In this music interview with Jacob Collier, Jacob gave an example of microtonal voice leading. The example song was Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, in C, specifically the ending of the song. He sang a minor third divided into 4 notes, which should normally be 3 semitones.

I immediately recognize this pattern, similar to which I have heard while trying to transcribe some songs in the past. The transcriptions were a failure, mainly because I was unable to find the right notes on a piano.

How do I recognize these microtonal notes/patterns in general?

  • Collier was just giving an example of how Rudolph could be accompanied using microtones. But that's not how the original was written. Commented May 2, 2017 at 13:59
  • I wasn't refering to the original, rather, I was just wondering if I would have to transcribe a song similar to the example, how would I be able to recognize the microtonality in general, where the piano wouldn't be much help.
    – krismath
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 14:01
  • 3
    Your only help here, if you are depending on your ear, is to be so familiar with the sound of "normal" equal tempered (or close to) tonality, that you recognize intervals that don't fit. There is no shortcut: you must simply train your ears. Commented May 2, 2017 at 14:02

3 Answers 3


I'm surprised no one has mentioned what I think is the obvious answer:

Listen to microtonal music!

Check out works from:

  • Tristan Murail
  • Claude Vivier
  • Pascal Dusapin
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen
  • Iannis Xenakis
  • Harry Partch

And be sure to check out who is probably my personal favorite, Ben Johnston. If I may, check out one of the three CDs by the Kepler Quartet of his string quartets; they're masterful recordings of terrific pieces!


In general, if you recognize an interval or note as off-key or out of tune, you've just heard microtonality.

  • 2
    Not sure I agree with this - playing tonally in certain keys in certain (non ET) temperaments could sound out of tune, but wouldn't be microtonal, whilst lots of non-western scales are microtonal but music using them isn't supposed to sound off-key. Commented May 3, 2017 at 7:09
  • This is probably influenced by my absolute pitch, but any noticeable deviation from 12-TET starts sounding microtonal to me, even if the composers and arrangers didn't mean it. So, yes, if that well-tempered harpsichord has enough notes that are off from equal temperament, then yes, I'll call that rendition microtonal.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 12:15
  • Calling a tuning that differs from equal temperament "microtonal" makes the term pretty useless, as it then just means "non- 12TET". By this definition, for instance, just intonation would also count as "microtonal". Although there's probably no really hard-and-fast definition of "microtonal", I would say that it should involve scale intervals that are smaller than approximately a 12TET halfstep. "Micro" does mean "small" and not "far from some power of the twelfth root of two", after all.... Commented May 3, 2017 at 13:16
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    @ScottWallace to be fair, it may be that "microtonal" is a somewhat useless term... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microtonal_music says Microtonal music or microtonality is the use in music of microtones—intervals smaller than a semitone, which are also called "microintervals". It may also be extended to include any music using intervals not found in the customary Western tuning of twelve equal intervals per octave. That second sentence would seem to agree with you, Dekkadeci (though I'm not quite sure I agree with it!) Commented May 3, 2017 at 19:46
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    @user45266 - thanks, I plug where I can, and this is a very knowledgeable and critical audience. Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 15:19

Arabic music has microtonality at its core, i.e. in many of the scales that are commonly used in classical and popular Arabic music.

I've developed a small web app that can play musical fragments in a chosen tuning. For example, one can listen to the Arabic scale Rast (which includes 2 microtones) without or without the microtones, by selecting the appropriate tuning: https://ethereum.karimratib.me:8080/

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