Thursday, February 12, 2009

PBDB Book Review Dept.: How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)

How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care) by Ross Duffin
W. W. Norton, paperback

“Don’t even start thinking about this stuff,” said my friend, an excellent musician who does a lot of period performance work. “It’ll ruin your ability to enjoy most music that you hear - anything with piano.” The forbidden topic under discussion: the art and science of temperament and the tuning of the Western 12-note scale. While I can’t say that I’ve had quite the full-on crisis that she warned of, thinking seriously about this topic has led my ear and brain to some unexpected places, and it’s changed a lot about how I hear some music and what I want to do when I’m playing certain music. And the best place for most of us to start to come to grips with this topic is this slim volume by musicologist Ross Duffin. It’s an excellent and highly readable introduction to the (almost) lost history of how we ended up with the scales we have today - scales that we’ve all been conditioned to believe are “correct” but that in fact represent only one of many possible ways to tune the chords and notes that we hear.
I had always been intrigued by the belief, commonly held by composers before 1900, that different keys had “colors” that could be exploited by the composer. Since all the notes in the modern, equally tempered piano scale are the same distance apart, I thought to myself, how they they really sound that different? I figured that this difference must have had something to do with the various systems of tuning that I knew had existed before equal temperament (ET). But I had learned what most music students learned - that these systems also made certain keys sound raw and out-of-tune. I had been told that ET made these problems disappear - that it was the most perfect system and had replaced earlier systems in the way that any superior invention replaced inferior ones.
It turns out that ET was none of these things. It is certainly not perfect, in particular in regards to the intervals of the major and minor third. As a result of forcing the octave into twelve equal semitones, the thirds in an ET scale are pulled far away from where they would be in the harmonic series. The major thirds in particular are stretched far beyond what sounds naturally “in tune” to our ears. Furthermore, ET was not universally loved or adopted by musicians once it was first introduced. Duffin discusses at length the alternate tuning systems used on keyboard instruments, tunings which maintained the purity of most of the major thirds at the expense of the more distant ones. Of even greater interest to myself and other bassists, He points out the many tuning systems that non-keyboard instruments used before the 20th century. The most significant difference in these systems is the true tuning of sharps and flats to make the thirds pure. The result of these systems was that string players and singers were carefully taught to play flat notes HIGHER than their enharmonic sharp equivalents, not lower. Yes, you read that right: flats should be higher than sharps. He reproduces several well-known treatises and manuals of the time showing scale exercises that outline the differences between sharps and flats. Once you begin to wrap your mind around these concepts, and actually hear music played in these temperaments, you start to realize how many varied colors can exist in different harmonies depending on how they are spelled on the page.
An even more intriguing aspect of Duffin’s book is his argument about when and how ET became the dominant system of tuning on keyboard instruments. Most historians allege that ET was the dominant system by around 1850, but he claims that what many at the time claimed was equal temperament was not ET in the way we hear it today, and he demonstrates this by several primary sources and research studies showing that many so-called equally tuned pianos and organs from the late 19th century actually had considerable variation in the sizes of their intervals from note to note - changes that preserved more of the old-style tunings and their purer major and minor thirds.
Duffin is a solid and compelling writer, and he has taken on a challenging task in this book. The book presumes a fairly solid level of musical knowledge, but is not a scholarly work and is clearly aiming for a general audience of musicians and music-lovers. He has a lot of work to do in the book to explain complex principles of overtones and harmony to his audience without boring them or driving them crazy. As a result, he concentrates a lot of information into a very small book. He works hard to keep the tone light and accessible through joking asides, cartoons and illustrations, and biographical sidebars about the various historical figures that he references. He is pretty successful in this effort, a little too much for my taste; I often skipped the biographies and other asides in the book in order to keep my focus on the main arguments of the text.
Yes, my friend wasn’t exactly wrong: reading this book and thinking about these issues can make your brain hurt a bit. As bass players, we are all taught to be constantly worried about “playing in tune.” The idea that the very words “in tune” could in fact have a more complex, and more subjective, meaning than we were first led to believe can feel more than a little scary. But it can also be an incredibly liberating experience to realize that no one has ever had a clear or universally held idea of what being “in tune” is. Western harmony is not some sort of divinely inspired, inerrant system to which we must all surrender. Rather, it is a rickety contraption, full of compromises, tricky adjustments, and just plain wishful thinking - like most human creations. Learning about what those compromises and adjustments are, and what we might be giving up by agreeing to them, is important. Intonation and temperament create the core sound of music, and we all need to try to have some sort of opinion on them.
I recommend this book highly and have been passing it around to many of my colleagues, both in my orchestra and among other teachers and musicians. Take a deep breath and learn the truth about harmony - who knows where it might take you.

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