Thursday, December 20, 2007


Still thinking of music school, so I sat down at my piano today and painfully worked my way through pieces I had played effortlessly when I was nine. Oddly enough, I was feeling frustration and enjoyment - odd, because I usually derive pleasure from my own sense of competence. But this was all about acceptance of compromise - and that reminded me of something I had learned in theory class...

The piano as we know it is a relatively new thing. The tuning, or temperament, wasn't always the way it is now. Often, the tuning was maximized for music written only in a certain musical key.

This is the issue: perfect intonation cannot be achieved for all the notes on a keyboard. Musicians, bear with me, or skip ahead. If you have a piano or a guitar, try this: bang/pluck on a key/string. The note will sound, and as it begins to fade away, you'll hear the overtones, different notes that are fainter and higher in pitch. (Rather like the dry-down of a perfume, but in reverse). For simplicity's sake, those other notes you are hearing create consonant (nice sounding) intervals with your original note you just banged or plucked.

However, on a piano keyboard, there is no way of tuning the twelve pitches so that every consonant interval is "just" or "perfect." If you were to try, you would not return to where you started, which is what you need to do every 12th note (except one perfect octave higher).

And if you were to try, you would end up with an instrument on which you could play music only in a certain key - which is NOT the wonderfully versatile piano that we all know and love today.

So to make the piano what it is today, almost every note is slightly "bent", ever so slightly out of tune, tempered.

Bach's Well Tempered Clavier is a collection of piano pieces, each written in a different key, demonstrating the ability of a single instrument, in tempered tuning, to play in ALL 24 keys.

I like to think of it as the celebration of something not often celebrated: the beauty of imperfection.

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