This week on The Avid Listener: Blake Howe, “Temperamental Differences”

Have you ever wondered how our equal-tempered tuning system came to be? Ok, maybe not. That’s ultimate music-nerd talk right there. But if you have, or if you’re curious now that you’re reading my blog, then this week’s essay on The Avid Listener is for you.

This week Blake Howe gives us the gripping tale of how our modern tuning system–a series of spaces between notes (intervals) that sound pretty much the same in every key (ok, maybe not true for everyone, but that’s the idea)–came to be. For those of you who aren’t experts: fear not! Blake doesn’t just give us the theory behind the music; he gives us the history behind the theory. And there’s a plot twist!

Here’s a teaser: “To play or sing in tune is to match the pitch frequencies prescribed by a tuning system. Despite an infinite number of possible systems, for the past 200 years most Western musicians have used just one, called ‘equal temperament.’ Listeners have become so accustomed to the sound of equal temperament that its organization of pitch frequencies sounds normal, and a performer’s failure to match those frequencies produces music that sounds wrong. But equal temperament, much like the very concept of normality, is a product of its time and place. It reflects the politics of a culture that values consistency over variety, uniformity over difference—and, as we will learn, a prototypical nondisabled body over the extraordinary diversity of human morphology.”

In other words: a tuning system that emphasized sameness was actively adopted by most Western musicians within the same time period that the culture within which those musicians lived started thinking about bodies as “normal” vs. “disabled.” This is also the time when theorists started talking about music as “masculine” and “feminine,” and “feminine” music got the short end of the stick, but I digress. I’ll just direct you to Susan McClary and move on. (Or you can send me a message and I’ll send you a reading list!) The point is that some things are not a coincidence. Tuning didn’t just “evolve.” It changed because people changed it, and those people had cultural priorities, whether or not they were individually aware of said priorities. And one of those priorities was to erase difference.

Anyway, you can read Blake’s essay here. And then you should share it with everyone you know.

The Avid Listener. Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.



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