Duffin (Music/Case Western Reserve Univ.; Shakespeare’s Songbook, 2004) sets out to challenge the modern perception that equal temperament is the only way to tune an instrument for performance.
This is a work geared toward musicians and musicologists, rather than the amateur symphony-goer. While the first chapter does try to give an overview, the author assumes a basic knowledge of acoustic principles. Readers should be familiar with intervals, semitones and frequencies of pitch to gain true meaning from the text. Equal temperament has been the overwhelming standard for instrument tuning since at least 1917. In the simplest terms, it is a method in which the octave is divided into 12 equal tones, such as in a modern piano. One of the downsides to equal temperament is that a G-sharp, for example, makes the same sound as an A-flat. By using alternative tuning methods, each sharp or flat is distinctive. Equal temperament was designed so a keyboard instrument could play in every key without being retuned, but opponents argue that convenience is gained at the expense of subtle coloring and variation. Duffin maintains that even after equal temperament was invented, composers and professional musicians still chose to use alternative methods—therefore, he says, performance in equal temperament creates a different sound than the composer originally intended. Duffin’s history of tuning includes sidebars that explain concepts and brief biographies of some of the musicians and theorists he cites. Illustrations and reproductions of musical scores help shed light on complexities—and several hand-drawn cartoons poking fun at some of the author’s ideas add a touch of humor.
A comprehensive plea for more variety in tuning methods, interesting but mostly inaccessible to the non-professional.