In Defense of Equal Temperament - Part I
by Larry Lobel, RPT
For about a century the Equal Temperament (ET) system of tuning keyboard instruments has been used almost universally. Over the last couple of decades there has been increasing interest among technicians and performers in earlier tuning systems, now called “historical temperaments” (HTs), and more recently ET has come in for heavy criticism. The title of a recently published book, “How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony” seems to express the thinking of a growing number of musicians and tuners nowadays. And Owen Jorgensen condemns quite drastically “the absolute tyranny…that equal temperament has held…” To borrow a phrase from Rodney Dangerfield, ET “don’t get no respect.” I’d like to recall why ET came into being, its usefulness, importance, and value, in hopes of reversing what seems like a disturbing trend of condemning it.
I’m no expert on temperaments, but I have read much of the literature, and believe I can make legitimate arguments based on some knowledge of the relevant history combined with common sense reasoning.
First, let’s consider why equal temperament was invented. Dozens of systems devised for dividing the octave were available to tuners and musicians of old, so what created the demand for ET and why, if some objected to it, didn’t they simply continue to use HTs that suited them?
For centuries, musicians were subject to limitations on which keys they could compose in and modulate to that were imposed by the Just, Well and Meantone temperaments. As music evolved and composers wanted to explore new ways of using the musical tools at their disposal, they complained of these constraints, and realized the need for a tuning system that would let them develop in directions they wanted to go. It took much effort over about a century by many musical theorists, musicians and tuners to conceive, develop, and put into practical use the system of ET that overcame these problems. ET provided a welcome and necessary solution, and the reason it was so quickly adopted worldwide is because it’s what most composers and performers wanted.
William Braid-White, whose system for tuning ET is the basis for the methods used by all tuners today, wrote “Equal Temperament solves the problem of tuning… giving full command over all the resources, harmonic and melodic alike, of the piano…this unlimited freedom of sound combination within the accepted keyboard…has given it its established position in practical music.”
Braid-White was no fanatic proselytizer for ET; he appreciated the unequal temperaments as “lovely…in giving…definite character to each tonality,” but pointed out that they “died out because…it does not allow for free modulation through all tonalities, and is hopelessly dissonant in at least half the chord formations common to modern music.”
It’s true that ET has its own drawback -- there is no individual key “coloring,” so a piece of music will have the same character regardless of what key it’s played in – but this was considered an acceptable tradeoff in exchange for having keyboard instruments sound ”equally (but slightly) out of tune” (or in tune, once you get used to ET) in every key, and being able to modulate between keys.
Note that most people alive today have heard only ET and do not find it dissonant, but in HTs the more distant keys with their ‘wolf’ intervals were always considered dissonant, and people couldn’t adjust to those dissonances and hear them as harmonious, as we have come to do with ET.
To be continued…
"How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony" by Ross Duffin, Copyright 2007.
"Tuning" by Owen Jorgensen, copyright 1991.
"Piano Tuning and Allied Arts" by William Braid-White, copyright 1917.
"Musical Temperament" article on www.Wikipedia.org