How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony – Book Review

(and why you should care) Ross W Duffin

How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony

Initially I thought that I knew pretty much everything about Equal Temperament, Just Intonation and Harmonic Intonation, but this little book has filled in a lot of gaps and given me a few ideas on how to adapt theory to the fretless guitar.

The argument goes along the lines that early musicians composed music for more harmonious temperaments and that ET (Equal Temperament) was only established permanently in 1917.

Ross W Duffin defines his arguments well, the book has copious footnotes, with short biographies of all the main players quoted. There are occasional cartoons which lighten the mood and the text is very readable. Duffin goes on to describe the tuning methods used by Bach and Mozart with particular attention to the violin. The difference between a minor and major semitone i.e. G# and Ab which on an Equal Tempered instrument like the piano or fretted guitar are the same note. But of course they are slightly different, and the Fretless Guitar can take advantage of this and play these notes as they should be played.

There are plenty of diagrams explaining the theory and the fingerboard note positions of the violin are of particular interest and I hope to publish fretless guitar positions in a later article.

Who would I recommend this book to? Well anyone with curiosity about tuning and how ET evolved into the ubiquitous beast it is today, and those of you looking to expand your horizons into new musical territory. Well worth adding to your library.

The book ends with the Quote:

The rational is, that if people who are taught music are taught one thing is right and another wrong, they will come to believe it. If they are taught the other systems of interest as well as the Equal Temperament, they would appreciate the excellences of all.
R.H.M. Bosenquet – An Elemental Treatise on Musical Intervals and Temperament (1876)

Ross W Duffin (author)

Ross W Duffin

photo: Beth Segal

Ross W Duffin is Fynette H. Kulas Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University, the author of the award-winning Shakespeare’s Songbook and the editor of several works on early Music.



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