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Use musical temperament to add texture to your recordings

These days it's no problem to get instruments in tune. But 'in tune' can have several different meanings...


In the 'olden days' of music, instruments were tuned purely by ear. Tuning a piano requires years of training and experience. A guitar only has six strings, but tuning needs to be just as exact. You will find therefore that on many vintage recordings, tuning isn't always totally precise. But that doesn't seem to affect the quality of the music.

These days we have digital instruments, digital tuners for guitars, and Auto-Tune for vocals. Indeed, it is possible to say that we are too in tune. Some of the texture of manual tuning, with its inherent scope for error, has been lost.

But there is more than one way to tune an instrument. I will consider keyboards, but these issues affect all instruments...

Musical intervals were discovered, as history notes, by Pythagoras in ancient Greece. From these intervals, scales were developed. The problem is however that a scale that works in the key of C, for example, doesn't necessarily work in the key of F sharp - it may sound dreadfully out of tune.

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If you want your music to stick to the same key all the time and steer clear of adventurous harmonies, that's fine. But it makes music boring to listen to.

So that music could be played in any key, equal temperament was invented. Equal temperament is less accurate in any one key than Pythagorean tuning, but it spreads the errors across all of the musical keys equally, so that all the keys can be used.

That's great. But these days virtually everything we hear is performed in equal temperament.

Pythagorean tuning is an alternative, but it isn't the only alternative. There are quite a number of alternative tuning methods or temperaments possible.

And if you look closely at the instruction manual of your keyboard instrument (or perhaps in the lesser-used menus of your virtual instrument), you may find alternative temperaments available.

None of the alternative temperaments is as versatile as equal temperament. But what you lose in versatility, you gain in texture.

So dare to be different. If your instrument has alternative temperaments available, give them a go and give your music some extra spice!

By the way, the picture is of an electronic tuner that offers alternative temperaments. Why should keyboard players have all the fun?

By David Mellor Thursday October 27, 2011