Author Topic: Guide for non musicians as to why musical tuning should be changed.  (Read 1674 times)

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David Pinnegar

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The reasons for looking to change tuning system are concerning both the physics of sound and its effect on musicality.

For many musicians nowadays music has become merely a circus act, a challenge in virtuosity, a spectacle, man versus beast, and musicians have forgotten the purpose of music as a language to convey emotion, to enable the mind to explore and to heal. Healing requires gentle caressing, and harmony not of sound but of the vibrations within sound.

Sound is made of vibrations, regular vibrations per second. Modern piano tuning does not maximise the numbers of vibrations which coincide.

The change to modern tuning was made between 1860 and 1920 when current tuning was hardened into the "equal temperament" currently used where each semitone is an exact same distance apart.

Here is an octave of keyboard notes

Because E is the third note from C, C-E when played together is a "third" and C-G, five notes apart, a "fifth". C-E, F-A, and G-B are thirds.

C to C# (C sharp) is a semitone. C to D is a tone. A tone is two semitones. The interval of the third, therefore, is made of two tones, from C-D and D-E and this is four semitones. The third from D therefore is not F, which is only three semitones - the third from D is F sharp, labelled F#. So this is why we have the five black notes. C-C is an octave.

1. Physics of sound.

The notes which are an octave apart are a doubling of frequency. So middle C in the middle of the piano keyboard might be 256 vibrations per second. The C above will then be 512 vibrations per second. An octave above that would be 1024 vibrations per second.

The organ as an instrument has stops which are pulled which allow all three pitches to be sounded from the same key, and more. The purpose of this is to make the sound richer.

All sound in its different timbres as flavours or colours, is made of combinations of these multiples of vibrations together.

You can demonstrate this singing a note and opening your mouth to allow the extra sounds to be heard - you can see and hear on Apologies for the inexpert and very ugly sight.

When a string is struck, all these frequencies vibrate exactly together to give the tone of the string and form part of the tone of the instrument.

Let's say we have our string at 100 vibrations per second - written 100 Hz - 100 Hertz. This string giving good piano tone will produce vibrations at 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700, 800 and more vibrations per second.

We don't have a note specifically for 100 but I am choosing this to make the mathematics easy to see.

If we hold the note down for say 100Hz in the bass and we strike the notes for 200, 400 and 800 (an octave above, two octaves, three octaves and four octaves) then these tones will excite and resonate the bass string and the sound will continue to be heard in the bass string even when the upper note stops sounding. This is demonstrated on where you can hear this effect.

What is interesting is that when we play two notes together, such as 500 and 600 vibrations per second, 100 times per second the vibrations of the two coincide. So the bass note is synthesized as if sounding, without actually being played, a resulting or resultant note. This gives tone and sonority to the instrument and builds the sound.

What becomes interesting also is when we sound together combinations such as 200 and 300 together. We then synthesize the resultant note 100. But the 200 string vibrates with harmonics
200 400 800 1000 1200
and the 300 string vibrates with the harmonics
300 600 900 1200
so we find that the frequency of 1200 is reinforced and adds to the sound as an extra note.

If we sound 500 with this then we add the series
500 1000 1500
so we find 1000 as well as 1200 as well as 100 is added. So the tone of the sound of the instrument becomes reinforced all the more.

The problem with modern piano tuning is that the 300 500 600 700 frequencies are nowhere tuned close enough to the perfect harmonic to add reliably except in a jangling way.

In fact as musicians we have experienced a shimmering to the sound and then we say "what a wonderful piano" - but it has ceased to convey the music as intended nor the emotion.

2. Musically this has reduced the dimensions in which the music can speak, reducing them to
a. loud versus soft
b. slow versus fast
c. discordant versus harmonious

Have you read George Orwell 1984? The new language NEWSPEAK reduced the number of words to 300 so that people were limited in their language to think. This reduction of dimension in music has done the same in music.

3. The meaning of "Chromatic"

As musicians we have been bamboozled into thinking that the chromatic scale is simply going up each note by semitones C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C.

We have forgotten what the language means.

Photographers who are old enough took photographs as transparencies for projection on film called . . . KodaCHROME EctaCHROME FujiCHROME and our lenses are CHROMATICally corrected - which means that on the edges of things in our image we don't see fringes of a spectrum of colours.

In the modern tuned instrument there is no hint of anything that we can call CHROMATIC demonstrating a spectrum of sound.

4. The solution.

The tuning that I use exploits lots of perfect fifths in the exact ratios of 200:300. This brings many thirds in the ratios 500:400 very near to exact and exact enough to resonate, without making other thirds unpleasantly too far from perfect. This is enough to give back the spectrum of colour to the chromatic scale and to chromatic music as exploited in particular by Haydn, Mozart, Beetoven, Schubert, Chopin and Liszt whilst not doing damage to the music of later composers.

The spectrum of sound that we hear is demonstrated on

The differences of sounds create a reward to the musician for playing sensitively and reacting to the different sounds differently as intended to be heard by the classical composers moulding the sound shapes in the phrasing of the music, conveying meanings unheard in modern tuning but intended to be heard.

We have a corpus of recordings, many of which are acclaimed by musicians who have heard them:

Music in "colour tuning" Bach on Harpsichord
 - see the comment Bach on piano Haydn Chopin on Steinway Boston played by Adolfo Barabino Brahms violin sonata accompanied by Barabino with Steinway Chopin 2nd sonata played by Barabino Mozart violin sonata B flat Chopin Ballade 4  Chopin 24 preludes Chopin 2nd sonata in unequal and equal temperament Chopin on Grotein Steinweg. This instrument brings to life the singing thirds. effect on melody Gershwin Debussy Benjamin Britten

Best wishes

David P
David Pinnegar, BSc ARCS

Ian van Deurne

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Re: Guide for non musicians as to why musical tuning should be changed.
« Reply #1 on: August 05, 2016, 04:14:47 PM »
This is something that needs to be seriously discussed, especially amongst organists.
During my many years of experience in first playing and then building the instrument, I very quickly came to the conclusion that pipe organs are not well suited to equal temperament, the main reason being their complex harmonic structure. The earliest verified, recorded documentation that I have seen concerns an organ rebuilt in 1847 by C. F. Naber in the Netherlands when equal temperament was specifically asked for by the organist, which means that it was probably already extensively employed elsewhere, since this country has never embraced change in musical matters that quickly.
       One other thing; modern standard pitch is now set where a = 440Hz, which means that in equal temperament "middle C" (c') will equal 523.3Hz.
       Many people are under the misinformed opinion that unequal temperament sounds "wrong", or even "out of tune", whereas the exact opposite applies.
With organs, unequal tuning seems far more pleasing to the ear. Mixtures tend to blend far better and cease to "scream" - bearing in mind that although they are tempered to the rest of the instrument - the pipes in each rank are always tuned "pure" to each other.
       Of course, I do not advocate the universal return to 1/4 or 1/5 comma meantone tuning, where modulation into various other keys is severely restricted, but having organs tuned to a good "well-tempered system" means that the extensive modulation into more of the remote keys can still be acheived without the musical structure suffering at all.
In fact personally, I find that even Widor's famous fifth symphony toccata can sound really exciting on an organ tuned this way, and I know that I'm far from alone in this.
       It is up to the serious musical community to make the general population more aware of this kind of tuning keyboard instruments - many are not even aware if it. A few weeks ago I was attempting to explain to a friend about all of this, until I found myself getting into an unavoidably far too technical explanation of what is involved. Either that or it was a question of drinking far too much Grolsch at the same time!

Best Wishes to everyone from   


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Re: Guide for non musicians as to why musical tuning should be changed.
« Reply #2 on: August 05, 2016, 10:25:14 PM »
One of the reasons - perhaps the main reason - why I am such a fan of organs is the variety of sounds that are available and, of course, these can very enormously from instrument to instrument and country to country.  By the same token, I should be very pleased to hear more organs tuned to unequal temperaments.  Exactly which one, I don't know but perhaps one which permits as many different keys to sound acceptable yet at the same time produces a variety of interesting and colourful sounds in different keys.

I'm sure some would make the argument that other instruments with which the organist might be asked to perform are almost certainly going to be tuned in equal temperament and so the organ must comply.  I would counter that with the question, how often are organs required to play with orchestral instruments anyway?
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David Pinnegar

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Re: Guide for non musicians as to why musical tuning should be changed.
« Reply #3 on: August 09, 2016, 07:50:42 PM »
It's good to see this subject taking the imagination.

On I demonstrate an organ in Meantone. It's great for Couperin and also great for most hymns. Very sweet.

Since writing here I had an interesting experience tuning a piano of 1802 and finding that the main partial of the lower strings was the quint, in contrast to the more even spread of harmonics on "modern" style instruments. Listening carefully to the 1859 Broadwood the same harmonic structure was presented. I postulate therefore that a tuning with many perfect fifths would enhance the resonance of the instrument and provide contrasts between strings and harmonics and chords locked together, and harmonies of notes unrelated to the partials of the strings. Without a prominent 17th in the harmonics there would be no jarring with the wider thirds. was the result of this tuning. The third movement of the Beethoven 109th sonata presents great beauty and one can hear the instrument moving from being locked in resonance and unlocked.

Best wishes

David P
« Last Edit: August 09, 2016, 07:56:11 PM by David Pinnegar »
David Pinnegar, BSc ARCS


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