I understand generally interval tunings can be perceived through the "beating" phenomena. But that seems to be something that can only be heard in a testing context. Like playing two sine waves in a lab. In a real music performance I imagine it's difficult to hear beating.

To compare tunings used in real music performance I'm using this page with 4 different records of Bach's BWV 864 in 4 different tunings: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_tuning#Systems_for_the_twelve-note_chromatic_scale.

Upon first listen I don't hear a difference in these recordings.

After several listenings I sort of think there is a difference in what I perceive as timbre. Some seem a bit softer than others, but it's very subtle.

This leads me to a few personal observations:

My piano (which I'm sure is never tuned well except a few weeks after a tuning) has a pleasing tone to my ears in sharp/flat keys but kind of harsh tone in the basic keys like C and G major. Perhaps this isn't tone/timbre but rather tuning.

On my guitar I can carefully get open D in tune and then hear that open C sounds horrible and I have to shift everything around until I get all the open chords sounding decent. I sometime attribute that to good tuning for the octave in open D becoming an out of tune 6th in open C and visa-versa. But it could be bad intonation on my cheap guitar. Anyway, it's possible I'm hearing the tuning problem.

A final observation: none of the 4 Bach recordings above is 'out of tune' unless one is fanatical about a particular tuning.

I don't really know if I hear a difference with these various tunings. Maybe I do, but I mistakenly perceive as a very subtle timbre difference.

How do professional musicians (with better ears than mine) perceive it?

How many musicians could identify those 4 tunings in a blind comparison?

2 Answers 2


(Not exactly an answer, but posting this as an answer because it is too long for a comment)

I'm sure people with absolute pitch will have very different responses to people who use relative pitch (e.g., myself, who has at best very shaky relative pitch). That being said, place and time and context will help dictate that as well. Mean-temperament tuning was used in Europe for a time, and to us it sounds very out of tune these days, but it was considered relatively standard at the time and place this piece was written by Frescobaldi (to use an old example straight from the Grout). Another good example is Balinese Gamelan which (somewhat famously) sounds "out of tune" compared to equal temperament tuning. Hindemith does have somewhat of an interesting discussion of this in his The Craft of Musical Composition, Book 1, when he attempts (shakily) to deduce the 12-tone equal temperament scale out of the harmonic series - that more or less equal temperament is kind of the best compromise (to oversimplify) given the different choices generated by the natural overtone series, where he points out some cultures may take certain overtones "sharper" or "flatter" to fit into a scale of some sort - for example, a major pentatonic scale with a "natural" sixth versus one with a "flat" seventh - which is how a Western-trained ear would interpret those scales. Other Western composers have very different views of tuning later on (in the late High Modern and Postmodern era, 1950s-1970s), with microtonality and experiments with Indian-style quarter tones and so on.

How do professional musicians (with better ears than mine) perceive it?

Listening to the Bach examples, oddly enough the just intonation tuning sounds FLAT to me. Very flat. But that's because I'm used to equal temperament, and I do not have perfect (absolute) pitch.

Ultimately here is the rub. I'm sure Mozart had a tuning he preferred, which was different than CPE Bach, who both tuned different than Debussy. Satie probably tuned his piano by hitting it with blunt objects.

How many musicians could identify those 4 tunings in a blind comparison?

Given enough ear training anyone conceivably could, just as how you can recognize your mother's voice over your sister's voice. The matter is training to do so. Whichever you prefer I think is geared more toward the psycho-sociological side of things than a theory text.

We use what is convenient and gets the job done, and right now we've settled on equal temperament - which may give way to some other tuning system which could allow for just intonation in all 12 keys - the theoretician Zarlino actually made a keyboard with several extra keys to allow for this long before the introduction of equal and well temperaments. We could also go to quarter tones at some point. Right now society is changing so incredibly fast that there's no point in trying to surmise what comes next.

  • What example in meantone sounds “very out-of-tune” to you? (I assume you mean quarter-comma; actually there are many different meantone tunings including 12-edo!) I think most people would barely notice the difference between 12-edo and ¼-comma or ⅙-comma meantone, unless of course you modulate to a key where it doesn't work. Commented Oct 20, 2018 at 10:49
  • @leftaroundabout The half-steps (semitones) sound as if they are either "too far apart" or "too close" to me. But as I said, that's because I'm used to equal temperament.
    – LSM07
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 14:14
  • well, semitones don't really exist in general meantone temperaments. They just temper the whole steps to be all equal. Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 14:18
  • 1
    One thing I notice is that major thirds are in tune, so a major chord sounds much nicer in a non-tempered tuning as long as you're in the key that it's tuned in. But if you play in a different key, and you'll hear the difference instantly.
    – Duston
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 14:48

Claim: I'm not a professional.

Pitch, chords, tuning and timbre are all based on the same physical phenomena. There is no fixed line where chords are fusing to tones. In the same way tuning is mainly a source for changing the timbre than a quality of pitch.

On the other hand, a chord or tone does not define any music. Tuning must always be considered relative to a piece of music. When a composer plays with the wolf interval(s), this effect is cancelled out in 12-edo. On the other hand many music dies as soon as the sevenths chords are played in just intonation.

Personally, I don't here a difference when someone plays a scale in different tunings. But there is a difference in the overall perception of a piece. For example according to my experience Pretorius may sound flat in 12-edo, but comes to live in ¼-comma meantone.

In 12-edo there is no difference between D# major and Eb major. The idea that one is more joyful than the other comes from the timbre feature of tunings. This defines whether the main chords/progressions are more damped than the others or vice versa.

Tunings have other important implications, when it comes to play an instrument that is not pretuned. Amature brass bands have more difficulties playing in D# than in Bb¹ or Eb. This is because these instruments are mainly tuned to Bb. F is quite common for horns and some piccolo trumpets. And Eb is used for different alto instruments (horns and trombones). The instruments allow the well-trained player some modification of the pitch so that professionals may play anything they want. But the beginner is more or less bound to the Bb just intonation of the overtone series and whatever the valves provide.

There are some violin concerts in Eb. They are meant to be played by soloists who have retuned their violin to this pitch, while the tutti violins remain in D. In that case the tuning is used to modify the timbre, as the empty strings resonate and modify the sound of a violin.

¹ Bb is often called “C” on trumpets. But that is a different story.

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