Tuning Repertoire

By Carl Radford, RPT

(Reprinted with permission from the April, 2010 Partial Post, official newsletter of the North Shore Chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild.)

Below is a menu of some of the types of tunings I have available for my clients upon request. I have tried to list the characteristics of each tuning, and how it might be used in the musical literature, so that if you should decide to choose one for your piano, you may do so knowing better what to expect, or knowing better what to request from your piano technician.

There is more than one way to tune a modern piano. In fact, the possibilities are limitless. And yet in this century only one tuning, Standard 20th Century Equal Temperament, has dominated almost all Western music.

With each type of tuning certain qualities are gained and certain other qualities are lost. Some tunings have more color and character while at the same time losing their ability to change keys. Other tunings have no color or character at all, and yet at the same time have the ability to change keys with no apparent difference in the sound.

I can describe these tunings all day long, but it really means nothing until you try it out for yourself. Experimenting with these tunings is fun, and for the experienced musician, often life changing. One tuning may not suit all tastes or all types of music, any more than one type of music satisfies all musical tastes. I encourage you to try some out. After all, in Art, as in other things; It's the journey not the destination. 

MEANTONE (1/4 Comma) is the tuning that has been around the longest in history, and there are many types of Meantone tunings. The thirds are very pure and if you are not used to hearing it, it will sound very alien or maybe even out of tune to you at first. There is a significant amount of key color, and has a very pure sound overall, however the big disadvantage is that the key signatures with a lot of sharps or flats in them are pretty much unusable. This tuning is suitable for Renaissance music, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Handel, early Bach and probably Mozart. This type of tuning is still found quite a bit on organs around the world. 

PRINZ Well Temperament (1/5 Comma) is one of my favorite tunings. It is the most extreme of the Well Tempered tunings, because it has the most color of the keys, and for that reason I will use it for demonstration lectures, because it is easy, even with someone with no musical knowledge, to hear the differences in the keys. The minor keys will rip your heart out. Brahms is amazing in this tuning.

WERKMEISTER Well Temperament is not a tuning I use very often, however it is interesting, because Werkmeister is the person credited with being the inventor of Well Temperament. It has fairly extreme character. 

VALOTTI Well Temperament (1/6 Comma) is very similar to the Thomas Young tuning. 

THOMAS YOUNG Well Temperament (1/6 Comma) is one of my other favorite tunings and I probably use this one most often. There is plenty of key character to enjoy, but not so much that it sounds out of place with most musical styles. It is excellent for Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, and most Baroque, Classical and Romantic era composers. Some of the minor keys can sound tragic, depressing or even funereal. 

BACH Well Temperament (1/6 Comma) was discovered only a few years ago. It's similar to the Thomas Young tuning, but very enjoyable in it's subtle differences. Obviously, if you play a lot of Bach, from the Well Tempered Clavier and beyond, this is a must. 

HANDEL (1/7 Comma) Well Temperament is a tuning I use quite often if a client is unsure about trying something new on their piano, but yet would like to experience the color of the keys. It is a milder tuning, but very beautiful. The minor keys aren't quite so tragic and depressing. Chopin makes sense in this tuning; not to mention Handel. 

VICTORIAN Well Temperament is the mildest of the Well Temperaments. It is the most like Equal Temperament, but still retaining some key color. Joplin anyone? 

EQUAL Temperament (1/12 Comma) is the most common tuning the last hundred years. It sounds very beautiful, but has no key coloration or key character; therefore it is easy to change keys, because there is no difference between the keys. The minor keys sound more beautiful rather than sad or tragic. Because all keys sound alike, all types and styles of music will work nicely on Equal Temperament. The Baroque, Classical and Romantic music that was composed on the other tunings above still work in Equal Temperament, but become rather sterile. 20th century music, atonal music, later Jazz and all Pop and Broadway music are excellent in this tuning. 

In Well Temperament

                                     C                     Pure, Angelic, White, Crystalline                    Sugar, Vanilla

                                     G, F                 Clean, hollow                                                 Ice                                

                                     D                    Triumphant, Militaristic, Happy                      

                                     A                     Sweet, brilliant                                                Honey, basil

                                     E, B                 Uplifting, bright, Vibrant                                

                                     F#                    Bubbly                                                           Champagne                

                                     Db, C#, Gb     Shimmering, floating                                      

In Well Temperament

                               Am, Dm                 Calm, pensive                                             

                               Bbm                       Gloomy, terrible,                                            Bitter

                               C#m                       Lamentation, despair                                                             

 Cm                          Stately                                                            Red wine

 Fm                           Funereal, grief                                                Salt

 Ebm                        Horrible, frightful, depressed                          Pepper