Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Good Luck Getting Through This One

I had a discussion with a friend a couple weeks ago about the merits of the harpsichord versus the piano (I know what you're thinking: there's a scintillating conversation!), and that led to pondering the electric subject of temperaments.

Here is one of the little oddities about our world, a little tidbit that we may remember from music appreciation class. Due to a quirk in our physical world, an octave divided exactly, numerically, into the 13 familiar intervals of the Western tonal scale will not have any of those notes be in precise tune relative to the others. (No, really.) If you start with the C below middle C and only tune octaves, one C to the next C above it, on up the scale, by the time you reach the top of the keyboard the high C will be considerably sharp relative to your starting point. (There's a good introduction to the subject over at Wikipedia.)

I learned about this years ago when I attempted to tune my own piano after doing some fiddling adjustments. I started with the center octave and tuned the chords of a major triad and then filled in the other notes. I have a good ear and it seemed like it ought to be an easy task.


I was stupefied to find that while the triad was brilliantly in tune, everything else sounded like shit. And any attempt I made by ear to right things seemed to bring me no closer. Any effort to tune for one key would pull the others out of tune; I had not expected this. (Though I do not nowadays attempt to tune my own piano, I have since learned how one can do this by ear and get much, much closer than I did.)

The tuning systems invented to deal with this unavoidable quirk are called temperaments. These are codified tuning methods for keyboard instruments which favor certain keys by "collecting" the tuning errors into the obscure keys (which historically were never used--and these tunings ensured it!). Tuning systems are evaluated by how "sweet" they keep the standard keys while making more distant or obscure keys usable. The method used to tune a modern piano--exactly spacing notes relative to each other; that is, of spreading the errors out equally amongst all notes and keys--is also a temperament, and is called "equal temperament." Equal temperament enables the instrument to be played equally in any key.

Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" (a collection of preludes & fugues written for every key) was, contrary to popular perception, not written to demonstrate equal temperament. Indeed, equal-temperament was well known and understood in Bach's time and was rejected as an unacceptable compromise: no key was properly in tune, which was considered a sacrifice made to the obscure keys which deprived us hearing any key properly. No, Bach was familiar with a number of tuning protocols, and there were modern ones in his day which enabled using the obscure keys, though their relatively sour tunings required pieces to be specifically written to accommodate this character. This is partially how certain keys were said to have distinct personalities, something pretty much gone from contemporary musical thinking.

What does this have to do with harpsichords? Well, tuning and the use of temperaments are one of the fundamental differences between the the harpsichord and the piano. Harpsichords are almost always tuned (according to their historical periods, after all) to a non-equal temperament, while pianos are always equally tempered. Maybe it seems arcane to the point of being silly, but the difference between these temperaments is really quite striking to a discerning ear. We must only be shown what to look for and the issue becomes evident and kind of ubiquitous. It used to be that music relied heavily on the experience of proper harmony, an appreciation of things, it seems, far too subtle for the modern ear (though, honestly, how many people, in terms of a percentage of the population, were attuned to these subtleties in Bach's day?). I listen to a lot of piano music, and no piano recording sounds out of tune to me. But I was listening to a recording of Yves Rechsteiner playing a pedal harpsichord earlier today and I was reminded how fabulous these tunings can be, though one has had to delve into musical history to appreciate them until pretty recently. Now many new synthesizers have the ability to duplicate historic tunings, so maybe we'll again attune our ears to this delicacy.


Heather B. said...

this has nothing to do with today's post, but because of you, I've been craving DC allllll day. Especially from McDonald's, which will inevitably lead to other bad things like fries. You're evil.

wunelle said...

I've been told I'm evil before. It MUST be true!

As for the DC, I've just poured meself a fresh one. Thanks for the reminder!

Joshua said...

I like that diet coke now has it's own abbreviation. I am pretty sure thats the first sign of addiction.

Anyway, we have been drinking the BW from cheeseland all night, so I had beeter not stall this post out too much.


Lizzie said...

First, the title of this post cracks me up.

I've played the piano since I was probably 7 or 8 but didn't know about any of this. Guess I'm somewhat of a dilettante- I love banging around on the keys but never took the time to learn much more than reading the notes and moving my fingers. so this was very enlightening. Unfortunately with moving every year or so and living in shoebox-sized apartments, I haven't been able to have my piano with me. Reading this made me realize it's been years since I've been able to play regularly. I miss it.

I have a confession to make. I hate DC (the drink, not the city). (It tastes like liquid, carbonated pepper to me.) Can I still play on the blog or is this a DC-lovers only blog?

wunelle said...

About 15 years ago I was silly enough to buy a 9' concert grand, a 1934 Chickering, that has dictated my living conditions ever since. Few rooms will accommodate it. I play only by ear, really, and not NEARLY well enough to have an instrument of this caliber, but I got a good deal on it and couldn't pass it up. I love everything about the piano: the furniture, the volume and nuance (without plugging it in!), the history and literature.

As for the Diet Coke thing, I'm sure we have a section in the commenting gallery for those without taste buds!


(You could always invoke Queenly Privilege!)