Al's Music Tidbits - Volume 8

Featured Article

“Micro-Interval” Edition
by Al Shank


In the fourth installment of these “Tidbits”, I held forth at considerable length about musical intervals, the “sonic distance” between notes in our Western musical system. Perhaps you recall this table:

# SEMITONES---INTERVAL NAME--------EXAMPLE
0-----------------------perfect unison-------------c to c
1-----------------------minor second--------------c to db
2-----------------------major second--------------c to d
3-----------------------minor third------------------c to eb
4-----------------------major third------------------c to e
5-----------------------perfect fourth---------------c to f
6-----------------------augmented fourth---------c to f#
6-----------------------diminished fifth-------------c to gb
7-----------------------perfect fifth------------------c to g
8-----------------------minor sixth------------------c to ab
9-----------------------major sixth------------------c to a
10----------------------minor seventh--------------c to bb
11----------------------major seventh--------------c to b
12----------------------perfect octave--------------c to c above


This is all based on the assumption that an octave is composed of 12 equal-sized intervals. If we’re playing an in-tune piano or a fretted stringed instrument, that’s true, unless we figure out some other way to change the pitch of notes. Guitar players can change the pitch of a note at a given fret by “bending” or “mashing” the string, stretching it to change the pitch. A fiddle or bass player can create any note he or she wishes just by placing the finger at a spot other than where the fret would be. I know, because I took viola lessons for a while back in the late ‘70’s, and I often placed my fingers at spots other than where the frets would have been. For the most part, it didn’t sound very good to me, nor to my teacher. However, in some kinds of music, scales are used that are not based on equal intervals at all. There’s no musical or acoustic “law” that dictates how an octave is to be divided up.

So, how does this relate to Bluegrass? Well, a little-known fact is that the late, great Bill Monroe, the “Father of Bluegrass”, occasionally used what I will call “micro intervals” in his mandolin solos. He got the idea for this by accident, as so often happens. I just finished reading “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ – the Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass”, by Richard D. Smith (highly recommended, by the way). In it, he describes a recording session that took place on December 3, 1960, during which Monroe “threw together” “Bluegrass Part One”, because they needed another cut to fill out the session. He writes:

“At the time, the thirteenth fret on Monroe’s well-worn mandolin had slipped from its groove and was protruding slightly from the neck. The outside E or first string got momentarily snagged on it, causing a high F-sharp note. It actually fit perfectly with the bluesy G7 chords Monroe was playing and created some intriguing dissonances.
‘Well, it sounds good, leave it alone,’ said Monroe upon hearing the playback. Generations of Monroevians, not knowing about the faulty fret, have spent fruitless hours trying to reproduce the funky sound.”

This serendipitous accident started Monroe thinking about other ways to extract new sounds from his 1923 Loar F-5 mandolin. He realized that, since mandolin strings are double, if you bend a pair, each string stretches by a slightly different amount, resulting in notes separated by an interval considerably smaller than a semitone. He began using this technique in playing some of his blues-oriented mandolin tunes, like “Bluegrass Stomp”, “Bluegrass Special’ and the above-mentioned tune. Unfortunately, he had already recorded these tunes and did not record them again, so we do not have any examples on record. Richard Greene, one of Monroe’s more adventurous fiddle players, who joined the group in 1966, used notes in between the traditional ones in his solos on “That’s All Right”.

Of course, some “ultra-traditionalists” have complained bitterly about the use of micro intervals in Bluegrass, likening them to use of a quarter-tone trumpet in jazz, but then…

April Fool!!!!

Any questions or suggestions for subject matter may be sent to: squidnet@notoriousshankbrothers.com

Cheers,
Al




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