I understand that traditionally, certain "moods" are associated with certain keys. I further understand that this is mainly due to the way keyboards were tuned during the classical era, but that now, keyboards are "equally tuned" so that the only difference between major keys is the pitch. (same with minor keys). That being understood, are we missing something in the modern performances of classical pieces that were originally written, and I assume, meant to be performed in their "unequally tuned" keys?

  • Related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/12573/… Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 19:08
  • For people with any amount of perfect pitch, they can hear differences (to a greater or lesser extent) between keys that use the same scale but are based on different pitches. Aside from that, I think the answer to the question linked in my first comment is a good one. Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 19:10
  • There is no reason not to perform music with a historically correct tuning (and at the historically correct pitch, which can make a big difference to vocal music) if one wants to. Indeed, many performers do exactly that, at least as far as scholarly research can take them.
    – user19146
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 22:49

3 Answers 3


The "missing" in "Are we missing something?" implies a value judgment, so instead I'll just address some of the key differences between equal temperament and historical temperaments.

At least these things would be different:

  • Older tunings, meantone or tempered, generally had a set of keys where the important major thirds were just, or at least closer to it. This affects the degree of consonance of chords (which are stacked 3rds.)

  • The tempered tunings generally have different sets of 5th intervals, e.g. the Werckmeister tunings, and thus, as an example, the root chords for different keys have different degrees of consonance.

That the different historical tunings result in different sounds is indisputable. For careful listeners this difference is audible. It's arguable (and possibly subjective) about how these sonic differences affect the emotional/aesthetic impact of music for modern audiences.

This video has a nice demonstration of different tunings, albeit with some unfortunate audio glitches.

  • I appreciate the feedback, and the video link. I don't mean to imply a "value judgment" when I asked the question. I recently listened to a recording of Beethoven's great "Appassionata Sonata" and that really prompted my question. I want to hear it as Beethoven intended it to be heard, and it dawned on my that I assume I am hearing it on an "equally tuned" piano. Are there recordings of great piano pieces that are advertised as being performed on a piano tuned the way Beethoven's piano would have been tuned when he wrote the piece?
    – drb19810
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 14:48

Some of the "mood" is cultural, e.g. certain Maqam are said to evoke feelings of a distant desert, which might be tricky if the audience has never even seen such, or for one who does not know that minor keys indicate sadness because their musical culture is based on rhythm, leaving classical works to sound much the same to them.


I don't think so, as instruments were tuned to sound good in one particular key. True, they didn't sound good in another key, due to the tuning vagaries, but in one key, it all worked. So, with 12et, now, we could play a piece in any key we wanted, and it would sound authentic, but what difference would that make?

  • There were several tunings in common use between about 1725 and 1900 which sound "good" (to modern ears) in all keys, but each key has an audibly different deviation from 12TET.
    – user19146
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 22:53

Your Answer

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

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