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I was reading how classical music used to not be in equal temperament. So each of their keys sounded completely different and that's why they named their pieces after the keys they were playing. Whereas today because of equal temperament all major scales for example sound the same and are just differences in pitch.

So I'm wondering: if a classical piece is played today in equal temperament, does it sound different and not as nice as the original composer intended it to be?

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    You can listen for yourself, e.g. here: youtube.com/watch?v=kyQaSFgnVI8 - while the difference is not huge, I can easily hear it, even as quite a non-musical person. – Nathaniel Jun 24 '18 at 8:14
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Yes, but also due to the changes in piano construction.

In some ways, a classical piece played on a modern piano might sound more true to the composer's original intent than the piano it was originally played on. Modern pianos are generally louder and brighter than the ones in the late 1700s and early 1800s. So loud passages, such as might be found in some Beethoven, may actually be taking advantage of the power of a modern piano in a way that Beethoven might have enjoyed and/or intended.

Regarding temperament, there we are hearing something different from the composer's original intention. Luckily, with digital sampled pianos and virtual instruments, we can easily see what pieces might have sounded like in the time of their composition, and it's fascinating to hear the subtle differences that come out when you change the pitch and temperament of a virtual piano.

In addition, some pianists have their acoustic pianos tuned to historic tunings (also harpsichords and clavichords). Obviously the downside is that you can only re-create one historical period at a time, or even really one composer's favorite tuning at a time. And there are re-creations of period instruments that are much closer to the original sounds and tunings of the pianos from the times that they reflect, for the ultimate in authentic sound.


I just realized you're not only talking about keyboard music. Orchestral music is a whole nother kettle of fish.

Temperament is a lot more fluid in an orchestra playing without a piano. Yes, the strings of the strings section will be tuned to ET 5ths, usually, and generally the whole orchestra will play with a modern pitch reference (e.g., A 440). Also, world class musicians will often have a good enough pitch sense that they will play notes very close to equal temperament, if not right on. But they don't have to. With a keyboard instrument, you pick a tuning and that's what you've got until you pay for the tuner to come around again. With orchestral instruments, they can change intonation on the fly.

How precisely an orchestra plays to a specific temperament can vary from orchestra to orchestra, and even from piece to piece. A conductor/director could request all thirds to be played slightly sharper or flatter, for example, and a world class orchestra can almost certainly accommodate such requests. So we might be hearing tunings closer to the originals that you might think - as long as there are no pianos (such as in a concerto) or harps around.

That said, once again some instruments have changed in their construction and timbre since the 1700s. Particularly I'm thinking of French horns, but other brass and woodwinds may sound more powerful than they used to.

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One way to find out is to listen. Look for Historically informed performances. There are many ensembles that attempt to be authentic. They may use genuine old instruments or modern reproductions of them. They will use appropriate tuning and techniques as well. Of course, it is possible that they have got it wrong but they are usually as authentic as they can be. The only way to absolutely sure would be to obtain a time machine.

Historically informed performance (Wikipedia)

Many recordings are available. I have several by The Academy of Ancient Music.

Live performances are also available. Recently I saw Nicola Benedetti and Marin Alsop with The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment play Beethoven's Violin Concerto. That was excellent.

The string instruments are visibly similar but they have changed more subtly. Here is some detail thanks to phoog:

The strings themselves (gut rather than steel, under lower tension), the instruments (shorter necks at a different angle), the bowing techniques, and the intonation make a baroque string orchestra sound radically different from one that uses modern instruments and "traditional" modern string technique

The woodwind differ quite visibly e.g. modern oboes and flutes have far more keys and use different materials.

The brass differ a lot since the old instruments were valveless. The trombone is an exception but most of the others are chromatic now but used to be very restricted.

Timpani use different material now, a greater range of sticks, and have controllable pitch.

  • "the strings differ the least": this may be true, but they differ considerably. The strings themselves (gut rather than steel, under lower tension), the instruments (shorter necks at a different angle), the bowing techniques, and the intonation make a baroque string orchestra sound radically different from one that uses modern instruments and "traditional" modern string technique. – phoog Feb 4 at 21:02
  • "differ the least" is not "don't differ" but I still feel that the woodwind and brass have changed much more. Brass instruments are now chromatic which is a massive change. An old and modern oboe would probably not even be recognised as the same instrument by someone who had not studied music. However, that same person would probably not even notice that a violin had changed at all. – badjohn Feb 6 at 10:00
  • Perhaps that is true judging by appearance, and certainly by the notes available to be played (especially for the brass, excluding the trombones), but I find the tone of the string instruments to have changed as much as that of the woodwinds, and somewhat more than the brass. – phoog Feb 6 at 13:23
  • @phoog I'd fairly much agree. If you play a single note on a baroque and a modern trumpet then it probably sounds very similar but I find the tuning differences very noticeable. On the woodwind, I'd agree but the modern instruments will be more agile (I expect, I have not played any baroque ones). – badjohn Feb 6 at 14:06
  • I'm not sure about agility, but there are definitely tuning differences in the woodwinds, since they have far fewer keys and different fingering systems. They also have different tone on account of differences in the bore, reed, etc. Many seem to think that the use of different materials also affects the tone, but I suspect that the different dimensions (possibly implied by the different materials) are the more likely cause. I'm unaware of any research into that question. – phoog Feb 6 at 20:04
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I-ii-V-I,

I-vi-ii-V,

I-V6-vi-I64-IV-I6-ii6-V,

i-V-i-VII-III-VII-i-V-i,

i-VII-i-V-III-VII-i-V-i

I-vi-II7-V7-I

(and many others.)

All the above sound similar in different temperaments. Differences (if one takes care to avoid wolf tones) would be small. Tonal relations do not change with temperament. Little is missed in modern performances. Note that lutes and other fretted instruments often used a constant ration of 18/17 which gives something close to equal temperament. (I've not seen it discussed, but I think that close to 3/4 tuning between strings (those a fifth apart) makes them sound even more close to equal temperament.

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    Yep. It's been claimed- with good grounds I believe, as an instrumentmaker- that lutes were the first equal tempered instruments. – Scott Wallace Jun 23 '18 at 16:19
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    I don't think this is true. The tonal relationships don't change, but the chords themselves sound different. I believe the main reason is that 2^(3/12) is not very close to 6/5, so anything involving a minor third interval is quite different in sound between ET and just intonation. – Nathaniel Jun 24 '18 at 8:18
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    @Nathaniel actually I find the major thirds much more revealing. Yes, they are slightly better approximated by 12edo than the minor ones, but they also have stronger interference between the matching overtones, in particular if the lower note is doubled an octave down. – leftaroundabout Jun 24 '18 at 11:10
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Even on an instrument that is tuned to just intonation in certain key, you'll have to stray quite far from the original key to hear the worst intervals.

On instruments that do not have a fixed tuning, people will often strategically play slightly "out of tune" with respect to the ET, or even to just intonation to make intervals sound more pleasant to their taste.

I believe instrument construction is a far bigger factor. If you look for music performed on period instruments, you will find that, for example, pre-romantic woodwinds are don't have the clarity of modern instruments, and are a lot less in tune with themselves (even though good musicians can work around it). Likewise, baroque bows are very different in construction from modern ones. Whether it's better or worse than modern instruments is all subjective of course, myself I enjoy both.

  • "just intonation in a certain key" does not exist, and you do not need to stray at all from any key to hear this. For a major key, as an example, you cannot have your ii, IV, and V chords all tuned justly. That is, in C major, the A that is three fifths above C is too sharp to serve as the just major third of the F chord (by a factor of 81:80). Every keyboard that plays harmony must be tempered, even if it only has a 7-tone diatonic scale (i.e., only white keys). – phoog Feb 4 at 20:58
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Of course it sounds different. The question is no different to asking "does music sound different when it is played out of tune?"

But the assumption that all modern music is played in equal temperament is completely wrong. Very few modern musical instruments (except electronic ones) are designed to play "perfectly" in equal temperament. For example pianos have never been tuned in equal temperament, and probably never will be, for good acoustical reasons.

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    Can you elaborate on the reasons that pianos are not tuned to equal temperament? Are you talking about things like stretch tuning? – Todd Wilcox Jun 22 '18 at 21:48
  • You may be interested in this paper: sbfisica.org.br/rbef/pdf/342301.pdf – dmbaturin Jun 23 '18 at 2:00
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    Most piano tuners I know at least pay lip service to equal temperament (with the addition of stretch tuning, as Todd mentions). Unless they're tuning for "historical" performance. – Scott Wallace Jun 23 '18 at 16:22
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Some great answers here!

As @alephzero says in his answer, most modern musical instruments are not tuned in equal temperament, and as @ToddWilcox says, the greater impact is in changes in instrument construction (as well as hall acoustics and recording technology, depending on how you're listening). The effect of differences in tuning on, for example, the sound of piano music from the classical period to now, is going to be minimal.

If you want to prove to yourself that each key sounds different on a modern piano, transpose Bach's fugue in d minor from WTC book 2.

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