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  • How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)
  • Carl Rahkonen
How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care). By Ross W. Duffin. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. [196 p. ISBN-10: 0393062279; ISBN-13: 9780393062274. $25.95.] Illustrations, appendix, endnotes, bibliography, sources and permissions, index.

I became interested in reading this book because of a persistent problem encountered by traditional fiddlers. Classical violinists frequently tell fiddlers that they are playing out of tune. One specific problem [End Page 487] is that many fiddlers tend to play the third degree of the major scale flat, when compared with the scale used by classical players. This little book sheds a great deal of light on this problem and many others encountered with harmonic intonation in Western music.

Ross W. Duffin is the Fynette H. Kulas Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University and is a distinguished scholar of early music. One of his previous works, Shakespeare's Songbook (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), won the first Claude V. Palisca Award of the American Musicological Society. This current work tackles the thorny problems of tuning and temperament in Western music. His goals are "to show that before the standardization of ET [equal temperament] became so overwhelming that nobody got to hear anything else when they were growing up, musicians knew about ET and in many cases chose not to use it" and that "ET doesn't sound as good as some of the alternatives" (p. 18).

There are many other fine books that cover similar territory, such as Murray Barbour's Tuning and Temperament: A Historical Survey (East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1951), Mark Lindley's Lutes, Viols and Temperaments (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), and the 798-page (!) Tuning by Owen Jorgensen (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1991). Most of the key concepts can be learned from the excellent articles in the New Grove 2d ed., or even from numerous articles on the World Wide Web. Duffin's book is more a polemic and history, rather than a practical method on "how to tune your keyboard." He makes a more concise argument than previous books, with only 159 pages of text, and he writes with educated non-specialists in mind, such as his son David, a physicist and amateur violinist (p. 11). For those who found music theory classes difficult and boring, this is the book for you!

Duffin's narrative is interspersed with numerous "side bar" vignettes giving greater detail about the concepts (Harmonic Series, Comma, Temperament, Major and Minor Semitones), the researchers (Pythagoras, Ellis, Delezenne, Helmholtz), and musicians (Mozart, Quantz, Joachim, Casals) who were important in the history of Western temperament. These vignettes break up the flow of the text when reading the narrative straight through. I read them only after completing an entire chapter, which was difficult since they are nicely illustrated and interesting. This kind of layout, common in contemporary academic textbooks, favors those of the World Wide Web generation who are not used to following the linear flow of a narrative, but tend to "browse" various "links" as they study.

Though Duffin writes with a light style, the text is still very scholarly with meticulous documentation. The overall structure is chronological, basically following the history of Western music. The book reads like a good mystery novel; finding out what kind of tuning systems were actually used by well-know figures in music history makes this book a real "page turner." The story begins with the science of acoustics, based on mathematical ratios of pitch frequencies discovered by Pythagoras, 1:1 unison, 2:1 octave, 3:2 fifth, 4:3 fourth, 5:4 major third and so on. Starting from a low note, seven pure octaves should equal twelve pure fifths, but they are actually off by about a semitone, making some kind of temperament, or adjustment in tuning, necessary. This became especially true as keyboard instruments began to be widely used.

Various temperament systems were tried in early music, some of them regular, spreading the adjustment evenly, and some irregular, favoring certain pitches and keys at the expense of others. In equal temperament (ET), twelve...


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