The imperfections of piano tuning

Posted on: April 22, 2010

Tuesday (4/20) on Slate, Jan Swafford writes, “You are about to enter the Twilight Zone. I submit for your consideration an oddly named book lying on an ordinary desk: How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care), by professor Ross W. Duffin. This book was written by a madman. Or is he? You should understand: If Duffin is mad, he’s not alone. … When it comes to the tuning of instruments, especially keyboards and fretted instruments, nature drops a giant hairball in our path. Here’s a short course on the arcana of tuning. It will take us to the meaning of a celebrated collection of keyboard pieces: J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, humankind’s greatest musical riposte to the laughter of the gods. … What all this means in practice is that in tuning keyboards and fretted instruments, you have to screw around with the intervals in order to fit the necessary notes into an octave. … There have been some 150 tuning systems put forth over the centuries, none of them pure. There is no perfection, only varying tastes in corruption.” Swafford goes on to give a brief history of tuning and digs deeper into Duffin’s book.

Posted April 22, 2010