Tuning and Temperament

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IN TUNE OR OUT OF TUNE?

Tuning is a matter that is utterly fundamental to musical quality, yet it seems many musicians pay it little heed. When it comes to temperament, I find most musicians to whom I mention it haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, indeed I suspect quite a few have only a rudimentary grasp of tuning, which they surely need if they’re going to put it into practice.

I had the good fortune to work with a group of musicians who discovered the subtleties and practicalities of tuning, but since nobody had ever told us about it – school, instrument lessons, choir, orchestra, nobody – we had to learn it the hard way. In our early days The York Waits1 played well enough, but by and large not particularly well in tune. During our early years we gradually realised we had to attend to the discipline of tuning our instruments, not only with themselves, but also note by note, chord by chord together, so as to sound in tune with each other and as a band. We learnt to aim for maximum consonance from moment to moment within the context of the music and more often than not, eventually, we got it. After a lot of hard listening to ourselves and each other we learnt to play in consonance, and that meant that each player had to bend the pitch of certain notes ever so slightly so as to fit into each individual chord. If by accident or unfamiliarity a chord began out of tune, we would correct it in a millisecond, each knowing (sensing, feeling) from his position within the chord whether to move slightly or stay put while others did it. The process took years to evolve but did become habitual.

Also, we rapidly reached the conclusion that the generally held ‘wisdom’ that early music was acceptable played out of tune ‘because it’s primitive’ was utter nonsense. Recorders can be played in consort without an annoying background buzz and a quartet of crumhorns need not sound like a moribund beehive but can be loud and ‘toneful’ with perfectly crisp tuning. Getting a noyse of shawms playing bang in tune by an ancient stone wall is a truly exhilarating experience.

To be honest, I (we?) had no idea at the time that what we had been doing was tempering our tuning and that the temperament we used was distinctly contrary to that used by the piano tuner, who really does know about temperament: fixed artificial temperament (ours was adjustable and natural). Our version of temperament came instinctively as we advanced musically and more tightly as an ensemble. Later I absorbed a proper appreciation of temperament from Ross Duffin’s courageous book How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony2, a small volume packed with enlightenment that every musician ought to read. I agree with him: equal temperament ruins harmony and I care a lot.

I moved from York to the Highlands of Scotland in 2003 and was obliged to give up my position as a wait. Since then I’ve been playing in a local orchestra and conventional wind groups, where I’ve discovered that, although they’ve heard of tuning and attempt to get it right, modern amateur wind players don’t pay a lot of attention to it, and know diddly-squat about temperament. They buy their instrument and presume it should be in tune, full stop.

Much to the irritation of my wind quintet fellows, I often hold up proceedings during practice to try and correct an uncomfortably out of tune chord. I usually have them working up from the bottom of the chord, perhaps checking the bass note against an electronic tuner to make sure the chord will be sitting on the correct foundation. As each instrument joins the building chord I might suggest to somebody – finger pointing up or down – that they should tune their note sharpish or flattish, brighter or duller. The initial response is – and, with some folks, stubbornly continues to be – usually incomprehension, incredulity and, of course, indignation: “I am playing in tune. This thing cost me thousands. Check my note with the tuner!” “Yes”, I reply, “but it doesn’t fit that chord as it is. You have the fifth, so please adjust it.”

One oboe player thought I was off the rails, laughed it off and continued to mess up the tuning by that gnat’s smidgen that can make a chord pleasant or not, which did little to heighten the musical experience for the rest of us.

My friend, fellow York Wait and past editor of Chanter William Marshall has granted me permission to tell the story of his humiliating difficulty with the tuning of a single note. The piece in question was an arrangement of the old London tune The Waits (Playford, 1657). You might know it as the carol Past Three O’clock in which the offending note is on the final top G in: “… son of the eternal father super-nal”.

William on saggbut (trombone), given the melody to play for one verse, arrived at and habitually overshot the highest note (by only a few cents3), putting the whole chord out. Being an experienced player, he had a muscular and intellectual memory of exactly where on the slide and in his ear that note should be, but here was the first instance he had encountered in which it had to be played significantly flatter than he expected. In its specific context, the pitch a note needed to be adjusted. It is a most unusual situation, where a note in the melody not the harmony needed to be tempered, but eventually persuading William to play ‘out of tune’, socially a painful affair, meant that the harmony fell into place and the chord became sweet. From then on it always was.

BAGPIPE TUNING

As a parallel, may I recommend Balkana: The Music of Bulgaria (HNCD 1335), referring specifically to track 4, Deljo Bre Mlada Vojvoda, a duet of male voice and gajda in which the singer repeatedly deliberately dulls a high note well below expected pitch, giving it an emotion-wrenching, sentimental quality. Of course, the bagpiper, his chanter tuned to agree only with his drone, doesn’t attempt to play in unison with the singer at that point. The effect is not at all unpleasant.

In contrast, track 7 includes some delicious pitch shading by a piper’s fingers as well as dramatic flattement, that pitch-varying, emotion-wrenching vibrato obtained by fluttering fingers not involved in making the note itself.

Aside: There is fabulous bagpiping on this CD (not least track 7) that utterly rubbishes the preposterous editorial assertion in the Piping Times (May 1992).

“… when the bagpipes are mentioned everybody throughout the world thinks immediately of Scotland. This is just because we have developed the instrument to a higher degree than any other country, and our Highland music of the pipes is vastly superior to all other bagpipe music.”

Fortunately, this outrageous old guard invective has been superseded.

Since a bagpipe chanter plays against a harmony consisting of fixed pitch drones, the chanter’s tuning must be adjusted ‘to fit’. I suspect that only a bagpipe maker or person with their ear critically trained to understand temperament would notice that the intervals in the scale of a bagpipe’s chanter are slightly different from what we might consider natural or ‘just’ intonation and are certainly not anything like the equal temperament to which a piano tuning is set.

When a bagpipe chanter is finally prepared for the customer, its maker finely tunes each note to make sure it is bang in tune with the drones, a process that can take several days of trial, error and the finest of fine tuning. In the detail, there seems to be no absolutely right or wrong, black or white, in chanter tuning. The maker inevitably inserts a little of his or her own musical taste into the process. When I receive a new chanter I usually need to smear a minute scrap of beeswax around the finger hole of the third to flatten it, just a tiniest smidgen, to satisfy my ‘ear’.

I learnt a lot about this from my neighbour Ross Calderwood, small- and border pipe maker featured in Chanter, Autumn 2016. His tuning rig of combined pressure gauge and pitch meter allows you to see and hear, at the same time, the pitch of each note to the accompaniment of the bass drone. I was astonished at how flat the third has to be to sound right (corroborating my instinctive opinion) while the flattened third needs to be quite sharp. Tuned thus, out of tune if it weren’t for the drone, these notes sound just right. That’s bagpipe temperament.

THE PIANO & EQUAL TEMPERAMENT

Why do I generally not like the sound of the piano? Because it is artificially tuned to Equal Temperament (all notes evenly spaced), so that it can be played in every key and modulate at any point during a piece. The piano is deliberately tuned out of tune; its tuning is the ultimate compromise. The piano tuner deals with the instrument for all events whereas the harpsichord player tunes just before s/he performs, setting the instrument to the key needed for the piece or to some other temperament that allows modulation or pieces in other keys in which dissonances won’t be too jarring.

I think it must be equal temperament that leads to the perception of different moods for different keys, e.g. E minor is supposed to be particularly melancholic. That may be true of the piano, but when applied to the orchestra, in which proper tuning is possible, it should not be – though the Brahms’s and Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphonies are reputed to be plaintive because they are set in that key. I’m waiting to be convinced and propose that if music is played in tune, untempered, all major and all minor keys should sound alike mood-wise, other than higher or lower relative to other keys.

In our local orchestra, one conductor (player of piano and cello) fiercely instructed a young cellist, “In this orchestra we play in equal temperament!” I was shocked. I can’t play in equal temperament and neither can anybody else who endeavours to play in tune. My bassoon isn’t fixed and non-adjustable like a piano which is pre-set to equal temperament. Like most other instruments, it plays in tune (or out of tune) according to instructions from my brain, reed-gripping lips and musical instincts.

According to its physics, musical tuning is absolute, Pythagorean. According to musicians, tuning may be ‘bent’ in our quest for the best listening experience. Pianists like temperament to be equal (i.e. all notes equally spaced), though the extreme top and bottom ends of their keyboard seem to be painfully even further adrift of what I consider true tuning than that – to my ear – cacophonous middle range. When an instrument that can adjust its tuning is played with piano, the soloist must conform to equal temperament to reduce dissonance to a tolerable minimum.

The 17th-century Italians hatched a cunning plan that allowed a harpsichordist to play the same note, differently tuned to meet the requirement of the home and modulated keys. For example, G sharp and A flat are subtly different notes when played in different contexts. They invented tasti spezzati, which used a modified keyboard with certain keys divided into two, supplying, for instance, a ‘bright’ G sharp and a ‘dull’ A flat as required. That way the harpsichord could be tuned to play exactly in tune in two different keys with no need for the compromise of equal or any other artificial temperament, an idea that came later.

I’m one of those people who really hate hearing the equal temperament piano play early music meant for pre-piano, tuned-to-key keyboard instruments. I particularly dislike Bach played by Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt et al. (but, contrarily, not Play Bach jazz pianist Jacques Loussier). However, I do enjoy the music of composers such as Debussy played on piano, but he would have composed for equally tempered instruments. That’s an intriguing contrast and probably explicable, though I struggle with it.

OTHER TUNING IDIOSYNCRASIES

Often the player of a violin sonata will end on a stratospherically high note, created by playing a lower one with minimal finger pressure so that a high harmonic is produced. As far as I can tell, no pitch adjustment is possible with these notes: they are either on or off. To my ear that extended climax note – on violin (unadjustable harmonic) and piano (different unadjustable equal temperament tuning) – sounds excruciatingly discordant whereas performers and audience seem not to object or even notice. Do they really enjoy that or do they just accept it?

Cane reeds are fickle to the extent that many makers of crumhorns, bagpipes etc. have turned to plastic for reliability. 1 litre yoghurt pots are highly favoured. This is a compromise and instruments tend to lose some of their ‘virility’ when sounded by plastic. Decent crumhorns, such as those made by Eric Moulder and played for decades by The York Waits, have cane reeds which misbehave subtly when, after a lot of playing, they begin to deteriorate.

A good reed is a valued item and a player is reluctant to replace it when it has been laboriously adjusted and ‘blown in’ and has given satisfaction for a long time. Slight changes become tolerated, the instrument retuned as required. This is often done using small strips of tape, pinching a little off the area of a finger hole to adjust the pitch of individual notes. If the player perseveres, eventually the crumhorn becomes covered in little coloured patches, while it gradually performs worse and worse.

After much dogged persistence, the player is forced to give in, refer to long forgotten experience and remove all the fragments of tape. Two things can happen with the denuded crumhorn (or bagpipe chanter). Usually it becomes obvious that the reed has to be replaced with a new one, but sometimes, inexplicably, the instrument miraculously plays perfectly with no tuning tapes. It is probably best to have a new reed standing by.

Imagine the problems when a consort of five crumhorn players (soprano, alto, tenor, tenor, bass) all stubbornly carry on playing instruments with deteriorating reeds, adjusting little bits of tape or wax as each instrument goes slightly out of tune in different parts of the scale – and the transformation from disappointment to delight when the maker returns the whole lot after a competent overhaul.

I feel certain some people will disagree with bits of this article and I know there is more I can learn about temperament, but I don’t think I’m likely to change my judgement on equal temperament, which I consider to be one of music’s worst ideas. Tuning is a matter of listening and getting it just so in instrumental and vocal ensemble, or with bagpipes, to a degree, of personal taste. When we abandon slavish adherence to manufacturers’ settings and artificial temperament rules, well-tuned shawm and bagpipe playing are among the greatest thrills you can experience with your Tudor clothes on.

Footnotes

  1. Wait (waite, wayte): town bandsman from late medieval times until their abolition in Britain in 1835 (The Municipal Corporations Reform Act). We had reconstructed the appearance and activities of York’s civic musicians, exploring the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and eventually settling – unless asked by employers to represent other dates – in the Tudor period.http://www.townwaits.org.uk http://theyorkwaits.org.uk
  2. Ross W. Duffin (2007). How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and why you should care). New York, Newton.
  3. An extremely small logarithmic unit of measure used for musical intervals. One cent is one hundredth of a semitone.

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