The Effortless Microtonality of Modest Mouse

Recently, I came across a paper with an incredible title: Formal negativities, breakthroughs, ruptures and continuities in the music of Modest Mouse. The music of Modest Mouse has been very dear to me since high school, and it remains, in my opinion, one of the most distinctively soul-rending musical acts I have ever heard. Obtuse texts are also dear to my heart, so I searched for a free PDF and skimmed over the paper. It went over a number of the elements that make the alternative rock band from Issaquah so special: Isaac Brock’s complex and often paradoxical lyrics, sudden changes in key and time signature, disruptive song structures, dynamic timbres, just to name a few. However, I felt that the paper was missing out on the element that inspired me so much as a young guitarist: Isaac Brock’s penchant for microtonality.

What is microtonality? Basically, any note that doesn’t fit within the modern standard tuning system in the West counts as a microtone. If you think of the “Do-Re-Mi” song from the sound of music, the space from the low “do” to the high “do” is called an octave. The modern Western tuning system splits this octave into twelve equal parts, which make up the keys of the piano. Notes that cannot be played on the keys of a standard tuned piano are considered microtonal. It is only recently that this system has become dominant and standardized. Classical musicians like Bach and Mozart used unequal tuning systems that gave each key its own unique expressive character. Persian music theorist Safi al-Din came up with a 17 tone scale in the 13th century, while modern Arabic scales have simplified to a Western-style equally spaced octave using 24 divisions instead of 12. Indonesian gamelan ensembles use five and seven tone scales that have very little relation to anything we would recognize as being “in tune” in the West.

Listening to older Modest Mouse records, one notices immediately that the guitar and vocals have a distinct “out of tune” quality. Pitch is often unstable, and the harmonic landscape is unlike anything else. While I imagine this is not to everyone’s taste, I personally find that it has a hauntingly beautiful quality to it. Small bends in pitch provide unique flavors that allow for a more intimate and vulnerable form of musical expression. In many ways, it reminds me of the krekhts or “sobs” of Jewish Klezmer music, a technique which also makes use of microtonality. A more likely influence are the “blue notes” used in the blues. In the blues, guitarists and singers bend notes outside of the standard 12 tone scale, possibly in imitation of west African scales brought over by enslaved people. Fans of blues guitarist BB King talk about how he “speaks” through his guitar Lucille, achieving a legendary degree of expressiveness by bending the strings of his guitar to incredibly subtle microtonal melodies.

After learning about microtonality for the first time, it wasn’t long until I linked it to the music of Modest Mouse, at which point I became very curious about how microtonal it really is. With the free software Sonic Visualizer, I am now able to look at the pitch of various notes with some degree of accuracy. I have decided to talk about pitch in terms of cents, which is an easy and intuitive way to measure the distance between notes. If two notes are right next to each other on the piano, like F and F# or B and C, we say the distance between those two notes is 100 cents. Since there are twelve keys in each octave, there are 1200 cents between two notes with the same name an octave apart. Pitch is rarely exact, but in very simple terms, the more the space between two notes varies from a multiple of 100, the more microtonal it is. A major third in standard tuning is about 400 cents, a pure major third is about 386 cents, and a very microtonal “neutral” third is 350 cents.

Originally, I wanted to look objectively as I could at the data and develop a formal framework for discussing the microtonal gestures I found. However, the more I looked at the data and the deeper I dived into research on blues music for guidance, the more apparent it became to me that such an investigation would be missing the point. The world of microtonal music is expansive enough that it’s entirely possible to force some sort of fancy label on every gesture, but labels are only meaningful if they help us better understand the emotional impact of the music. Rather than twist my brain around trying to find some way to fit Modest Mouse into a box, I think it would be a lot more meaningful to go through a few songs and illustrate the sorts of techniques that Isaac Brock uses to express himself through his music.

The opening riff of “Out of Gas” from The Lonesome Crowded West is a great demonstration of what microtonality can add to a song. The first time the riff plays, it’s played relatively straightforwardly in the sort of pitch language we’re all used to. Upon repetition, however, some significant pitch bends are introduced. These bends are very punchy and sound almost like a sputtering engine. The descending bass line gives a sense of futility to the engine’s struggle, as its attempts to start grow more and more impotent. The bends at the beginning of the fourth repetition are the only ones that manage to span a whole piano key. This ends up sounding even more dissonant than the microtonality, almost as if the engine is crying out in pain. When I play this riff on my guitar, I feel as if the microtonal bends reach distinct notes rather than being a mere embellishment. The first ever bend in the song is about 50 cents higher than the base note and moves up a neutral third to reach the next high note. The neutral third is a very standard convention in the blues, which to me reinforces the idea that these bends represent distinct pitches.

This very early recording from Sad Sappy Sucker demonstrates a more traditional blues sensibility early on from Modest Mouse. The first note is bent up about 150 cents, producing a neutral second interval, similar to the neutral third implied in “Out of Gas”. The next bend is not actually microtonal, but impressively two separate notes are bent simultaneously with the exact same pitch contour. These bends repeat throughout the song, and generally approximate either 50 or 100 cents. One stand out moment occurs at 1:34, when a note is bent up 250 cents and held at that pitch. At 2:02, Isaac Brock outlines a particularly harsh sounding chord with a nasty neutral seventh by bending the top note up 50 cents. These bends contribute to the sinister and decayed atmosphere that pervades the song, supported by Isaac’s raspy voice.

Also noteworthy about this early album is the guitar is tuned to pure intervals, meaning that the minor thirds are about 15 cents higher and the major thirds about 16 cents lower than on a piano. Pure intervals represent the tuning of the harmonic series, which means that they sound more restful and consonant when compared to the notes on a piano. In exchange, notes outside of the key sound very out of tune, making modulation more difficult. This is a result of tuning instruments by ear rather than by machine, and indicates to me that Modest Mouse had a very clear sense of tonality at their inception.

For me, Cowboy Dan represents the pinnacle of Modest Mouse’s microtonal style. The opening howl of the guitar evokes the sound of the ocarina from the theme of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”, but with a darker, more mournful tone. These howls are difficult to measure, but the first appears to descend by around 170 cents before returning to its original pitch. The second howl descends by about 50 cents, returns to pitch, and then ascends by about 100 cents, although to my ear it sounds a bit sharper. The third howl appears to match the first, once more descending around 170 cents. These microtonal bends are very subtle and demonstrate the sort of expressive capabilities that are possible through the guitar. This is what it means to speak through the guitar, as the howls truly sound like the mournful cries of a coyote, something that would not be possible without microtonal pitch bends.

The lower guitar plays a repetitive riff, and as is often the case in Modest Mouse songs this riff is developed throughout the song with different microtonal gestures. The note ushering in the percussion around 8 seconds in dynamically increases the volume while bending up about 50 cents, transporting the listener from the desolate desert to the fury of Cowboy Dan’s inner world. Another guitar rings out with the entrance of the percussion, sounding almost like a gong as it oscillates about 50 cents up and down from the base pitch. This gong sound repeats through the verse with subtle microtonal variations.

The next section begins around 1:06, where a new guitar riff is introduced. This riff is pretty straightforward until 1:21, when the guitar seems to yelp out in an upward bend. This motif is difficult to measure at parts, but at 1:41 it leaps up a massive 270 cents. At 2:04, the moods shifts to pensive and wistful as a new guitar riff cries out in longing with small, microtonal bends. While the other bends in the song seemed to emphasize the movement in pitch with long contours, the bends in this section are sharp and poignant, and in my opinion are meant to be heard as distinct notes rather than slides in pitch. I haven’t addressed the vocals too much so far because they’re difficult to measure, but Isaac Brock often imitates the microtonal gestures of his guitar with his voice and vice-versa.

This covers for the most part how Modest Mouse uses microtonality in their music. I think the best way to absorb this style is through listening rather than analysis. When researching for this article, I saw a number of posts lamenting that recent Modest Mouse records suck, and I think that much of that sentiment may have to do with the absence of microtonality in their newer material. I personally love their new material and look forward to whatever they decide to release in the future, but I understand the longing people feel for the heart wrenching, poignant, often tempestuous, yet always deeply human touch microtonality gave to the music. That being said, whether an increase in resource and creative control led to the band “fixing” their microtonal gestures, or whether the old style simply doesn’t speak to them anymore, it’s not reasonable to expect the old sounds to come back. Instead, we can take inspiration from what they did and create our own music, always pushing the art forward.

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.

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