Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Temperament, Equal and Otherwise

If you are studying music, sooner or later you arrive at the question of what "in tune" really means and how it is determined. Especially if you play a fretted instrument like guitar, you start thinking about the notes between the frets, the bent notes, and you wonder, where are they in our musical system? The answer is nowhere. Suddenly a rabbit hole opens up and you are dropped into a new universe of musical concepts. Things you thought you understood, like, you know, notes and chords, are suddenly revealed as incredibly deep subjects. You are obliged to look deeper into the meaning of intervals, overtones and harmonics, and discover their relationship to the history of tuning. You discover Pythagorean tuning, just intonation, mean-tone temperament, microtonalism, the harmonic series, resonance and more. You start listening to sitar music. You finally come to realize what you've known intuitively all along; our whole modern system of equal temperament is wholly inadequate to really describe music. How could this have happened??

In case any of that has escaped your notice before now, well that is the point of this blog post, to encourage you to jump down that rabbit hole. This is a path that will elevate your appreciation of music in every way, and if you're a musician, it will help you fine tune your musical ear to a much greater degree than before.

A good starting point is Temperament, by Stuart Isacoff.

Just be aware that the main value of this book is historical. It traces the development of tuning from the philosophy of Pythagoras through to the Renaissance, where great thinkers like Newton, Kepler and Descartes all have a part to play in creating our modern equal-tempered system. It is a narrative that weaves music into the history of religion, philosophy and science.

Ready to go deeper? You can't do better, in my opinion, than Harmonic Experience by W.A. Mathieu.

Mathieu tackles deep subjects, yet his prose flows easily. His writing is entertaining and easy to read, while at the same time so clearly devoted to sharing some profound insights that he can be beautifully poetic. This book will not just help you understand the difference between ancient musical systems and modern ones, but to reconcile them. He wants your understanding of music to be as deep as possible, because understanding music is really the most natural thing in the world.

I am a huge admirer of W.A. Mathieu, I have followed his work for years. I will be putting up a full post about him right after this!

For more gateways into that rabbit hole, try these links:

  • Vibration, Music and the Basic Truths of Reality - a one page primer covering all the basics, with some mighty nice graphic illustrations to ease the way. Also good for pointing you in the direction of the cosmic and even spiritual significance of all this.

There are some wonderful slide players who seem to know a lot about this stuff. It seems like playing slide really invites you to dive deep into the topics we've been discussing. Ry Cooder and Derek Trucks are two of those masterful slide musicians whose understanding of music has been vastly enriched by engaging with other cultures. Here's a clip from a marvelous collaboration between Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

And here's "Sahib Teri Bandi," Derek's cross-cultural masterpiece, with melodies written by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the great Pakistani musician and singer:


1 comment:

  1. Nice stuff.. On the subject.. listen to the youtube link I posted on my facebook page "Tension Study No. 1" by Samuel Carl Adams

    Oh, this is Mike kanter