Battle of the Temperaments

By Carl Radford, RPT

(Reprinted with permission from the Letters to the Editor in the November, 1999 Piano Technicians Journal, official publication of the Piano Technicians Guild.)

More on the Battle of the Temperaments

I have been watching the battle between the Equal Temperament camp and the Well Temperament camps ensue from afar, until I read the last salvo of letters to the Journal. I find I can no longer remain all quiet on the Midwestern front.

The competitive spirit between temperaments is unfortunate. Clearly, there are merits to both Standard and Classical temperaments, depending on what music is played and who is doing the playing. Not everyone's taste is alike, just as all music is not alike. Equal Temperament works better on some music than does Well Temperament. Well Temperament works better on some music than Standard Equal Temperament. Meantone works better on some music than either of the above. Not only that, but no matter what the numbers say it all comes down to personal taste. Just because 61 percent of the people like a particular tuning with a particular piece of music doesn't mean the other 39 percent art wrong. Personal taste is after all, personal.

Discussion and disagreement are good and healthy, but competition, in this case, is not. Clearly there is enough room in the world for many opinions, many tastes and many temperaments. Every issue is not always black and white; right or wrong. Sometimes a little gray can add perspective to an issue. The competition only leads to embittered people and confused customers.

It seems to me that there are more than a few egos on the line here, people who want to etch their place on the history of tuning or have already committed their life's work to one temperament or the other. So now we see several people trying to make new temperaments to see who can be the first to make a generally accepted, generic, watered-down-Well Temperament to replace Equal Temperament. This too has its place, and is another option for our customers, but let's not forget that a Victorian or a Modified Meantone Temperament loses some of its flavor on the bedpost overnight, too. They may work for all types of music, as Equal Temperament does, but they are also not always as stunning as other "rawer" Well or Meantone temperaments can be or as Equal Temperament can be, with the appropriate music.

All of these temperaments in their many forms enhance the joy of music by bringing variety and new musical life to old and new music. I can envision a day where, on the concert stage, a Meantone piano is wheeled out for the Scarlatti and Mozart, to be replaced by a Well-Tempered piano for the Beethoven and Rachmaninoff and then replaced again by an Equal-Tempered piano for the Schönberg and then Gershwin encores. Think of the business! 

Tuning hasn't been this exciting since... well... ever.