Rich Sonic Tapestry of Historical and Modern Temperaments in Piano

The sonic palette of the piano is a realm of vast and varied shades. Yet, the richness of this realm is often constrained by a universally accepted yet not necessarily artistically superior standard – equal temperament. This article explores the broad spectrum of historical and modern temperaments in the world of piano, and argues for the need to embrace them as a dynamic tool for enhancing musical expression, made feasible by today’s technology.

What are Temperaments?

In music, temperament refers to the way we tune or adjust the pitches of the notes on an instrument. When we’re tuning, we’re actually trying to find the perfect balance between different musical intervals (the gaps between notes) so they sound pleasing to the ear. This isn’t as simple as it might seem, because due to the mathematical nature of music, we can’t make all intervals sound perfect at the same time. Temperament is essentially the system we use to decide which intervals we’ll ‘compromise’ on or adjust to make a specific piece of music sound as good as possible. Different types of temperament adjust the intervals in different ways, leading to different tuning systems.

Contemporary music has a widely adopted standard of equal temperament (octave divided into 12 equal semitones), but this hasn’t always been the case throughout history. In the future, as our musical tastes and technologies continue to evolve, we might end up using different tuning standards and systems. That’s one of the exciting things about music – it’s always changing, always evolving, just like we are. Also, it’s a bit like the way language evolves over time – the sounds and meanings we use can change depending on when and where we are. In music, the exact ‘pitch’ or frequency of notes has also changed throughout history.

Journey Through Time: Historical Temperaments

To comprehend the concept of temperament, one must venture back to the time of Pythagoras, who discovered that simple ratios between string lengths, such as 2:1 or 3:2, led to consonant, pleasing intervals, known as perfect octaves and perfect fifths respectively. From this rudimentary understanding, the musical scale was born.

Initially, music was confined to a system of pure intervals known as ‘Just Intonation’. However, the mathematical purity of just intervals led to inherent inflexibility, limiting the ability to modulate freely between keys. As the musical repertoire expanded during the Renaissance, this inflexibility posed a challenge.

Enter Meantone Temperament. Emerged in the 16th century, it modified the perfect purity of the intervals to allow smoother transitions between some keys. Its name stems from the ‘mean’ or middle tone established between certain whole steps. It became the dominant temperament for keyboard instruments during the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Werckmeister and Kirnberger temperaments, popular during the Baroque period, extended the meantone approach. They allowed for even more key flexibility while preserving the varied ‘colors’ of individual keys. The slight inconsistencies in intonation created by these temperaments were used expressively by composers like Bach, lending distinct character to different keys.

Equal Temperament: The Universal Standard

In the 18th century, a shift occurred. The advent of ‘Equal Temperament’, dividing the octave into 12 equal semi-tones, resolved the key modulation issue. Every key in equal temperament sounded equally in-tune (or out-of-tune) offering the complete freedom to move between keys, creating a homogenous soundscape.

Equal temperament dominated due to its versatility. As music evolved, the necessity for harmonic flexibility overcame the desire for pure consonance. Composers like Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt were writing music that travelled extensively through many keys, necessitating a tuning system where all keys were equal. Equal temperament also thrived due to the growth of ensembles and orchestras, where a uniform tuning standard was necessary.

The Case for Varied Temperaments: Beyond Uniformity

However, the reign of equal temperament does not negate the expressive power of other temperaments. Indeed, in our pursuit of musical universality, we may have lost some of the distinctiveness that historical temperaments impart to compositions. These temperaments can provide a refreshing perspective, unveiling the unique ‘color’ and ‘mood’ of different keys that have been rendered indistinguishable by the equal temperament.

In the world of historical performance practice, these temperaments are starting to be appreciated again. Harpsichordists and fortepianists often adopt temperaments that were contemporaneous with the music they perform, creating an aura of authenticity. But, why limit this to historical performances?

Modern Technology: Embracing the Past in the Present

Modern technology makes it easier than ever to experiment with different temperaments. Digital pianos and tuning apps enable instant switching between various temperaments, transforming the piano from a static to a dynamic instrument, ready to convey the nuanced intentions of composers from various eras.

It is crucial for the modern musician to explore this untapped resource. To play a prelude of Bach in Werckmeister temperament or a sonata by Scarlatti in Meantone can be illuminating, bringing us closer to understanding the compositional nuances, the ‘colors’ that these composers had in their minds.

New compositions can also benefit from the expressive possibilities of varied temperaments. Just as a painter chooses a palette, a composer can select a temperament to convey a certain mood, using the natural ‘wolf’ tones of some temperaments to create tension, or the pure fifths of others to create a sense of calm. This also opens a new avenue of expression for improvisers, with each temperament offering a unique canvas on which to paint their spontaneous creations.

Comparison Summary

This table provides an overview of these temperaments. However, it’s important to note that there are countless other temperaments, many of which represent subtle variations and compromises between the ones outlined here.

Temperament Characteristics Historical Period** Advantages Disadvantages
Pythagorean All perfect fifths are pure except one (‘wolf fifth’). Ancient Greece Pure fifths create consonance. Dissonant thirds and ‘wolf’ intervals limit modulation.
Just Intonation Pure major and minor thirds, but other intervals vary. Ancient times to present Perfectly consonant thirds and sixths. Limited ability to modulate.
Meantone Temperament Most fifths slightly narrowed, thirds are pure. Renaissance to Baroque Many keys are usable with pure major thirds. Some keys and intervals (‘wolf’ intervals) are unusable.
Werckmeister Temperament A ‘well-temperament’ with slightly compromised intervals. Late 17th to early 18th century More key flexibility than meantone, preserving some key color. Some intervals are out of tune.
Kirnberger Temperament Another ‘well-temperament’ variant, slightly different interval compromise. 18th century More key flexibility than meantone, preserving some key color. Some intervals are out of tune.
Equal Temperament All intervals (except octaves) are slightly compromised. 18th century to present All keys are equally in tune, allowing complete modulation freedom. All intervals are slightly out of tune, removing key color.

Conclusion: Re-embracing the Spectrum

Equal temperament was a logical solution for a musical landscape that demanded universality and key modulation flexibility. But in a world where we have the technology to switch between temperaments at the touch of a button, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the dominance of this ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. By exploring the rich tapestry of temperaments, modern musicians can step into new realms of expression, creativity, and historical authenticity.

After all, music is a language of emotion. To restrict ourselves to just one dialect is to limit our ability to communicate the full breadth of human experience. As we look to the future, let us not forget the sonic wisdom of the past, but instead use it to enrich the musical conversations of the present.

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