7 pop songs that ingeniously deploy micro-tones

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September 17, 2021, 5:30 PM

Jacob Collier and Dua Lipa use microtons in their music.

Image: Alamy


Pop and rock mavericks who have used microtonal music in unexpected and glorious ways.

It is universally accepted that there are 12 notes in Western music. And usually 88 of them are represented on the keyboard of a standard piano.

But what about the notes Between the notes?

These are called microtons, because the intervals between them are actually smaller than the semitone, which separates the 12 standard tones in Western music (read a more detailed explanation of how it all fits together here) .

Microtons and microtonal pieces of music have generally been the preserve of modern and avant-garde art music composers like Terry Riley and Charles Ives. But, there are also some pretty iconic moments where they also appear in pop and rock music.

We dive into the small spaces between the piano notes to present to you some of the best moments when pop music mavericks deployed microtons for a stunning, eye-catching effect.

Read more: 17 pop songs you didn’t know directly inspired by classical music

  1. Dua Lipa: Good in bed

    British pop queen Dua Lipa created one of her biggest choruses with micro-tones. The chorus and much of the backing music for ‘Good in Bed’ from Dua’s 2020 album, Nostalgia for the future, features a good maddeningly descending microtonal scale which helped make the song so recognizable.

  2. Nancy Sinatra: these boots are made for walking

    Those sassy and striking opening notes from the 1966 hit “These Boots Are Made for Walking” instantly made her iconic. And these are microtons. The bass descends the ladder in microtonous intervals which are deftly traversed by a bassist surely wearing these reliable boots.

  3. Jet: will you be my girlfriend

    There is a small but powerful microtonal moment in Jet’s huge 2003 hit, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”. The guitar riff that helps make it such a success presents a great example of microtonal music – yes, the little ‘do, do, doo, do-oo-oo-ooo’ spins in the opening and the main riff does go up. not a semitone as you might expect. No, my friend, it’s a microtone. Guitar note curves are often technically microtonal, but this is an integral and deliberate part of the melody.

    Read more: The 13 Greatest Pop Songs (Classical Music Perspective)

  4. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard: Rattlesnake

    Australian rock band King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard released an entire album dedicated to exploring microtonal music in 2017 (along with four other studio albums that year, after committing to release five albums in twelve months. ).

    Microtonal flying banana A song after song of mind-boggling microtonal size, but start with “Rattlesnake” to hear those obvious notes between the notes put to good use.

  5. Jacob Collier: Deep in the Dark Winter

    Musician and producer Jacob Collier is known for using techniques of re-harmonization and close harmony in his music, including the deployment of microtons. For this popular version of “In the Bleak Midwinter”, Collier created ten tracks of himself singing the Harold Darke Christmas Carol in what he dubbed “G half-sharp major”.

  6. Spoon: do you

    Like “These Boots Are Made For Walking”, the microtonal moment of American indie group Spoon in “Do You” is heard in the intro. It’s a humming melody of micro-tones that catches the ear and creates a bit of a “what’s going on here?” level of discomfort.

  7. Paul Simon: Insomniac’s Lullaby

    Pop-rock veteran Paul Simon uses microtonal music in his 2016 studio album, From abroad to abroad. The album’s “Insomniac Lullaby” uses instruments specially designed for microtonal music by 20th century composer Harry Partch, who split the octave into 43 distinct tones instead of 12.

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