The majority of pianos today are tuned in Equal Temperament (ET). This has been the standard way of tuning pianos for approximately the last 100 years. The piano is tuned in such a way as to create exact half-steps. All major key signatures have the same key color. All minor key signatures have the same color. Generally speaking (though it may vary from tuner to tuner), when the modern piano is tuned, it is usually tuned in equal temperament.
Pianos weren’t always tuned in ET. In the early 20th century and in prior centuries, pianos and other keyboard instruments were tuned in unequal temperaments. The musicians of those times did not write music using exact half-steps. Each key signature had its own character.
A C Major chord might have soothing harmonies. A B Major chord might have an edgier harmony.
Some argue that keyboard music was written in certain keys not only because of fingering, but because the composer wanted a particular key color-its own special harmony and character caused by unevenly spaced half-steps. A minority go even further and claim that equal temperament was known in prior centuries, but rejected.
Unequal temperaments give the you the option of exploring and utilizing other harmonies when playing music. For example, if you are playing in equal temperament in the key of C major, then go up, one half-step to the key of C# major to add tension, the key color will remain the same. But, if you do the same thing on a well-tempered piano, a much greater transformation will take place. A C Major chord will have a sweeter sound in a well tuning than in equal temperament. A C# Major chord will be edgier. The tension is increased even more.
There are piano tuners who believe that it is improper to tune in anything other than equal temperament. Some view the historical temperaments as a path to developing the ideal: equal temperament. These old styles are considered obsolete after equal temperament became available.
They have a point. Some of these older temperaments resulted in certain key signatures being unusable because of certain harsh intervals called “wolves.” This limits the player.
In ET, you can freely modulate between all key signatures. With some UTs, this is not possible. But with the milder UTs, modulation in all keys is not a problem.
When using a 1/4 Comma Meantone Temperament, modulation in all keys is not desirable. There will be a wolf interval at E-flat to G-sharp.
However, when using the 1/10 Comma Meantone Temperament, the notes vary from Equal Temperament by only a few thousandths of a half-step. The 1/10 CM is so close to Equal Temperament that a piano tuned that way might technically be considered still to be in Equal Temperament. Modulation in all keys is possible.
Unequal temperaments are used for novelty, the attempt to perform music with historical accuracy, or to alter the resonance of the piano.
When using UTs that vary widely from ET, it might even be advisable in some cases to tune A4 slightly lower than 440 Hz to avoid too much stress on certain areas of the bridges and soundboard.
If you decide to explore unequal temperaments, explore with a piano technician that has some understanding of unequal temperaments.
Keep in mind that nothing permanent has been done to your piano when it is tuned using an unequal temperament. If you don’t like the result, just tune it back to equal temperament or try some other UT.
Both equal temperament and unequal temperaments have their places. String instrument players, such as guitarists, will routinely use alternative tunings and there is no controversy. Why shouldn’t pianists have the same freedom?
Anyone may copy and use the text on this page for any purpose as long as:
1) The text is presented in its entirety and without alteration.
2) Attribution is made to the writer: Joe Gumbosky
3) You provide a link to this webpage.
4)You may download and use the audio files on this page for your own private study. However, do not download and republish the audio files on another website. Thank you.
You are welcome to use my work without charge. Please honor the terms listed.
Great Christmas Piano Hits!
How To Become A Musical Mind Reader!
Learn To Play Improvised Piano With The Chordpiano-workshop.
From Texas to the Delta – Acoustic Blues Guitar Lessons
Harpnguitar.com – Harmonica And Guitar Lessons