Is there music that doesn't use notes with discrete* pitches, but rather has instruments playing continuously changing frequencies?

I know there are microtonal tunings as high as 72-TET, but is there music composed in what might be called "∞-TET"?

*as opposed to continuous (not "discreet")

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    You can go much higher than 72-TET/72-EDO. A project I'm working on right now uses 196608-EDO (the limit that MIDI can handle). With that tuning you cannot hear the difference between one note and the next. In any case, check out the theremin. I don't know its resolution but I'm sure it's pretty high. That instrument has been used in plenty of 20th century classical music and in many a horror movie.
    – bfootdav
    May 9, 2016 at 22:18
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    196,608 is effectively ∞ as far as the ear can tell, certainly.
    – Geremia
    May 9, 2016 at 22:20
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    On this rather sciencey site, people are more likely to know about discreteness than discreetness - just saying! May 9, 2016 at 22:29
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    Lots of music isn't really composed with the intention to be rendered in any particular fixed tuning system. Perhaps the most obvious is blues, which completely depends on free pitch-bending of the various blue notes. Even in classical styles, there is a lot of debate about the best compromise between Pythagorean and Ptolemaic tunings. In both cases, the continuity-aspect is improvised rather than composed, though IMO it doesn't really make sense to always make that a clear distinction. May 9, 2016 at 23:43
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    One important example is Krystoff Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, shown here with audio tracking along with the score. You can see and hear that A) there are only a few specific pitches notated and played and B) continuous use of frequencies between and above and below certain "landmark" pitches are used. May 10, 2016 at 18:56

5 Answers 5


A trivial answer : yes. When I was quite young I wrote a computer program to spit out a succession of 'beeps' at random frequencies not related to any musical scale; I suspect many people who have a computer and a bit of an interest in music have done the same. In practice how close you could get to infinity (!) would be limited by the resolution at which the computer could represent pitch, but conceptually that's a case of continuously changing frequencies.

The thing is, once you have decided that you have all frequencies available to you, what do you do with them? If you've listened to compilations like the Computer Music Journal sound anthology, Computer Music Currents, or Cultures Electroniques, you'll probably have heard pieces made up of non-scalar pitch grains or gradients (sorry, I can't remember the titles of any examples!). Some of these are fun, but to someone with fairly conventional musical tastes they can sound like variations on the sound of someone's broken plumbing; many listeners tend to yearn for harmony, which means forming relationships between pitches, which brings us back towards scales again.

There's another sense in which “∞-TET” is perhaps closer to commonly-heard music that we might think, in that a lot of styles use glides/bends/portamento in a way that is integral to the sound of the music, but does not necessarily tend to be notated precisely. Blues is the most obvious example, although it tends to be more free in some ranges of the octave than others. I'm also thinking of some Eastern vocal styles, and quite a lot of violin playing (even in the classical tradition).

Musicians will also stray from ET tuning towards more pure 'Just' intonation where possible, so this is another sense in which music isn't really anchored to a fixed set of pitches.

In a way, perhaps you are describing a type of atonality that isn't limiting itself to a 12-tone scale; on the other hand, The concept of atonality is usually associated with avoidance of an obvious tonal centre, which wouldn't have to be the case just because the music is freely-pitched.

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    Excellent observations and well articulated! May 11, 2016 at 6:34

"Harmonies" by Gyorgy Ligeti is an interesting example of microtonal music.

It's written for organ, but it's intended to be played with reduced air and manipulation of the stops, so the pipes don't play at their designed frequency. With (mainly) slow chord changes and wide voicings the overall effect is a slowly evolving harmony and dissonance through the piece.

Not everyone will love the piece itself, but I've picked on this as an example because it has an undeniably "impressive" sound, and the method of tweaking the instrument is interesting.


Well, how about the starting clarinet solo in Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"? It's been almost a century ago. Granted, doing the glissando continuously on its last part was not written into the score originally but was rather an impromptu trick by the clarinetist that the composer then insisted on incorporating into the premiere, but it has been very much mandated practice from then on.


John Luther Adams created a sonification for weather, astronomical and geological data in real time, called The Place Where You Go to Listen

The sound parameters (mostly pitch, by I think others too) change "continuosly" (between comas, as of course we are talking about discrete digital events incrementally changing in time) according to the actual external conditions. However, most times changes are so slow that it sounds more like a continuous sound than a continuously changing one.

On the same "auditory experience" vein, the 9 Beet Strech project presents Beethoven's 9th symphony time stretched to a duration of 24 hours. What's interesting (and perhaps relevant to this question) is that "instant" events in real time turn into pitches slowly and continously changing in time.


I'll go against the stream here and say no, there is no (or very little) music that does not use discrete pitches, at least as resolutions. The very bendiest blues still lands on very solid chords- it slides around a lot, but the scale is there. Sure, there is certainly stuff with no discrete scale implied, but how many of you can hum a tune of it? Music is almost always employed with discretion, at least implied.

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    There's definitely some music that uses continuous pitch. What I haven't determined for myself is whether I think there are enough examples to warrant a downvote of this answer. As I commented above, Threnody for the VIctims of Hiroshima is a very important work that uses continuous pitches, including a notation system for continuous pitches. May 10, 2016 at 18:59
  • Hmmm, Todd, "very important" is of course subjective, especially considered in comparison with, say, Bach or Charles Mingus. I wiould argue that discrete pitches are the rule. May 10, 2016 at 19:02
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    At least important enough to be frequently taught in various music-related courses at accredited universities. Penderecki is considered a major 20th century composer and Threnody... is one of his most famous works, if not his most famous. It's a prime example of notational innovation in the 20th century and many score anthologies include at least an excerpt. May 10, 2016 at 19:06
  • I would still defend my statement that there is very little music without discrete pitches. Perhaps I should merely have said that blues is not a good example of music without discrete pitches. May 11, 2016 at 8:55
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    The question isn't about what music most commonly uses.
    – user28
    May 12, 2016 at 5:16

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