In Defense of Equal Temperament - Part II
by Larry Lobel, RPT
In the first part of this article I laid the foundations for a defense of Equal Temperament. Now I’d like to get more specific about ET and Historical Temperaments from the standpoint of both the tuner and the pianist.
Beyond the usual merits claimed for ET, there are other practical advantages of ET over HTs for both the tuner and piano owner:
Uniformity and repeatability. With ET tuners know they must divide the octave into 12 equal semitones, that parallel intervals when ascending or descending should beat progressively faster or slower, and they have a multitude of tests they can use to check their accuracy. No such standards and few tests exist for HTs. Because of this, one tuner’s Vallotti Well Temperament could differ markedly from another’s result, though intending to do the same tuning.
If a piano is tuned by different tuners, they can be counted on to do essentially the same tuning, so the pianist can rely on the piano sounding the same regardless of who tunes it.
Stability of a tuning is assured when the piano is always tuned the same way. Switching between different temperaments will result in a piano being out of tune most of the time. Some customers ask me to put HTs on their modern pianos. They apparently got the idea from another tuner, or read about them, and think they can try out various HTs, and switch back to ET at will. Before complying with their request, I warn them that this is a sure way keep their piano in a chronic state of instability, so that the piano is never in tune in any temperament, unless they have it tuned much more frequently than the usual 2-4 times a year.
Ease of learning, using and teaching. Though learning to tune is difficult, the basic principles and concepts of ET are easy to teach and to understand. The working tuner has one tuning that works on all pianos, instead of having to learn a repertoire of multiple tunings.
Modern writers who condemn ET and urge us to return to a broad use of HTs have carried a nice idea to an absurd extreme. It may be reasonable to use HTs in very limited and carefully chosen contexts, meaning for music written when HTs were in use, and performed on original, restored, or replicas of historic instruments. But HTs are “musically out of place for the vast majority of piano literature,” and there is evidence that “non-equal temperaments were judged by numerous prominent musicians (e.g. Haydn & Beethoven) as being inadequate for the music of the time.” *
HTs on modern instruments make no sense because our pianos with their much higher tension scales, when tuned in HTs do not reproduce the sounds our ancestors heard on the instruments of their day, and are just a parody of what is intended. “We are not going to make a modern instrument sound like a 19th-century instrument by tuning it in a different temperament!” *
A common argument against ET is the ‘out-of-tuneness’ (fast beating) of intervals like thirds and sixths, and some even object to the slight narrowing or widening of fourths and fifths that modern ears have become accustomed to. But HTs have intervals far more ‘out-of-tune’ than ET; composers simply avoided those intervals or keys!
In our present era, many of us look back with nostalgia and appreciation to customs and knowledge of the past. Though much from the past is worth learning and reviving, there’s also much that was mistaken or inadequate, which is why they disappeared or were replaced. The tendency of some people to view things out of context and unjustifiably glorify them should be resisted, if we want to avoid bringing back things that didn’t work well or have been improved on.
Equal Temperament has admirably served the requirements of mainstream musicians for at least a hundred years. Piano tuners, like doctors, are obligated to ‘do no harm’ to our customer’s pianos or musical enjoyment. The use of historical temperaments on modern pianos should be fully understood by the tuner, explained carefully to the customer, and used only in the few situations when it’s judged appropriate.
* Personal communications from Michael Kimbell, RPT.