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Equal temperament vs other tunings


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#1 Eureka

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Posted 22 February 2019 - 16:22

Just wondering if anyone can help me understand how different tunings work in real life and how easy they are to achieve. 

 

Is singing and playing in different intonations something that musicians come across much, or are we talking 'niche' here? 

 

Considering the voice isn't a fixed pitch instrument, I guess it's very possible for a singer to sing in a tuning that's not equal temperament, but is it challenging?

 

If it's a tuning that uses simpler ratios than ET, then might it be 'easier' because it's sort of more 'natural'...or are we all (in the West at least) really used to ET now so it's hard to sing like that? 

 

Are different intonations the sort of thing that, say, a professional level singer would just tend to be able to adapt to? 

 

Also, if you have perfect pitch, presumably you have perfect pitch to a particular tuning? I guess ET if this is what we're all used to hearing. Does this pose a particular problem if the person with perfect pitch is required to play / sing in just intonation or another non-ET tuning?

 

Sorry for all the questions and thank you very much for any insights! Feel free to correct me if I've termed anything incorrectly or misunderstood - I've only recently started finding out about this.


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#2 BadStrad

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Posted 22 February 2019 - 19:23

What people mean by Perfect Pitch is probably more accurately described by the term Absolute Pitch which isn't really much to do with musicality. Research shows that APers are no better at tone discrimination than other individuals.

To quote Daniel Levitin:
"AP is a skill in labeling (a form of long-term memory and categorization/classification behavior, involving self-referencing) and has nothing to do with pitch perception per se."

Basically it has more to do with being trained to *name* pitches rather than recognising them or reproducing them.
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#3 elemimele

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Posted 22 February 2019 - 20:33

not niche, no. If you haven't already read "How equal temperament ruined harmony (and why you should care)", then you would probably enjoy doing so. Unless I've got my books in a twist, it's an unparalleled, thorough explanation of musicians and temperament, extremely accessible, totally logical, very readable, and always pinned firmly to accuracy and honest appraisal of what real musicians do, so far as we can possibly tell.


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#4 Tenor Viol

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Posted 23 February 2019 - 06:53

That book is useful. String players especially quartets will adjust tuning away from ET to narrow major thirds and bring them into tune and also to make 5ths pure.

Singers used to be taught the difference between a chromatic and a diatonic semi-tone.

And temperament is a big issue in early music
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#5 elemimele

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Posted 23 February 2019 - 09:26

... yes, and for anything in that area, Elam Rotem's early music sources videos are very well-presented, clear and super-interesting


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#6 Eureka

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Posted 25 February 2019 - 09:09

Thanks everyone! I'll order that book - sounds like what I need.

 

BadStrad, so have I understood correctly that it would be possible to have absolute pitch in the sense that you could name specific notes, but your intonation could at the same time be inaccurate, such that if you sang the notes it could sound like you were singing out of tune? Interesting. Does that actually happen much? My only exposure to AP is such people being labelled as 'very musical' and most definitely singing in tune! Not that this assumption is correct of course, it's just the only way I've seen it presented before now.


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#7 BadStrad

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Posted 25 February 2019 - 17:04

Most people can sing in tune, despite what they say. If you ask them to sing their favourite song, a significant proportion of people will pitch it correctly (give or take the octave they need to sing in). They might not know the name of the notes they are singing, but they have remembered the pitches/intervals required.

It would be unlikely that someone who has had the musical training to be able to name notes would sing out of tune (if they listen to what they are singing), given that most people without musical training sing in tune. Even those who are unable to pitch accurately are likely to be able to detect a "sour" note in a musical performance, ie their perception is just fine.

People who are described as "very musical" tend to fall into the zone of "self fulfilling prophecy." As infants they sing, or noodle at the piano/other instrument or basically show some interest in music and their proud parents/teachers/baby sitter/etc encourage it. They're not actually doing anything that unusual when they sing in tune (or later on are able to name a note) they just have people willing to point it out to anyone who'll listen and have at some point received sufficient training to name the note (even if it was only playing a piano that had the note letters written on the keys).

As for AP-ers singing out of tune - an example - A friend has very good absolute pitch and can tell me when I'm playing fractionally out of tune, but when he sings his intonation is pretty bad, because he doesn't listen to himself sing. When he does attend to the sound he's making, then his intonation is spot on. He can do it if he cares to. Were he a singer he'd be able to do it all the time, but as lyrics don't interest him much he doesn't generally listen to himself when singing (which is thankfully infrequently).

The same thing can be heard with string players. When the player is playing without attending to the sound they make their intonation is likely to not be great. Maybe OK, close enough, but not great. When they attend to their sound and play with the intention of the correct (series of) pitches then their playing will be more musically in tune. Why don't they always play like that? Because it takes much more effort than just playing without that intention and they may never have been taught to attend to the sound they want to make, focussing instead on the mechanics of finger positions for example. Watch the face of any of the great violinists, the concentration is there to see.
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#8 elemimele

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Posted 25 February 2019 - 18:14

... absolute pitch is a complete red herring(*). Musicality is about being able to make music that sounds nice, or about being able to enjoy and understand music. It's far more useful to have a feel for what notes are doing in a scale, and for the purity or otherwise of intervals, than to be able to work out whether a note is C or D, or whether someone is using concert pitch or not quite (many instruments are temperature dependent; no one is going to retune an organ because the day happens to be hot!)

Here is something that I make "friends"(**) listen to, if they don't think temperament matters, or don't think they can hear the difference between good and bad intervals.

 

(* and possibly worse: it creates silly worries where it'd be better to worry about relative tuning - not to mention a lot of unnecessary angst amongst wannabe musical teenagers - or it did in my youth anyway, hopefully today's youth have better things to worry about)

(** I don't do it to people who I'd hate to lose as friends. Listen and you'll find out why).


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#9 zwhe

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Posted 25 February 2019 - 19:09

The reason perfect pitch is associated with 'being musical' is because the only way you can have it is by being exposed to loads of music in your first few years of life - ie you need to grow up in a musical family. As this would also give you a head start on your musical education, the two usually go together.

As far as I can see, the main use for it is if you don't have a tuner and your choir is singing without any instruments! It can be a disadvantage sometimes as it makes it very difficult to transpose as every note sounds wrong.


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#10 Cyrilla

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Posted 25 February 2019 - 23:17

I have experienced children with AP who coast along for years without really having to think about what they're doing - then suddenly they hit a bit of a wall because they now have to THINK about things (as Banjogirl discusses above).

 

They really struggle then - and often more than the non-AP children, because a) they've coasted and b) it comes as a very unpleasant shock that suddenly they can't 'just do it' any more...


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#11 elemimele

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Posted 26 February 2019 - 07:00

Here's another modulation-fest with a bloke playing a harpsichord that has keys split into three bits, and a violinist concentrating quite as hard as BadStrad describes. This style of music also gives the soprano (Alice Borciani, superbly capable) nowhere to hide; without vibrato, anyone can hear exactly where her note is. I still don't completely know whether I personally actually like this style of composition, but to this composer (Sabbatini), clearly temperament and tuning were going to be issues.

But it's not just early music that worries about such things. Nowadays there seems to be a big movement of electric guitar players who question whether dividing the octave into 12 semitones is the only way to go. Some of them produce music that is both beautiful and interesting, with one foot in tradition and the other in sheer madness.

Cyrilla, I wish I'd heard your wise statements when I was a teenager; back then, "having" AP was a badge of honour amongst the musical set, a super-power up in the same league as being able to shoot laser bolts from your finger-tips. Curiously, the kids who didn't seem to care tuppence are the handful that I now suspect were the best natural musicians.


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#12 elemimele

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Posted 26 February 2019 - 07:09

Found it: Stephen James Taylor playing microtonal electric guitar


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#13 Hildegard

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Posted 26 February 2019 - 07:37

Here's another modulation-fest with a bloke playing a harpsichord that has keys split into three bits, and a violinist concentrating quite as hard as BadStrad describes. This style of music also gives the soprano (Alice Borciani, superbly capable) nowhere to hide; without vibrato, anyone can hear exactly where her note is. I still don't completely know whether I personally actually like this style of composition, but to this composer (Sabbatini), clearly temperament and tuning were going to be issues.

 

It's a style of performance that, for me, helps to explain why J.S.Bach was so keen to promote equal temperament. smile.png


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#14 elemimele

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Posted 26 February 2019 - 10:19

... or temperaments that, while not equal, have their commas distributed sufficiently evenly that all keys can be used. Many modern organs are tuned to good, unequal temperaments (names such as Werckmeister, Kirnberger, Valotti etc.); there are lots of YouTube clips comparing how these temperaments sound. "Well-tempered" might actually be what Bach wanted (how are we to know, so many years later?), but there are so many options, and a great deal of argument. It all gives me brain-strain.


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#15 Eureka

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Posted 26 February 2019 - 11:57

So I see that Alice Borciani will be hitting all the right notes in whatever temperament is being used - is this only because she's an excellent highly-trained singer?

 

What I'm intrigued by is whether an average and untrained singer could sing in a temperament other than ET? If so, would it require the 'intense concentration' BadStrad referred to above?

 

Or, conversely, since the simpler ratios of a non-ET temperament are more 'natural', and many people think 'nicer' would an average group of singers with no fixed instrument accompaniment actually tend away from ET? 

 

Basically, like the book title says, did ET sort of 'ruin' our innate sense of harmony, or do we tend back to natural ratios given half the chance?

 

Personally, when I listen to the 'blinded' samplings of the same music with different temperaments (in appropriate keys) I seem to prefer ET. (Although, unblinded I prefer non-ET of course!) 


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