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On the Application of Microtonal Composition to Film Sound Design

You are here :- Microtonal Primer >> Ethnic Scales
Ethnic Scales

There are numerous tuning systems in existence around the world.  Some of the better known in the West are the Indonesian gamelan tunings.  It is important to note that while they are standardized in the West, traditional gamelan tunings are only loosely based on a tuning structure, with variations introduced by each master tuner.  Unlike the Greek ideology of a universe ruled by numbers, Indonesian philosophy of music stresses individuality, even in tuning. 

It was a gamelan ensemble, playing at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris that inspired Claude Debussy to write his “whole-tone” compositions, which are based on transforming twelve-tone equal temperament into six-tone, by disregarding half the semitones.  Click here to listen to a piano playing whole tones across two octaves.

Below is one possible tuning table for a five tone gamelan scale, Slendro.  Click here (not availabe yet)for an audio example of an indonesian tuning.



Panunggal or Barang

0 cents


243 cents


487 cents


730 cents


973 cents

Barang Alit (notice the slightly stretched octave)

1217 cents, not 1200

Another interesting tuning standard is seven-tone equal temperament.  Approximations of it have been found among several cultures, including xylophones in Thailand and Uganda.  By dividing an octave into 7 equal parts, one gets tones of about 171.5 cents apart.  Click here for an audio example.

To see what tuning systems have been developed in the more recent past, click here to go on to the next page.