Sunday, January 30, 2022

What Did Equal Temperament Make Us Lose?

A direct link to this video is at

At the end of this video I play a "perfect fifth" on my Kawai electric piano, which is tuned in 12-tone equal temperament. In music theory, we are taught to think of this perfect fifth interval as being at rest, or "highly consonant". 

In 1772 Bach released volume one of The Well-Tempered Clavier, a collection of 24 pieces in all 12 major and minor keys that celebrated the tonal freedom afforded by equal-tempered tuning. "12-tone equal temperament" became widely accepted in Western society's music in the 18th century, and continues to be what you'll hear almost all of the time when you listen to music to this day.

Dividing the octave into 12 equal subdivisions, where the frequency of each ascending semitone is the same multiple as the previous, gives us music that can do amazing things - Jacob Collier comes to mind as someone who has taken those 12 notes and built mind-blowing harmonies in piece after piece. But Jacob is also relevant to this discussion because he has composed pieces in other tuning systems. Here's a very quick video of Jacob explaining the tonal compromise that equal temperament requires us to accept.

A direct links to this video is at 

Prior to the 18th century, "just intonation" was more commonly used, which would put the individual notes more in tune with the naturally occurring harmonic series for a sweeter, more calming sound. The disadvantage, of course, is that modulating to other keys can make for some very nasty sounding chords, and this is the main reason equal temperament was embraced instead. 

In my video above, you'll see me playing some Koshi Chimes,  which are tuned in just intonation. Each of the four chimes you see here have a different character, but all have this more peaceful quality that just intonation brings to music. What I found interesting is to immerse myself in the Koshi Chimes tuning for a while, then go back to the piano and play a perfect fifth. Suddenly it didn't sound so perfect! Watch the video and see if you experience the same thing when I go back to the piano at the end.

If Jacob Collier is new to you, I strongly suggest you visit his YouTube channel. I am so glad I live in one of the Many Worlds where Jacob exists!  

Enjoy the journey,

Rob Bryanton

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