Equal Temperament

Few people give much thought to the actual notes that are used to produce music. A piano owner usually hires a professional to tune their piano. It is rare for a piano tuner to ask what kind of tuning is desired. It is assumed that the piano will be tuned to the common standard, called twelve tone equal temperament. The customer may not even be aware that there is more than one possibility.

It is amazing to me that there is so little attention given to the fundamental building blocks of music. Modern musicians may spend years studying how to arrange notes to make beautiful music, but they may give little or no thought to the notes themselves, how they are tuned and and placed within the octave.

Scientists have spent billions of dollars investigating the building blocks of matter. They perpetually seek out new elementary particles and try to discover their bizarre properties.

Its strange that this kind of curiosity that is so common among scientists is so rare among musicians.

Why is this? Why has our modern system of tuning become so ingrained that it is usually taken for granted.

First, we should consider the nature of twelve tone equal temperament. Some claim that this is an entirely arbitrary tuning that violates natural acoustic principles. This is a compelling argument because you cannot derive it simply and directly from natural acoustic principles like you can with just intonation or pythagorean tuning.

Does this mean that equal temperament is entirely arbitrary and artificial? I would say no. Equal temperament was not designed by a committee or invented by an entrepreneur.

Equal temperament grew in the rich soil of western musical thought. It developed in response to strong cultural forces, acoustic realities, and the practical needs of composers and musicians. It represents a remarkable compromise between competing interests and goals. I do not view it as arbitrary but rather as a solution that grew organically out of its environment.

This partially explains the overwhelming success of equal temperament. It is adapted very well to the way we currently make and think about music. It packs great diversity and freedom into a scale of only twelve notes. It also provides a convenient standard that allows many different instruments to play together in the same tuning.

However, I feel that some criticism is called for in regards to modern views of equal temperament. Equal temperament may be an effective compromise but it is not the only solution. There is no reason to artificially limit our musical language to a mere twelve equally spaced notes. Equal temperament cannot accommodate the full range of emotional expression that is possible in music.

Equal temperament has many good qualities, but this alone can't account for its level of success. We have become somewhat lazy and complacent. Tuning used to be the subject of passionate debate and energetic experimentation. Now, most people are content to have only one choice. The overwhelming success of twelve tone equal temperament is partly due to apathy.

Fortunately, it is becoming easier to experience alternative tunings. There's a large quantity of recordings available in historical and ethnic tunings. It's also becoming much easier to produce experimental microtonal music with computer software.

Music can be a very personal experience. We still have much to learn about how the brain and human body respond to and interpret sonic vibrations. These responses are complex and vary from person to person. Alternate tunings are a way to explore, more deeply, the relationship between music and the listener. Twelve equally spaced notes to the octave are simply not enough.

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