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Temperament: The Idea That Solved Music's Greatest Riddle Hardcover – 13 Nov 2001

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Random House USA Inc; 1st edition (13 Nov. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375403558
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375403552
  • Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 2.7 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,935,597 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Clive Jones on 14 Feb. 2003
Format: Hardcover
To me, at least, the tempering of musical instruments is a fascinating subject. The story of how tunings varied over the centuries is interesting from a technical, social and philosophical points of view.
Fundamentally, the problem is that 3/2 to the power of 12 is 129.74 ; twelve perfect fifths do not form the same interval as seven octaves. Stated so baldly, that would be the end of the story.
However, for centuries ideologues have insisted that music SHOULD be perfect, and that compromising by adopting an equally-tempered tuning was artistically wrong. Or even morally wrong. Or even impossible.
This book tells the story of the resulting controversy.
Unfortunately, although the book seems to be accurate and well-researched, I frequently found the style deeply infuriating. A lot of space was wasted on describing very simple aspects of music theory, and even the Renaissence - surely, topics already understood by any prospective reader. Instead, I would have welcomed much more detail of areas the book only mentions in passing, such as the various attempts to circumvent temperamental problems by making keyboard instruments with more than 12 keys per octave.
In places the language is stupidly florid. In places, Isacoff repeats himself. Perhaps the book could have done with slightly more thorough editing?
Nonetheless, if you want to know more about the history of musical temperament, you will probably learn something from this book, and despite its defects, it is readable.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 69 reviews
117 of 120 people found the following review helpful
Why you might/might not like this book: Reviewing reviews 13 Feb. 2004
By P. Vogel - Published on
Format: Paperback
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and, for the first time in my life, feel that I actually understand the issues around temperament. I would recommend this book to a lot of people but not everyone, as the number of negative reviews illustrates. The negative reviews for this book seem to fall into four categories-if you are in one of those groups then you may want to buy a different book:
1) The lunatic fringe: Examples here are: The review that castigates the book for abusing non-Western music (It's hard to see the point of this complaint since the intent of the book is to discuss the role of temperament in Western music--no real mention is made of any other kind of music); The review by the person who read only a 2 or 3 page excerpt of the book (apparently ignorance is no impediment to opinion); The person who hadn't read the book yet but would post a review when they had (see previous); The reviewer who felt that the book was all about sex (I missed that). And so on.
2) People who were unhappy about the lack of technical detail. While I am obviously disparaging the previous group, these reviewers have a valid complaint. These readers were looking for (as examples): actual scores; more math with more explicit discussion of the exact size of the differentials between similarly named tones; more technical terms (e.g. "hertz"). I have a good grounding in math, read a lot of technical material, but would probably best be described as a "music lover". I'm just not in these reviewers league. Since I don't read music, for instance, a score would be useless to me. For the audience that I represent, the level of technical detail worked very well and is appropriate for a "general interest" book. The author's description of the music met my needs and the prescence of a score wouldn't have helped. I didn't miss the technical details that these other readers were looking for.
3) Reviewers who felt a lot of the book was irrelevant and fluff. Also a valid comment as much of the book isn't directly about temperament (as an example, these reviewers would probably point to chapter 7, which is an overview of the birth of the Renaissance). However, the author's intent is not to discuss temperament but to discuss how the battles over temperament reflected much of what else was going on politically and culturally at the time. He wants to claim that the discussions of temperament reflected other battles and that the arguments over temperament were enabled only by other changes going on in the world. If that larger discussion doesn't interest you, this is the wrong book for you in the same way that the lack of technical detail made the book an unhappy experience for the previous group of readers. Again, I enjoy the kind of writing that tries to draw connections between relatively obscure technical matters and larger social interests. However, it does mean that this isn't a book that is just about temperament.
4) People who wished the author had gone into more detail/covered more topics. As examples: Apparently well-temperament has gotten short shrift (I can see that I would have liked more on the topic); The book focuses on the issues as demonstrated by tuning pianos (the author announces this early in the book); Some readers would have like more on temperament issues with other kinds of instruments; other readers wished the author had followed up on reference to temperament in China, organs, and other topics. Apparently there is room here for a larger book on this topic. I enjoyed the length of the book and it didn't leave me wanting more but that may just reveal my ignorance of the subject: Had I known more I may have wanted more.
If you are looking for a medium-length discussion of temperament (a critical topic in understanding music) for the general reader and music lover, a book that tries to tie this topic into the larger cultural/political/social changes in the world--then this is a fascinating book. It's well written (a couple of stretched metaphors) and interesting (I devoured it in two days). If you are looking for a broader study, a more technical discussion, or a discussion of temperament purely in musical terms then you will be disappointed. I got excited about the topic! The book made me want to buy a CD that demonstrates the issues by playing the same piece of music in several different tunings--something that I wouldn't even have considered before.
43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
Nice try, but no cigar. 15 Jan. 2004
By bgarfink - Published on
Format: Paperback
Isacoff has tried to write a book on musical temperament for the general public, and parts of it are fun to read. It does have two major flaws: 1) he greatly overstates his case and deliberately omits a whole lot of information that contradicts his central thesis, and 2), he bends over so far backward trying to keep things non-technical that he not only falls down but ties himself up in knots in the process.

As a harpsichordist, I'm perhaps a little more flexible on the subject of an ideal temperament that is all things to all people, because my experience says there's no such thing. Of the various solutions that have been tried along the way, most of them served the needs of those who used them at the time. In fact, I was disappointed that his website sound samples included Chopin in just intonation and equal temperament, but no Byrd or Frescobaldi in meantone or Faenza Codex in Pythagorean, just to show us what all of those systems CAN do--especially on instruments other than the Steinway grand piano. Believe me, it's a revelation! Suddenly a lot about how that music was written in the first place begins to make sense! Which is one reason that I found myself objecting to the sweep of the presentation. In the 21st century, unlike in the 16 and 17th centuries, we DO draw a distinction between music and science, and part of that distinction is that science is a cumulative discipline (meaning that the state of the art does in fact get better as time goes on), and music isn't.

On the other hand, when Isacoff writes about phenomena such as Cipriano da Rore's _Quidnam non ebrietas_, it would be much more helpful to include a score and a brief explanation of the rules of when to raise and lower notes in renaissance counterpoint, than to try to describe the first piece ever to go all the way around the circle of fifths using prose alone.

I happen to own a book with a score of "Quidnam non ebrietas," and several books that talk about counterpoint rules, but I shouldn't need to consult my personal music library to make sense out of a book that is "for general audiences!" Just to place that in context, I am working on a doctoral degree in harpsichord, doing research on renaissance keyboard music. I have an extensive library of books about music, and have written term papers on tuning and temperament, so I guess I'd count as a specialist--and I STILL couldn't follow Isacoff's prose unaided.
32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Not so fast, please. 2 Jan. 2002
By ED FOOTE - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Mr. Isacoff has managed to skip a hugely important period in the development of tuning, specifically the era between 1700 and 1900, in which he believes equal temperament was in use on pianos. The evidence from Jorgensen and Barbour would indicate otherwise. It is also naive to believe that tuning went from the restrictive Meantone to today's Equal Temperament in one step.
ET requires certain tests, checks, and balances to occur, and we know that those were not widely available before at least 1830.
I have tuned ET on pianos for many years, I know exactly what it sounds like, but by following the pre 1800 instructions that purportedly create equality, I find something far different than what we call ET today. Given the recalcitrant nature of piano tuners,(whose trade didn't really exist before the early 1800's), adoption of this more difficult temperament certainly didn't happen overnight.
It is one thing to simply say that people started using ET, but quite another to show that it was possible From the various Kirnberger tunings to Thomas Young, there was a generic shape to the tuning that caused the progression of "color" to be universally recognized. This common genre provided a basis for "key character". It is also interesting that in 1885, Ellis found that the master tuners at Broadwood's were not using ET.
Making a temperament "non-restrictive" does NOT make it "equal". There is far more harmonic activity in the work of these composers than ET will create but a "well-tempered" piano is required to hear it. To gloss over everything from Bach onward with modern tuning is to miss a huge part of the art. The book misses the basic and the finer of these points. Interesting read for the context, but it missed describing the true art of tuning.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
By Houndduet - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Stuart Isacoff has taken an esoteric subject that could be unbearably dry and he has crafted a fascinating and highly readable account of the history and importance of musical temperament. Musicians, musical instrument builders and technicians will be naturally drawn to the subject and they will find this work scholarly, witty and concise. Others with no apparent interest in temperament will discover a book that both enlightens and entertains. Pick it up, glance at virtually any page and you will be drawn into it; thus is reflected the skill of a gifted writer. Add to that the understanding of a gifted musician and you have the ingredients of a work that is in every respect a joy to read and to own. I recommend "Temperament" enthusiastically.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
An entertaining read 15 Dec. 2005
By D. Catherino - Published on
Format: Paperback
A good superficial read on the historical development of 12 tone equal temperament. For a more in-depth and analytical look at temperament I would recommend Harry Partch's Genesis of a Music.

A word of warning, this book is available under 2 titles. Temperament - the idea that solved music's greatest riddle, and Temperament - how music became a battleground for the great minds of western civilization. I purchased both assuming that they were companion works, but they are identical.
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