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How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care) Hardcover – November 17, 2006

3.8 out of 5 stars 57 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


A delightfully informative and provocative argument that we should rethink our common musical habits at the most basic level. -- Wall Street Journal --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Ross W. Duffin, the Fynette H. Kulas Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University, is the author of the award-winning Shakespeare's Songbook. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (November 17, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393062279
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393062274
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,812,155 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By William A. McNair on March 24, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Ross Duffin's book is good. He gives an excellent history of the various temperaments used in Western music until the 20th century when one temperament -- Equal Temperament -- became the standard. I was surprised, however, that he never really answered the question posed in the title -- how did ET ruin harmony? He does a pretty good job of describing what sounds different about certain intervals -- thirds and fifths in particular -- but he never really discusses harmonic progressions and how temperament affects how they sound. He also discusses how unequal temperaments cause one key to sound different from another and how composers were sensitive to these differences. But again, no real discussion of why erasing these differences with equal temperament 'ruined' harmony.

The great challenge here is writing about something that really must be heard. I frankly agree with Duffin that unequal temperament makes music from the 17th - 19th centuries more interesting to hear. I was hoping he would find words to describe why.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Warning! The following "disclaimer" appears at various points of the Kindle edition of the book:
"Images in this book are not displayed owing to permissive issues."

(This Review applies to the digital (Kindle) edition of this book, as of August 2011.)

Indeed, no diagrams, drawings or other images, often referred to in the text, almost all which would be necessary for a proper comprehension of the subject, are included in the digital edition.

This is a highly disturbing matter for the readers of the digital books. I wish the publisher will take the steps to make amends, as soon as possible, the least of which would be updating the file by including the missing images, and sending an update to those who have already bought the "image-missing edition", at no additional cost.

In any case, this is a practice which should be strongly discouraged by the growing population of eBook readers. Amazon is advised to remind publishers to make such differences emphatically clear in their Book Descriptions, and if at all possible, avoid altogether discriminating against the eBook audience by producing such unnecessary discrepancies between the digital versus the printed copies of the same work.

As for the text, it's well-informed and lively, with a penchant to explain a complex issue such as intonation in a most plain and comprehensible language. The subject is further brought to life by the author's subtle sense of humor. It's an enjoyable read, for anyone interested in the subject, even as one could reasonably take issues with some of the positions taken by the author against the widely adopted Equal-Temperament, or his quick dismissal of another author's position on this (Stuart Isacoff) early in the book.
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Format: Paperback
In this book, musicologist Ross Duffin examines an acute but little-known problem in classical music today: a great many professional musicians do not know how to play in tune. The problem has its roots in the mid 19th century, when the equal temperament system of tuning keyboard instruments (in which the purity of all intervals other than the octave is compromised in order to accommodate modulation) gained currency, eventually becoming the standard tuning system. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, musicians such as Sarasate and Casals started advocating "expressive intonation", in which the upward or downward pull of various notes in the scale was exaggerated (yielding overly sharp leading tones and flats that are too flat). "Expressive intonation" turned out to be a poison: after a while, it became an ingrained habit, and musicians no longer remembered what the notes and chords were supposed to sound like in tune. The problem was exacerbated by the 20th-century innovation of continuous vibrato on string instruments (which tends to muddy intonation) and the fact that intonational subtleties eventually stopped being widely taught. It wasn't until the early music movement of the late 20th century that musicians revived old tuning systems and rediscovered their beauty. A majority of conventionally trained musicians, on the other hand, are still mired in the past: they do not know what a pure third sounds like, or are unaware that there are tuning systems besides equal temperament.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Piano players in some ways have it easier than other musicians. For instance, a pianist, if called upon to play a perfect A, presses a button on the instrument, and out comes a perfect A (if the piano tuner has done his job right). Violinists, slide trombonists, and even singers run the risk of sliding around and being too low or too high. But I was surprised to find that there is controversy in such things as how a piano ought to be tuned, or how scales are to be divided. I am not a musician, but in _How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)_ (Norton), Ross W. Duffin asserts that even classically trained musicians are not aware that there is more than one way to divide scales, and he also asserts that the current predominant system, Equal Temperament (ET), is not necessarily the best for all purposes. "It's all wrapped up in recent evolutions in musical performance and teaching, the result of decades of delusion, convenience, ignorance, conditioning, and oblivion." Musicians are going to get much more out of this book than I did; Duffin says, "It's for everyone who performs or cares about music," but many of the technical aspects of his argument were often above the head of this "carer". Nonetheless, this is an important book to give, again, the vital lesson that much of what we take for granted, much of what we consider fundamental, is only the result of the past's convenient compromises.

The difficulty with dividing up the scale is one of physics and aesthetics. Scales divided into octaves don't quite contain perfectly the fifths (Duffin explains all this) and one solution is to narrow (in musical terms, to "temper") each of the twelve fifths by one twelfth of the missing fit. That is an equal temperament (ET).
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