I've read about the fact that 12 tone equal temperament is a relatively recent phenomenon, and that historically, each key would have a different character due to the unequal temperament. I'm curious about how equal temperament changes the character of songs, and what sort of variety we've lost by moving to equal temperament.

I've heard a few examples of individual intervals and chords, but never an entire song or phrase in another temperament. Are there any sources of recordings of the same song, or phrase, that I can listen to side-by-side (alternating between them, or simply played one after the other) which demonstrate the difference between equal temperament and other temperaments?

  • The variety lost, is in those songs which use quarter tones and other sub-divisions of notes - unless a piece uses some of these tones (ad loses something via transpositions into equal temperament) then its difficult to compare. Sadly i have no examples. If your transposing something from one temperament into another which has least all the tones of the source temperament, then nothing is lost (learning to play it on your instrument is another matter).
    – Bella
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 17:50
  • 1
    @DRL I think you're mistaken about what we're talking about here: a different temperament would have the same 12 notes; it's just that the distances between them would not be equal. This means that a major triad is going to sound different when played on an F vs. a C. No quarter tones required. Temperament itself refers to the adjustment of tuning systems so that a keyboard can play in any key, it's just that in the old days they weren't exactly equal.
    – NReilingh
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 19:20
  • 2
    I wonder the extent to which string quartets or a cappella choirs are non-ET. They are often cited as examples of the tendency towards just intonation when not using fixed-frequency instruments but I'd be interested to know if that's demonstrably true in certain recordings, etc. music.stackexchange.com/q/3014/28 Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 6:22

5 Answers 5


Here are links to YouTube videos, all three of which were posted by the same person, using the same synthesizer, all three playing Bach's Air on the G String. But each link uses a different tuning system:

  • Interesting! Yeah, you can definitely hear the difference in the tuning there, though it all sounds kind of odd due to the use of pure sine waves. It would be nice to hear the difference on real instruments, too. Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 22:10
  • @Brian: I agree, although for an experiment like this I'd prefer synth instruments for purposes of control. Either way, my guess is that real instruments (or their synth equivalents) would make the differences between the tunings even more dramatic, due to the interplay of the overtones. Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 0:28
  • 2
    @Alex : the basic idea is very good but the trouble is that the three versions are really awful to hear no matter which tuning is used. The original music is not respected, the tempo is wrong, the sound wave is botched and badly digitized, there are many artefacts, etc.
    – ogerard
    Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 1:54
  • 2
    @ogerard: FWIW, I didn't make them, and I don't know the person who did. Nor would I cite them as examples of fine musical performance. That said, from the perspective of a scientific experiment trying to isolate the effect of tuning systems, I like the idea of a computer-generated sound file that allows one to control for traits such as tempo, dynamics, etc. that would otherwise distract from the point of the experiment. Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 2:53
  • 1
    @ogerard: That'd be great. Go for it. Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 3:13

I like this site for comparisons between different tunings.

Wendy Carlos has also made synthesizer versions of Bach's works in different temperaments. So this can be interesting to look up.


Provided your MIDI player allows pitch bends - there is the "Warped Canon" page.

Pachebel's Canon in many different tunings: http://www.io.com/~hmiller/music/warped-canon.html


In case you were waiting for it (and I know you weren't), there's another piece synthesized with pythogoras. It's Beethoven's Romanza Op 50.

Pythagorean: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APfI69-d7zw
Just Intonation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTmWPU1ENd0
Tempered: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4kk09r6YIc

I'll start working on adding timbres as a next step for the project (perhaps releasing version 1.0 once I get there).


For your further exploration:

Wendy Carlos has an album called "Beauty in the Beast" with some pretty exotic temperaments realized with interesting synth timbers. She has a site at wendycarlos.com.

http://www.wendycarlos.com/resources/pitch.html http://www.pandora.com/wendy-carlos/beauty-in-beast (tracks 2 and 4 are good)

Harry Partch composed for some unusual divisions of the octave and created his own instruments -- most are acoustic and the percussion tend to have overtones which can make it hard to sense the intervals fully, but it does have an unearthly feel.

Some from YouTube:

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