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How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony: And Why You Should Care [Paperback]

Ross Duffin
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
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Book Description

31 Oct 2008
Ross W. Duffin presents an engaging and elegantly reasoned expose of musical temperament and its impact on the way in which we experience music. An historical narrative, a music theory lesson, and, above all, an impassioned letter to musicians and listeners everywhere, "How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony" possesses the power to redefine the very nature of our interactions with music.For nearly a century, equal temperament - the practice of dividing an octave into twelve equally proportioned half-steps - has held a virtual monopoly on the way in which instruments are tuned and played. Duffin explains how we came to rely exclusively on equal temperament and along the way, he challenges the widely held belief that equal temperament is a perfect, 'naturally selected' musical system, and proposes a radical re-evaluation of how we play and hear music.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (31 Oct 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393334201
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393334203
  • Product Dimensions: 21 x 14.1 x 1.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 28,448 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


"[Duffin's] fine book should make any contemporary musician think differently about tuning." Steven Poole, The Guardian "[A] handy little book..." Stephen Pettitt, The Sunday Times "...explains the theory and gives an informative and readable historical account..." The Times Higher Education Supplement "...Duffin argues his case with great verve and charm." Michael Downes, The Times Literary Supplement"

About the Author

The Fynette H. Kulas Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University, ROSS W. DUFFIN is the author of the "wonderfully concise and informative" (The Times Literary Supplement), Shakespeare's Songbook (ISBN 978 0 393 05889 5). --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
85 of 86 people found the following review helpful
By Steve Mansfield VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Never judge a book by its cover, they say, and it must be even more true that you should never judge a book by its title. As soon as I saw the title of this book, however, I knew I would have to make an exception in this case and read it.

Ross Duffin has written an engaging, densely argued and robust demolition of the commonly held idea that equal temperament triumphed in the time of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier and has been the one true tuning ever since. Drawing his evidence from documentary, instrumental and, for the 20th Century, recorded performances, Mr Duffin shows that the equal temperament (of 12 equally-spaced semitones to the octave) only became any form of standard much later than generally imagined, and is in many cases still more honoured in the breach than the observance - indeed the Well Tempered Clavier itself was Well Tempered, not Equal Tempered.

As to his subtitle (`And Why You Should Care') he argues that we are hearing the majority of music in a very different way than was intended by the composer - Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, to name but three, wrote their masterpieces to be performed in temperaments other than the equal, thus fundamentally altering the way in which the very chordal progressions, and therefore the overall timbre and character within the pieces, progress.

Along the way Mr Duffin gives entertaining pen portraits of the major figures in his story, has a wealth of anecdotal asides, and writes in a generally entertaining and accessible way.

I say `generally' because there is no possible way of avoiding the mathematics, subtleties and jargon of tuning and temperament; this is a musicological work, and its readership will probably be unjustly restricted by virtue of some of the more technical sections.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and instructive for any musician 10 April 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is about the biggest skeleton in music's cupboard: the fact that the notes in the musical scale don't quite add up right.

A perfect fifth and a perfect fourth make an octave - that's fine. A major third and a minor third make a perfect fifth - that's fine. But though three consecutive major thirds on the piano keyboard take you up precisely an octave, three 'pure' major thirds actually make slightly less than an octave. And though four minor thirds on the piano keyboard make an exact octave, four 'pure' minor thirds actually make slightly more than an octave. So somehow, especially when tuning a keyboard instrument on which the notes are fixed (and one black note has to double as both F sharp and G flat) we have to tune the notes in such a way as to make a decent job of both the scale and the harmonies. This book is about the different methods of 'squaring the circle' that people have used over history.

In particular the author is concerned to debunk the myth that 'equal temperament', which simply divides an octave into twelve absolutely equal semitones, necessarily sounds the best and was the choice of the great composers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Bach's famous "Well-tempered Clavier" was not written (as is often thought) to demonstrate the superiority of equal temperament. Bach intended it to be played in a temperament in which (unusually for the day) every key 'worked', but yet sounded slightly different from the others. That was a revelation to me, but makes such sense.

Non-equal temperaments don't make every key sound the same. In some of them, some keys will sound wonderful and others will sound abysmal. The compromise has to come somewhere.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars why music doesn't add up 5 Feb 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Music, I was led to believe, is a supremely elegant manifestation of pure mathematics. The intervals we know as fifths (think "Twinkle - twinkle"), fourths (Auld lang syne), and octaves (Somewhere over the rainbow) correspond to simple fractional relations between the sound frequencies, of 2/3, 3/4, and 1/2, respectively. And as an illustration, one gets shown the corresponding keys on a piano keyboard.

What nobody told me in the first 44 years of my life is that the intervals you play on the piano do not correspond to the simple fractions cited above. The piano is actually tuned not in pure intervals but in a system called "equal temperament" for the simple reason that the fractions don't add up. If you add up 12 fifths, all around the circle of fifths (C - G - D - A - E - B - F# - C# - Ab - Eb - Bb - F - C) you get (3/2)^12 = 129.746. Theoretically, the first and the last C in this series should be seven octaves apart, so their frequency relation should be 2^7 = 128. And not 129.746. And there are even worse clashes with other intervals. So in fact it would be impossible to tune a piano according to the pure intervals defined by simple fractions. This is why we as a civilisation have settled for equal temperament, which means the octave is split into 12 equal semitones.

Equal temperament (ET) is so widespread today that knowledge of the alternatives has gone missing, and even many musicians are unaware of the problems that this compromise solution causes.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars A ~Frustrating Waste of Money
Potentially excellent, but completely ruined because the illustrations, graphs, and figures are omitted 'due to permissive issues', whatever that means. Read more
Published 17 days ago by David Hackett
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 26 days ago by Dr James Bruce
3.0 out of 5 stars Ross Duffin
The author makes his main text very difficult to read. Often one would turn a page and find he had inserted without warning a couple of pages of discussion about a relevant person... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Mr. K. W. Mobbs
5.0 out of 5 stars This should be read by all serious music students
A very enlightening book. I have bought 2 copies so far. I gave my first copy to an organist friend who now considers it his bible. Read more
Published 5 months ago by R. PERRY
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Good Introduction to a Fascinating Topic
This is possibly the best introduction to the topic of intonation. This subject goes back to the ancient Greeks yet is hardly considered by musicians today. Read more
Published 5 months ago by lsur
4.0 out of 5 stars No images on kindle
The Kindle edition of this book does not show the numerous images, examples, illustrations, figures etc that are referred to in the text. Read more
Published 6 months ago by H. Owens
3.0 out of 5 stars Images don't display on kindle
I was upset that none of the images, graphics or charts displayed on my kindle. It made it much harder to read and a bit monotonous.
Published 6 months ago by Beth
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but needs work
One or two serious musicians I know have been put off by the effort needed to go through dense tables, which are not always laid out very well (and I write as a statistician with... Read more
Published 6 months ago by A. Duncan-Jones
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book - a bit American in style
Great much needed book confirms what singers and string players have always been upset by - possibly a bit cosy for English readers
Published 9 months ago by anthea wilkinson
2.0 out of 5 stars Omitted illustrations and diagrams
The version of this otherwise excellent book available on Kindle was spoiled by the fact that all of the illustrations and diagrams were omitted. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Stephen David Ritter
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