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How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (And Why You Should Care)

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  361 ratings  ·  36 reviews
Ross W. Duffin presents an engaging and elegantly reasoned exposé of musical temperament and its impact on the way in which we experience music. A historical narrative, a music theory lesson, and, above all, an impassioned letter to musicians and listeners everywhere, How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony possesses the power to redefine the very nature of our interactions with mus ...more
Hardcover, 208 pages
Published November 17th 2006 by W. W. Norton Company
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Feb 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing
When I was a little kid, I'd always shoot straight through the book store to the humor section, to suck down easy, unchallenging, y'know, bullshit. (Not that comics are necessarily bullshit; just that, at that point in my life, what I wanted was something easy that I didn't have to think critically about, which Ziggy or Garfield... can be.) Then, when I decided I was older and more mature, I started heading to the music section of the book store for my unchallenging bullshit. THEN now that I am ...more
Mar 22, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
First, I read this book on Kindle. The Kindle version (which has apparently been taken off the "shelves") is disastrous. None of the figures are there (although I didn't miss any of them. They seemed useless anyway). Footnotes are in the middle of pages without warning. It is a mess to navigate. Symbols, such as flats and sharps, when they are not simply omitted, disfigure the layout.
Now about the content... The author argues that we should use other tunings besides equal temperament (ET). I wa
Apr 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What an important work for every professional musician to read! As an instrumentalist I have always preferred just temperament but felt that equal temperament was a necessary evil for instruments such as the piano. Through the years, I simply avoided playing with the piano & relished in the flexibility that orchestral rehearsals/performances provided me with tuning closer to just temperament. Tuning was always a hot topic in music school & later in professional musician circles, but the ...more
Erik Moore
Aug 31, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This was an eye opening work for me regarding how the standard scale of music came to be today. Key is how Duffin lays out the mathematical issue with scales, how when one multiplies a frequency by halves, thirds, or fifths, you will not get overlapping notes along those progressions, and how those harmonics of tone are what we find beautiful about music. That incongruity for me was something I hadn't considered in all my years of playing tuba in band and orchestra. From their, laying out the di ...more
Jan 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
Duffin's thesis is pretty straightforward: 1) equal temperament is not the best temperament in all occasions, as compared to its many alternatives, and 2) it was known long ago (long before its almost universal adoption as a standard) and still dismissed by most musicians for a long time because of its impure tunings.
The issue of musical temperament is old and unsolved. ET came as a practical and reproducible solution to the issue, and by 1917 it was assumed essentially as a standard. To the po
David Dines
If the full text can be characterized by the first half, it's a fairly breakneck tour through the modern history of the adoption of equal temperament tuning. Coming into it I was aware that there were different tunings outside of ET, but I had no real idea what benefits over it they provided. Duffin, I think, does a good job of picking out clear, or at least less than murky, quotes from historical texts to illustrate his point, but I find the most value from the illustrative musical examples he ...more
Feb 09, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was hoping more for a historical view on temperaments and why they changed and why equal temperament became the standard. While Duffin does address those issues, this is really more of an argument against modern musicians automatically using equal temperament. Since (I admit) I do not have a lot of music theory, some of what he said went over my head...I wanted to hear the differences in tuning he was discussing. However, he did raise a number of issues that I know will resonate in the future ...more
May 25, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, music
This book provides a rather technical and historical overview of Equal Temperament. It's very interesting and valuable, but not so much for the non-musician or the uninitiated. Amongst other things it made me understand that indeed there is a difference between an augmented second and a minor third, and between a G# and an Ab.

(If G# and Ab mean nothing to you, this book is definitely not intended for you.)
Feb 21, 2008 is currently reading it
This book is dorky and deeply satisfying.
James Klagge
Nov 15, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
To a non-expert like me, it just didn't seem very significant. The book's website gives examples you can listen to. But I can't really hear much difference.
Acer Pseudoplantatus
Feb 28, 2019 rated it did not like it
While the author is clearly passionate (and opinionated), sadly his writing is badly structured and despite having promised to keep it short, he spends about half of the book providing irrelevant information, repeating himself verbosely ad nauseam (sometimes in very short intervals; making a statement, providing a quote to back it up and then repeating the whole thing just to 'explain' it) or filling space with badly drawn and unfunny comics.
Unfortunately to top this off, the author argues fall
Jul 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
The opening paragraph of this book comments on how equal temperament is viewed as a "solution" and that the theory was explained and the world moved on happily. That happens to be a reference to the book on temperament I had just finished beforehand so I found this particularly funny. In contrast to "Temperament", this book focuses on the fight over temperament. NOtable players, music historians, musicologists, and composers who put particular thought into tuning and how that changed how music w ...more
Dan Vine
Aug 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
It took a little while to get the hang of the author's somewhat quirky style but it is a good read and I found his argument compelling. I think I will need to read it again when I have a bit more theory under my belt.
Andrew Litfin
Jul 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Essential reading for all musicians interested in tuning.
Jun 19, 2011 rated it liked it

OK, maybe that's not true. But the musical scale that you take for granted? There's a lot more to it than you might expect.

Notes are frequencies of vibration; certain ratios of vibrations work well together. The most basic ratio is 2:1 -- if you pluck a string, then pluck a string of 1/2 the length, you'll get a vibration of twice the frequency and hear the same note as the first time, but transposed one octave higher.

Other basic ra
Jul 13, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, music
this book offered a decent history of tuning systems, but it doesn't really achieve what it sets out to do - offer a strong argument against equal temperament (ET). for the most part, it seems like the author would like to go back to the days of just intonation, which seems like a step backward, really.

there is a lot of debate going on with tuning systems these days - the proliferation of electronic music has brought micro-tonal possibilities into the mix in a big way, and rather than go backwa
Jun 27, 2015 rated it liked it
A good read and excellent explanation of the complexities of different temperaments, with just the right amount of maths, and some amusing anecdotes along the way.

I think he overstates his case though, as the attention catching title might make you suspect. One of his main points, that musicians are unaware of the compromises in equal temperament, is really not true. All the experienced musicians I know are aware of this issue at some level - as an example, the (good amateur) musicia
Jul 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: music-reference
I was very happy to read this book as I've never liked equal temperament (except for music post-Debussy that is non-tonal). It's great to discover that J.S. Bach's famous Well-Tempered Clavier was written for a "well-tempered" and not an "equal-tempered" keyboard. The possibility of discovering different character for the different musical keys is tantalizing, rather than being stuck with same-old boring grey equal temperament. I would have liked a little more discussion beyond Western music. At ...more
Oct 27, 2014 rated it it was ok
This is a good basic introduction to the history of the development of equal temperament, with a focus on the problems this creates for performing music, especially works created before the acceptance of equal temperament. However, for many readers, the lack of audio supplements will render much of the details of various tuning systems meaningless. For many casual listeners the distinctions Duffin discusses may just seem esoteric.

While Duffin covers trends in the modern performances of Renaissa
Mikael Lind
Sep 14, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: music, music-theory
This book is a very important read and it opens your ears (yes, really) to a new musical world. The equal temperament has been considered the best solution to tuning first a piano, and then every instrument there is. This book shows you why this is not true, and that tuning is a very complicated practise where different kinds of music and situations call for different solutions.

I think this book would be a lot better with a more clear layout. The biographies kind of annoy me, and the
Angie Reisetter
Sep 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
If you really care about intonation, this is the book for you. And if you're like me, an amateur musician who cares a little about intonation, but is also fascinated by the science of harmony, this is the perfect book for you. But if none of that sounds interesting, don't bother, because that's all that's here.

Clearly this author has a thesis and is trying to support it, trying to steer us in one direction on the tuning/temperament debate, but in the mean time we get a bunch of reall
Alex Wen
Jan 27, 2013 rated it liked it
I was glad to take on so many of my learned assumptions as a musician by reading this book. Its goal of giving a fresh (and not-so-new) perspective on the way we listen and play chamber music together was achieved. This book was a quick and easy read. However, my one gripe was with the constant interruption of short biographies throughout the book. Every person or concept introduced was given its own one or two page insert. The main content of the chapters were interjected too frequently by thes ...more
Tim Drummond
Dec 29, 2009 rated it it was amazing
In short, this book explores the history of different tuning systems in Western music, and how the one we use today, called "Equal Temperament," has changed (ruined, as he says) the way we hear and perform music. Ruined, because the intervals on a piano are not the ones that mathematically ought to be there.

Unlike many music-specific books, the language in this book is not overwhelmingly music-ese; it is often math-based explanation, which serves to simplify an otherwise tricky histo
Feb 06, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
This book, written by a musicologist and early music expert, is a bit of a polemic on the problems with modern equal-tempered tuning and how different tuning systems (especially the meantone systems) provide attractive solutions to those problems. It is more technical than Isacoff's book on tuning, and has a very different take on the value of equal temperament and the tuning systems it displaced. I'm not sure how much I buy into Duffin's argument, but this was a great book to read. No matter wh ...more
Scottsdale Public Library
If you've ever wondered about our western tuning system, and dared to question its supremacy, then read this book! Delightfully readable and accessible, Ross W. Duffin presents a history of musical tuning and why equal temperament (the standard tuning system of today) is not necessarily the best or harmonious. It's easy to get into and suprisingly captivating!
~Louis M.
Stefanie Lubkowski
an interesting topic. We'll see if he convinces me to long for the days before equal temperament....
this book is written in a very engaging style, and he makes a lot of good points, but I still don't see much hope for musicians taking up tempered/irregular tunings anytime soon outside of historical performance.
Jul 31, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Anna by: musicians, music lovers, curious souls
I read and skimmed the book and attended a lecture by Dr. Duffin based heavily on the book. It is a fascinating introduction to the world of alternative historical tunings and provokes a lot of questions concerning our modern practice of using ET exclusively.
Jan 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
I am re-reading this little gem - he really succinctly explains the math in an easy to understand manner. Now what it needs is a companion CD with snippets of music played in the different temperaments so that we can truly grop it.
Sep 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
Helped me "get it"--understand why equal temperament is merely a compromise, albeit one accepted uncritically by musicians around the world.

Fascinating examples and quotes. Thumbs up. A must for the thinking musician.
May 28, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 2009
A bit technical, but my real problem was the formatting; there were so many side-notes and interruptions that, after reading the biography of a famous violinist, I would forget whether the main narrative was in Just temperament or quarter-comma meantone.
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