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The Musical Art of Microtonal Writing

I’ve been wanting to write about “the moments in between” since I first learned of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the concept of bardo, or an intermediate state. I struggled to connect the bardo to creativity, and it’s taken me a hot second to yank a full-blown blog post from my brain, but I knew I something was there.

Image by Fred Charles

It was as if the concept I struggled to find was in between my own thoughts and I couldn’t fully grab on.

This is typical in my writing. I’ll often sit on an idea for a while before that aha! moment links an unusual/stimulating/sparking thing with my creative life. Then, last week, the psychedelic prog rock group King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard released their album K.G. and I immediately knew what I had to say about “the moments in between.”

Stick with me for a minute. This one’s been brewing for a while and I think it should be good.

K.G is King Gizzard’s sixteenth studio album and a “sonic” follow-up to their 2017 album, Flying Microtonal Banana. Fred put it on, and not even 20 seconds into his first listen told me I needed to hear it. He listened to it for about 12 hours straight the first day it was released. I was hooked by song one and played the whole album three times back to back. It’s that good. But I’m not here to talk about music (today).

I want to talk about the fact that Banana and K.G. are musical explorations in microtones. This was my missing bridge to creativity. This was my art bardo.

Musical microtones are smaller than the smallest intervals used in Western tonal music. They’re smaller than half-tones or half-steps. They sound dissonant when played alone, but added to a full song, they can create extraordinarily unique melodies. If you’ve ever listened to music that is Eastern-influenced, you’ve likely heard something of a microtone.

Let me put this another way. It’s like looking at the rainbow and learning that there are more colors than ROY G. BIV. It’s being able to see the nuanced shades between the major color blocks. This new rainbow may look bizarre at first, until you realize you’re seeing something that’s significantly more vibrant than you’ve seen before.

I know you know where I’m going with the metaphor, so I’ll ask the obvious question.

Do you write in whole tones, half-tones, or microtones?

Understanding the microtonal concept can awaken us to deepening our writing, exploring subtler levels of humanity, subconscious interactions in characters, and truth in moments.

Here’s a superficial example: if a character’s physical description is the whole tone, their personality traits are the half-tones, and their deepest desires/needs/wants/dreams are the microtones.

I think it’s more complex than that. I’d guess that many of the better writers among us draft in whole and half-tones and then layer in the microtones. These nuances are hard to know during the first go-around.

When crafting moments in our stories, are we being honest with the “in-betweens?” Are we giving a reader enough to where they personally relate, want to break out a highlighter, dog-ear a page, and say, “YES! I feel that deep down…” If so, then we may be achieving microtonal writing. Melville does this for me time and time again in Moby Dick, where he hits on moments of reflective humanity that resonate deeply within my soul. One minute, you’re reading a book about a whale, and the next, you’re underlining a statement about humanity’s internal struggle with itself. It’s discordant. It’s jarring. It’s beautiful truth.

If you’re not used to it, it may feel dissonant at first. Too honest. Too reflective. Too brutal coming off your pen.

It’s hearing on the EBGDAE scale until someone plays a note you’ve never heard. Alone, it sounds off; harsh, raw. But, blended with a harmonious song? You’re riding that musical high.

King Gizzard says that we don’t need to dumb down rhythmic complexities. I agree, and offer that that the same can be said for written art. If the story demands moments in between, we need to bend the notes and add written sounds that readers aren’t used to. Our words can ebb and flow with nuanced intonations that leave the reader with more than a story; but rather, an experience, a sense, or a gut-check.

Let the reader feel your words deep down on repeat, where they grab on to the moments in between.

“Om is where the art is.” - The Residents

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Nov 27, 2020

Thank you, John. I don’t know how to respond to that, except to say it sounds like you and I are pulling from the same page. I get it. And I appreciate everything you’ve said here. The in-between stuff is the honesty.


John E. Meredith
John E. Meredith
Nov 27, 2020

I'll be honest, it took me a couple readings to understand what you were talking about here. But, in my defense, I'll say that I just woke up from a nap. Not a real nap even. It was more like shutting the body down and letting the mind go. I've been having some issues lately, some mystery pains, and shutting down is good.

It all feels like bardo, all feels like in-between.

Even my dreams, which don't come from the deep-sleep state where dreams really come from. It's more like skimming something off the surface of the unconscious. It happens a lot.

Like just now, when I was back in the house of my childhood and my mom was there…

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