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HOW TUNING CAN BE STUBBORN

An underlying and recurring problem in music is establishing compatibility between tuning systems used in ensemble performances.

In choral music, the purest chords are provided by just intonation, providing the simplest mathematical relationship between notes. Pitches must be adjusted note by note, to correspond to the lead voice. Such constant adjustment is commonplace for a singer. It is also possible on some instruments, by exact placement of a finger along an unfretted viol string or movement of a trombone slide.

However, the majority of musical instruments are difficult to retune, including woodwinds with permanent holes, guitars with glued frets, organs with solid pipes, and pianos with 88 taut and interrelated strings. The value of these instruments depends on their ability to modulate between keys without retuning. Therefore, their tuning reflects a compromise between purity and versatility. In Western music, compromise usually results in 12-tone equal temperament: adding together pentatonic (black key) and heptatonic (white key) scales, so that semi-tones and chromatic intervals are made to coincide.

Although 12-tone music can provide a reasonably accurate expression of music from Bach to Bacharach, it cannot capture the subtlety of music designed to fit divergent theoretical contexts: African neutral intervals, enharmonic scales of ancient Greece, augmented intervals of Hungary, 17-note Arabic tuning, 22-note Indian tuning, quarter-tone compositions of Charles Ives, African-American blue notes, and Indonesian 5-tone slendro and 7-tone pelog scales (to name a few). Moreover (to return to vocal music), 12TET instruments cannot even produce a true 4:5:6:7 barbershop seventh chord, an American tradition.

Many non-Western systems are also mutually incompatible. Composers who want to combine scales from various countries risk writing music that cannot be played anywhere, by anyone.

HOW TO VARY THE DIET OF MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS

So, what can be done? These are several options:



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Last revised: 1 September 2014

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