Comment: A fascinating article about historical tunings

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A fascinating article about historical tunings

1. Tuning in Pre-20th Century Europe

Those who attack equal temperament, the tuning of our modern pianos - as I do on my Just Intonation Explained page - seem to be attacking the great European musical tradition itself. After all, the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, et al, was written for 12 equally-spaced pitches to the octave, right? And if we change our tuning, that music would no longer be playable as it was intended to be heard, right?

Dead wrong.

Equal temperament - the bland, equal spacing of the 12 pitches of the octave - is pretty much a 20th-century phenomenon. It was known about in Europe as early as the early 17th century, and in China much earlier. But it wasn't used, because the consensus was that it sounded awful: out of tune and characterless. During the 19th century (for reasons we'll discuss later), keyboard tuning drifted closer and closer to equal temperament over the protest of many of the more sensitive musicians. Not until 1917 was a method devised for tuning exact equal temperament.

So how was earlier European music tuned? What are we missing when we hear older music played in 20th-century equal temperament?


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