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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How ET Ruined Harmony (and why you shouldn't worry about it)

Yesterday I caught an interesting lecture at the Longy School of Music by musicologist Ross Duffin. He is the Fynette H. Kulas Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

His lecture was about his new book, How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and why you should care), which has been called by his critics as "the most subversive book on a musical subject I've ever read." He refers to Equal-Temperament by the acronym "ET."

I didn't exactly know what to expect from Professor Duffin. Based on the provocative title of his book, I feared that he would rail against all music written after Bach. But in the end it was scholarly, well-balanced, and rather informative.

As a musician who grew up playing keyboard instruments and fretted-string instruments, I never really had to deal too much with subtle tuning issues. In practice, singers and string players had to adjust to me - since I was the one who was "out of tune."

Duffin's research aptly summarizes the dysfunction that has existed regarding tuning systems, theories and performance practice since the Renaissance. Is is clear that virtually all of the solutions that have been proposed over the centuries are messy, ad hoc, and less than elegant.

If you are the sort of person who likes certainty, uniform standards, and mathematical precision, you should avoid Duffin's book like the plague. In this regard the world of musical temperament is similar to law-making in Washington DC: you really don't want to know how they make the sausage.

Here were a few interesting tidbits and takeaways from the lecture...

ET is recent invention in music history - a kind of worst-case totalitarian system that arises when everyone is made to suffer for the common good of uniformity and standardization.

In the 18th century, Mozart, Haydn, and probably Beethoven thought of the octave as having more than 12 notes. For them, D-sharp was a very different note than E-flat. Sharps were LOWER in pitch than flats. For example E-flat was a higher note than D-sharp. Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang's father had published the definitive treatise on violin playing with charts indicating these very distinctions.

And it's not only string players who abided by this system. The flutist, composer, and music theorist Johann Joachim Quantz published a fingering chart indicating different fingerings for enharmonic notes. For him, sharped and flatted notes were quite different.

In the 19th century, some musicians - often virtuoso string soloists who played unaccompanied - reversed the paradigm. As performers they tended to focus on the linear aspects of music. For them, D-sharp was played as a leading-tone and would sound HIGHER in pitch than E-flat because of the voice leading. This was the opposite practice of what was done just a century earlier, and this is the current belief, concept, and standard today. It is the convention practiced by the majority of mainstream classical musicians in the 2oth and 21st centuries - although this norm apparently has little acoustical, historical, or theoretical ground to stand on.

The current practice of tuning pianos with ET seems to be a bit of a fraud too. When one analyses what piano tuners actually do in terms of temperament, the result is somewhat sketchy and amorphous. Find me two different pianos, and I'll show you two different tuning standards. It's the invisible elephant in the room. Good piano tuners and excellent chefs don't share their secrets.

Our contemporary bias in favor of scientific and mathematical clarity with tuning systems too often seems to go against our better musical instincts and natural hearing.

While I found Duffin's talk very enlightening, I'm not a music historian. Overall I consider myself pretty liberal when it comes to performance practice.

For me, music is not the acoustical properties of the sound, but the ideas behind its presumed imperfect acoustical representation. In my mind, the tuning and temperament purity argument is a little like saying it's better to read a book printed at 1200 dpi than 300 dpi. The higher resolution allows for a better and more accurate representation of the typeface.

Isn't that kind of missing the point of what music is all about?

Duffin played a few musical examples to illustrate his points. One example utilized an electronically produced and scientifically accurate realization of a piano work in two contrasting temperaments. While I have to say there was a subtle but discernible difference between them - and that the non-ET version sounded less strained, warmer, and had less beating of upper harmonics - I was not overly impressed with the improved version. It wasn't at all like seeing a movie in 3D for the first time after having only known the standard format.

Given all of the factors that go into experiencing a work of music, the tuning aspect pales in comparison. To my ears, the version of temperament that is used is fairly trivial. I don't go to concerts to listen to intonation, and "imprecision" in performance normally doesn't bother me (unless it is really, really bad).

Another thing I realized from Duffin's presentation is that the social aspects of music making override the theoretical rules that theorists claim exist. It could be that every accomplished musician has their own unique tuning system. This is what makes one great violinist different from another. They just hear notes and intervals differently - as if it were part of their musical DNA or cultural context. In practice the range of expression possible in the production of a major-third, or a perfect-fifth can vary enormously. There are more gradations than even an enharmonic sharp or flat. Ask any microtonalist.

ET is no more than an approximation and a guidepost. It has never been more than a musical version of lane-lines painted on the highway. No musician in their right mind would expect all music to conform to such a limited and restrictive tuning system. It's a framework, not a Draconian pitch-grid where your teacher will swat your fingers with a ruler if you go outside of the lines.

On the other hand, alternative tuning systems to ET that have been (or likely will be) proposed are also a compromise. I hate to break the news, but no tuning-system Utopia exists - at least with the 12-note to the octave standard. In the end, ANY tuning system will only function as a rough and imperfect road map for the fabulous musical excursions that practicing musicians will inevitably take us on.

I don't buy the argument that equal-temperament has ruined harmony, and I don't think we have to worry about it either. There are much bigger bones to pick. You can sleep soundly at night knowing that music will still be there for you the next morning, equal-temperament or not.



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