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Intonation, Tuning And Temperament

  Intonation is the degree of precision with which a singer, or a performer on an instrument without fixed tuning, can pitch a musical note according to standards of accuracy agreed within a musical culture. The musical language of a culture not only influences the concept of what is ‘in tune’ and ‘out of tune’, but also determines the tuning and temperament of its instruments. Temperament is a system of tuning in which small, almost imperceptible adjustments are made to the notes of the ‘natural’ musical scale (that is, the scale determined by the physical laws of sound), so that the distances between certain similar or successive pairs of tones are identical. Many ancient societies, such as the Chinese, Greeks and Hindus, evolved their theories of tuning and temperament according to mathematical principles associated with their religious and philosophical beliefs, including cosmology, numerology and sacred proportions.

The system of tuning modern, Western musical instruments with fixed pitch is known as ‘equal temperament’. In this, all the intervals between the consecutive notes of, for example, a piano are tuned equally, so that when a melody is played commencing on any of the 12 different notes it will always possess identical tonal characteristics. Contrary to this Western practice of standardization, in Bali, for example, not only does each gamelan have its own individual tuning, but also pairs of similar instruments within each orchestra are tuned slightly differently to one another, creating a distinctive musical colouring or timbre.

Table of cents||
|In many folk, popular or non-European musical traditions the concept of intonation is concerned less with accuracy of pitch than with its subtle variation or inflection. This indicates that pitches can exist between the notes of the musical scale or between the notes of a piano, and that this tonal material is also culturally conditioned. For example, whereas the note-bending on a Western rock guitar, on a jazz trombone or by a Blues singer may be perfectly acceptable to Western ears, similar inflections on an Indian sitar, a Japanese flute or by a Moroccan muezzin may seem totally alien. Music is often described as a ‘universal language’, but it is the intonation, tuning and temperament of each musical culture that creates its own dialect.

The diversity of tunings between different societies may be best demonstrated using the system of measurement created by A.J. Ellis in the 1880s. In his system the distance between each adjacent note on an equally-tempered piano is calculated as 100 cents. Using only the white keys of the piano, the table of cents provides comparisons of typical tunings from ancient Greece, India and Java. SSt

See also chromaticism; tonality.Further reading Hugh Boyle, Intervals, Scales & Temperaments: Introduction to the Study of Musical Intonation.
Equal temperament|200|200|100|200|200|200|100|
Ancient Greek|204|204|90|204|204|204|90|



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