Skip to main content

It looks like a saxophone but plays 512 notes — many you’ve never heard before

How a jazz musician created the Infinitone to challenge Western musical ideas.

By Tony Rehagen

In 2017, Subhraag Singh was on a flight from his home in Stuttgart, Germany, to Atlanta, wondering if anyone else could hear the music in his head.

It had come to him in his dreams — this amazing, almost atonal soundscape. But whenever Singh awoke and rushed to his saxophone or keyboard, the sound was just beyond his grasp. Nothing felt quite right. Unable to recreate what he had experienced in his sleep, Singh realized this music existed outside of the rigid 12-note structure of Western music, in which he had been trained as a jazz musician. He needed an instrument that could access the subtle tones between those notes — so he spent two years and his life savings creating one.

Once he had a working prototype, Singh, 37, entered the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, an international showcase for the newest ideas in music, held annually at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. And now he was flying to Georgia with his homespun brass horn — dubbed the “Infinitone” — stowed in a makeshift sheet-metal case in the plane’s cargo hold. This was the moment of truth: In front of the entire world, industry professionals would either tell Singh that they believed his invention was the future of music, or that he had simply lost his mind.

The Infinitone, an elongated pyramid of brass, resembles a futuristic soprano saxophone, with the usual mouthpiece, reed, and ligature. But while a sax’s keys attach to valves that open and shut, the Infinitone has five motorized slides that give it the flexibility of a trombone or guitar. The horn plugs into an iPad, which controls the slides. Rather than playing the instrument directly, the player touches the screen to play a colorful spectrum of 512 notes — 256 per octave, instead of the usual black-and-white 12.

In Atlanta, Singh and his Infinitone would go on to win first place and $5,000. The judges included Mike Adams, the CEO of Moog Music — a company that had created another paradigm-shifting instrument — and Alfred Darlington, also known as electronic musician Daedelus, who raved about the possibilities that Singh’s invention opened up.

“It looks like a soprano sax,” Darlington said in a recent interview. “But what it’s able to do defies the held beliefs of what an instrument should express.”

Today, Singh is poised to release Infinitone DMT, a software based on the eponymous instrument, which will allow anyone to access notes they’ve only dreamed of. “Just like painters can paint using a palette of almost infinite shades,” says Singh, “musicians can also make music with infinite varieties of musical intervals.”

Western musicians have been pushing the accepted boundaries of tonality for as long as there has been a standard scale. Musicians elsewhere, including India and China, have always operated outside of those confines. The hope is that Singh’s software might make such experimentation more easily accessible to artists everywhere. Western music teachers usually indoctrinate their students with Western notions about what is acceptable and what sounds good, says Anthony De Ritis, a composer and a music professor at Northeastern University. “A tool like this could open windows,” says De Ritis, “as long as people like what they hear.”

Singh has never been hemmed in by the conventional. When he was in kindergarten, the teacher played a song and asked the class to draw a picture of what the music made them feel. Most of the students drew trees, birds, or green grass. Young Singh scribbled a mess of impressionistic colors. “To me, music has always been something that has transcended language,” he says. “I can say things with music that you can’t say with words. Where words leave off, music continues.”

The improvisational wilds of jazz drew Singh in. After taking up piano at age 7, he turned to the saxophone at age 11; his heroes were virtuosos like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. He grew up to study composition and performance at Purchase College at State University of New York under jazz heavyweights like Lee Konitz, Gary Bartz, and Larry Ridley. He blew his alto sax on stages from The Blue Note jazz club in New York to the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

“For 250 years, piano has held court. We’ve been under the tyranny of that emotional palette, and we don’t need to be.”

Alfred Darlington, also known as electronic musician Daedelus

But even playing his own works, Singh says he got bored. So he dropped out of school and moved to India, where for three years, he worked under Bhai Baldeep Singh, the North Indian master of composition and several instruments. While in India, he converted to Sikhism and adopted his Sikh name, which means “all music.”

Indian music is structurally different from the Western school. In addition to using different tunings and scales, notes are divided into ragas — ascending and descending patterns that are sort of a combination of what the West considers a scale and a melody. Each raga corresponds with a different mood, season, event, or even time of day. Indian music also divides each octave into 12 swaras, which roughly correspond to the Western chromatic scale, but there are only seven notes per octave, as opposed to 12 in the West. This new musical language expanded Singh’s idea of what was possible — and that’s when the dreams began. But he still couldn’t find a way to bring those imaginings into the waking world.

Click to listen to Singh playing the Infinitone

Frustrated, he began to dig into temperament — the musical term for the adjustment of sound. “Equal temperament,” the commonly known tuning system, wherein the octave is divided into 12 equal-sized semitones, has only been the standard in the West for a little more than 200 years. It was adopted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as the modern piano became the standard instrument for composition and vocal accompaniment.

Prior to that, one could travel the globe and find an almost inexhaustive range of instruments, notes, and tunings. Digging beyond those rigid Western parameters “was the light bulb moment,” says Singh. “There are more than 12 notes. Just like when you tune a piano from one note to the next, there are all those frequencies in between. There is an infinite spectrum of tonality.”

All Singh needed now was an instrument that would enable him to easily access this infinite spectrum. He set up a workshop in his basement and went to work. “Once I got into this world of tonality, it was as if I was on a ladder and all the rungs behind me fell off,” says Singh. “There was no going back down.”

More than two years of mistakes, false starts, and YouTube metal-working tutorials ensued. But by the end of 2016, the Infinitone was real.

“The degree of control that the Infinitone allows is impressive,” says Darlington, who is now an assistant professor and founding principal of the electronic digital instrument department at Berklee College of Music. “For 250 years, piano has held court. We’ve been under the tyranny of that emotional palette, and we don’t need to be.”

After winning the Guthman competition and securing an investor (his uncle), Singh turned to marketing the instrument. Adams, the Moog CEO and Guthman judge, suggested getting the Infinitone into the hands of artists who could harness its power and use it to create works that would catch other musicians’ ears.

“It’s easy to get started, but takes lifetimes to explore,” says Singh. “You can just hit a scale and start jamming. As you learn more, you can adjust parameters, access traditional tunings from other world cultures, and then you’ll create tunings of the future. I see this as being in the toolbox of every musician.”

While Singh’s brainchild is a unique and groundbreaking instrument, he’s far from the first modern musician to explore outside of the 12-tone scale. The early 20th century saw several composers push against the boundaries of standard tonality, including Arnold Schoenberg, Charles Ives, Kyle Gann, Harry Partch, and La Monte Young.

And Singh hopes that his newest technological advance will allow more musicians to access his broad range of tones. For interested composers who play something other than saxophone, Singh and his associates have developed Infinitone DMT (Dynamic Micro Tuning), a software plug-in based on the idea behind the instrument. When the application is released this spring, it will enable any music-minded artist — or anyone who’s merely curious — to explore a wider world of musical expression.

All they’ll need is a computer and a dream.

Published on

Tony Rehagen is a writer based in St. Louis. His work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Pacific Standard.


Photos courtesy of Subhraag Singh

First Person

Ming Tsai wants your vegetables to taste awesome

The chef and TV host on inspiration, food innovation, and the joy of Chinese braises

By Schuyler Velasco