James Huntingford

Tuning and Temperaments FAQ

Here you will find many answers to common questions about tuning and temperaments.

Q: Is there such thing as a perfect tuning system?
A: Throughout history, tuning systems have been devised in order to serve the music of the time, in both its practical functions and its aesthetic and expressive focus. The question is a little like asking ‘is there a perfect car?’. The answer of course is that different cars suit different purposes. The fastest car may not have the smoothest turning power or gear shifting, the safest car may not have good acceleration, and the most comfortable car might have poor fuel efficiency.

Q: Is Equal Temperament the ideal tuning system?
A: It could be argued that Equal Temperament, or ET, is the most versatile tuning system, in that one is able to traverse the greatest number of keys with it. Furthermore, transposition is simple because all of its keys are identical. However, versatility is not the only measure of a tuning system. Equal temperament is more or less necessary for most late-19th and 20th century art music, however it is certainly not the preferred temperament for earlier musics. To find out why, and to learn about ET generally, click here.

Q: In publishing his ‘Wohltemperierte Klavier’ in 1722, was J.S. Bach advocating the use of Equal Temperament?
A: This is an all-too-common misunderstanding. Equal Temperament had been theorised for centuries before J.S. Bach – many were vary well aware that ET was theoretically possible, however virtually no-one advocated its implementation as the pre-eminent method. In fact, what J.S. Bach was advocating was a well temperament. This is in contrast to the meantone temperaments that he had grown up with. Meantone was incredibly beautiful in certain keys, but unfortunately rendered other distant keys so out-of-tune as to be virtually unusable. Bach wished to make all keys at least accessible and functional, knowing full well that to improve the worst keys would necessitate compromising the more beautiful ones. He did not want equality, as this would destroy the individual flavours of the keys. To read an incredible story about a hidden code inscribed on the title page of his publication, click here!

Q: Why is meantone temperament called so? Is it because it is a harsh-sounding temperament?
A: You might be surprised how many people think this! In fact, the word ‘mean’ in this context is a mathematical term meaning ‘average’ or ‘central’. Meantone is a system whereby a certain tone (or key) is chosen to be the ‘centre’ or the tuning system. That key will be the most beautiful sounding key. Keys closely related to it (in the circle of fifths) will be very attractive. The further away from that key one moves, the more dissonant the tones become. Eventually one reaches the opposite end of the circle, whereby, depending on the intensity of the system, the quality of the chords will range from horrific to horrendous. Meantone temperaments also contain a ‘wolf’ interval (sometimes more than one!), so named because of the howling dissonance between its two tones. To find out why meantone temperaments have a wolf, and to understand meantone generally, click here.

Q: Why do early music ensembles tune to lower pitches, like A=415? Is there an ideal pitch?
A: One of the reasons that ensembles tune lower is that surviving instruments from earlier times are generally pitched lower. Therefore, to make copies of such instruments, but at higher pitches, one would, in certain respects, have to resize parts of the instruments (shorter middle joints for flutes, shorter or higher tension strings for stringed instruments etc.). From a construction point of view, it simply makes more sense to build copies as close to the original as possible (assuming the original is a good one!). A second reason is that different pitches may make available slightly different ranges of musical colours. The jury is still very much out on the science of this phenomenon – to read my personal theory on it, click here! Fundamentally, the pitch elected for a performance should not really matter so much, at least only insofar as it is comfortable (and possible) for all instruments in the ensemble to play at. For my part, the arguments made over whether to play at 440 or 442 etc. are usually infantile, and detract from the more important issue of tuning within that specified pitch centre. It is a little like arguing over who is to have a cake, rather than who is to eat it. In short, there is no ‘perfect’ pitch; just pick the pitch that is most practical and comfortable for everyone, and then the artistry can commence!