21st Century Orchestral Instruments

Acoustic instruments
for alternative tuning systems

In 1997 Alternative Tuning Projects undertook a pilot feasibility study funded by the Arts Council of England to establish a Centre in the UK for new acoustic musical instruments - particularly new or adapted versions of orchestral instruments for alternative tuning systems. The concept of establishing an international collaborative 'network' - of instrument makers, composers, performers, acousticians and technologists, each contributing to this end - evolved from this study.

The completed study may be downloaded here: c21_orch.zip; format Word 7 and Excel 5 for PC (zipped, 1.2 Mb).

During the 20th Century the primary advances of musical instrument design have been in electronics and computing. These new technologies have had considerable influence in many styles of music, and will increasingly do so in future. Considered as a global industry, digital technology will continue to sustain new developments of electronic instruments, providing new sounds and techniques for musicians working in many areas of music.

However, many composers, performers and listeners today remain passionate about purely acoustic instruments. This is in part due to basic qualitative differences between the physical and electronic production and emission of sound. It is commonly thought that little can be done to improve on existing models of mainstream orchestral instruments, in which instrument makers over the centuries have achieved great refinement. Since the mid 19th Century, no fundamentally new instrumental designs (excepting a few percussion instruments), and few radical instrumental adaptations have been adopted by the classical orchestra.

Drawing upon alternative approaches in instrument technology, acoustics and tuning theory, this paper shows that it would be both possible and advantageous to create '21st Century versions' of existing orchestral instruments. The purpose of this is not to replace existing instruments, but to extend the mainstream acoustic instrumentarium to reflect and stimulate new musical directions. It is argued that there would be great value in achieving this in parallel with the evolution of digital and electroacoustics. The central thesis of the paper is that a new collaborative framework and resources are necessary if radical developments of mainstream acoustic instruments are to be attained. A Centre and network dedicated to creating such instruments are therefore proposed.

The paper focuses on new instruments for 'alternative tuning systems' (ATS). A considerable proportion of new music explores ATS, and new instruments are needed for its dependable realisation - both now and in future. ATS are one amongst many aspects of recent classical (and popular) music, but have special implications for acoustic instruments. In particular, ATS bring compelling reasons for creating new versions of conventional instruments in a collaborative, long-term project that does not treat individual instruments in isolation. Moreover, the performance of music employing ATS is generally limited to contemporary music specialists - this need not be the case with new instruments. The latter would bring exciting new opportunities to soloists and specialist contemporary ensembles, as well as to orchestral and chamber music; new forms of mixed (acoustic/electroacoustic) work are also suggested; moreover, new acoustic instruments would certainly be taken up in popular and alternative musics.

Expressions of interest, in partnership, collaboration or support, are invited from research institutes, university departments, instrument manufacturers and builders, composers, performers, technologists, researchers in acoustics and psychoacoustics, music theorists and others. Responses are particularly invited regarding the following issues -

The completed study may be downloaded here: c21_orch.zip; format Word 7 and Excel 5 for PC (zipped - 1.2 Mb; unzipped - 6 Mb).

It is intended that an Internet forum will soon be available specifically for discussion of new acoustic orchestral instruments.

Send responses to Patrick Ozzard-Low at pol@c21-orch-instrs.demon.co.uk

This study was undertaken by


in association with


Patrick Ozzard-Low is a British composer and a Winston Churchill Fellow for 1998. In Autumn 1998 he will be travelling to the USA, France, Germany and Holland to research this project further. The purpose is to research new instrumental technologies, and to establish an international network of instrument makers and manufacturers, composers, performers, acousticians and technologists - to collaborate on the creation of new acoustic orchestral instruments.

Why 21st Century Orchestral Instruments?

Broadly speaking, there are five predominant approaches to musical instrument design, development and performance today. These are:

A further movement is conspicuously less widespread:

This discussion paper brings together developments and conjectures on the latter topic, especially in regard to designing or adapting orchestral instruments for alternative tuning systems. It is argued that there are particularly compelling reasons for creating such instruments. While there are many other areas of instrumental research with differing musical aims which are of equal value, it is likely that they complement the issues raised here rather than contradict them.

'Alternative tuning systems' (ATS) are here defined as tuning systems which are intentionally specified and heard as differing from twelve division equal-temperament (12-ET). Examples of ATS are: various forms of Meantone and Well-Temperament; the Javanese slendro and Chinese pentatonic scales; Equal-Temperaments such as 9-ET, 19-ET, 24-ET ('quarter-tones'), 31-ET, 36-ET ('sixth-tones') etc.; various systems of Just Intonation - such as Harry Partch's 43-division system, or Erv Wilson's 'non-centric' JI systems; scales which do not repeat at the octave ('non-octave' scales); and many others. The immense variety of alternative systems is not discussed here - for the most part reference is made to the 'mainstream' alternatives most commonly used or referred to in recent Western music and theory. It is important to stress that no alternative system is here considered as in some way derivative of or subsidiary to 12-ET - the almost ubiquitous tuning system of Western classical and popular music.

It is assumed that the mainstream classical instrumentarium includes the voice, flutes, oboe and Cor Anglais, clarinets, bassoons, saxophones, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, harp, (guitar), piano, organ, pitched percussion and strings. These instruments do not belong exclusively to the orchestra, and (excepting the voice) new versions of them might be useful in a very wide range of musical genres and instrumental combinations. Concomitantly, the classical instrumentarium exerts an influence over the nature of classical and other musics today, and yet is also the locus of considerable resistance to radical design innovation. Depending on one's aesthetic point of view, these reasons alone may suggest the value of 'modernising' orchestral instruments.

Alternative tuning systems are now an important area of compositional interest, and one which will certainly increase in future. It is argued below that specifically designed new instruments would greatly aid (and are in many cases essential to) the dependable realisation of music composed in ATS. Existing orchestral instruments (which are generally optimised for 12-ET) are successful and their design is (within limits) largely understood. It is therefore logical to begin with new versions of these rather than completely new instruments, although, as described later, the modifications required may be quite radical.

There are, however, three overriding factors which are decisive in choosing to focus on the orchestral mainstream. (Each of these initial topics is discussed in more detail later on).

(1) Standardisation: Currently there is no 'standard alternative tuning system' (excepting the emergence of quarter-tones as an alternative standard, at least in Europe). There is therefore little immediate incentive for instrument builders to fashion an instrument for an ATS. There are few existing instruments built specially for ATS with which a new instrument might combine in ensemble; nor is there a fully established performance practice. Similarly, although a one-off instrument might be much used (if it worked well for a specialist player), it would be extremely unlikely to be commercially successful in the absence of an agreed standard. The problem is acute in the case of orchestral instruments because of relatively high development costs, and because the tone quality, responsiveness and mechanism of new instruments will inevitably be compared to existing instruments. The latter are the product of many years of refinement, and without an alternative standard or standards, comparable refinements are unlikely to occur for new instruments.

(2)'Instrumental harmony': The design of an acoustic instrument, its characteristic timbre, and the tuning system for which it is optimised, should be considered inextricably interrelated. The elaboration of this statement is one of the major themes of this paper. The crucial point is that, given our current knowledge of the interrelationship between instrument design, tuning and timbre, it makes little sense to redesign in isolation a single (orchestral) instrument for an ATS. This is because a new scale (a chosen ATS) may be practical for one instrument but not for another; or the scale may be effective for the timbre of one instrument but not for another, or not for their combination; similarly, it is likely that effective new timbres and inharmonic characteristics are possible for some instruments but not for others, and so on. Most importantly, the very notion of an alternative tuning system is tied to questions about harmony, understood in its broadest sense - that is, the way in which pitched sounds of specific timbre or timbres interact.

(3) Economics: The economics of building asolitary instance of a new version of an orchestral instrument (for an ATS) are not viable from either commercial and communal points of view. Very few individuals or companies could, at present, conceive of making a profit from, say, a 'quarter-tone oboe'; and it hardly needs saying that it is difficult to find public funding to build an instrument which would 'normally' be out of tune with all others. What is needed to kick-start the process is funding which will sponsor research into a combined system of tuning and new instruments. Clearly, such a project must be realised in stages, and will demand extensive theoretical work, prototyping, and finishing. From rough estimates, however, its cost would seem to be comparable with that of other large-scale arts ventures of similar importance. Moreover, there is already much relevant work in progress - but little in the way of institutional or project-based focus for these developments.

The value, therefore, of agreeing a provisional standard alternative tuning system (or systems) would be very considerable, both from the point of view of instrument manufacture as well as of composition and performance. However, from composers' perspectives, the idea of a single standard is controversial, and perhaps premature. For this reason, the idea of designing acoustic instruments specifically to realise multiple tuning systems is worthy of serious investigation. But in either case these radical developments cannot be led by compositional or instrumental progress alone, since composers and instrument makers alike are in a 'catch-22' situation: acoustic new music using radical ATS cannot be realised without new instruments (notwithstanding the use of 'extended techniques' with certain instruments); and instrument makers will not make radically new instruments without very good justification for doing so.

Approaching this project in terms of a complete and comprehensive new system of orchestral instruments may seem overly ambitious, and it might appear to be more realistic to concentrate, for example, on building a single new instrument. Of course, any such project has to progress one step at a time. Yet it is commonly agreed that the expenditure required to research and build even a single new orchestral woodwind or brass instrument of professional quality is difficult to justify without serious examination of all the above issues; and it makes little sense while there is no predominant and agreed alternative tuning standard, and for other practical and musical reasons which will be outlined. In fact, it is argued here that there are compelling reasons why no such standard should emerge without a collective and co-ordinated programme of research which brings the complete equation of "tuning + timbre + instrumental design" into focus.

There is one further reason for addressing this problem at the level of the 'orchestra' which is worth stating immediately. Some soloists and contemporary chamber ensembles perform works using quarter-tones and a limited number of other ATS, each of which require special techniques and a special level of instrumental skill and dedication. However, suppose that a composer were to write a work for chamber orchestra, which in general terms was of moderate difficulty, but instead of using twelve division equal-temperament the composer uses nine division equal-temperament. This is a perfectly workable but almost wholly unknown tuning system which has rather austere harmonic implications, but is none the less fascinating and musical. No current-day orchestra could attempt this work; one or two contemporary ensembles might try it out (but there would be an awful lot of fudging). Yet with acoustic instruments built specially for nine division equal-temperament (9-ET), and an appropriate degree of aural training, within a reasonably short time the work could become accessible to any orchestra or ensemble - as would its new harmonic universe. This example is compelling because it would seem that there are fewer difficulties for building instruments for tuning systems having less than 12 divisions per octave than for those having more.

I am not suggesting we rush into building instruments for 9-ET. The example is merely an illustration of why it seems to me that the typical standard of musicianship of a professional orchestral player is a legitimate standard of excellence beyond which, especially for orchestral music, composers should begin to call for new and special acoustic instruments in addition to new and special performance techniques.

To summarise the reasons for focusing on orchestral instruments:

The completed study may be downloaded here: c21_orch.zip; format Word 7 and Excel 5 for PC (zipped - 1.2 Mb; unzipped - 6 Mb).

Send responses to Patrick Ozzard-Low at pol@c21-orch-instrs.demon.co.uk