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Old 16th October 2020
Lives for gear
Poopypants's Avatar

I need to scratch come very old brain cells to get to this, so please correct me if your recollections are sharper than mine.

Early instruments could not produce equal or just intonation. The scale degrees were based on the harmonic overtone series, not because some mathematician figured it out, but because that was what was naturally available in the real world. If I recall correctly, for every doubling of frequency, you'd get the next note in the series. So you'd have the fundamental, then octave, then 5th, then octave then major 3, 5th, flat 7, octave, 2, 3, and sharp 4, 5, 6 and I don't remember what comes next. If you compress that down into a single octave, you get a Lydian flat 7 scale. However, the 5ths are slightly sharper than what we use today, and other intervals are also skewed up or down compared to equal temperament. You can test this with harmonics on a string or open notes on a brass instrument.

The natural scale that exists in nature posed problems for certain composers. The ability to modulate was a big reason for moving to new systems. This is why harpsichords have often have multiple manuals. Imagine having to retune the thing for every song or having to play everything in the same key.

There were spirited fights about how to temper the scale. I remember reading a book years ago; I wish I could recall the title, but it may have even mentioned one tuning argument ending in murder! Kind of a foreshadowing of the internet... [Edit: possibly this book:]

Certain composers had their favorite tunings and would notate them on the scores. Even today, if you were to see a performance of older works, the players will adjust to the tuning of the time, or the tuning specified by the composer.

If you went to music school and remember certain strange rules about tritones being the "devil's interval" or the "wolf tone," it wasn't some weird voodoo or that people just weren't hip back before even tempered tuning. It's that today the tritone inverts perfectly. Back then the distance from say 7 to 4 was not the same as the distance from 4 to 7 like it is today. The interval really did sound like ass. In some of the systems before even tempered tuning, dominant sevenths became possible, but you'd still have to stack the 7 on top of the 4 (or maybe the other way around? ... music school was long time ago...) and 7 had to resolve to 8 and 4 had to resolve to 3. No fancy escapes could work.

I believe it was J.S. Bach who finally popularized even tempered tuning. It had been around for a long time before him, and had many detractors because of the inherent imperfections; 5ths and 3rds were flatter, and therefore major chords, for instance, did not ring as true. Even tempered tuning was really a compromise, but the plusses seem to have outweighed the minuses for hundreds of years now.

As for different parallel keys having a different sound, there seems to be evidence of that phenomenon. People with synesthesia all agree that certain keys have colors and they all agree on the colors. Others just note that certain keys have a different emotional feeling. I know people say C Major is bland. These are people with superhuman ears. I can't claim to hear it myself.

Last edited by Poopypants; 16th October 2020 at 01:05 PM..