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Tuning in to cultural relativism

Posted by Christopher Shea  November 11, 2008 08:32 AM

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A nice description of "equal temperament" in music -- a method of tuning pianos (or re-conceiving musical keys) that resolves a contradiction between the behavior of sound waves in nature and what our ears "expect" to hear. (Put another way, equal temperament is what lets you play a piano in each of the 12 keys without re-tuning it each time.) It turns out that music is somewhat less in sync with the cosmos than you may have thought.

Our culture has settled on one way of resolving a certain set of musical problems through tuning, observes Barry Gewen, but there are other solutions. (He's discussing "How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)," by Ross W. Duffin.)

I've often wondered how the cultural variablity of key (and pitch, too: orchestras today tune to a middle C that's higher than the one Mozart heard in his head) affects the idea of perfect pitch. There must be no such thing: People with "perfect pitch" must have just absorbed our culture's musical keys to a degree far beyond what most of us can achieve (which is not to diminish the accomplishment).

Gewen suggests that once you start thinking about equal temperament, you begin to question the supposed universality of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms.

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1 comments so far...
  1. In case anyone is interested in exploring the mathematical (and geometrical) foundations of musical intervals, I strongly recommend dropping $6 for a pamphlet on the Plurry a proposed musical instrument. It provides a terrific exploration of the 'need' for tempered scales (which I would describe as the need to avoid C♯♯♯♯, F ♭♭♭♭, et alii, being unique tones).

    Posted by jhm November 12, 08 08:18 AM
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