The Tritone and the Ambiguity of Pitch

Over the end of the year holidays, Trudie and I became obsessed with the Irving Berlin song, I’ve Got my Love to Keep Me Warm. We were humming it around the house, dancing to it. Then I got caught up in the unusual harmonics of the line “I can weather the storm”. The tune goes quite minor and slightly dissonant until the line emerges from the “storm”. How did Irving do that?


The four syllables “weather the storm” move up in stacked minor thirds (which accounts for the minor), then within that a pair of tritones for the dissonance. The last note on “storm” is the key tone for the song, so all that minor dissonance gets to resolve on a positive note. Wow! That is a beautiful marriage of words and music, brought to you, in part, by the augmented fourth/diminished fifth/half octave – better known as the tritone.

The tritone is an amazingly powerful interval. It was labeled “Diabolis in Musica” and shunned in music of the church in the 18th Century. The tritone can invoke a strong unpleasant reaction from the listener due to its harmonic dissonance and associations with the devil. Happily, modern music composers have rescued the tritone from the narrow and incomplete sense bestowed by the church. Leonard Bernstein used the tritone throughout the score of West Side Story, which helped to frame the longing, sadness, and excitement that are also a part of the feel of the tritone. George Harrison used the tritone in many of his songs, which is why they always stood out from the more bouncy, sweet Lennon-McCartney tunes. The tritone leant an air of exotic mysticism to his music.

The tritone also figures prominently in a perceptual paradox of psychoacoustics. Upon hearing two musical tones played in succession, most people can accurately determine which pitch is higher and thus whether the interval goes up or down. When all the intervals are tritones, listeners fall into two camps: the fundamental tone hearers can accurately determine the intervalic movement, while overtone hearers are less accurate in making this determination. There is a test for this on-line, so I took it and got 11/12. A fundamental tone hearer am I!! Interestingly, the interval I was incorrect on was one where I heard the fundamental go one direction and the overtones suggest the opposite direction. I realized I heard it, but got confused as to which one was which and picked the wrong answer. Here is a wonderful example of the profound teaching in mistakes – that moment of confusion occurred because I had a realization of how much more there was to hear. I heard that the fundamental tone and the harmonics are connected but also seperate and distinct. Once again I am bowled over by the profundity of awakening to a larger perception of things!

Then a mystery of pitch ambiguity threw itself at me. I was playing some chord progressions on a particular synth instrument in Ableton, and, when I moved from a DFAC chord down to CEGB, the tonal center seemed to move up! I kept playing the chords and watching my hands to confirm that “Yep, my hands are moving down the keyboard” and listening as the tone rose each time. It was messing with my mind. Then I listened through my monitors and heard the same thing. Here is a recording of this instrument playing these two chords in order to illustrate the phenomenon. Keep in mind as you listen that the chord progression is a higher chord to a lower chord.

I think this could be an example of overtones obscuring the fundamental tone, which would contribute to pitch ambiguity. I sent the recording to Ableton and asked about how the instrument was modeled and shaped. I am quite curious about the possibility of some kind of tritone relation in the harmonics of this particular instrument. Or does the second chord pull out higher Cs that brighten the sound and create a sense of rising tone?

I will keep you posted as the mystery unfolds!

Ableton Live: the Medium in Which I Work

My life was completely transformed by a group of amazing computer and music geniuses who developed the Ableton Live digital audio workstation. Ableton is my playground, my pallette and canvas, my co-creative partner. Ableton is my “Her”. There are so many people to whom I will be forever grateful for being in my life and the folks at Ableton are right up at the top. Yet I know very little about them. So I decided to find out who they are!

First and obvious stop is the website Here is the succinct and general description of the company:

Ableton was founded in 1999 and released the first version of Live in 2001. Our products are used by a community of dedicated musicians, sound designers, and artists from across the world. We are more than 200 people from 28 different countries divided between our headquarters in Berlin and our office in Los Angeles. Most of us are active musicians, producers, and DJs, and many of us use Live and Push (their control surface) every day. We come from a wide range of cultural and professional backgrounds. Some of us have PhDs, some are self-taught, and most of us are somewhere in between. What connects us is the shared belief that each of us has the skills and knowledge to contribute to something big: helping to shape the future of music culture.We believe it takes focus to create truly outstanding instruments. We only work on a few products and we strive to make them great. Rather than having a one-size-fits-all process, we try to give our people what they need to work their magic and grow. We’ve learned that achieving the best results comes from building teams that are richly diverse, and thus able to explore problems from a wider set of perspectives. We don’t always agree with each other, but opinion and debate are valued and openly encouraged.

There is a bit more about how they cultivate their corporate culture, but that is basically it.

One of the things that intrigues me about Ableton is that there is no obvious driving personality behind the organization. Ableton comes across as this amorphous mass of people all over the globe working together to give access to and encourage the creation of music. Another amazing thing about the organization is that the same people who founded it are still involved fifteen years later. No behind the scenes take overs, no overt personality conflicts, just a clear intention to fulfill a need in their creative community. And while I do appreciate the magical kingdom of Ableton, I want to look behind the curtain to see the personalities involved.

The company was founded by Gerhard Behles and Robert Henke, both electronic musicians. As Behles explains it:

In practice, my musical partner Robert Henke (Monolake) and I did not differentiate between working in the studio or performing live. They were the same thing and I think many people still work like that to this day. The kinds of computer programs that you could get at the time were very much a digital representation of a studio, which is a place you go once the music is written, and you only go there to imprint it on tape and then to move it on to production of the record. This whole thing had little to do with our practice, so we realized there was a gap. Something is needed that’s more conducive to this jamming, improvisational way of making music. We noticed it was missing and asked, “can we do it?”

(Many composers hear the music they want to make in their heads, then write it down on paper. I want to hear voices first and from there I can hear the “song of the moment” in those voices. I choose voices, then find pleasing patterns of notes and interesting rhythm features, then the tune or soundscape scene begins to emerge. The process feels more like painting or sculpting than songwriting. Ableton makes it possible for me to work this way.)

Behles goes on to explain that the company never marketed a product to a niche, instead they fulfilled a communal need. This organic, user-driven approach speaks to the longevity, successful growth and integrity of Ableton as a company.

But in the beginning we never looked at the market or the stats and quantitative need. Now we run surveys and we do a lot of research but it’s much more in the field. We go to the actual musician, visit them in the studio and spend a day with them, and then you know more than you wanted to know. We do this a lot and we also bring in a lot of people who spend a couple of hours here, solving specific problems. We put them in front of some new functionality and make them deal with it and see what happens. It’s totally fun and collaborative…

The full text of the interview with Gerhard Behles can be found at on-line newsletter High Snobiety:

Robert Henke teaches, composes, creates art installations, performs laser light shows, and the list goes on. I am going to work my way through his website to get acquainted with his work. You can, too – go here –>

With all of the time, talent and thoughtful consideration invested in this product, you might think it would be very expensive. This is one of a very few cases I know where the product value waaaaay exceeds the cost. First of all, you can download a lite version of Ableton for a 30 day free trial. Then there are three price levels, with the basic Intro version (which I started with) at $99. Ableton runs sales quite frequently. It says alot about the company that they have kept the price point reasonable through this entire time of “economic downturn”.

While I know that my joy lies within me, the excitement and flow I experience working in Ableton is a large part of the bliss of my life. Thanks to all who have contributed to the cutting of this diamond, and palms together-head bow to Gerhard Behles and Robert Henke for their steadfast vision.

Time to go play!

New Year, New Sounds, New Ideas

2015 ushers in a burst of creative energy with many potential collaborations hang-gliding out there, and lots of time and space in the studio. Trudie gave me an Ableton Live upgrade, so I am now using Ableton 9. Excited to explore all the new features and hear how much more expansive the audio field is in the latest upgrade. I have only upgraded twice, but each time the Ableton Team has improved the functionality and expressiveness of the software by building on the strengths of previous versions. Upgrading always makes me nervous especially when I am perfectly happy with what I am using, so it was very satisfying to jump right into Ableton 9 and be delighted with the sound immediately. The upgrade includes new instruments and samples. (I don’t use the loop libraries as I prefer to make my own loops.) Much to explore and learn as I convert all my projects over to the new platform. Plus I am taking a Coursera course on Ableton Basics through Berkeley School of Music in February. That will be helpful as the instruction will be based in the new version. It will be like a four week tutorial!

Trudie and I are committing to spending time in our studios everyday. We identified “home” as a topic we both want to explore in our art. We have had several hours of discussion about different ways of relating the idea of “home”. I keep wanting to cover home up, obscure it so that everything that home contains is set free. I started with trying to cut the fundamental tone out of the recorded wave form leaving only shimmering harmonics. (“real” sound engineers would be laughing very hard right now) I thought,”If I can cut off the attack, I can erase the fundamental tone.” But, no! Where EVER the sound begins is the attack, so a fundamental tone is always present. The tone is like an earthworm in reverse, you cut off it’s front and it makes a new front.

So I decided to back into exploring “home” by working on “New Music 4Trude” since she is a big part of what is “home” to me.This piece came about because we have seen two really fine versions of the musical, Ragtime, and Trudie loves the song “New Music”, which is about how the new music of ragtime touched and connected people. When I think of ragtime, I think of a one-two rocking feel and a simple, cheerful melody. Yesterday we listened to the song and I asked her what she liked about it. She said it made her feel like dancing. I can’t really feel a dance beat in it except for gentle rocking. I will study this song more deeply.

Right now there is SO MUCH information coming to us from the Universe/the Divine WoW/ God. Everyday I receive a new understanding about myself and my beliefs/perceptions and how we shape the world together. In meditation the challenge has been identified as feeling warm and loving heart connection with people who I do not feel love me back. You know how easy it is to love someone who is looking at you, seeing you, loving you. The heady out-of-this-world feeling of a deep and special connection with another. The kind of feeling that makes you feel impatient, bored and disdainful of having to spend time with those who are NOT the beloved. After years of chasing this felt ideal and withholding myself from anything (I perceived to be) less, I have woken up to the here and now. I WANT to be FULLY present to love in this space and time. I WANT to deeply connect with and SEE others as much as I want to be seen and connected with.

I believe this may be the path toward home.