Historical Temperaments FAQ

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Historical Temperaments FAQ

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1. What is a "Temperament?"
When an octave is divided into 12 notes, the intervals they form cannot all be perfectly "in tune" at once, so compromises must be made.A emperament is the result of this process.

2. Why must we have a Temperament?
When an interval is tuned for maximum consonance, or "in-tuneness," it is said to be "Just." When an interval is "de-tuned" to be either wider or narrower than Just, its sound begins to quiver or "beat." This beating is called dissonance. The process of e-tuning perfectly consonant intervals is called tempering and the resulting organization of the octave is called a temperament. Different compromises yield different musical results.

3. How many temperaments are there?

There are countless variations, but most fall within three major categories;
  • 1. Meantone, which generally concentrated the dissonance into a few unusable intervals (often called "wolf" intervals), so that the others could be Just. These are often called "restrictive" tunings, since there are certain intervals that are not usable. Good intervals are really good, bad ones are really bad. The Meantone era was approx. 1400-1700
  • 2. Well-Temperament, which gives more consonance to the most often used keys, and more dissonance to the lesser used ones. Though not equal, these tunings are "non-restrictive" because all intervals can be used. The intervals range from Just to barely acceptable. Well-temperament refers to a genre, not a specific tuning. The Well-Tempered era is approx. 1700-1880.
  • 3. Equal Temperament, which spreads the dissonance equally among all intervals.
    There is no difference in consonance or dissonance between any keys, thus, there are no good ones or bad ones. Equal temperament represents a complete average. Dates of its acceptance are debated, but there is ample evidence that it was widely available by 1900 and is the predominate tuning on keyboards, today.

4. What are "Historical Temperaments?"

They are temperaments that were in favour prior to the adoption of today's Equal Temperament. The keyboard music of a given "temperament era" often reflects the influence of the tuning, i.e., most keyboard music of the meantone era modulated very
little, staying within the bounds of pure consonance to avoid the "wolf" intervals of the most remote keys. Music of the well-tempered era exhibits a tonal organization that may make use of the rising and falling consonance found in the various keys. 20th century music, firmly in the equal-tempered era, has no restrictions or favorites in regard to keys.

5. What are the good keys in a Historical Temperament?

That depends on the particular temperament. In meantone tuning, there are usually four keys that are unusable. These are often B, C#, F# and Ab. All the rest are very consonant. In a well-temperament, the usual form is to increase dissonance with the number of accidentals in the key signature. As a legacy of meantone, in well-temperaments the most often used keys contained the most perfectly tuned thirds. It is the thirds that determine the tonal "colour" of a triad, so the closer thirds are to "Just", the more harmonious the sound of the triad. The lesser used keys absorbed more of the unavoidable dissonance, but not so much that they become unusable. Where tonic thirds are highly tempered, the keys exhibit more musical energy; there is more activity in the vertones, and generally there is an increased level of musical tension available. The closer a key signature was to the extremes, the more consensus there was to its "emotional nature", i.e., the key of C, with it's beautiful, harmonious thirds, was regarded as calming and restful, while keys such as B maj or F#major were known for their "tension" or "brilliance". The middle keys, such as Eb or A, were less agreed upon.
If a composer wanted to create a particular musical character, he could choose from a variety of keys offering differing tonal effects. From the purity and resonance of the simpler keys like C, F or G, to grinding dissonance of Abmin, there was a tonal character to suit any occasion.
By the time Thomas Young published his temperament of 1799, which is the idealized form of Well Temperament, the various levels of dissonance had become associated with different emotional states. Composers used these differences, producing artistic tonal effects by their modulations.
The "Harmonic Toolbox" describes what a well temperament offered to composers. The actual emotional impact of the music is a combination of the key, the audience's expectations, and the composers use of them both.

6. Why use a particular temperament?

If the composers of the past were guided by the qualities of temperament, (and there is evidence that they were), then performing the composition in its original intonation will provide a more authentic recreation of the composer's intention.
For example, a keyboard piece composed in Meantone may very well use the consonance of the Just thirds in that tuning to make a particular musical result. Playing that same piece in equal temperament would erase the pure harmony that was originally
If a modern composer had modulated freely among the keys in their work, performing that piece on a meantone tuning would create totally unacceptable dissonance when the modulations moved into the wolf keys.
If a classical composer had composed a sonata that depended on modulation to move into increasingly expressive keys before returning to a more consonant resolution, the use of equal temperament would negate the effects of contrasting levels of dissonance
and consonance.

7. What temperament did Bach have in mind when he composed the "Well-Tempered Clavier?"

This topic has been hotly debated. Many people have simply taken the use of 24 preludes and fugues to indicate that Bach was demonstrating equal temperament, but that belief is now generally considered to be naive. There is no evidence that equal temperament was favoured by Bach, and little evidence that it was even possible to attain
at that time. There are more plausible temperaments to consider for Bach's music and their musical contributions are becoming more widely recognized, today.

8. Can modern music be played on a Well-Temperament?

Yes, but there may be passages that suffer from the excessive brilliance or consonance, if the composer did not take the different tonal effects of varying keys into account. There are a growing number of jazz performers that have found useful tonal
values in the unequal tunings of the past.

9. Is there anything "wrong" with playing Classical music on modern equal temperament?

No, equal temperament is usable for anything, in spite of its lack of key color. However, once the listener has become acquainted with more age-appropriate tunings for the Baroque and Classical repertoires, listening to them performed on equal
temperament often becomes tedious and boring. Equal temperament doesn't offer any change in the level of consonance, thus, any intentions of the composer to use the well-tempered resources are lost.

10. What are these "resources" of well-temperaments?

The various levels of dissonance create a palette of emotional involvement. Keys with few accidentals are calmer than the more remote keys with many sharps or flats. Modulation between them has a subliminal emotional effect on the listener, and it was a
mark of genius to make the changes in such a way that the attention to the music was not interrupted by too great a leap from one to the other.
It has been demonstrated, scientifically, that dissonance creates a stimulative effect in the listener, while consonance creates a sedative effect. Harsh, brilliant intervals demand our attention, while soft, consonant harmony puts us to sleep. Composers of the era between 1700 and 1900 seemed to have understood this in their use of keys.
The sonatas demonstrate the use of rising and falling consonance to keep the listener engaged without fatiguing the ear.

11. Why have historical temperaments become more popular, today?

Tuners are now able to provide them. The tuning community has, in the last decade, been able to combine the research of Owen Jorgensen with the modern programmable tuning machine. This combination makes the recreation of a wide range of historical temperaments easily available to the working technician. As a result, pianists are being
given an opportunity to hear the piano music in more than one tuning. Once a pianist plays music on temperaments that were in use when the piece was written, they often find a greater depth and expression in the sound.

Ed Foote RPT
http://www.piano-tuners.org/edfoote/wel ... piano.html
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Copyright 2004