Temperament

Iscoff, S. 2002. Temperament. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

This book has the subtitle ‘How Music became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilisation’, and is a fascinating perspective on the development of the equally tempered scale.  The history of this development is intertwined with science, art, politics and even religion; I had no idea just how polarising the subject has been over the centuries.

As a pianist the story is especially interesting, since the keyboard played such an important role.  I would love to get my hands on one of the prototype keyboards designed to try to overcome the tuning problems by having multiple keys per ‘note’ – as if playing the piano is not hard enough!

As a composer the subject opens up many pathways for exploration and research.  Just what is it that makes the frequency ratios 2:1, 3:2, 4:3 etc sound so ‘right’?  Many musicians from the time found even the slight deviations from these pure ratios required for equal temperament abhorrent; our ears are accustomed to them but are we missing out on something as a result?

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