Is Equal Temperament Better?

By Frank French posted 09-14-2011 20:24


In my discussions with tuners over the years what I have found is that people who argue in favor of Equal Temperament to the detriment of all others generally lack adequate  experience with any kind of tuning system other than equal temperament, or maybe that having mastered it all other systems are thus inferior. The astounding thing about this view is that it exists in a field in which people are generally interested in expanding the range of available knowledge. Opinions founded on insufficient information are hard to validate On the question of temperaments and the assumed superiority of modern equal temperament there are some things that should be considered.

It is not for anyone necessarily to say that any one system is better than another, but rather this question should be best left to the individual to decide when in full possession of available knowledge on the subject. If we are to give any credence to the stories about the great players “favorite tuner” we must assume that the individual in question had something special that every other tuner lacked. It follows that the accomplished  tuner applies  personal taste in how intonation is reached and is preferred by his or her clientele This idea makes tuning an art rather than an absolute scientific premise which could be what motivates many creative people in the field of piano technology.
The general information in question involves the long history of how tuning developed and a well-considered survey of corresponding musical literature. I hope to take up this topic in a future article. For now my premise is that tuning can be learned in the same way that musicians are trained by learning the principles and development of music from ancient to modern. There is no reason that tuners should not be trained by learning the ancient systems first. Every tuner no doubt remembers early lessons in tuning. First we learned to hear perfectly-tuned intervals and gradually we learned to de-tune these intervals to accommodate all twelve notes toward  something approaching an acceptable temperament. The gradual approach beginning with the earliest Pythagorean system leads to a more complete understanding of how the whole tuning works.  It can also be shown that these early lessons will apply later in the more advanced stages of tuning.

The long historical view involves comprehensive knowledge.  Many moderns seem to think that such knowledge is unnecessary. After all, today we have electronic tuning devices that can “tell us” if we are in tune or not. Why then do we insist on learning to tune by ear?  The lack of comprehensive knowledge in piano building should be glaringly obvious to anyone who has had the misfortune to have to service an inferior instrument. As we begin to study and see the consequences of work performed without compressive knowledge our understanding increases There's no reason why similar principles should not apply to tuning.

The early systems, sometimes called “historical” are imminently practical in training tuners today. Not only is the general timeline overview important to understand how tuning and music evolved, but also the earlier systems involved easy-to-tune intervals. If we presume that equal temperament is the most difficult system to master it follows that we should begin with the easier ones and work toward the more demanding ones. The student can become more knowledgeable and gain confidence by learning simple and pure intervals first. It happens that many temperaments in use throughout the 18th century included numbers of pure, beatless fifths in the cycle. It follows that at least some part of a temperament could be more easily mastered and encouragement early in the process of learning is very important.

Therefore, let us further inquire into the development of tuning in order to make judicious use of what we can learn.

1 comment



09-29-2011 12:20

Thank you for sharing these viewpoints, Frank.