What are the exceptions to this, if they exist? Assuming that's the norm, do we know why this is the case? What are the causes of the exceptions? Why is what I've outlined in the title the norm?

  • 6
    Octave to me means the difference in pitch between a thing being vibrated at a certain length, and the pitch when that thing is doubled or halved in length.
    – Step Start
    Feb 29 '20 at 8:07
  • 10
    These are two entirely different questions
    – PiedPiper
    Feb 29 '20 at 9:19
  • 1
    Well, frequencies can be serialised in whatever way one pleases, especially these days when you can literally construct your own electronic instruments with your own ratios between notes. Visual composition has been around for a while by now too, with people like Xenakis and Penderecki producing entirely visual scores. I still think your question is a bit vague, because the terms "music" and "world" are not clearly defined either. Are we talking about naturally occuring music, or is experimental and noise music taken into consideration as well? Many cultures employ dissonance in folk music.
    – Pyromonk
    Feb 29 '20 at 14:14
  • 1
    Japanese divide them in Pentaves (Pentatonic) and Arabic don't have 12-tone but 24-tone. In Indian (Carnatic, and Hindustani) divide Frequency range into 12-tone and Scales of 8 notes, but these hardly resemble 7 common modes. Feb 29 '20 at 14:46
  • 2
    Are pianos tuned in octaves?
    – Micah
    Feb 29 '20 at 23:34

These are a few entry points to explore musics based on noise, only, or where noise is the major component. Most of those musics are literally exploration of noise in all imaginable ways, where the pitch is rarely the focus.

  1. Traditional Atonal/Drone Music
  2. Japanoise/Noise
  3. Drone/Ambient/Field recording
  4. Musique Concrete and Contemporary Classical Music
  5. Industrial, Rhythmic Industrial music and Power Noise
  6. Abstract Hip Hop

There is also Free Jazz and this other style of classical music Dodecaphonism, with a lot of pitches, but no gravity center regarding tonality. It is much less noisy compared to the other genres listed above, more melody oriented.

  1. Free Jazz

  2. Dodecaphonism

  3. My Conlusion

1. Traditionnal Atonal/Drone Music
  • Didgeridoo/Yidaki : Ryka Ali
    in the following example by David Hudson, there are also african percussion that has been added whereas in general the percussions are claves,
  • Guyto Monks , Tibetan Mantra :
  • Tibetan Horns :
  • African Bow , Kalumbu and Berimbau

2. Japanoise : Maybe the most difficult to start appreciating. It is a genre of music that focuses on noise and saturation .
  • Aube - Live
  • Merzbow - Woodpecker No. 1
  • Whitehouse - Philosophy

3. Drone/Ambient/Field recording , there can be and there is often a pedal tone temporarily, but it is not mandatory that it remains focussed on a pitch. Each drone can last some moment then disappear or merges with another one appearing. The focus is sound richness/exploration.
  • Eric La Casa - Dahl, Au Dehors
  • Kalamine - Hedra : in this track some frequencies comes back, but they may very well be atonal, and the piece would still totally fit in the genre.
  • Gong centered music : although one can say the pitch of the gong can be thought at the main pitch/note/frequency

4. Contemporary Classical music and above all Musique Concrete: using pitch, but which is not centered on a tonic note, and a distinct flavour in reseach and study of noises and sounds
  • Iannis Xenakis - Persepolis #1
  • Pierre Schaeffer - Etude de Bruits
  • Pierre Boulez - Le Marteau Sans Maître (1954)
  • Pierre Schaeffer -
  • Pierre Henry - Fantasia
  • John Lely - The Harmonics of Real Strings

5. Industrial, Rhythmic Industrial music and Power Noise
  • Zoviet France
  • G Nox - Ventre # 1 in this one the bass drum is focussed on one frequency so that makes one note...
  • Imminent Starvation - Lost Highway 45 in this one there still the synth pad in the back ground that is clearly tonal, but the overall is an exploration of sequences through distortion. In the end it is repeated to a point that I personnally hear melodies in the noises, their most distinctive frequencies.
  • Moata Omen - Ash Nazg :
  • Troum & All Sides ~ Shutûn
  • Esplendor Geométrico ‎- En Roma :
  • Hint - In Tenebris :

6. Abstract Hip Hop
  • Dälek - Distroted Prose :

7. Free Jazz
  • John Coltrane :
  • John Zorn :

  1. Dodecaphonism, the most melody-focused for the end
  • Arnold Schoenberg, Piano Concerto, Op. 42 :

  1. My conclusion

Finally , I would be even tempted to list Hardcore techno and Breakcore techno. Maybe even the whole Techno genre:

But there can be much more pitches involved in the construction of those music piece. However I personally appreciate them in the same sphere as those musics presented above.

Prehistorically and historically, Didjeridoo, Stringed Bows, FrameDrums, JawHarps, Rattles, Hitting on stones, objects, body parts (cheeks), Bone Flutes, Ocarina, Conch shells... for ten thousands and thousands of years, Homo sapiens music has not been particularly tonal. This still reflects nowadays in modern electronic and acoustic music.

And for the end, though probably off topic: just in between tonality and atonality, Microtonality: borrowing from both approach Noise and Tone.

  • H. Wakabayashi - Microtonal Lucide FairyTale

  • Wyschnegradsky - Twenty-four Preludes in Quarter-tones; No. 3

  • 2
    You get a +1 from me for quoting Iannis Xenakis. I do not want to interfere with your answer, so I will propose this in a comment... You should maybe add a reference to power electronics bands, like Whitehouse. I think extreme no wave bands like DNA would fit the bill too, but I'm not sure.
    – Pyromonk
    Feb 29 '20 at 14:08
  • 1
    @Pyromonk Thanks for the suggestion! Whitenoise reminds me of MZ412 or Birgher Death Now from the label Cold Meat Industry. I'd sort this close to Japanoise, which for me is just Noise with a capital N. DNA is interesting, vaguely reminding me of Hint the "punk" saxophone based experimental band. And then I suddenly realized I have forgotten to list Free Jazz: I must absolutely complete my answer it would not be exhaustive otherwise :-) About Hardcore, I was talking about techno. Feb 29 '20 at 14:27
  • 1
    @Pyromonk the experimental hardcore punk band that I was refering to that DNA made me thingk about: Hint - youtu.be/19jgt3NExEk?t=168 . Indeed I don't know the "no wave" genre : I have a little discovery work to do, and I'll update the answer accordingly. Feb 29 '20 at 14:41
  • 1
    @leftaroundabout Thanks for the remark. I tend to disagree that the goal is being "atonal" deliberately. It's more of a constraint that is not there and has never been there, it is a degree of liberty (except for Dodecaphonism abd Free Jazz where I agree it is a deliberate choice). I'd say the goal is to deliberately explore sound. I keep your point in mind though, and will think about more traditionnal genres. I first think about didjeridoo music, maybe also the amazonian/african instrument that is one string with the tension done by hand and modified on the fly. Mar 1 '20 at 10:41
  • 1
    Couldn't drone-based music be considered a precursor to tonality and arguably count as "centering on a single note"?
    – awe lotta
    Mar 2 '20 at 4:11

The short answer is "maybe".

The long answer is much too broad for a single answer but can be found in "Everyday Tonality II" by Philip Tagg, particularly in the chapters on chord shuttles and bimodality.

A sample of points Tagg makes:

  • A chord shuttle involves ongoing oscillation between two chords. Many chord shuttles have an identifiable tonic but others do not.
  • An ionian loop can be bimodal and have two functional tonics. Performances of Guantanamera (basically {I IV V V}) can end on ‘V’ (most common), or on ‘I’ (the ‘gringo ending’).
  • In Latino popular music ionic sequences can become mixolydian with a corresponding change in the tonic, thus making them bimodal. For example, in the ‘minor La Bamba’ or ‘Che Guevara’ ASCENT from i via iv up to V (e.g. Am Dm E) can be pitch reversed into a DESCENT from i down to V via bVII and bVI. If that V is finalis, as is often the case in Latin American popular music, it is easily heard as PHRYGIAN/HIJAZ I, thanks to the fact that i-bVII-bVI-V —Am G F E in A, for example— is exactly the same progression as the familiar Andalusian cadence in E— Am G F E, i.e. iv-bIII-bII-I.
  • Andean music frequently has double shuttles such as bVI-bIII-V-i which, in C major/ A minor, runs F C E Am and consists of a IV-I in C and a V-i in A minor.

The gamelan music of Indonesia relies on interlocking polytonal cycles which I think you would be hard-pressed to force a tonic onto.

Ambient music has pads and washes that may fit into a scale but never revolve around a single note because there are no single notes only complex layers of notes of the scale.

Hiphop beats are frequently polytonal, the legacy of the early days sampling vinyl on music production stations that didn't have pitch-shifting capabilities.

Psychedelic music frequently involves soloing on the minor pentatonic of the fifth degree of the scale, which often implies a second tonic as well and gives a distinctive floaty feeling to the melodic lines.

  • Where can one find more information about Ionian loops?
    – Pyromonk
    Mar 1 '20 at 0:52
  • 2
    In Everyday Tonality II. A PDF copy is cheap. An Ionian loop is just a chord loop on the major scale. Other examples include "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "Wild Thing." "Sweet Home Alabama" is a mixolydian loop.
    – xpro
    Mar 1 '20 at 3:15
  • 1
    I would give more than +1 if I could :) This is the only answer that actually connects with the question: others focus on avant-guarde aspects, while the question seems to be about ethnomusicology.
    – fdreger
    Mar 3 '20 at 9:29

As noted in other answers and comments, there are really two primary questions here (which do have some relationships), boiling down to the supposed prevalence of (1) tonality, and (2) the status/importance of the octave. I'll try to address each of these.

I should note that the question implicitly seems to be talking about music that is organized primarily around pitch. Much music (both Western and in other parts of the world) is not necessarily focused primarily on pitch. Stephane Rolland's answer references several examples of music that might be said to be "noise" related, but in general music can be structured around rhythmic, timbral, and other qualities rather than focusing so much on pitch. Music can be rhythmic using percussive instruments with indefinite or non-fixed pitch, in which case questions of tonality and octaves may not be a concern at all. So-called spectralist music may focus on timbral changes and effects that influence the very nature of "pitch-iness." And then there are things like aleatoric music or "found" music that may derive from chance or environmental sounds, perhaps manipulated in some way. There are literally hundreds of types of music for which such distinctions about tonality and octaves are completely irrelevant. But the question seems to presuppose that we're talking about music that has some sort of pitch-related focus, so I'll stick with that for the remainder of the answer.

The Prevalence of Western Tonality in Modern Music

The question is asking about music from around the world, but the influence of global pop cannot be discounted. The realistic answer to the question is that most music from around the world NOW tends to use some version of tonality and to emphasize octave relationships, because the spread of global pop has made Western music concerns part of global music. The reason why this has happened has to do with the history of Western colonialism, but I assume that's not what the question was interested in.

Instead, I assume the question was trying to get at traditional/indigenous music from around the world and whether it always makes these assumptions. So let's discuss that.


The question supposes "a single note which is returned to" as a focus. That's roughly in line with many definitions of tonality, which is etymologically derived from its focus on a "tone." However, there are many different ways to conceptualize tonality, and so-called "Western tonality" is only one version of it.

In a broader sense, tonality is not so much about a single pitch (and returns to it) as much as creating a network of relationships among the various pitches of the scale. Some notes are felt as places of "repose" or "home," while others may be places of "tension" with a need to resolve or move elsewhere, and still others may serve as temporary stability points. There is often some sort of hierarchy of pitches in the scale. This very broad conception of tonality is common to a lot of musics (definitely most pitch-centric musics) from around the world.

The reason for this hierarchy of relationships among notes of the scale to exist is a basic principle of organization. If it doesn't exist, then all notes are effectively "equal." The problem with making all notes equal is that it risks turning all notes into an undifferentiated mass of sound. There is no way as a listener to measure where you were or where you might be going. All notes become the same. Music, as an artform that moves in time, is usually dependent on some sort of dynamic flow, whether "tension and release" or "repetition versus novelty versus return" or whatever. Assigning some notes of the scale to particular roles is one way of creating that sort of structure, where one can feel a movement "away" from a particular note and then a "return" to it.

That last sentence gets close to the question's formulation of tonality, but again that's only one possible method of organization or role for notes of the scale. Most world musics that create scalar hierarchies have more than just that one "single note which is returned to" -- they create roles for various pitches and often assign characteristic gestures composed of multiple notes, etc. (The leading tone resolution in Western music is a simple example.)

What are the alternatives to tonality? Well, there's all sorts of ways to expand the definition beyond that "single note which is returned to," and most pitch-centric music is more complex than that. However, there are some greater deviations that undermine that principle, including:

  • Drone-based musics. These are somewhat related to the question's formulation of tonality, but instead of a tone that is "returned to," there is an ever-present droned note that serves as a pitch reference.
  • Polytonality. There's no reason to restrict things to one "single note" in the hierarchy. There can be multiple points of stability within a scale, and in some types of music they may be equivalent or at least equally possible alternatives.
  • Progressive tonality. The tonic note can shift. Most listeners -- even well-trained ones -- don't tend to notice if you end on the same "tonic note" that you began a piece on five minutes ago.
  • Traditional atonality. The complete absence of tonal hierarchy is somewhat rare among traditional musics around the world, but it can occur in music that isn't very focused on pitch. If the rhythms or timbres are more important, the sounding pitches may be merely incidental qualities of the sounds and not part of the organizational structure.
  • "Deliberate" atonality. The past century has seen several different attempts by composers to deliberately undermine the sense of tonal hierarchy within scales. However, without replacing that scalar hierarchy with other audible organizational cues, the music can become rather undifferentiated and overly complicated.

That last reason is perhaps the most important explanation for why most pitch-centered music develops scalar hierarchies: human listeners need something to "latch on to" in their listening experience. Something that repeats and creates a sense of structure. Otherwise, random notes sound like... well, random notes. A scalar hierarchy (which may or may not focus on one particular pitch) is one of the most common and easiest methods to create a structure so listeners can keep track of changes within music and perceive cycles of "tension/release" or "repetition/return" etc. It's not the only possible organizational structure, but if it's not present, usually some other parameter takes its place.

The Role of the Octave

While the question is formulated as "split up the range of pitches most fundamentally into octaves," I assume it's actually trying to get at many of the implications of doing so. I'd divide the topic up into at least three somewhat different elements:

  1. Whether the octave is a "special" or privileged interval
  2. Whether the scale repeats its structure at the octave
  3. Whether notes that are an octave apart are perceived to be "the same" (i.e., what's known as "octave equivalence")

These three things don't always go together. But the reason for privileging the octave is simple acoustics/physics. Notes that are an octave apart have double the frequency. Their wavelengths can thus line up in special simple ratios. The human auditory cortex picks up on this regularity (and there is evidence it happens in some animals too).

From an evolutionary standpoint why this happens probably also has to do with the ability of the brain to recognize "harmonic" sounds. By that I mean sounds that have a frequency spectrum consisting of integer multiples of some fundamental frequency. Many "musical" sounds are produced by objects that are effectively one-dimensional harmonic oscillators. Strings and long columns of air are two of the most column and used in many musical instruments.

While a string or a column of air usually produces many different frequencies, our brain processes those sounds and consolidates them into a single perceived "pitch." Like many things our brain does to process input data, it simplifies a complex stimulus into an entity that we can perceive as a single "thing," in this case a single "pitch" from one particular sound source.

To pick up on harmonic sounds, the brain needs to sense ratios of frequencies, and the octave is the most simple integer ratio.

All of that said, the importance of the octave is much less pervasive among traditional musics around the world than the concept of a pitch hierarchy. It still often has some role, but among the above classification I gave for different roles, (1) is more common than (2) and certainly more common than (3). Option (1) just derives from that acoustical quality I described, a role it has in common with other intervals with small integer frequency ratios, like the perfect fifth and perfect fourth.

Many traditional musics do not (or did not) have scales that necessarily repeat at the octave. A few reasons:

  • Many traditional scales are not that large in frequency variation. Human singers often stay within a range of about an octave, and groups of people attempting to all single together in unison (even among single-sex groups) will have an even more limited range. Often among traditional sung music, it's not necessary to even consider relationships of notes beyond the octave.
  • Many traditional instruments also do not have wide ranges. When they do, it's not necessarily common in many cultures to have large ensembles that all need to harmonize with each other (certainly not across multiple octaves), so the question of octave-repeating scales doesn't often come up. Many traditional instruments are designed with different notes in the scale in different octaves (that is, the scale does not repeat after an octave).
  • Some cultures tend to use instruments that are not based primarily on one-dimensional harmonic oscillators. A standard example is gamelan, which uses primarily three-dimensional instruments that do not necessarily produce harmonic spectra. In that case, the reinforcing acoustic reason to have pitches an octave apart resonate most strongly isn't necessarily a foremost concern, as the spectra of the instruments don't necessarily produce greatest "consonance" at such intervals.
  • Some musics make use of alternative intervallic structures for repetition. The most common are perfect fifth and perfect fourth structures. (More discussion below.)

The third concept (3) of true octave equivalence is the most rare, as it requires wide-ranging ranges for voices and/or instruments, often as well as some sense of large ensemble of instruments playing simultaneously in different ranges for it to take hold.

It didn't emerge in Western culture until around the 11th century. Ancient Greek music didn't have octave equivalence (i.e., it called different notes an octave apart by different names) and often lacked exact repetition of scales in different octaves. Early Western chant also lacked a concept of octave equivalence (e.g., there were some notes that might be "allowed" in one octave, but absent from another). Early treatises that named the notes often began on A and went straight through the alphabet: ABCDEFGHI... etc., with no repetition of names.

Again, there was no reason to consider notes an octave apart to be "the same" when you had a group of male monks all standing around singing together in a similar range that likely rarely went much beyond an octave.

In fact, the first European attempts to systematize the scale resulted in a hybrid system that actually had a kind of "perfect fifth equivalence" instead of octave equivalence. The early notations in the 9th century Enchiriadis treatises had a notational system that related notes a perfect fifth apart, rather than an octave. The original system of modes (then called "tones") also had only four "tonics" (classified into primus, secundus, tritus, and tetrardus), after which the tones started to repeat, effectively at the interval of a perfect fifth. The ancient Greek scale system was organized around repetition at perfect fourth and perfect fifth intervals as well.

It was only around the time of the development of staff notation in the 11th century and at least a couple centuries of experimentation with polyphony in chant that anyone had an idea to start calling notes in different octaves by the same name, giving us our modern system that goes ABDEFG and then repeats.

Nevertheless, music can develop in other ways. If you've ever sung music with small children or people without a good sense of pitch, you may notice that if the range is not that big, they'll "lock in" on other intervals, typically a perfect fifth or perfect fourth. A bunch of male monks chanting probably did something similar things, hence the perfect fifth system of organization mentioned above. The reason for the fifth and fourths is the same as octaves in terms of privileged intervals: the small integer ratios resonate in ways that other intervals do not.

Polyphony can develop in other ways with these non-octave systems. Perhaps one of the most well-known is traditional Georgian polyphony (from the country of Georgia). Many traditional folk styles there are tuned in a system that has a kind of perfect-fifth equivalence, where the fifth is the interval that must be kept most in-tune. The music results in what Western listeners often perceive as jarring dissonances, as the scale does not repeat at the octave and thus privileges a much different hierarchy of intervals. (Even so, most performances I've heard of this music with ranges that extend beyond the octave do seem to show some sensitivity to the octave interval in places, as it is a place of resonance too.)

Such a system may also change what it means to be "tonal," as Western conceptions of tonality tend to assume octave equivalence, so the "tonic" can appear in any octave. However, that's not true in many world musics (such as the Georgian polyphony mentioned above), as the "home" tonic note may also need to occur in a specific octave, as notes in other octaves are not perceived to be "the same."

  • 1
    +1 for discussing whether the scale repeats its structure at the octave. As @pyromonk commented under OP, "frequencies can be serialised in whatever way one pleases, especially these days when you can literally construct your own electronic instruments with your own ratios between notes." So it's less a question of whether a given sound is related to double or half its wavelength (which is just physics) and more a question of whether there are eight ("oct") intervals between the two. Mar 2 '20 at 16:47
  • to your great selection I'd like to add this video: youtube.com/watch?v=0r4gbqHJlLA Mar 4 '20 at 16:44

Drum cadences may be among the best examples of unpitched atonal music. They tend to be written exclusively for unpitched percussion instruments such as tenor drums. They generate interest through their use of rhythm.

Regardless of a lack of popularity, 20th-century classical music kicked off an entire international trend of 12-tone serialism, where despite the fact that notes are still organized in octaves, the point is explicitly made to use all 12 notes in 12TET equally often. A 12-tone row (and often its inversion, retrograde, etc.) is used to enforce the order. Some composers who conventionally compose tonal works, like Nikolai Kapustin, will at least occasionally use 12-tone techniques.

Quartal and quintal harmony, despite often lending itself to tonal harmony with quartally influenced voicings of conventional extended chords, can have a strikingly atonal effect at times, especially when the quartal chords are planed. (In the example in the last link, the atonality is most pronounced in the B section.)

  • The last 2 examples are nice, but they still use octave divisions and thus fit OP's theory, as far as I understand his question.
    – Pyromonk
    Feb 29 '20 at 14:05
  • 4
    @Pyromonk - My understanding of the OP's theory is that it has two parts--that the music is tonal and that it revolves around notes that repeat at the octave. Therefore, by my understanding, my last 2 examples are exceptions to the first half of the OP's theory and are therefore worth mentioning.
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 29 '20 at 14:18

More or less, yes. Most popular music the world over does have a note or notes that are returned to, and since the octave is the simplest non-unison interval, it is also fundamental to just about all music.

  • Some examples would be nice. Though I suppose it does offer an explanation as to why music would "tend" to these properties, if they do indeed tend to these properties.
    – awe lotta
    Mar 2 '20 at 4:15

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