Printer-friendly version
Corwin Slack

Temperament - An interesting book

March 31, 2007 at 3:09 AM

I am reading an interesting (and frustrating book) How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care) by Ross W. Duffin. He notes that equal temperament is a hard compromise that spoils the harmony of much of western music and that we need to explore historical alternatives. The book is filled with evidence that the major composers of the past were exquisitely and acutely aware of the challenges of temperament. He argues that strings playing unaccompanied by piano or winds should avoid equal temperament. Interestingly he argues against modern expressive intonation which calls for small leading intervals as contrary to good harmonic sense.

Its interesting to see this now. Teacher has spent some mind-numbing time lecturing me on the fallacies of equal temperament complete with ratios, harmonic principles etc. I am afraid that it is lecturing that has been more endured then absorbed in any methodical way.

Teacher has boiled it down somewhat (and in a way that I can grasp). He says that we should play sharps flat in sharp keys and flats sharp in flat keys. He also requires that the violin be tuned with slightly narrow fifths. This seems quite consistent with Duffin's advice.

While the book has a degree of interest it flows quite poorly. There should be a few more appendices to explain principles and a CD with aural examples would have been enormously helpful. Duffin does refer to some CDs that have some examples.

I did a search on the web and Duffin has published there. Page 5 of this link has some examples including two archaic temperaments that he dislikes, a meantone temperament that he prefers and equal temperament. I admit that ET is what I am used to but the meantone tuning example is pleasing.

You'll need Quicktime installed to hear the examples.

From Karin Lin
Posted on March 31, 2007 at 6:06 AM
Thanks for the reference, Corwin. I'll check it out, as my teacher spent several minutes at my lesson today yelling at me for playing in equal temperament. ("No, no, the G sharp should be much higher!) When I asked him, "So you don't want me to play in the tempered scale?" he looked at me as if I were the biggest idiot in the world for even suggesting it. :) I confess my ears are so trained for equal temperament---I'm a pianist too---that it will be hard to change, but I'm willing and interested.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 31, 2007 at 11:01 AM
Perhaps your teacher favors expressive intonation. According to Duffin, chromatic half steps (i.e. G G#) should be small and diatonic half steps (G A flat) should be larger.
From Elizabeth Smith
Posted on March 31, 2007 at 12:05 PM
I read this book recently. I bought it because of he alluring cover and the provocative title. I felt the reading experience have been enhanced a lot if there were an aural component, as I don't have the kind of brain that hears pitches in my head. So the experience of reading this book is mostly abstract.

I found the inclusion of silly cartoons and interrupting sidebars to be distracting, especially because for me it required concentration to follow the author's arguments.

Also, I didn't feel that in the end he proved his point, that equal temperament had ruined music. Perhaps the title itself was just a teaser thought up by the marketing department.

Despite these quibbles, I found it a mind-opening read.

From David Russell
Posted on March 31, 2007 at 12:27 PM
Ross Duffin is an early music afficianado.He's a very nice man. He is quite scholarly about such matters.His methods of research are based on good theory and research skills. He was one of my music history professors in college. BUT...

As I see it, the problem with the whole premise is that the evolution of tuning to its present state is somehow a 'bad' thing. Raising half-steps certainly has found a home in the present day and age. I see no problem. It is how music evolves.
I think it is also wise to develop the ability to alter one's intonation depending on the accompanying medium. I believe the ear is the best judge in these instances.
I suspect Dr. Duffin would smile at the mere fact that its being discussed...

From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 31, 2007 at 2:02 PM
The problem with the book is that people are likely to give short shrift to an important idea. Intonation isn't a matter of personal whim but it is founded on some real principles that were once generally understood. The book is an elaboration on the compromises that were made for playing fixed pitch instruments and playing more complicated harmonies.

It is a very germane to our playing and especially germane to historical performance practice. I wonder how many "baroque" ensembles play with historically accurate temperaments and tunings?

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 31, 2007 at 3:34 PM
"I believe the ear is the best judge in these instances."

Adjusting intonation according to theory, asthetic or otherwise, is a lot like using finger tapes, in that it removes intonation from the realm of hearing. It isn't going to really work.

In reading the link, I found there was a LOT of stuff that should have been footnoted with references that wasn't. I would like to have believed a lot of historical things he said but really couldn't trust them, so they're now out of mind.

"I suspect Dr. Duffin would smile at the mere fact that its being discussed... "

I know the type.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 31, 2007 at 7:03 PM
The book is well footnoted. It is one of its saving graces. His arguments should not be so handily dismissed. Tuning is, in fact, a principle of physics, and western music has been based on a very rational (excuse the pun) system. Choices of temperament may be personal but tuning never is.

Duffin notes that ET was the norm from 1917 when there was finally a precise way developed to tune equal temperament.

Teacher defies anyone to name a great violinist born after that year. That sounds like an argurment but there is no violinist born after that year who has excelled as a composer (of any sort) which seems to indicate something about the musicality of modern violinists. I am hard pressed to name any composer born after 1817 that I care for much.

From Ray Randall
Posted on March 31, 2007 at 7:37 PM
So what does he think of playing leading tones higher?
From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 31, 2007 at 9:23 PM
He doesn't like it. He understands its appeal melodically but thinks that it disturbs the harmony. He traces the origin of the practice to Casals and Sarasate and considers it a Spanish practice.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 31, 2007 at 9:26 PM
In the last paragraph of the comment from 7:03 I mean 1917.
From Bilbo Prattle
Posted on March 31, 2007 at 11:56 PM
Equal Temperament has slightly narrow fifths.

Pure "pythagorean" and pure "just" would have perfect fifths of a ratio or exactly 3:2.

Jim mentions the ear thing but it is more complicated than that. If you (meaning you who is born and raised on anything classical or rock or USA pop) go and listen to Arabic music, you will wonder why they are playing out of tune. The n you will learn that it is a different system. Then you will learn that different villages or tribes & c. even have different variations on the tuning that are distinctive. Therefore your ("western") ear isn't enough to settle the problem of "is it correct," and this conundrum will apply equally to "historical temperaments" as well as to "non-western" experiences.

The harpsichordists know all about temperament and this "problem" is not lost on them. If you go to the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments and have the opportunity to hear each of the various harpsichords there which span centuries, you will hear different temperaments, each tuned to the prevailing temperament of the period.

Once I was opened up to this issue I have been forever changed.

By the way even rock and roll types have been aware of the problem for quite a long time. Just recently I was reading a copy of "Guitarist" which had an article by a highly regarded session player who discussed how to achieve pure harmonies through pushing and bending techniques. I have found other articles by producers who discuss the absolute hell of getting some music down on tape sounding sweet and in tune. In some cases the music is recored in sections, with the guitars re-tuned to deal with the pesky over-sharp 3rds that vex one of the chords!

And then there is blues. And cajun fiddle. And fiddle. And more fiddle. And slide guitar. And trombone. And voice.

I understand the "ruined" hypothesis and I also understand that some Arabic music experts have found consternation in the proliferation of the keyboard and the guitar (which in the case of the former cannot get to the "1/4 tones") however "western" music today really isn't so uniformly 12EQT anyway.

All you have to do to hear the variations --eve nwithout considering who is "correct" or "tempered" is to listen to Ivry Gitlis playing Paganini Cantabile, and then listen to Heifetz playing it. Two totally different uses of intonation. And that's with a piano no less!

From Kevin Cheung
Posted on April 1, 2007 at 4:06 AM
The comment on guitar's major 3rds being too sharp reminds me of the frustration I had years ago before I knew about this whole temperament thing. I was wondering why the chords on my guitar never seem to be in tune. Now I know that country singers tune the guitar in a way that the most used chords (basically I, IV, V) sound sweet. Ha.

The so-called expressive intonation also sometimes drives me nuts. I only use it if I want to sound annoying. :)

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 1, 2007 at 4:37 AM
Bilbo, my mistake. I didn't know he was going to be playing for Arabs.
From Gabriel Kastelle
Posted on April 2, 2007 at 5:37 AM
Another interesting book on the history of temperaments, also with alluring subtitle by the marketing dep't, is the 2001 work "Temperament: How Music Became a Battlegound for the Great Minds of Western Civilization" by Stuart Isacoff. Another book which would benefit greatly from an accompanying CD. I want to love the book, but two attempts have yet to see me through to its end. It gets dry and rough in the middle, after promising start...

Besides when matching violin &c. with all other sorts of instruments, I find myself thinking of temperament and temperament / harmony relations when I join in voice with traditional "a cappella" shape note singers. I imagine that varied inequal temperament tuning has something to do with the great satisfaction in the seemingly simple open fifth dyads functioning just fine as chords, and in the open fifth plus (minor) seventh (but still no third) chords... :-)

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Our Kokopelli
Please support
your donation
or sponsorship campaign. is made possible by...

Shar Music

Yamaha V3 Series Violin

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Zhuhai International Mozart Competition - Apply by April 30, 2017

Metzler Violin Shop

Gliga Violins

Anderson Musical Instrument Insurance

Bobelock Cases


Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Long Island Violin Shop

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Pro-Am Strings

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop

Study with Simon Fischer in Michigan, July 31-Aug 4