Both the piano and the equal-tempered scale were invented in the 1700s (according to Wikipedia, at least). But what I'm wondering is whether the first piano constructed used an equal-tempered scale, or if that was a later modification.

(I have googled the question, but wasn't able to find an answer that way. Maybe my google-fu is low today.)

  • If by "natural scale" you mean "just intonation," just intonation as it is typically described today was probably never used to tune keyboard instruments. If it was, it was certainly no longer in use by the time music specifically for keyboard instruments began to be written.
    – phoog
    Mar 6, 2021 at 1:48
  • Revisiting this question because of an edit to the answer, I realize that the answer to the question title is "no" :-) But I'd also like to point out that the temperament isn't intrinsic to the instrument. The first piano used whatever temperament it had been given by its most recent tuner.
    – phoog
    Nov 16, 2022 at 8:06
  • How come this question was tweeted? (Just curious, and didn't see any information about the selection of questions to tweet on the StackMusic twitter account...) [twitter.com/StackMusic/status/1593212354057363457]
    – zrajm
    Dec 19, 2022 at 0:44
  • 1
    There's a lot of noise on the topic over at Meta Stack Exchange, mostly from people suggesting adjustments to the criteria, but the basic explanation is at How does the twitter bot work?.
    – phoog
    Dec 19, 2022 at 12:45

1 Answer 1


Not equal temperament

Equal temperament was not generally used in 1700, when Cristofori invented the piano. The following excerpt comes from Edwin M. Good's Giraffes, Black Dragons, and Other Pianos (2nd ed. [Stanford University Press, 2001]). The main passage is a footnote, but I've included the preceding sentence as it contains interesting and relevant information.

In 1795, Johann Jakob Könnicke of Vienna made ... an experimental six-octave piano with six keyboards tuned so that one could play in all keys with "just" tuning.*

* Tuning systems were a very intricate problem in this period.... A very early Zumpe piano, a square of 1766, has split black keys so that notes can be tuned to both pitches [e.g., F♯/G♭].... Systems of "equal temperament," ... began to be proposed in the seventeenth century, although it was well into the twentieth before the use of equal temperament became fairly general. (pp. 98-99)

(See also below)

Probably some type of meantone temperament

In Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Invention of the Piano (Oxford University Press, 2019), Stewart Pollens suggests, indirectly, the possibility Cristofori might have used fifth-comma meantone temperament. The following passage are relevant:

Cristofori apparently attempted to explain fifth-comma meantone temperament to Scipione Maffei.... Writing in 1666, the theorist Lemmi Rossi indicated that this particular temperament was then in common use, and thus it may have been the tuning that Cristofori preferred. (p. 119)

The notes Maffei made in connection with the writing of the 1711 article ... shed additional light on Cristofori's ideas regarding temperament.... Cristofori ... seems to be describing, or perhaps advocating, fifth-comma meantone temperament. (p. 240)

With regard to "not equal temperament", a passage from the aforementioned "notes Maffei made" is suggestive:

That the violin is the only perfect instrument, because it does not have keys and one finds in the whole perfect harmony, that is the flats and sharps each in its place.... That on the violin, you can transpose where you want in any sort of key, without hearing an unpleasant effect, because it has equal fifths, and all just, and it does not fall into false and bad sound, like in other instruments. (p. 240).

Following this passage is the portion referred to above, in which a meantone tuning, probably fifth-comma, is described.

  • 3
    This says there were lutenists advocating for equal temperament as early as the 1500s. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal_temperament#Europe
    – Edward
    Mar 5, 2021 at 3:33
  • What does Good mean by "play in all keys with "just" tuning"? It's not possible to play even in one key with just tuning; it must have been some sort of meantone temperament.
    – phoog
    Mar 6, 2021 at 2:18
  • 1
    @Edward: Don't believe anything you read on Wikipedia without following the citations. None of the four citations for that sentence in the article you mention are any good. Some of them are links to lute works that are just composed in all keys; that doesn't imply 12-TET (anymore than Bach's WTC does). The only actual article cited links to some pseudoscience thing that starts out on how women's menstrual cycles are perfectly attuned to the moon's phases. Galilei did advocate for a 18:17 fretting that approximates 12-TET, which I guess is the real thing that Wikipedia claim is based on.
    – Athanasius
    Jul 21, 2021 at 22:54
  • @Athanasius What about the citation which appears a few sentences later? "Lutes, Viols, Temperaments" Mark Lindley ISBN 978-0-521-28883-5. Not that I read it before your comment, but it seems ok. google.com/books/edition/Lutes_Viols_Temperaments/…
    – Edward
    Jul 22, 2021 at 1:12
  • @Edward: I'm not saying the general advocacy for something close to equal temperament is incorrect for fretted instruments of the time.Obviously that was the case. I'm saying that the first sentence has a bunch of problematic citations--those lutenists were not "advocating" for equal temperament: they wrote pieces in a variety of keys. There's a difference. Galilei was advocating for equal temperament (though a practical manner of tuning it at the time was a problem).The point is that the Wikipedia article misrepresents things and offers "citations" that aren't actually proving its claims.
    – Athanasius
    Jul 22, 2021 at 14:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.