The Tuning Tide Turns

My friend Bill Hogeland alerted me to the arrival of a new book that I’m shocked had slipped under my microtonality radar: How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care) (Norton). It’s by Ross W. Duffin, who heads the early music program at Case Western Reserve University, and who argues that we need to go back and try out the tunings that pre-20th-century composers wrote their music in. He’s not a microtonalist, and there’s no mention of Partch, Johnston, La Monte Young, et al, but it’s an elegantly readable exposition of what the temperament arguments are all about.

Duffin.jpgDuffin apparently started the book as a much-needed antidote to Stuart Isacoff’s mendacious and unaccountably popular Temperament: The Idea that Solved Music’s Greatest Riddle of several years back. Isacoff’s populist tome was a heady celebration of the status quo: “hey, 12 equal steps to the octave is the perfect tuning, aren’t we glad they came up with it, no reason to ever consider anything else!” To argue that, he had to sweep a mountain of inconvenient acoustic phenomena under the rug. (I wrote a Village Voice review saying so, and, comically, Isacoff wrote a letter to the editor excoriating me as – I quote from memory – “one of those dogmatic pedants who can only imagine doing a thing one way.” Of course, the “one way” I pedantically insisted on was allowing and exploring thousands of different tunings; the open-minded route he so generously opened up was to impose one bland, invariant scale on all mankind’s music for the rest of eternity.) Strangely for so esoteric a topic, Isacoff’s Temperament got a tsunami of undeserved publicity.

Enter, thankfully, Duffin (who alludes to Isacoff’s book, though not by title). His book is just as entertainingly written, just as acutely aimed at the average music fan, and possesses the inestimable advantage of being accurate. He starts off from, and keeps returning to, Pablo Casals’s dictum that, in string playing, sharped notes should be raised and flatted notes should be lowered: “leading notes should lead.” But, once granted that possibility, he shows meticulously how no one style of intonation is good for all musics, arguing that players should adjust their intonation to fit the historical style. His history of tuning theory is quick, concise, and as painless as possible. At one point, before giving some numbers, he adds, “Note to mathophobes: This is not math, it’s arithmetic.” (On the same impulse I call my tuning course The Arithmetic of Listening, not “The Mathematics.”) His history and theory are admirably accurate, and he gives perhaps the simplest exposition I’ve seen of the 18th-century theory of dividing the octave into 55 parts, using a minor half-step of four units (C to C#) and a major half-step of five units (C to Db). We know for a fact that’s the intonation Mozart taught, folks, and as Duffin adds:

Are modern practices better than what Mozart had in mind? I don’t think so, and I don’t think most musicians would deliberately go against the expectations of a composer like Mozart if they knew what those expectations were. And even though the sound of lower sharps and higher flats is likely to be unfamiliar to many musicians, I think Mozart’s endorsement makes it worth trying… and trying very seriously. [Ellipsis in the original]

This is above all a practical book, brief and to the point, “because every musician I know would rather be making music than reading about it any day.” Keyboard instruments he all but despairs of, and he even quotes Casals:”Do not be afraid to be out of tune with the piano. It is the piano that is out of tune.” Duffin gears his argument toward singers, wind players, and especially string players, and includes some wonderful quotations about intonational practice from old-style, Old World quartet players. I might add to Duffin’s argument that I keep my own pianos, at the office and at home, in Thomas Young’s Well Temperament of 1799, and that I find it preferable in every respect, for every kind of music, to Equal Temperament. The problem with that, as Duffin emphasizes, is that, in tuning, there’s no one-size-fits-all:

I am perfectly aware that what I am suggesting is a radical idea for musicians and that it is likely to be met with reluctance, resistance, and even scorn in some quarters. Some musicians will be convinced by my arguments but may still view unequal tuning as a Pandora’s box to be opened carefully or not at all; others will scoff at the long historical pedigree of extended meantone as irrelevant; still others will find both the harmonic and melodic intervals strangeand “out of tune.” At least that’s how it may seem to some the first time they hear it or try it. But my experience has been that an hour or so of experimenting over two or three sessions is all that’s necessary to help musicians begin, at least, to appreciate what non-ET tuning has to offer from a musical point of view…. [T]he testimonials of Bach and Mozart have to count for something. What makes it worth trying is that it makes the music sound better. And remember, I’m not saying that harmonic intonation should replace ET entirely and substitute its own tyranny; only that ET is not necessarily the best temperament for every single musical situation….

Now that’s someone who can imagine doing a thing more than one way. Bill saw a stack of Duffin’s books on display at Barnes & Noble, so maybe we’ll finally hear the bland hegemony of ET – that heavily-processed Wonder Bread of tunings – start to erode. And once that happens: microtonality, here we come!



  1. says

    as a dyed-in-the-wool mathophobe, i feel that saying ‘it’s not math, it’s arithmetic’ is akin to saying ‘it’s not science, it’s chemistry’ or heck even ‘it’s not tuning, it’s temperament.’ math is math.
    anyway, obviously we have another book to add to the ever-growing list of must-reads.
    KG replies: I think it’s more like, “It’s not sex, it’s just heavy petting.”

  2. Jon Szanto says

    Update on Isacoff: I happened to pick up a copy of the (fairly) newly release paperback edition, and one should note the change in the subtitle, which is now: “How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization”. I imagine a lot of words could be written on just why/how that was changed.

    But more importantly, there is an “Afterword” that is the author’s response to the public’s response to the book in the first place. It really is something. In addition to painting Partch as a low-talent crank, he happens to mention (among many other things) that one of Partch’s “admirers”, taking up his rebellious call, “suggested in a national paper that I was part of a conspiracy of the status quo, then interpreted the last line of the book to mean that, having discovered the beauty of Michael Harrison’s tunings, I should have gone back to the beginning and rewritten the whole thing to reflect the evils of equal temperament. Never wave a pluralist banner in front of someone who has “truth” on his side.”

    National paper… could it be?

    And not to hijack the thread, but someone mentioned that the one-hour BBC documentary done on Partch a couple years ago has shown up (in six parts) on YouTube:

    Pluses and minuses, but worth seeing.

    KG replies: Sonuvabitch. For awhile he was referring to us tuning experts in interviews as “the Tuning Taliban.”

  3. says

    I’m actually surprised that Duffin expects to be met with reluctance, resistance and scorn — this approach to intonation is how I was taught at Juilliard 25 years ago, and it’s what I’ve been teaching at conservatories ever since.

  4. says

    I feel a need to disagree with the assertion that this kind of re-imagining is particularly radical. I sing in a number of choral ensembles, and we’re constantly discussing how high the thirds in a chord should be (depending on whether the piece is English Renaissance or German Romantic, etc.), or discussing what needs to happen tuning-wise to make a perfect fifth really lock into place. We’re always re-evaluating our tunings, tweaking them to sound purer, or to ring more overtones. And I don’t think we’re an exception to the rule; this sort of thing is fairly commonplace in choirs… and it seems to me quite common among string players too.

    What would be seriously difficult to change, is becoming completely aware of all these tuning adjustments. If everyone in my choir had to ponder whether to make the next interval 5/55 or 4/55, I think most of them (often hobbyist musicians) would quit or at least fail miserably. Perhaps if these tuning terms became more ingrained in our culture, and someone came up with simple effective training techniques for intonation work, then in 100 years or so we could perform that way. But even so, I’m not yet convinced of its usefulness. In choirs, we’re already doing plenty of altering of tuning to create more exact intervals; is it worth making that completely conscious? Would that help? I tend to think that it’s like the act of breathing. If you focus very hard on your breathing and control it just so, you can eventually, with practice, acheive optimum air use. But if you just let your autonomic nervous system control the breathing, it works perfectly efficiently on its own, and your brainpower can be used for other tasks.

    Anyway, just thought I’d throw that out there, and best wishes,


  5. CM says

    A Balinese gamelan instructor I know once remarked how much of Western classical music sounded boring to him. He wasn’t of course dismissing the entire Western classical tradition but rather commenting on how the system of tuning employed in the West did not “resonate” with his ears.
    It seems to me that the more different systems of tuning are explored, the more options composers have and the richer music can be. I once had the opportunity to ask a well-known American composer why he had never composed anything in just intonation when other composers in the group with which he is associated have. He replied that just intonation felt like a foreign language to him. I wanted to say, “But people can learn to speak foreign languages!”

  6. says

    Dr Duffin has also posted an informal web “letter” to readers, to go along with his excellent book and offering several comparative listening examples:

    Great review, Kyle, thanks!

    p.s. Something that upsets me about Isacoff’s book (and its paperback Afterword especially) is the way he chunders all well temperaments so conveniently into the rubbish as not worth bothering with. His example there is to have Garrick Ohlsson play the Chopin “endlessly modulating” G major nocturne, in Vallotti, and stop at a point where it sounds lousy. Well, Vallotti isn’t the only game in town, or even (by any stretch) the best-sounding one. But, it serves his straw-man argument….

  7. says

    This is awfully interesting stuff, if a bit esoteric for the likes of me. I was telling my son about it, and he said that when his piano is out of tune, it is sharp, rather than flat, and this makes it more bearable.

  8. says

    Hey Kyle…well, I have both mentioned books…oops, I liked Isacoff’s, but not for what he said/didn’t say about tuning..I really enjoyed how he integrated the history of temperaments into European culture as a whole, I think that’s something that is often overlooked…it was an interesting read from that perspective. And Duffin’s book, I am recommending to all my students who are interested in tuning; it lays out some of the basics of temperaments very simply and easy to understand, which really helps when one is just getting into tunings…I learned a lot, and it’s one I’ll be reading for years.
    On the personal micro front, I got a mention in the Feb issue of Guitar Player mag, as one of their 101 Forgotten Greats and Unsung Heroes…slowly, the subject of non 12 tunings is beginning to reach more and more people…best…Hstick

  9. says

    I would like to say, “Music is a non-computable physics, too”.
    But over the centuries musicians, mathematicians, theorists, thinkers, experts and amateurs have been suffered from the comma which is the difference between a perfectly tuned octave and the octave resulting from a tuned circle of fifths. Many great people have been trying to create the perfect scale in vain. Mathematics easily proves that perfection is not possible. Any solution does not exist. Musicians, especially pianists, have been accused of using the Equal Temperament for thier pianos because the Equal Temperament is said to be an anti-musical compromise which leaves each key equally damaged and none perfectly in tune.
    This comma has put a curse on music.
    Then I made a set of webpages titled “Music of Sacred Temperament”.

  10. Joe L. says

    Wait, I don’t get it. Isakoff thinks his ET-only view is “pluralist”? Huh?
    KG replies: Yeah, go figure.

  11. mclaren says

    “You can have any color model T you want, as long as it’s black.” — Henry Ford
    “You can have any kind of music you want, as long as it’s tuned in 12 equal tones per octave.” — contemporary Western orchestras and conservatories

  12. says

    I think there needs to be some balance here. I mean the ‘truth’ (as one post puts it) often lies between all extremes. I find the idea that Duffin ‘all but despairs of’ keyboard instruments somewhat pretentious.
    By his own account, if Mozart’s “expectations” are not to be ignored, it must be made clear that Mozart regarded the Organ as the ‘king of instruments’, and chose the piano over the violin as his principle instrument (a fixed-pitch instrument over a free-pitch instrument). True, pianos were easier to tune at this time, so composers often tuned the instrument prior to performence. And, this would have been done to suite the music, and the accompanying instrument. But while temperament is of course a compromise, it can have its own effects and avenues.
    Having said that, at the end of his life, Beethoven did claim that the piano was ‘after all, an unsatisfactory instrument’. Whether he was talking about the layout, the state of the instrument at that time, the temperament, or everything, we’ll never know.
    I am nonetheless looking forward to reading Duffin’s book. I just hope that like some ‘theorists’ (Schenker, Schoenberg, Schillinger, and others), he hasn’t fallen in love with the theoretical model so much that he believes in ‘facts’. For there are no such thing. That’s a fact! (For example, what about ‘stretched octaves’?)
    Anyone interested in using computers for different tunings should try the scala program: (
    For piano, I am interested in the Bach-Lieman tuning: (
    Kind regards,
    R C Sotorrio.
    P.S. In the past, Organs apparently had a mechanism for altering the intonation of sharps and flats. If anyone knows of any literature on this, please post it here if you would be so kind.

  13. says

    Isacoff is god! His book is what inspired me to write the piece “Ode to The Merry Little Men in My Couch”, which turned out to be enjoyed by millions of imaginary people worldwide. I couldn’t have done it without his book, and shame on all of you for putting down such a historic writer. Sure, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but why bash? Write something better THEN criticize.
    KG replies: I’ve written many, many documents on tuning (try, and every single one of them has been more accurate, more honest, more literate, than Stuart Isacoff’s entire output. The man is a walking scam.