Why Not Use Equal Temperament For All Music?

Few musicians know that keyboard instruments are not tuned today as in Bach’s day and before. Even fewer people understand the differences and are able to tune a piano or harpsichord as did Bach and other composers before him. Such music was composed to be played on specific tunings such as meantone or well temperament—not equal temperament, which is almost exclusively used today.

Each tuning involves specific frequency ratios of intervals such as fifths, fourths, and major and minor thirds. These specific frequency ratios differ from one way of tuning to another. Subtle differences in these ratios determine how the music sounds. Therefore, an important dimension of music is lost when it is played on a tuning not intended by the composer. This deficiency has certainly been the case for the past century or so, during which time Bach’s keyboard music, much of which was written for well temperament, has been mostly played on equal temperament.

In equal temperament, it is possible to play in all keys without re-tuning, and an interval in one key has the same frequency ratio as the same interval in any other key. In well temperament, it is also possible to play in all keys without re-tuning, but each key has its own character, which can be utilized by the composer for creating an additional dimension to the music. Moreover, one key (usually the key of C major) sounds very pure, with almost no beats. As the music moves into adjacent keys, the purity of intervals successively diminishes. In equal temperament, the lack of purity is spread equally among all keys.

To celebrate this new manner of tuning, Bach wrote twenty-four preludes and fugues, one in each major and minor key. He named this work The Well Tempered Clavier. In this work we can observe how he made use of the added dimension of every key having a different characteristic. The first prelude explores the sweetness of the key of C major and the differences in sound as short excursions are tentatively made to adjacent keys. The corresponding fugue delves freely into these now-known areas. The next prelude in C-sharp major is extremely fast, to avoid dwelling on intervals with strident beat rates. Instead, their stridency is utilized to increase the brilliance and frenzied excitement contained in this prelude. An so on.

Bach was such a genius that he was always looking for challenges and new dimensions of expression. The Well Tempered Clavier is readily perceived to have this dimension when played on a harpsichord tuned in well temperament and heard with the above understanding in mind. How sad Bach would be to know that most of the performances of his music are now played on instruments tuned in equal temperament, devoid of this dimension. Equally sad is the fact that present ears are lacking in any training that would enable this dimension to be appreciated.

How did the well temperament method of tuning became lost? We may well ask this question about the totality of Bach’s works. It is well known that these works fell into disuse after his death, only to be revived much later by Mendelssohn. In fact during the “romantic” period, there was a contempt for prior music. In France, harpsichords were burned as firewood. This is not the first time in history that great works were scorned or lost. In ancient China the first emperor, Shi Huangdi, who reigned from 221 to 207 B.C., ordered all books burned. The fires smoldered for months afterward. In addition, 460 scholars were executed.

The advent of pianos marked the beginning of a dark period in tuning. Harpsichords and harpsichord music were discarded along with the various newly invented closed tunings. Moreover, with the greater difficulty of tuning pianos, tuning became a specialized profession, divorced from the musicians who play them.

Unfortunately, from the early to mid-twentieth century, musicologists, theoreticians, and piano tuners were quite unable to think in any terms other than equal temperament. For example, an otherwise excellent treatise on piano tuning written at that time by William Braid White (White, William Braid, Piano Tuning and Allied Arts, Tuner’s Supply Company, Boston, MA, 1945, pp. 236–44.) contains a treatment of meantone temperament along with instructions for tuning it. The method shown involves tuning the temperament octave in meantone—including the perfect thirds—solely by using tempered fifths! There is no mention of even testing the smoothness of the thirds. The table showing the frequencies of the meantone temperament fails to distinguish between what, in equal temperament, would be enharmonic pairs but which, in meantone, all differ by 41 (about 2/5 of a semitone!). White then complains that, “the deplorable effects of having one tone for both a Sharp and a Flat ... are plainly to be seen.” Of course, music written in this temperament was never designed to have a sharp substituted for a flat. That music was written and played in such way that a substitution would be unnecessary and, except for one or two cases, would be considered quite inappropriate.

Additionally, one need only look up The Well-Tempered Clavier in all but the most recent dictionaries of music to find the erroneous assertion that that name refers to “the then novel system of equal temperament.”

The characterization of J.S. Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier as The Well Tempered Clavichord is another prevalent error. Whereas, in German, klavier refers to the clavichord, it also refers to a keyboard instrument. Das wohltemperierte Klavier refers to the well-temperament tuning of keyboard instruments in general—not a clavichord tuned in equal temperament.

With the recent revelation that J. S. Bach had in mind one of the various well temperaments when he wrote his Das wohltemperirte Klavier, knowledgeable musicologists now understand that equal temperament is not the only solution for playing in all keys without re-tuning. Today, the mathematical relationships of the numerous well temperaments have been thoroughly researched, established, and documented by music historians in books and journals. So has the fact that J. S. Bach wrote music intended to be played in well temperament. It is my sincere hope that as many people as possible will understand Bach’s intention and appreciate some of the dimensions of Bach’s music now disregarded by many.

If you want to play and hear Bach as he intended it, you must tune your harpsichord (or piano, if that’s all you have) in well temperament, not equal temperament. Likewise, keyboard music written before Bach should be played on instruments tuned in meantone.

Whereas there are literally hundreds of different tunings, there are basically five major categories, namely Pythagorean, just, meantone, well temperament, and equal temperament. Equal temperament is the present-day tuning, Bach used well temperament, meantone was used just prior to Bach, and the Pythagorean tuning was and is still only an academic standard. Until now, just tuning was impractical for acoustic keyboard instruments but is now possible on digital keyboards. Therefore, in order to play all music written in Bach’s day and before, only two ways of tuning are needed, namely, one method of meantone and one method of well temperament.

©Copyright 2011 by Robert Chuckrow

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