Tuning and Intonation
The prevalent modern tuning system, called Equal Temperament,
divides the octave into 12 equal parts. This has the
merit of being simple, and making all the keys sound
the same, but it is not very well in tune with itself.
Though it is a good way to tune keyboard instruments,
it makes flutes and other instruments that play a sustained
pure tone sound bad, especially when two parts are played
in parallel thirds. In fact almost everybody who has
to play flute parts in thirds naturally adjusts them
to be in tune with each other (rather than with a theoretical
equal temperament) without thinking.
Until about 1850 a more complex but more accurate tuning
system which divided the octave into 55 parts was used
to build and play woodwind instruments.Here the semitones
came in two sizes (5/55 and 4/55), and enharmonic pairs
of notes (like G sharp and A flat) had different pitches
about 22 cents (1/55) apart, with the flatted note higher
in pitch than the sharped one on the line or space below.
Most early flutes (at least those for professional players)
were built to play in tune this way.
A Just Intonation system allows a voice or melody instrument
to play perfectly in tune in all keys, by making small
adjustments in the pitch of a note depending on its
context. Just Intonation and the 55-part octave give
music a much stronger sense of tonality and harmonic
contrast than Equal Temperament. Music from the renaissance
suffers from being played in an inappropriate tuning
system--this is one of the reasons why many people think
it sounds better on original instruments. But it can
be played better even on modern instruments by musicians
who have the sound of the early tunings in their ears.
The rest of this page contains links to further resources.
Playing In Tune on a Baroque Flute
(Catherine Folkers; TRAVERSO,
January 1998; 445Kbytes) Left-click to view; right-click
Kyle Gann's excellent Introduction
to Historical Tunings
"Mozart und die Tromlitz-Flöte", in English
and the Tromlitz Flute".
Many creative modern musicians still use Just Intonation.
Learn more about their work at The
Just Intonation Network.
Early Music FAQ on
applet for historical temperaments. Note that these
are keyboard tunings, not tunings for melody instruments.
But they allow those unfamiliar with historical tunings
to hear some of the different flavors familiar to earlier
a powerful software tool for experimentation with musical