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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 to Mozart 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.

Get PDF file Playing In Tune on a Baroque Flute (Catherine Folkers; TRAVERSO, January 1998; 445Kbytes) Left-click to view; right-click to download.

Kyle Gann's excellent Introduction to Historical Tunings

"Mozart und die Tromlitz-Flöte", in English as "Mozart 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 Pythagorean tuning.

A Java 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 musicians.

Scala, a powerful software tool for experimentation with musical tunings.

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