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Over my many years of working with musicians in ensembles of all sizes, I have come to realize that there are a number of fundamental misconceptions which have undermined the success of the Historical Performance Practice movement in regards to recreating a truly historical sense of intonation, at least as much as we can know how it must have been from a variety of extant comments. These problems are, in order of importance:

(1) A general lack of familiarity with a wide number of truly historical temperaments in their original forms.

(2) The false notion that an anachronistic and needlessly-complicated 19th century tuning methodology originally devised for setting Equal Temperament (i.e. beat counting) represents historical practice for earlier periods.

(3) An adherence to a modern reference note (A) practice which only became ubiquitous during the 20th-century in an environment of universally-applied Equal Temperament, a practice which is completely foreign to the historical reality, and one which causes musicians of melody instruments to acquire a distorted vision of how to work in a musical environment of temperament plurality.

(4) The false idea that a temperament dictates the intonation for the entire ensemble, or even worse, for an entire oeuvre of music by a certain composer (for example, the application of the various “Bach” keyboard temperaments to his vocal and instrumental works).

In order to break this deadlock caused by well-intentioned though somewhat misguided efforts of the earlier generations of HIP musicians, it will be necessary to address all four of these issues, and that’s precisely what this blog is all about. The intent is to provide information, sources, discussion, and hopefully solutions to encourage musicians to rediscover the exciting world of the infinite subtlety of flexible intonation we lost during the 19th-century with the adoption of Equal Temperament.

Back in 2001, I published a short little pamphlet about tuning and tempering using electronic devices, which provided not only the data for programming a number of historical temperaments, but also contained a variety of comments and tips derived from my many years of professional tuning in the Early Music world. I jokingly called it “Temperament for Dummies”, in reference to the then new series of “how-to” manuals which had only begun to appear. I had no idea how popular my little trifle would become, and later when I decided to withdraw it for various reasons, I became deluged with requests for a new version. This blog is intended to be a virtual version of the same. I’ll provide the basic info, and from time to time I hope to be able to comment and answer specific request.

A note to temperament theorists: the tone of this blog is intended to be somewhat light-hearted and jovial, perhaps at times irreverent. We all know that temperament is really rather dull and tedious, requiring a certain amount of math (though all of it at a pretty simplistic level) and conceptual precision if you really want to get down to the nuts and bolts of it. It is only marginally better than Chartered Accountancy, and a far cry from Lion Taming. However, this is precisely what puts-off many people who could benefit greatly from a better understanding of the topic (i.e. musicians), so a big part of my intent is to demystify and reduce the fear factor. Everything presented here is based upon the most rigorous calculation and every attempt is made to return to original sources whenever possible, and for those who want such sophistication, it can be found here. Nonetheless, my aim is to avoid resorting to the use of Pfaffensprache as much as possible.

Have fun, and remember these wise words of wisdom from Woodie Guthrie:

“Believe it or not, you won’t like it so hot,
If you ain’t got that Do-Re-Mi.”

Paul Poletti, April 2011