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Emily Grossman

Back in the Days Before Black and White

February 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM

For the non-musician, let me explain, as quickly and painlessly as possible, that there's actually more than one way to play a note in tune. For instance, more than one pitch represents C#, and you pick the note that works best for the context. Violinists get in big arguments about it. But pianists don't bother so much, because it would be a tedious--not to mention expensive--pursuit to try and change the tuning to match the situation. At some point in the early 20th century, they figured out how to standardize the pitches evenly across the keyboard so that most of them are never 100% in tune, but the discrepancies are so minute that most people won't notice. Except violinists, of course, who complain about tight fifths and bland leading tones. But by using this "equal tempered" tuning system, one can play in any key without noticeable pitch "wolves" jumping out for a howl. (This explanation, I know, does little to enlighten someone who has never thought about the placement of notes in the scale--pythagorean, just, or otherwise--but the curious will now research this subject and behold the wonders of intonation.)

Now, don't laugh, but as a pianist, up until today, I actually thought Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier was written for an instrument in equal-tempered tuning, like the piano in my studio after the tuner comes. I thought Bach was all excited to finally be able to play happily in any key he wished that he wrote a prelude and fugue for each one. I've even misinformed my students this way, when, in actuality, it was written for a well-behaved clavier that didn't howl or bite.

My own enlightenment happened while reading musical discussion threads yesterday, when someone mentioned having his piano tuned using a system whose name I'd never seen. Of course, I had to know what this meant, and so my curiosity led me down the magic internet tunnel to the history of keyboard instrument tuning systems. As it turns out, "well-tempered" is a specific system that Bach used to tune his harpsichord so that not only could he play in any key, but each key has its own flavor/color. For the first time ever, I understood that he basically wrote a wardrobe of color-coordinated ensembles of tops and bottoms, preludes and fugues. Video demonstrations on youtube demonstrate so clearly how Bach's C Major Prelude is calm and placid (C major has always been a blue key to me), and doesn't match the character of C# Major when transposed, but his peppy C# Prelude is perfect there, up on those sunny sharps. (Yes, sharps are really truly sunny in Bach-World!)

Here all this time, I thought I'd just made up the colors to keys. I don't know why it never occurred to me before that one time, back before they did away with various tuning systems on the keyboard and turned everything to black and white, that sharps were brighter, and flats were somber, and composers actually painted pictures with the various palettes. Although they are all treated the same way now, each key's personality is still present because of the compositions that lurk there.

I'm spoiled for good. I don't ever want to listen to keyboard Bach any other way.
I want my very own harpsichord, one I can tune myself, so I can get a hold of those colors. "They're so vibrant, George! See, I could set it up here in the living room corner, and play for you little harpsichord pieces in the evening!"

"Oh, yes, that's exactly what I would love to listen to every evening."

Hm, maybe I could play when he's at jiu jitsu practice. Or maybe I could clean out my art room and squeeze him in there. There's plenty of room in the bedroom for my well-tempered friend. How much do harpsichords cost, anyway? I checked Harpsichord Clearing House, discovering that not only do the prices range just like violins, but they also come in all types of shapes and sizes. Maybe I needed shopping advice...

Well, no matter. I can play with all the various notes I like on my violin. I guess that's why this ended up being my instrument of choice, as elusive and untamable as it continues to be. The world is just more fun in technicolor.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on February 14, 2012 at 4:54 AM
Timely. I have an App called Cleartune that allows one to choose temperaments and set the key for he temperament.

You can play scales in the selected temperament and test your intonation. Playing thirds (testing one note at a time) is a revelation. In fact everything is a revelation. The violin sounds so much more resonant.

But it is a total can of worms to apply it to real music that modulates. Which just intonation and what is the "pivot" note for the key that is constant across the keys. And then there are harmonic sevenths and a multitude of theoretical considerations that have been described to me but they make my head hurt.

The reality is that there may be matters of choice in intonation but they must be based on a logical foundation or the intonation will be off.

Ps. My wife has a harpsichord and we use the Cleartune app to tune it.

From Gabriel Kastelle
Posted on February 14, 2012 at 6:38 AM
Emily-- great TITLE!

Enjoy your journey into the many temperaments (Hindemith was so short with only four-- I know, I know, mixing metaphors, or mixing something...) !!

You can find room for a harpsichord!! ?Or maybe a little clavichord (heaven forbid-- even more variables!!)?

I have been obsessing over temperamental tunings lately.

For centuries we've been living with "functional harmony", but for many years, since mid-'90's, I've been wondering whether perhaps there might be a tide shift back toward something more medieval, yet more now also, away from the dominance of homogenized equal temperament tonal harmony systems and back toward something more melodic, modal, and/or, especially toward "functional temperament". Something more human-faced. Humane. Just saying.

Oddly enough, and for better or worse, as chance would have it, my current location in SE CT is one of the world epicenters of contemporary temperamental thinking, what with the local Zuckermann Harpsichord factory and unpublished manuscripts there, and harpsichord making and tuning and performing friends and colleagues, including a freelance maker of instruments for Tori Amos and Raymond Leppard [[eek-- or was it Trevor Pinnock!? one of them...(!!)]]

But I haven't availed myself well enough of these local thinking opportunities... I'll admit I get to feeling stupid whenever I delve into the immensities of temperament.

Besides, I think I make better progress more audially and intuitively... All this has been again on my mind more since just a couple months ago when, while I was about something else, I think accidentally I really achieved 'functional temperament' in my Ghost Dance Collage recording project...

Is this all just some echo of Trimpin in my head, from youth in Tacoma, WA, hearing his instruments? ;-)

Huge, huge topic, temperaments are.... thanks for raising it

From John Dukes
Posted on February 14, 2012 at 1:00 PM
I also want to learn the harpsichord badly. You could always build one yourself. (If I do get one, that's what I'll be doing:)


From Tom Holzman
Posted on February 14, 2012 at 3:36 PM
No reason you shouldn't have your own harpsichord and let your inner period performer come out. Maybe you can start some new trend up there in the North country.
From Trevor Jennings
Posted on February 14, 2012 at 5:47 PM
Corwin's comment has just put it into my head to test the tuning of my piano (a Rippen, made in Holland about 40 years ago). It is appreciably flat on concert pitch and when playing Beethoven or Brahms cello sonatas in the past I always had to detune the cello slightly. Cleartune tells me that my piano A is in fact 433Hz - 1/8 tone flat on A440. This is very close to the A you get if the piano is tuned to C256, which it evidently was. A C256 tuning fork must have been used – actually I think it was closer to C258, but most tuning forks aren't scientifically precise (better than most electronic tuners you buy in the stores, though), and would tend to go slightly sharp with wear over the years.

Another useful free app I got the other day for my iPad is a Noisemeter – so that I can tell if the hammering on the wall from next door is louder than my violin :).

From Emily Grossman
Posted on February 15, 2012 at 9:38 AM
Cleartune sounds like cheating. Scripted cues to generate the relationship of choice. What if you were to cultivate the ear to discern your tastes and pursue your heart's desire? It seems as though we set the cart before the horse when we pick applications to guide us to tuning systems, when it is our ear that should be trained to understand the flavors.
From Trevor Jennings
Posted on February 16, 2012 at 12:14 AM
Perhaps I should have made it clear about Cleartune that I downloaded it as a scientific toy, definitely not for checking my tuning or playing; I use my ears for those, not my eyes.
I've used Cleartune to find out what pitch my piano is tuned to (C256 and not A440). Ascertaining that would, I think, have been rather difficult without using Cleartune as a scientific measuring tool.
I've also used Cleartune's frequency generator to do a rough check-out of the age-related frequency loss in my hearing. It turns out that I cannot hear anything above 9KHz; between 7 and 9KHz all frequencies are an indeterminate hiss; and below 7KHz I hear every frequency. That means I no longer need to spend a small fortune on the latest hi-fi :) There is also the good news is that I'm probably not hearing the full range of bow hiss, which doesn't carry to the audience, anyway.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on February 16, 2012 at 9:42 AM
Sorry to hear about your hearing loss! (could use better phrasing for that...) I thought about that tonight while being forced to listen to Miss Hannigan's full blown drill whistle into a hot microphone. A musician should never be subjected to such sounds. It's like they don't realise we will be vanquished by such unnecessary decibels. The sound still rings in my ears, more than four hours later.

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