead very roughly produced by enthusiastic individuals still finding their footing (that’s the nice way of saying it’s bad, but FWIW it’s also me). Xenharmonic communities such as the Xenharmonic Alliance are more geared towards creators rather than listeners. If you’re a listener, it takes some dedication to find the stuff that resonates with you most. But that also means you can find some truly unique creative visions.

To help the would-be listener of xenharmonic music, I’m providing a list of “stars” in the xenharmonic scene, artists who are fairly popular within this space.

1. FAST-fast – Spaceman

James Mulvale is a recent arrival on the scene, who immediately blew up because he has pop production chops. Sometimes when you listen to enough weird outsider music, you begin to truly appreciate the value of a good pop song.

I don’t want to place too much emphasis on the music theory because I think it’s not necessary to appreciate. But one thing I like about James Mulvale is that the musical principles are relatively easy to hear. Here he’s basically following Adam Neely’s idea of having standard chords, but jumping up and down by quarter steps. In interviews, James has said he was directly inspired by Adam Neely to get into microtonal music.

You can follow FAST-fast on YouTube, SoundCloud, or Bandcamp.

2. Cryptic Ruse – Clutching its Last Stem Cell

Jason Yerger, aka Igliashon Jones is one of my favorite artists of all time.  He can dive straight into the strangest tuning systems, and bring out what’s uniquely interesting about them.  Under the label Cryptic Ruse, he produces progressive metal, doom metal, and drone metal.  He also produces more electronic music under City of the Asleep, and Pixel Archipelago. Most of his music is instrumental, but this particular track features guest vocals from Ben Spees (from further down this list).

You can follow Cryptic Ruse on Facebook, YouTube, or Bandcamp, and you can also find City of the Asleep and Pixel Archipelago on Bandcamp.

3. Stephen Weigel –
1,000,003-limit Just Intonation (2. 3. 67. 71. 73. 79. 83. 89. 97. 101. 103. 107. […]

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should” is an expression that Stephen Weigel apparently disagrees with, so here’s an album whose track titles are a thousand pages of emojis. Postmodern EDM he calls it. It uses absurdly complicated tuning systems (described in the track titles), but most of them are secretly much more accessible than they pretend to be.

I should say, the emoji album is not necessarily representative of Stephen Weigel’s work. His music is frequently wacky, but it’s not all electronic. He also sings.

You can follow Stephen Weigel on YouTube or Bandcamp.

4. Brendan Byrnes – Operator

Brendan Byrnes is a guitarist, electronic producer, and vocalist. Many people say they were first inspired to get into microtonal music by his album Micropangaea. Personally, I first heard his later album, Neutral Paradise, and loved that one.

You can follow Brendan Byrnes on YouTube or Bandcamp.

5. Sevish – Gleam

Sevish is a prolific electronic producer, whose music I would place in the IDM genre. When I first got into xenharmonic music a couple years ago, Sevish was the one artist everyone would point to as an entry point. Gleam is basically that hit single that Sevish can never get away from, and I thought about using another song as an example, but well it’s a hit for a reason.

You can follow Sevish on YouTube, SoundCloud, or Bandcamp

6. The Mercury Tree – Vestments

The Mercury Tree is a progressive rock band led by Ben Spees. Their most recent album, Spidermilk, is entirely microtonal, and was done in collaboration with Jason Yerger.  Yes, I’ve featured Ben Spees and Jason Yerger each twice in this list, I like them that much.   Microtonality is a perfect fit for their style of layered polyrhythmic prog, and when you get used to it, it feels like it adds so much nuance to the emotional expression.

You can follow The Mercury Tree on Facebook or Bandcamp.

7. Danny Playamaqui – Mango Juice

It doesn’t take long to hear Danny Playamaqui’s unique flavor of electronic music. Then there’s another track, and it’s another unique flavor, and then another. Truly he is an electronic impressionist.

You can follow Danny Playamaqui on Facebook or Bandcamp.

8. ZIA – Love Song

Elaine Walker is a singer-songwriter who has been making xenharmonic music since the 90s! Among other things, she’s the master of the Bohlen-Pierce scale, which is what we call a “macrotonal” tuning.  Rather than less space between notes, there’s more space between notes, so it sounds very open and spacey. She leans into the space theme.

You can follow ZIA on YouTube, BandCamp, or check out her website.

9. Xotla – Veering

Declan Clark is a guitarist and electronic producer who very groovy, chill music. Admittedly I’m less familiar with this artist, but the music speaks for itself.

You can follow Declan Clark on YouTube or Bandcamp.

10. Horse Lords – Fanfare for Effective Freedom

I saved the last spot on this list for a band that has achieved more mainstream success. They make minimalist math rock, with layered ostinato. I’m given to understand that this is microtonal, but I’m not sure where exactly, it’s kind of subtle to be honest.

You can follow Horse Lords on Bandcamp or Facebook.

Honorable mentions
Here are a few more artists that offer something unique and noteworthy.

Jute Gyte

In case you were disappointed that none of the artists in the list made your ears bleed, I present some black metal by Jute Gyte.


Acreil uses algorithmic composition to make both ambient music and IDM. This one’s in the ambient category, it’s 8 Shepard tones slowly moving apart in frequency.

Tolgahan Çoğulu

Tolgahan Çoğulu is a classical guitarist who plays Turkish folk music with his own custom guitars.

Dolores Catherino

Dolores Catherino is known for making ambient drone works using the Lumatone, which is that rainbow-colored piano in the image.

If there’s a xenharmonic or microtonal artist that you particularly like, feel free to share.  Yes, yes, I already know about King Gizzard, but if you like them, they’re fair game for sharing too.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    “instruments for which microtonality is easiest to achieve–namely electronic synthesis, guitar, and voice”

    ??? Guitars would need some severe mod to or complete removal of the frets. Which is of course done but “easiest”? And what about cello, violin, trombone (or really any brass) or my personal favourite, theremin?

  2. milu says

    ooooh goody! i’ve been lowkey aware of microtonality for a while, being somewhat interested in experimental music (Harry Partch was probably my first microtonal crush), but you were the one who turned me on to xen, which if not a genre per se certainly seems to be a scene (of course microtonality itself is a culturally situated concept, 12TET being a western invention). You recommended that Brendan Byrnes album some time back, and i’ve listened to it many times since.

    But then i’ve made a few impatient attempts at exploring xen music by myself, and i wasn’t very successful. I think you’re right, the emphasis on experimentation in this community probably makes it a lot more exciting if you’re a creator rather than just a listener. And when i found a few playlists, they were usually just that, intimidatingly long lists of songs without much of a curation effort made to attract the uninitiated.

    So thank you for this, i’ll listen to your selection with curiosity and gratitude =)

  3. says

    @xohjoh2n #1,
    Yeah, she sounds like Bjork! Partly that’s a function of the track I chose, but it’s not too far off in general.

    @sonofrojblake #2,
    Yeah, but *gestures at music*. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the base popularity of the guitar, but also having frets helps a lot. I haven’t seen too many people use fretless guitars even though those are probably easier to get than custom-fretted guitars.

    @milu #3,
    Glad you found something you like. I think the Brendan Byrnes track I featured here is just the same one I shared before, but probably worth noting that he has a newer album (“Realism”), and one album he did as part of a band (Ilevens – “Transmitter”). He’s known for his more consonant style and pop production, which, as I say, is greatly appreciated in a crowd of very experimental work. Also, he really likes the 11/8 ratio for some reason, haha.

  4. consciousness razor says

    which is what we call a “macrotonal” tuning.

    I guess that’s what the word seems to suggest, but the way I’ve always used the term, “microtonal” doesn’t mean the intervals all need to be smaller than a semitone. Instead, it’s that if we define a semitone = 1, so that the 12-EDO intervals are all the integers mod 12, then microtonal intervals are non-integers or those which have a fractional part.

    So, 1.5 semitones would be a valid example. You would get that from a quarter-tone scale (which actually has intervals of 0.5 semitones, obviously less than 1). But you could just as well have a system which equally divides the octave into eight of those intervals (because 12/1.5=8) without any smaller subdivisions. Or you could do things like build scales with a combination of semitones and that interval (let’s call it X), such as “sXsXsXsXsXs” or other possible patterns like “sXXXsXXXs” and so forth.

  5. consciousness razor says

    such as “sXsXsXsXsXs”

    Err, sorry, that was a typo — too many copies of X. I meant to have four of X and six of s, which is an octave. So something like “sXsXssXsXs” would work.

  6. says

    @consciousness razor,
    Many macrotonal tuning systems are also microtonal.

    Bohlen-Pierce is 13 equal divisions of the 3/1 ratio. So that’s about 146 cents per step.

  7. consciousness razor says

    Many macrotonal tuning systems are also microtonal.

    An interval can’t be both larger and smaller than a semitone, so what are those terms supposed to suggest? I really don’t know, but we’re clearly defining things differently.

    Myself, I don’t really have a practical reason to even make that distinction, so I just never talk about “macrotonal” anything. Anyway, all such things are microtonal in the sense I described above, not just “many” of them. It’s also not the case that all microtonal harmonies/scales/etc. have those larger intervals — only some do. So in other words, the “macro-” stuff is just a proper subset of the “micro-” stuff. But the way you put, it sounds like they’re only supposed to overlap/intersect somehow.

    Bohlen-Pierce is 13 equal divisions of the 3/1 ratio. So that’s about 146 cents per step.

    I know, but I don’t understand what you’re getting at here.

  8. says

    @consciousness razor #8,

    Anyway, all such things are microtonal in the sense I described above, not just “many” of them.

    6edo isn’t microtonal in the sense you described.

    These distinctions aren’t particularly important, I’m just saying how I’m using the words. I think my usage reflects common usage in xenharmonic communities, but that usage is not uniform, and it may be different in other communities.

  9. consciousness razor says

    6edo isn’t microtonal in the sense you described.

    Yeah, and I don’t get what would be the point of anyone claiming that it is. That’s just a whole tone scale. None of them “fall between the standard 12 notes used in western music,” as you had put it, because it’s a subset that contains half of those same notes and not anything else.

    Of course, it’s not a diatonic scale, so you can’t make “classical” music with it, but that’s neither here nor there when we’re talking about microtonality. Indeed, plenty of people are mainly interested in other temperaments or tuning systems which they consider “better” than 12-EDO, precisely for their use in the traditional tonality of “classical” music and its precursors. That’s why they want some version of Pythagorean tuning or what have you, and that’s how they’re going to use it. So it’s not about anything modern, experimental, outsider, etc., although that may be what you’re tempted to think about microtonality if you’re introduced to it in a certain way. Anyway, that sort of thing simply has different mathematical properties which we can easily characterize, and that shouldn’t be under dispute.

  10. says

    Right, so I would claim that 6edo is macrotonal, but not microtonal. Earlier you were insisting that all macrotonal tuning systems are microtonal and I was pointing out a counterexample. Like, this isn’t even an important point, but since we don’t have effective communication between us this is what we get.

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