I am learning Indian classical music and learned about just intonation and equal temperament. I want to know the difference between them. I know that Indian classical music uses just intonation and Western music uses equal temperament.

Can you give me some more info in layman language? You can also add some science.

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    Don't get overly confused by statements made in online resources (like the statement that Just Intonation is the same as Pythagorean tuning). It's been repeated a lot online that Indian Classical Music uses Just Intonation, but the truth is that it's not just like that, not for the music of north India (hindustani sangeet) nor southern (karnataka) music. I went that way tuning my sitar frets to JI ratios in the beginning, but didn't worked. It's a very debatable topic and depends on style of playing, raga, mood, artist, gharana, etc. If interested, follow the research works of Wim Van Der Meer – Alejandro García Iglesias Apr 10 '15 at 1:49
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    For a thorough yet engaging mathematical explanation I recommend David Benson's Music: a Mathematical Offering. It is available to buy, or as a free download. Chapter 5 (it is free standing) covers scales and temperaments and Chapter 6 has a lovely explanation (in terms of continued fractions) as to why the octave is divided into 12 semitones – dumbledad Apr 10 '15 at 7:05
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    As noted in one of the answers, "better" is a subjective term that involves making tradeoffs between the pros and cons of each, depending on what you want to be able do. Purely opinion-based questions are off-topic here, so I've edited that part out of your question. I think you will find that the answers give you enough information to determine yourself what would be "better" to use for your own purposes :) – Matthew Read Apr 10 '15 at 17:05

A simple answer: One is not better than the other. They serve different purposes according to different musical traditions.

Just intonation is pure tuning according to the pure mathematical overtones produced by musical instruments. When an instrument is tuned to just intonation, it is more or less only able to play in one key, and to use limited chords and harmonies. This is perfectly suited to Indian music (which relies on elaborate melodies, drones and open intervals, but has no place for Western chord progressions and harmonies) and music of many other cultures.

12-tone equal temperament is a compromise developed in Western music that did not become widespread until about 150 years ago. In 12-tone equal temperament, the intervals between the notes are changed slightly to make them less pure. This enables an instrument so tuned to play in all Western keys and all modes, but with all intervals and chords being slightly out-of-tune to varying degrees. However, these compromises are deemed acceptable to Western musicians and listeners. This makes it possible for one instrument to play Western music that relies on complex Western chords and harmonies and which can modulate to different Western keys and modes at any time.

Classical Indian music would sound wrong and inauthentic if you played it on instruments tuned to 12-tone equal temperament (such as the Western guitar or piano). Some musicians and composers have worked out compromises for combining traditional Indian instruments with Western instruments (tuned to 12-tone equal temperament), but I suspect that these compositions lose some of the character that makes the music sound traditionally Indian.


Every note has a pitch, determined by the fundamental frequency of the sound wave that produces it. When you have two different notes, you have two different pitches, caused by two different frequencies. The distance between those pitches is called an interval, and corresponds to the ratio of the note's frequencies. For example, if one note is an octave above a second note, their frequencies will have the ratio 2:1.

In Just Intonation, which was historically common in Western music at least into the Baroque period, the intervals are determined by forcing the notes to have frequencies that are small whole number ratios to each other. For example, a perfect fifth is 3:2, a perfect forth is 4:3, a major third is 5:4, and a minor third is 6:5. In historical western music, they usually stopped there (the interval 7:6 is not used), and all other intervals are then combinations of these intervals. The benefit of this system is that, because the frequencies are numerically related to one another, they sound very consonant, or pure to the ear. The downside is that those pure intervals only exist in one key; outside of that, the intervals start to break down.

For example, if you start at A♭, and go up a major third you get to C (with a ratio of 5:4 = 1.25). If you go up another major third, you reach E (5:4 x 5:4 = 25:16 = 1.5625). If you then go up one more major third, you reach G♯ (5:4 x 5:4 x 5:4 = 125:64 = 1.953125). As you can see, this doesn't quite reach the next highest A♭ (which must have a ratio of 2:1, by definition). The basic mathematical problem is that no matter how many times you repeat any of these ratios (other than the octave), you will never get back to a power of two, which means you will never get back to the starting pitch (in any octave). Which further means that you either have to have an infinite number of notes in your scale, or you have to add in an impure interval somewhere to get back to where you started.

If you want to play in lots of different keys and maintain these pure intervals, one possible solution is to use instruments that can freely vary their pitch, like violins or voices, so that you can always adjust to the correct just interval. This is often done subconsciously by singers, even in western music, just by finding what sounds good.

However, many instruments cannot do this; especially keyboards and fretted instruments, both of which have to have a predefined scale. One possibility for them is to start adding a bunch of extra notes: Make A♭ and G♯ be two different notes, for example. However, there could be an infinite number of such notes, so things can get pretty insane pretty quickly, like this keyboard that has 24 notes per octave:


This approach hasn't really been pursued much in western music.

Instead, the solution that Western music has devised is called 12-Tone Equal Temperament (12-TET). Rather than forcing frequency ratios to pure-sounding whole number ratios, it makes a compromise to divide each octave into twelve equally-sized intervals, and adds them together to get larger intervals. The frequency ratio required for this small interval (which happens to be a half step) is the 12th root of 2 (21/12 = 1.059463...), since multiplying it by itself 12 times gives you back 2 (an octave). In fact, the term "ratio" is a bit of a misnomer, since this is actually an irrational number.

If you combine 7 of these small intervals (27/12 = 1.4983...) you get a close approximation to a pure perfect fifth (3:2 = 1.50). If you combine four of them (24/12 = 1.2599...) you get a less-close approximation to a pure major third (5:4 = 1.250) which is still somewhat serviceable. But the key point is that by making all of the intervals equally out of tune, no key is any worse than the other. You do have to sacrifice the pureness of the intervals, but it is a relatively subtle effect to the untrained ear.

Here is a video that demonstrates both types of intervals:

TLDR: Just intonation refers to using mathematically simple ratios between a pair pitches; justly tuned intervals are objectively more consonant than non-justly tuned intervals. However, it is mathematically impossible to construct a scale of fixed pitches in which every possible interval is justly tuned, and some may even sound quite bad. 12 TET is one way of compromising when tuning a scale; it equally detunes all intervals, so that no single interval is either perfectly just, nor terribly far away from being just.


Etymology, Math, and Acoustics

These two terms can mean different things depending on who you talk to, especially since they are not discussed nearly as thoroughly in music theory teachings. Naturally, this makes the terminology more vague and less agreed upon. You probably have a good sense of them already, though. On a basic level, just intonation is when a particular harmonic interval is ideal to the human ear.

For some people, this would be the members of an orchestra adjusting their intonation so that there is no beating in the chord. That could be called just. More commonly, it is the relation of intervals by whole number ratios. For more information on this, you need to understand some basic acoustics.

A sine wave is the most basic sort of sound that you can have. Flutes are quite close to a pure sine wave and you've most likely heard them produced electronically. When two sine waves interact, they can do so constructively or destructively. In the following image, there are three waves. The first is a sine wave representing our root and the second is a sine wave representing our fifth. The third is their interference:

Sine Wave Interference

If the third wave was played, you would hear both tones and they would be perfectly just. Now pay attention to the cycles. The first wave has two cycles in the same period that the second wave has three. At that point, they are perfectly in phase with each other and are both at the beginning of a new cycle. So these waves are said to have a 2:3 ratio. This is a just perfect fifth. So long as they remain just, their cycles will line up at a constant interval. This is a generally pleasing effect. Unfortunately, having all of our music set up like this is much more difficult than one might expect.


Pythagoras is commonly talked about in communities concerned with just intonation and microtonality and he is often credited with discoveries like diving a vibrating string in half to make an octave. Regardless of whether or not this is true, Pythagoras and his followers were heavily interested in music and believe its relationship to numbers to be divine. He attempted to stack fifths on top of one another to create scales which reflected these beliefs, but ran into a problem. The frequency ratio for an octave is 1:2, so a doubled frequency is an octave. So any octave of our root must be the root multiplied by a power of 2. Fifths are powers of 3. He considered this geometrically with pentagrams, but still soon came to an unfortunate conclusion. There is no way for a power of 2 to equal a power of 3. A circle of fifths will never close on an octave. There's a lot more information on Pythagorean tunings, but for now, let's move forward.

Musical tuning evolved and many tried to reconcile this circle of fifths problem. I'd like to point out that a circle of fifths is certainly not the only way to achieve just intonation. Regardless, people were very concerned. If you left that gap between the last fifth and the next octave, you weren't met with many problems in your root key. In fact, this is one way to derive a major pentatonic scale. However, shifting to other keys could get ugly quickly. The tuning that has won out in modern western music traditions is equal temperament.

More Math

If you flatten the fifth you're using in your circle of fifths, the circle will close. The fifth that we use as a generator is only a little flat of a just perfect fifth, gives us quite a few consonances to work with, and closes after 12 fifths. This is called tempering the fifth, ergo the name. With our fifth, it creates an equal temperament. Now, we hear frequencies logarithmically, meaning the difference in Hz between two intervals will be progressively larger as you move up in octaves. The difference between A4 and A5 is 440 Hz while the difference between A5 and A6 is twice that at 880 Hz. So to divide the octaves into equal sounding intervals, we use powers of fractions. This is essential the same as taking a root of a square, but I like this notation better.

For an octave divided into m equal parts, an interval of n steps will be 2n/m. A minor third in 12 tet is 3 steps (semitones). So that interval would be 23/12. The nice thing about this is that you can transpose a melody to any key and and its intervals will have the same qualities. It also makes for easier construction of fretted instruments. And really, most people can't tell the difference because 12 tet is pretty close to just intonation.

  • "12 tet is pretty close to just intonation": In the fifths and fourths, yes. For thirds and sixths, not so much. – phoog Jan 2 at 4:49

If you want really clear as a bell, non-muddled tones, you want just intonation. We hear music in intervals. Just intonation is Pythagorean intervals, expressed as ratios. What we call the perfect fifth interval, 7 semitones, is a 3:2 frequency ratio. If you play it along with your root note, it will coincide in perfect clear harmony. However Pythagorean ratios get more complex, expressed as X^m / Y^n where you might end up with 128/27 or even (80*7) / (3*5) as a tone ratio in some scale.

The problem with such theoretically clean ratios on a piano divided into 12 semi-tones per octave is that stepping up 7 semi-tones from C to G may give you an exact 3:2 ratio, but stepping up 7 semitones from D to A will not. - Essentially your compositions are limited to playing in the key of C on a piano in the key of C if you want to play with your set of clean scale frequency intervals.

Bach, with his treatise 'The Well Tempered Clavier' solved this by uniformly fudging the interval between all 12 semitones. Any jump of 7 semitones starting from any key will produce the identical frequency interval. Unfortunately this arrangement is a compromise, and that interval is no longer a sweet clean exact 3:2 any more.

The advantage of having done this is that any song can instantly be transposed from one key to another without changing it's interval flavor, and that pianos no longer have to be built with a primary key in mind. Songs in the key of F# or Db all have the same muddy intervals between them now.

Recent synthesizers have brought back the possibility of just intonation, where the whole keyboard, or just individual chord notes, remap to the key or root of the moment to sound clear.

Specifically equal temperament provides a ratio of 2^(1/12):1 for each semitone. After 12 semitone multiplications you end up with a ratio of 2:1, an octave, the only pure ratio in equal temperament.

There's more beyond that, with stretch tunings and such. Just intonation is possible on a fretless string instrument. With frets you can get just intervals between strings, but you are stuck with equal-temperament between frets. Just intonation requires tuning your instrument for a specific key. With standard equal temperament, you can play further down the neck in another key and not end up with different sound quality intervals between notes.

Sitar music is largely about the shimmering color produced with all the drones more so than the jumps between notes, so just intonation is more critical to have there. Also there's nothing out of place spending an hour to tune up for a raga. That wouldn't fly playing rockabilly at a pub.

Each has it's place. You could conceivably play some beautiful shoegazing rock with just intonation, but only if you find a band willing to put in a large investment in time and gear to do so.

Pythagorean ratios are a world of study unto themselves, and probably a huge distraction towards acquiring useful generic composition/playing skills in the Western world.

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    The wiki page on The Well-Tempered Clavier seems uncertain on the actual temperament(s) intended... – topo morto Apr 8 '15 at 7:15
  • I did not know the specifics. Interesting, thanks. Still, Bach has been generally attributed for decades, if not centuries, as the originator of tempered tuning. He may not have exactly intended logarithmic 12-tet, the ultimate in uniform tempering, but it is clear that his intent was to at least utilize a tuning which allows more universal key transposition than just intonation. The possibility that he compromised some intervals more, and others less, to achieve that is intriguing - although that would clearly limit the concept to merely some friendly key transpositions, not all. – Kristal McKinstry Apr 8 '15 at 8:04
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    Meantone temperament (credited to Pietro Aron) was used in the early 16th century, and Giovanni Maria Lanfranco apparently wrote of a temperament similar to equal temperament in 1533. kylegann.com/histune.html claims that the (erroneous) link between what we call equal temperament and what Bach used came from an error in the Grove Dictionary of Music... – topo morto Apr 8 '15 at 11:27
  • Cool. Faulty history is hard to disspell. I once had a microtonal jam in which we used 3:2 ratios as our definition of the octave, and it worked well. I also plan on building a Pythagorean mono-synth which employs sliders controlling positive/negative powers of 2,3,5,7 for nominator or denominator of Pythagorean intervals, plus x-y thumb pads for note dynamics. – Kristal McKinstry Apr 8 '15 at 11:45
  • Make sure you pop up a link once you get it going! Will it have any control over the harmonic partial frequencies ? – topo morto Apr 8 '15 at 11:47

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