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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are a few more artists that offer something unique and noteworthy.
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 is a classical guitarist who plays Turkish folk music with his own custom guitars.
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.