Only 150 Temperaments?
Hi All, Admittedly, I have to chuckle whenever I hear conversations
about piano tuning, especially if someone says it 'must be' this way
or 'that way' to be 'correct'. I think it's much more accurate to
say that there are as many different temperaments as there are scale
Every person who designs a scale thinks he has 'found' the best
combination of string length, string diameter, and string tension to
create 'the best' sound for a particular size piano. When you consider
the complexity of just those three elements and then throw in wave
length and harmonics, it's almost a wonder that most pianos sound
pretty good after they're tuned, regardless of the temperament that's
I believe that the experienced tuner can 'feel' what 'sounds good'
for a particular piano by the time he finishes setting the temperament
octave and the octaves on either side of the 'middle'. I've never
limited myself to any particular methodology. I try 3rds, 4ths, 5ths,
6ths, and octaves, working back and forth, from the inside out and the
outside in, until I achieve what sounds to me like a good balance,
slightly increasing beat rates in the 3rds and 6ths, and almost zero
beat octaves. Naturally, the more refined scale designs are easier to
'figure out' because the octaves are much more pure. Small grands are
always a challenge -- as I experienced today.
Often, 'if the customer is interested', I'll demonstrate the rationale
I employ when tuning their piano. In a real sense, I let them be the
judge of what sounds good to their ear. It has never surprised me that
the vast majority of people DO NOT like the sound of a piano that has
'zero beat' octaves. I attribute that to the fact that the human ear
is a non-linear listening device.
In other words, as it relates to successively higher octaves, as the
pitch of the notes increase, the higher octave must actually oscillate
at a speed that is faster than double the previous octave for it
to sound "pleasing" to the brain. This is commonly referred to as
'stretching the octave', and it is an art, not a science. I say that
because the amount of stretch required for a particular piano to sound
'pleasing to the ear' changes from piano to piano.
Why do I believe all of the above to be true? Besides what I hear
with my own ears, I have the testimonies of my customers to back me up.
Again today, my customer -- who is well known here in New Jersey --
said to me, "I have to say John, my piano has never sounded this good
before". He has had this particular piano since the early 1970s but
this is the first time I've tuned it, and his previous tuner is
well-known and respected.
My point is simply this: regardless of how sophisticated tuning
devices become, relying on them to do the work of setting strings to
a particular frequency is, in my opinion, a mistake. I believe there
is no substitute for learning how to set a temperament by ear.
However, in the same breath I will say that such devices are great for
'getting you into the ballpark', much as a test roll is great for
getting a reproducing player close to manufacturer specifications.
But, stopping there is not doing the best job possible unless you,
as the technician or tuner, are afraid of trying to make it better.
And how would you know if you never try? For it is in the trying that
the learning takes place, which in turn allows you to get the best out
of the instrument.
John A Tuttle
Brick, New Jersey, USA