In a struggle to be happy and free

Drystone Wall

Temper, temper…

I’m re-reading Stuart Isacoff’s excellent book, Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization. My nephew mentioned he was reading it and it blew his mind, just as it did mine. Since we would be travelling by car for over an hour (each way) to the concert we attended Friday, I thought it would be interesting to discuss so I dove back in to refresh my memory.

Briefly, the way we tune keyboard instruments today is not the way they were tuned in the past. Indeed, our equal temperament “was once regarded as a crime against God and nature,” according to Isacoff.

Back in the day, keyboards used Pythagorean tuning, in which all the fifths were tuned in perfect 3:2 ratios. But if you played thirds, they didn’t sound right. Further, the tuning was by key. If you wanted to play in a different key, you had to tune the instrument for the desired key or it sounded like an utter disaster. You simply can not tune perfect octaves, thirds, and fifths, all at the same time.

Our twelve note scale has the notes logarithmically equally spaced between perfect octaves, but even this is a compromise, as the thirds and fifths are slightly dissonant. We’ve just grown used to it, and it seems a reasonable compromise to avoid a different tuning for every key! Reasonable today, but not in the past when the 3:2 ratio of the perfect fifths was a sign of the perfection of god’s construction of the universe! Not using perfect fifths was sacrilege.

I highly recommend the book. I know very little musical theory, but this didn’t dampen my enjoyment in the least.

Isacoff used two words, antonyms, that I didn’t realize are related in a musical sense. You know dissonant. I did not know its opposite is concordant.

concordant adjective. 1 Agreeing ; harmonious ; unanimous ; consistent . l15.

I’ve known the word to mean ‘agreement,’ but not in a musical sense. Interesting.


Book cover ©2001, 2003 by Stuart Isacoff.

Definitions from the electronic Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

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2 Comments

  1. Julie

    I may just have to check this out! Even with my musical training, I did not know this. Thanks for the post.

    • Rick

      My pleasure, Julie. If you do read it, let me know. I suspect you’ll get more from it than I did, and I was fascinated.

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