Friday, November 25, 2016


Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization
by Stuart Isacoff
Recommended Ages: 15+

The spine of this book has been staring me out of countenance about a decade from the "books about my favorite subject (music) that I've been meaning to read" shelf. The guilt finally became too much for me to bear, so I finally fitted it in between a couple of books borrowed from the public library, which I was going to have to renew anyway. Astoundingly fast, I found myself caught up in the book's compelling historical argument, and in spite of a busy week of long work-days and evening engagements, I knocked it off in about two nights of staying up later than I should have.

The "temperament" of which Stuart Isacoff writes is a system of tuning the strings (or pipes) of a keyboard instrument so that music sounds pleasant and in-tune. If you thought this would be a simple matter of making sure notes a fifth apart are perfectly in tune, rinse and repeat around the whole circle of fifths, you might be a follower of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, whose followers considered the concept of irrational numbers a thought-crime worthy of death. The practical reality, however, is that tuning perfect fifths all the way around the circle results in an out-of-tune octave, and that a tuning system that keeps octaves, fifths, and fourths perfectly in tune excludes music featuring the popular intervals of thirds and sixths.

It would be a much shorter and happier history if it had been ruled by the practical necessity of allowing keyboard players to stay in tune with singers and other instruments without constantly having tuning problems, or by the artistic imperative of composers to explore more complex harmonies and far-flung tonal areas. But for centuries, during the middle ages and straight through the Renaissance, western art music was plagued by conflicts - conflicts between notes that produced "wolf sounds" (ugly intervals), and conflicts between philosophers, scientists, theologians, and music theorists. Some wanted to hold music to sacred ratios that bore witness to divine order in the universe, and that produced perfect consonances, albeit in music of a limited range. Others foresaw that nothing short of equal temperament - with the octave divided into 12 evenly-spaced half-steps, and the small acoustic compromises that entailed - would allow a smooth transition between any two keys, a necessary condition for keyboard instruments to come into their own.

The battle was ideological as well as technological. The mathematics of an equal 12-note tuning were a long time in the finding, not only as a theoretical ratio of powers of the twelfth-root of two, but also as a practical matter of how to produce that tuning on an actual instrument. But as Isacoff shows, the battle was fought on the plane of theory, between intellectual hosts including some of history's greatest minds - many of whom were not known for their ear for music. Sharp words were thrown. Even deadlier weapons, at times, were drawn. Discoveries in other areas were called into evidence, bearing witness to the truth or falsehood of ideas long cherished.

Isacoff relates the battle over temperament to other developments in religion, philosophy, politics, and especially art, drawing a remarkable parallel between the rediscovery of realistic perspective in painting and the slow advance toward equal temperament in music. And while he finally draws an ambiguous conclusion, he makes a pretty convincing case that much of the great art music you and I love could not have been without some approximation of equal temperament.

This review is based on the 2003 revised paperback edition of a book originally published in 2001. Among the changes in the 2003 edition is an added afterword, responding to criticism of the first edition which makes it sound as though the temperament tempest has not yet passed from the teapot. Isacoff is a pianist, composer, lecturer, and writer whose other work includes the 2011 book A Natural History of the Piano.

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