In tune with the times

Unintended consequences of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Equal temperament, Duffin says, suited the conditions of the 20th century. It jibed with capitalism because it enabled manufacturers to mass produce pianos, which all now had the same tuning, and which, since the piano was the chosen instrument of the middle class, determined the tuning of other instruments. It also was “democratic,” a politically correct system in which all keys were created equal. Finally, it was “scientific,” if by that we mean that it brought the inexplicable (the comma) within the domain of mathematics and under the sway of a single, universal, rational system.

But is ET suitable to the conditions of the 21st century? Duffin was motivated to write his book because he thinks the compromises of ET do harmonic damage, especially to major thirds, “the invisible elephant in our musical system today,” he says. “Nobody notices how awful the major thirds are.” I confess I am one of those nobodies who doesn’t have the ear to notice. But I’m intrigued by Duffin’s book for another reason.

By stressing the unnaturalness and the historical contingency of our music system, Duffin forces us to consider the place of Western music in world history, and how it relates to that of other cultures. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven may be great, but they are not great in any absolute sense because they are servants to tuning systems of their particular time and place.

from “The Sounds of Music” (review of Ross W. Duffin’s How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care), by Barry Gewen, NYTimes Paper Cuts blog, 5 November 2008 :: via Brainiac

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