Cover image for Temperament : the idea that solved music's greatest riddle
Temperament : the idea that solved music's greatest riddle
Isacoff, Stuart.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, [2001]

Physical Description:
259 pages : illustrations ; 20 cm
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ML3809 .I83 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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A fascinating and hugely original book that explains how a vexing technical puzzle was solved, making possible some of the most exquisite music ever written. From the days of the ancient Greeks, the creation of music was thought to be governed by divine and immutable mathematical certainties. But over time skeptics came to understand that those rules limited harmonic possibilities. InTemperament, we see the traditionalists and the innovators battling across the centuries, engaging great thinkers like Newton, Kepler, and Descartes as well as musicians, craftsmen, church leaders, and heads of state. At the heart of their dispute is the question of how the tones of a musical scale should be selected. The breakthrough came in the eighteenth century, when the modern keyboard was given perfect musical symmetry through a tuning of equal temperament, each pitch reliably equidistant from the ones that precede and follow it. This tuning allows a musical pattern begun on one note to be duplicated when starting on any other; it creates a musical universe in which the relationships between tones are reliably, uniformly consistent--a universe of greatly expanded possibility, one that allowed Liszt, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, and all those who followed to compose the piano music we listen to today. Stuart Isacoff relates the story of the reinvention of the piano--a story that encompasses social history, religion, philosophy, and science as well as musicology--in a concise and sparkling narrative.Temperamentis a jewel of a book.

Author Notes

Stuart Isacoff, a recipient of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music, is a pianist, lecturer, composer, and the creator and editor in chief of the classical piano magazine, Piano Today. He has contributed to The New Grove Dictionary of American Music and has written for the New York Times. He lives in Bergen County, New Jersey

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Isacoff, editor-in-chief of Piano Today magazine, tells the worthy tale of how musical temperament the familiar, seemingly fixed relationships between notes on an instrumental scale came to be taken for granted. After centuries of an accepted belief in the mathematical and divine governance of music, the 17th century saw the growth of a fierce debate over experimental new tuning methods. In the 18th century, the modern keyboard allowed for a new kind of tuning, known as equal temperament, whereby each pitch is equally distanced. New musical possibilities opened up, changing composition forever. Isacoff traces music theory contributions by da Vinci, Newton, Descartes, Kepler and Rameau. Unfortunately, he sometimes clumsily attempts to keep his audience's attention with irrelevant, if salacious, gossip e.g., philosopher Robert Hooke "recorded his orgasms in a diary," and King Louis XIV refused to eat with a fork. Meanwhile, he gives relatively short shrift to Kepler and Galileo. His ambitious historical canvas uses extensive secondary sources, but there are research gaps, such as his outdated portrait of Isaac Newton as a total "ascetic." Nevertheless, this harmonics drama will excite music geeks and music historians. (Nov. 24) Forecast: Knopf's prestige guarantees sales to major music collections, and Isacoff's national media appearances (NPR, etc.) may mean good general sales. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

In music, the term "temperament" refers to an adjustment of the musical scale in which some intervals, at least, are "tempered" away from theoretical ideals (e.g., frequency ratios like 4:3). The present volume discusses some of the reasons for such tempering. Isacoff's discussion recalls Dava Sobel's in Longitude (CH, Mar'96), in its effort to describe the history of a specific and rather technical idea. At the outset, Isacoff reveals explicitly his bias toward equal temperament, although he confesses that it is an ideal that is almost never achieved in practice. That practice does not conform to theory introduces a level of noise to the discussion that musicians may find difficult to ignore. Moreover, Isacoff offers scant consideration of the well-tempered schemes that were prevalent during the 18th century. Nonetheless, he does succeed in making a difficult subject accessible to nonspecialists. J. Murray Barbour's Tuning and Temperament (1953) remains the indispensable reference on this subject, but Isacoff's book may be recommended to libraries that serve undergraduate and general readers. B. J. Murray University of Alabama

Booklist Review

Before equal-temperament scales, there was great dissonance in Western music. Pythagoras refined Greek concepts of beautiful sounds as arising from frequency ratios of 2:1 (octave), 3:2 (fifth), and 4:3 (fourth). Thirteenth-century English composers added the ratios of 5:4 (major third) and 6:5 (minor third). The problem with the system of perfect intervals is that while it renders one scale in tune, it renders another out of tune. Philosophy and religion impeded altering tunings until the eighteenth century, when just intonation and well-and mean-tempered scales were employed, especially on keyboard instruments. Then Rameau proposed and finally used the equal-tempered scale, in which the ratio between each of the 12 tones in an octave is the same, and J. S. Bach solidified that tuning with his 48 preludes and fugues in each of the 12 major and minor scales. Isacoff delves deeply into Western and Eastern philosophy and religion to describe the breakthroughs each developmental period made toward resolving the dissonances inherent in perfect tunings. A fast-paced, excellent historical exposition for every music lover. --Alan Hirsch

Library Journal Review

Isacoff, a composer and editor of Piano Today magazine, illuminates issues surrounding the different modes of musical temperament, bringing together aspects of science, philosophy, history, poetry, religion, and music in a compact yet compelling narrative. He addresses the development of equal temperament in chapters ranging from the ancient Greek origins of Western tuning through discoveries by 16th- and 17th-century astronomers and physicists to today's composers and performers. His fascinating side paths on how the Roman Catholic Church dealt with scientific progress, the genesis of various musical instruments, his sojourns in China, and the clashes between major players such as Galileo and Zarlino add flashes of drama. The writing is geared to those with little background in music, but Isacoff's arguments can also be appreciated by informed readers. A distracting use of sentence fragments is one of the only drawbacks to this impressive effort. The up-to-date bibliography includes classics in the field and new research. Isacoff's book is a worthy complement to Owen Jorgensen's massive treatise Tuning (Michigan State Univ., 1991) and is recommended for all libraries. (Index not seen.) Barry Zaslow, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1 Ay me! what warbles yields mine instrument! The basses shriek as though they were amiss! -William Percy, "Coelia" (1594) The piano is perhaps the most generous instrument ever invented. Its range, from bass to treble, is as large as an orchestra's. It allows ten tones-sometimes even more-to be struck simultaneously, and holds them in the air at a pianist's will. The piano can growl and sing and beat time. It can render arid fugues and impressionist waterfalls with equal naturalness. And, unlike the ungrateful French horn or the finicky oboe, if you keep it in tune, it will be an obedient servant. But the principle that truly underlies the piano's versatility is hidden beneath the geometry of its white and black keys. Clusters of two blacks, then three, then two, and so on, form a repeating pattern above a solid row of whites. When one's eye has become accustomed to the terrain, the alternating groupings signal the names of each note on the keyboard. There are only twelve different ones (each tied to a letter of the alphabet), and in our modern tuning they are built in equidistant steps, like a well-made ladder. This arrangement produces wondrous results: Through it, a Chopin prelude can gently weep across the keys; Debussy's perfumed phrases can swirl in gentle clouds; Webern can set in motion intricate strings of melody, like threads of glistening pearls. All of this is possible only because the modern keyboard is a design in perfect symmetry-each pitch is reliably, unequivocally equidistant from the ones that precede and follow it. This tuning allows a musical pattern begun on one note to be duplicated when starting on any other; it creates a musical universe in which the relationships between musical tones are reliably, uniformly consistent. Playing a piano for which this was not true would be like playing a game of chess in which the rules changed from moment to moment. Yet, that is precisely what many European musicians practicing before the nineteenth century demanded of their instruments. In fact, for hundreds of years, suggestions that our modern system be used were taken as a call to battle: Musicians, craftsmen, church officials, heads of state, and philosophers fought heatedly against the introduction of this equal-temperament tuning as something both unnatural and ugly. When Galileo's father, Vincenzo Galilei, supported it as an ideal as early as 1581, he promptly became embroiled in a feud with Gioseffo Zarlino, one of the most influential music theorists of the day. (Sensing a good thing, Chu Tsai-yü, a prince of the Ming dynasty, soon after attributed the concept to the work of Huai Nan Tzu in 122 b.c.e.) The seventeenth-century instrument-maker Jean Denis-an advisor to Father Marin Mersenne, philosopher René Descartes's most trusted authority on science and math-rejected today's approach as "quite wretched." Denis's Treatise on Harpsichord Tuning was published in 1643, the year that a pupil of Galileo's, Evangelista Torricelli, conducted world-shaking experiments in atmospheric pressure, overturning essential elements of medieval cosmology. Though radical changes in worldview were erupting all around him, Denis remained steadfastly loyal to an old tuning system in which the musical distances between notes were determinedly inconsistent, forming a minefield of "wolf sounds" on his keyboard-notes so dissonant they reminded listeners of the howling of wolves. Harpsichords and organs (precursors of the piano) thus tuned were capable of producing harmonies of magical, uncorrupted sweetness in one moment and-as musicians attempted to duplicate them while navigating the spans of their keyboards-of earsplitting clashes the next. Composers were prisoners of these torturous practicalities, as were vocalists and instrumentalists who tried to join in. Yet the resistance to a remedy that we find perfectly acceptable today-the tuning of equal temperament-was so powerful, the idea was for generations almost unspeakable. The crux of the problem can be traced to the ancient Greeks, who defined music's most beautiful sounds as arising from inviolable mathematical relationships-the fingerprints of the gods. These were the proportions through which two separate tones could entwine to form a delightful union. Centuries after Pythagoras conceived of the notion, the great astronomer and music theorist Johannes Kepler restated the idea eloquently: "Geometry existed before the creation, is coeternal with the mind of God, is God himself. . . ." Musical harmony was that geometry made sensual, and was not to be toyed with. And yet . . . As the art of music evolved, a startling paradox arose that threatened to undermine the entire arrangement. When harpsichords or organs were tuned so that they could consistently produce sounds corresponding to one of the venerable formulas, they were rendered incapable of playing the others. No instrument with fixed, unbending notes such as a piano can accommodate them all. Thus, certain combinations of tones that should have sounded sweet and placid could, on an early keyboard instrument, become sour and ragged. In search of a solution, musicians began to temper, or alter, their instrument's tunings away from the ancient ideals. The final solution-today's equal temperament-abandoned most of the revered musical proportions altogether. Acceptance did not come easily. Critics claimed the resulting music had been robbed of its beauty and emotional impact; supporters countered that since all things are subjective, human ears and minds would learn to adapt. The arguments, however, went well beyond musical aesthetics. Equal temperament represented an assault on an idea that had gripped thinkers in nearly every field as a powerful metaphor for a universe ruled by mathematical law. Saint Augustine found in music's magical proportions God's revealed plan for the building of his churches. Renaissance philosophers sought in them the secrets of obtaining life from the heavens; composers yearned for the power they had bestowed on ancient musicians to tame wild beasts, seduce the celestial spirits, even lure trees to the surface from beneath the sheltering earth. Kepler found in music's time-honored proportions the rules governing the motion of planets in the sky. And Isaac Newton matched the relationships these proportions established between pitches in a musical scale to the arrangement of colors formed by sunlight passing through a prism. Music's prized proportions permeated not only the inner sanctums of the church, but the workshops of great artists like Filippo Brunelleschi and Leonardo da Vinci. They became entangled in the world of scientific inquiry-engaging the imaginations of such luminaries as Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Newton, and Christiaan Huygens. They fed debates between the French encyclopedists, challenging the rhetorical skills of Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean d'Alembert, and Jean-Philippe Rameau on questions such as "What is 'art'?" "What is 'truth'?" and "What is 'natural'?" They spurred strange musical inventions from remarkable figures like the sixteenth-century avant-garde composer Nicola Vicentino, Mersenne, and Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz, a Spanish mathematician, professor of theology, and military engineer at the court of Ferdinand III in Prague. And they instigated the creation of countless tuning systems in an incessant negotiation between the old ways and the forces of change. Along the way, they pointed up the conceits and follies of generations of theologians, musicians, philosophers, and scholars who insisted that the proportions in the mind of God must fit in the mind of man. The general acceptance of equal temperament led to some of the most exquisite music ever written. Why the resistance to it lasted so long, and how it was gradually overcome, is a story that encompasses the most crucial elements of Western culture-social history, religion, philosophy, art, science, economics, and musical evolution-during a period when Europe was struggling to give birth to the modern age. This book tells that story. It is a tale that includes "temperament" in all its diverse meanings: from the elements that shape the temperament, or character, of pivotal thinkers; to endless efforts to temper-or transform-the material world into something more desirable; to the practice of tempering, or altering, the purest, most beautiful harmonies, following the startling revelation that in certain situations they must be reshaped or they will transform music, Jekyll-and-Hyde-like, into something grotesque. This last definition, though arcane sounding, marks a profound moment in cultural history. Temperaments, settling like tracks along the winding path of Western civilization, unfettered the engine of musical progress. Once freed, and fueled by the sparks of those most human of qualities-imagination and passion-musical art, with religion, politics, and science in tow, chugged its way inescapably toward our own era. Excerpted from Temperament: The Idea That Solved Music's Greatest Riddle by Stuart M. Isacoff All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

1. Preludep. 3
2. Newton's Desiresp. 9
3. In the Realm of the Godsp. 26
4. So Many Bellsp. 43
5. The Search for La: A Musical Puzzlep. 58
6. Frozen Musicp. 69
7. The Harmony of Heaven and Earthp. 81
8. A Keyboard Perspectivep. 94
9. Euclid's Giftp. 107
10. The Alchemy of Soundp. 132
11. A Short Trip to Chinap. 158
12. The Scientists Conferp. 171
13. Liberty, Equality, Adversityp. 198
14. Codap. 226
Acknowledgmentsp. 235
Bibliographyp. 237
Indexp. 251