Harry Partch and 43 tones: A microtonal maestro who broke down barriers

His music is not for everyone, but Harry Partch was a true musical and social rebel
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Born June 24, 1901, in Oakland, California. Harry Partch was an American composer, music theorist, and instrument maker known for his pioneering work in music that pushed the boundaries of conventional Western musical systems. His journey to international recognition and his approach to breaking down cultural barriers were deeply rooted in his unique musical vision and dedication to challenging traditional musical norms.

Harry Partch: Unique musical vision and instruments

Harry Partch was known for developing a new musical system with unique scales and microtonal tuning systems. He created custom-made instruments to play these scales, often
utilizing unconventional materials and designs. These instruments included the Chromelodeon, Diamond Marimba, and Cloud-Chamber Bowls. Partch had explained that, in creating these instruments to play his compositions, he was "a philosophic music-man seduced into

Rejecting Western conventions

Partch rejected the standard 12-tone equal temperament system, which is the basis of most Western music. He believed that this system limited musical expression and was inorganic (perhaps, in some basic ways, similar to philosopher and psychologist John Dewey's critique of "the museum conception of art" and "the esoteric idea of fine art"). Instead of surrendering to musical conventions, Harry Partch developed a system of 43 tones per octave, allowing for a much broader and more nuanced musical palette.

Theoretical framework

Partch's theoretical approach is outlined in his book, Genesis of a Music. Though Partch had a bitter attitude toward composer John Cage, Cage had apparently said of Partch's book: "Microtonality is an essential part of music, though European theories of harmony and tonality have nothing to say about it. Harry Partch's Genesis of a Music is therefore invaluable, dealing as it does in detail with the composer's inventions of microtonal musical instruments and his compositional method using a 43-tone scale." Harry Partch drew upon various cultural and historical influences to support his ideas and argue for a return to what he considered a more natural and intuitive musical system.

Cultural influences and ethnomusicological research

Partch extensively studied and drew inspiration from various non-Western musical traditions, including Asian, African, and ancient Greek music. He traveled extensively to study these traditions
firsthand, integrating their elements into his compositions and musical theories to develop a multidisciplinary approach to music.

Partch often combined music with theatrical elements, poetry, and dance to create a complete, multisensory experience for his audiences. This multidisciplinary approach helped him reach a broader audience and break down cultural barriers by presenting music in a more accessible and engaging manner.

International recognition

Though he created music that today might be labeled as "outsider music," Partch gained international recognition through performances, collaborations, and writings. He received grants and commissions that allowed him to share his unique musical vision with a wider audience
(though he would never become popular enough to be called the "Dean of American Composers," as had happened with Aaron Copland). His work was performed in various countries, and he lectured at
universities, further spreading his ideas and approach to music.


Harry Partch's contributions to the world of music and his efforts to break down cultural barriers have had a lasting impact. His works continue to be performed and studied by musicians, composers, and
musicologists, influencing contemporary experimental and avant-garde music. Harry Partch's journey to international reputation and his breaking down of cultural barriers was driven by his unconventional musical vision, rejection of Western musical conventions, deep study
of diverse musical traditions, and a multidisciplinary approach that integrated and immersed himself into various art forms. He was one of a kind.

Through his innovations and dedication, Partch significantly contributed to the evolution of contemporary music, making him a bit of a hidden influencer.

Other interesting facts about Harry Partch

  • Partch was born on June 24, 1901, in Oakland, California.
  • He engaged in research in San Francisco libraries.
  • Composer Henry Cowell was among his early supporters.
  • In 1930, he burned all his previous compositions in a symbolic
    rejection of his overwhelmingly European musical education.

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