Desire Lines: Queer Theory, Microtonal Practice

In partnership with the LGBTQ+ Music Study Group, we invited writers, researchers and thinkers to pitch us editorial on queer music, sounds and the people who make it. The second of these - by Casey Hale - is published today.

In partnership with the LGBTQ+ Music Study Group, we invited UK-based writers, researchers and thinkers to pitch us editorial on queer music, sounds and the people who make it. Today we're publishing the second of these - by Casey Hale - is published today.

For Pride Month in June 2020, a member of the The Xenharmonic Alliance—a public Facebook group dedicated to microtonal music—created a post in honour of ‘how much of our work is owed to LGBT+ composers’, accompanied by pictures of Harry Partch, Wendy Carlos, Lou Harrison, Claude Vivier, and Henry Cowell. ‘I think there’s a direct connection’, the author continued: ‘Both groups focus on recognizing and moving outside categories imposed by centuries of society.’ While several commented sympathetically on the post, a handful expressed reservation or hostility; one, in particular, asked, ‘Does this mean that those of us who are heterosexual should leave the field of microtonality?’ He continued, ‘it's noted that Harrison himself firmly believed there was no such thing as “gay” characteristics in music’, and further down the thread, he responded to others: ‘trying to say there's something characteristically LGTB+ [sic.] about exploring alternative tuning methods is a slippery slope….the less we politicize xenharmonics, the better.’ The initially defensive response is telling: clearly he was made uncomfortable by having his own interests identified with queer desires or politics. He went on, however, to protest that he admired the work of many composers who were gay, and defended his position on the grounds that politics and art should be kept separate. This argument was echoed by others: ‘Perhaps the point is that the[se] are great musicians/theorists who just happen to have alternative sexual orientations?’ There is, of course, nothing new in this debate about politics and art, and many artists have been wary of having their work pigeonholed or misconstrued by critical assumptions about identity politics. What interests me is the sense in which the ‘direct connection’ cited in the original post might be understood as associative, or affective—a bond of analogous orientations, rather than causal links. It goes without saying that not all microtonalists identify as LGBTQ+, and not all LGBTQ+ musicians are microtonalists. But is there anything we might gain from viewing the two categories of desire—for non-normative melodic and harmonic relationships, on the one hand, and non-normative gender and sexual identities, on the other—as resonant with one another, brought together under the signifier ‘queer’? What would be at stake for anyone in ‘the field of microtonality’ to acknowledge their desire for a ‘queer’ music? Perhaps viewing ‘the field’ in this way might affect our understanding of its cultural orientation, and the role of queer participants (however broadly defined) within it; perhaps ‘moving outside of categories imposed by centuries of society’ might imply rejecting the hegemony of any single system, analogous not to the rejection of heterosexuality but of heteronormativity. 


The term ‘xenharmonic’ was coined by the composer, instrument builder, performer, and tuning theorist Ivor Darreg (born Kenneth Vincent Gerard O’Hara, 1917-1994). An eccentric polymath, Darreg dropped out of school as a teenager, and was ‘cast out’ by his father, who objected to his interest in music, after which he changed his name—‘Ivor’ for ‘man with bow’ (he was a cellist) and ‘Drareg’ (Gerard backwards, later changed to Darreg); he and his mother left home together, and lived together until her death in 1972. Darreg built several early electronic instruments (beginning in the late 1930s), and in the 1960s began experimenting with alternative musical tunings after meeting Harry Partch and the theorist Erv Wilson. Darreg created the neologism ‘xenharmonics’ from the Greek ‘xenos’ (‘stranger’)—suggesting something like ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’ harmony, but also implying the notion of hospitality to strangers and foreigners from the word ‘xenia’—in order to describe ‘music, melodies, scales, harmonies, instruments, and tuning-systems which do not sound like the 12-tone-equal temperament’—that is, the division of the octave into twelve perceptually equal steps, and the melodies and harmonies that makes possible. Xenharmonics orientated the exploration of tuning towards the social and cultural: in turning towards the ‘strange’ and the ‘foreign’ with ‘hospitality’, we open ourselves to disorientation from our habitual ways of thinking and behaving, and we turn towards the ‘other’ in an act of identification. It is important to note that many have sought a way out of 12-tone equal temperament through turning to other musical cultures, as well as to historical traditions and theoretical speculations. In fact, I would argue that in the majority of cases it has been the encounter with ‘foreign’ musical cultures that has provided the initial spark of curiosity. 

I have borrowed the language of ‘orientation’ here from Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Ahmed’s book is a valuable resource because her turn towards phenomenology—the study of experience—grounds us in our senses rather than theoretical abstractions. As Ahmed notes, ‘phenomenology makes “orientation” central in the very argument that consciousness is always directed “toward” an object, and given its emphasis on the lived experience of inhabiting a body’. We might direct our consciousness toward the sounds we call music, for example, rather than other environmental sounds, and our attention might parse these sounds into things like melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, etc. Sometimes these things might sound unusual, askew, or disorienting. As Ahmed writes, ‘phenomenology is full of queer moments…of disorientation that Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggests involve not only “the intellectual experience of disorder, but the vital experience of giddiness and nausea, which is the awareness of our contingency, and the horror with which it fills us”’. Merleau-Ponty is interested in how we reorient ourselves—how we straighten our perception when things go sideways—but Ahmed’s queer phenomenology stays with these very moments of ‘disorder’, ‘nausea’, and ‘horror’, inhabiting rather than seeking to pass over them. As Ahmed writes, ‘such moments may be the source of vitality as well as giddiness. We might even find joy and excitement in the horror’. This sort of ‘staying with the trouble’—to reference Donna Haraway—fits with Darreg’s comparative approach to xenharmonics: rather than reorientating to a singular tuning system ‘superior' to 12-tone equal temperament, Darreg argues for the exploration of diverse options and the cultivation of their different ‘moods.’ The musical outcome of this is to remain unsettled, always aware of the ‘contingency’ of our perceptions and internalised categories of things like melodies, scales and harmonies, and to ‘find joy and excitement’ in spaces of ambiguity. 

Ahmed uses the ‘line’ as a metaphor to think about orientation: ‘when we see the line of the path before us, we tend to walk upon it, as a path “clears” the way. So we walk on the path as it is before us, but it is only before us as an effect of being walked upon….The lines that direct us, as lines of thought as well as lines of motion, are in this way performative: they depend on the repetition of norms and conventions, of routes and paths taken, but they are also created as an effect of this repetition’. This ‘repetition of norms and conventions’ is a reference to Judith Butler's concept of ‘gender performativity’, but the metaphor of the line is also commonplace in thinking about pitch relationships in Western musical traditions: melodic lines, contrapuntal lines and voice leading, metaphors of directed motion, paths of modulation and return. Music is notated along staff lines, or sequenced along time lines, laid out in an imaginary progression from present to future. There are also lineages: of cultural tradition, pedagogical method, musical style, and music theory. As Ahmed points out, ‘Following a line is not disinterested: to follow a line takes time, energy, and resources, which means that the ‘line’ one takes does not stay apart from the line of one’s life….Through such investments in the promise of return, subjects reproduce the lines that they follow’. Our investments in the musical lines that we follow do take ‘time, energy, and resources’, especially for musicians, and we do become committed to them: as a prominent music theorist once responded to my interest in microtonality, ‘don’t we already have enough to deal with with 12 notes?’ By keeping to the path of what is culturally intelligible, we ensure the return on our social investment in an expressive art form rooted in performance and participation: ‘in following the directions, I arrive, as if by magic’. 

Of course, there are musical traditions that ‘deal with’ intervals outside the frame of 12-tone equal temperament, as well as traditions that conceive of more than twelve pitches. One of these is the Arabic maqam tradition. Maqam practitioner/theorists Johnny Farraj and Sami Abu Shumays have argued that contrary to the millennia-old theoretical tradition of conceiving pitch distances in terms of whole-number ratios, ‘Intonation and musical scales are cultural products, not mathematical objects’. Beyond a grounding in the ‘Pythagorean system [using] just fourths and fifths between well-tuned strings’, they note that ‘there are many intervals that cannot be described using simple harmonic ratios’, and that these are subject to intonational ‘accents’ which distinguish practitioners from different time periods and regions. Building on this, they argue that scales and intonation are ‘arbitrary’: there is no natural causality that determines them; instead ‘they are the result of cultural choices and conventions—even in cases where there are mathematical relationships expressed in some of them’. However, they note that ‘these musical elements do not appear arbitrary to practitioners immersed in their usage; instead they appear to be immutable, determined, and part of fundamental Truth…the individual practitioner inherits them through tradition and cannot individually change them; they only change extremely gradually over time, and only by the unconscious activity of whole communities’. To return to Ahmed, ‘we walk on the path as it is before us, but it is only before us as an effect of being walked upon’. 

Musicians follow paths across the cognitive terrain of categorical perception, which involves two phenomena: first, sensory stimuli that occur along a physical continuum (i.e. the pitch continuum from low to high frequency sounds) will be perceived as belonging to distinct categories; second, two stimuli are easier to tell apart when they fall into different categories than when they fall within the same category (2008). In practice, we parse the pitch continuum into scales, and can distinguish more easily between different notes of a scale than between two differently-tuned versions of the ‘same’ note. Categorical perception is learned, and musicians from different cultures develop different categories. Research has shown that Javanese gamelan musicians, for example, sort unfamiliar interval stimuli into categories based on the Pélog and Slendro scales, while Western musicians sort the same stimuli according to 12-tone-equal-tempered categories (1996). In the maqam tradition, Arabic music theorists conceived of a 24-tone super-scale by the 18th century, but this theoretical scale was a simplification, ‘a metaphor that combined distinct pitches from every possible Arabic maqam scale and reduced closely neighboring pitches into a single conceptual note in order not to exceed 24 divisions per octave’ (2019). Farraj and Shumays emphasise the utility of having 24 perceptual categories, ‘in which a concise vocabulary of notes was used to represent the much richer universe of possible pitches used in practice.’ 

What happens, then, in the queer moments of disorientation when we encounter music that doesn’t fit our established perceptual categories—music that sounds out of tune? The research of Perlman, Krumhansl and others suggests that we attempt to assimilate it within what we know, to ‘pass over’ the cognitive dissonance in a way that reorientates us. But what if we choose to stay with such moments of disorientation? What if we decide to seek them out, in pursuit of ‘vitality…joy and excitement’? In Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed writes, ‘It is interesting to note that in landscape architecture they use the term “desire lines” to describe unofficial paths, those marks left on the ground that show everyday comings and goings, where people deviate from the paths they are supposed to follow’. What are the ‘desire lines’ that branch away from normative cultural practices of melody and harmony in music, straying into the disorientation of the ‘xenharmonic’? As Farraj and Shumays write, ‘these [normative] musical elements do not appear arbitrary to practitioners immersed in their usage….It is only with a comparative approach (as in linguistics) that their arbitrariness becomes apparent’ . And as Judith Butler writes, in her germinal text Gender Trouble: ‘If repetition is bound to persist as the mechanism of the cultural reproduction of identities, then the crucial question emerges: What kind of subversive repetition might call into question the regulatory practice of identity itself?’ . Butler’s answer is ‘to make gender trouble, not through the strategies that figure a utopian beyond’ but through the ‘parodic proliferation and subversive play of gendered meanings’ . 

For the xenharmonic musician, this ‘subversive play’ involves a comparative approach that is ‘hospitable’ to the strange, that parodically tropes musical expectations and seeks pleasure in unfamiliar perceptions, playing with the generic characteristics of scale and harmony. The ‘desire lines’ that tempt us astray are the paths of ‘other’ music that arise from cross-cultural encounter and the engagement with the experimental music and theories of fellow travellers, both contemporary and historical, that we encounter within a xenharmonic community that is musically queer. Farraj and Shumays assert that individual musicians cannot change the cultural norms of scales and intonation on their own—the perception of what sounds in tune and what doesn’t—arguing that these ‘only change extremely gradually over time…by the unconscious activity of whole communities.’ For xenharmonic music in the twenty-first century, it is the conscious activity of a growing, networked, world-wide community that creates the conditions for change through melodic/harmonic/intonational play and the pleasure of disorientation as ends in themselves—in ways that resonate with broader socio-political movements to subvert repressive norms of gender and sexuality. 

Casey Hale is a composer, producer and guitarist living in Bristol, UK. With a background in composing concert music for orchestras and chamber ensembles, his current work focusses on creative music technology and studio production. His music can be heard on recordings by trumpeter Stephen Altoft (RASP, Microtonal Projects, 2018) and classical guitarist Tolgahan Çoğulu (The Art of Silence, P-ART, 2018). His research interests include queer theory, Black studies, improvisation and music perception/cognition, and his writing on William Parker's project The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield has appeared in the journal Jazz Perspectives. For more information, visit

Casey Hale's most recent album, ACH, was released in June 2022 - listen below:



Ahmed, S. (2006) Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press. 
Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble. Abingdon: Routledge Classics. 
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Farraj, J. and Shumays, S.A. (2019). Inside Arabic Music: Arabic Maqam Performance and Theory in the 20th Century. [Kindle edition]. New York: Oxford University Press. 
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Krumhansl, C.L. and Perlman, M. (1996). ‘An Experimental Study of Internal Interval Standards in Javanese and Western Musicians’. Music Perception. Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 95-116. 
Partch, H. (1942). ‘Scales’. Partch, 1942 (2021) [CD]. San Francisco: MicroFest Records. 
Patel, A.D. (2008). Music, Language and the Brain. New York: Oxford University Press.