Dissonance: Dismantling Western Biases in Electronic Music

By Eleanor Pahl, Correspondent

Open a new project in Ableton, FL Studio, Logic, or any other Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and look at the defaults. Chances are, the time signature is set to 4/4 and the tuning to equal temperament, both elements of European classical music. Non-Western music creators are forced to employ complex workarounds, if such workarounds exist at all, to include common features of music from Africa, Asia, or Latin America. 

Equal temperament (ET) is a music tuning system which divides an octave into 12 equal steps, known as half steps. This standardized, even system arose in the 17th century as a practical solution to a logistics problem: prior to ET, instruments were all tuned separately and uniquely according to each composition. Using common ET allowed for compositions to be transposed without having to re-tune the instruments every time.

Over 200 years later, the ET system is ubiquitous in the Western music world, as fixed-tuning instruments, such as piano, guitar, and wind instruments, are inherently tuned to ET. As music software aims to recreate the analog experience, equal temperament was carried into the digital era as well. This forcing of ET onto instruments and software, and consequently on musicians and composers, is yet another example of colonization and the erasure of non-Western traditions.

The pervasiveness of ET obscures the rich sounds of microtonality, or the use of other intervals than ET. Microtonality is used in musical traditions across the world yet remains flagrantly absent from major music software. The Western-centric music companies fall back on the faulty “lack of market” trope to explain the atrocious support deficiency for microtonality within their software packages.

Forced ET presents yet another barrier against non-Western music creators. Emerging non-Western music creators learning to use new software will be minorly biased by the tools and settings immediately available in the program. This subtle influence from something external holds the artist back from obtaining their true, unaltered vision. Non-Western musical traditions could become lost to the digital age as more and more music is created with the help of software. Something as minute as a “default” setting wrongly assumes a sense of neutrality and actively prohibits the progress of non-Western music.

Khyam Allami–multi-instrumentalist, composer, and overall musical polymath–is determined to challenge these assumptions. Born to Iraqi parents in Syria, Allami grew up in London while exploring music through punk bands and guitar. In the early 2000s, his explorations into Arabic, Indian, and Azerbaijani music triggered the realization that the tunings on his guitar did not seem to line up with the sounds he hoped to achieve. He began to learn to play the oud, a fretless instrument which allows for the creation of microtones. With this new instrument in his hands, he could finally achieve the sounds he wanted.

Allami found his sound in the analog, but still noticed a lingering disconnect in his electronic music software. He then set off to create two pieces of free, browser-based software: Leimma and Apotome. In Leimma, users can explore tuning systems from different cultures or invent their own, while Apotome allows for music generation with these tuning systems. These software are entirely free and browser-based, an intentional choice by Allami to increase accessibility. He hopes they can be used in both a creative and educational sense, enabling musicians to explore microtonality.

Allami notes in his essay, “Microtonality and the Struggle for Fretlessness in the Digital Age,” that the inherent biases within technology often goes unnoticed and unchallenged. He encourages all artists to be defiant, to dare to break out of the ET mold. Allami views tuning as “the ce­lebration of difference–of cultures, ideas, me­thods, opinions, and tastes. It should also be about the celebration of choice, the choice of individuals to sound however they please.”

ET was not a divine musical rule from the heavens, just a solution to a specific problem faced by Western musicians in the 17th century. Technology today has the capacity to store and transfer the unique tunings an artist may specify for their composition. Having surpassed the technological limitations of over 200 years ago, ET as it stands today is an unnecessary squaring of the beautifully rounded corners of microtonality. With Allami’s Leimma and Apotome, music will finally be allowed to be in tune with itself, with its origins and traditions and expressed in the truest sense from the artist to the listener.

For more reading on Allami’s work, see his 2019 article “Microtonality and the Struggle for Fretlessness in the Digital Age. [https://www.ctm-festival.de/magazine/microtonality-and-the-struggle-for-fretlessness-in-the-digital-age]