Tag Archives: physics of music

“Temperament – How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization” by Stuart Isacoff.

Vintage Books, 2003. 233 pages, with illustrations, bibliography and index.

There’s a piano on the front of this book, but it’s funny looking. There’s a black key in the middle, with three white keys on each side, then alternating black and white keys, uninterrupted. Some of the black keys bear distinguishing marks. Who could play this mutant instrument?! What would it sound like?

I play piano, read music competently and occasionally sing in a chorus. I knew a little about the issues involved in piano tuning, but I had NO IDEA how long, convoluted and contentious was the historical path that led to our modern tunings and the pair of scales we commonly hear and employ (major and minor).

I would rate my understanding of this book at about 50%. Isacoff plunges into mathematics (including geometry), Egyptian, Greek and European history (including astrology and alchemy), psychology and philosophy as he discusses how we got to where we are today.

European music was initially greatly influenced by “the ancients”, the Greek philosophers. These were wise men, but some of their ideas about music were out of touch with physical reality, and it took a long time to sort things out. Music inherently requires selectivity. You can’t use every tone, every interval. Why do some tones or intervals sound good, others “dissonant”? Why does music have so much emotional impact? What kind of music is “natural”? Is there a link between music and morality?

Of course I want to hear some of the music referenced in this book, especially the intervals and the infamous “wolf” tones that emerge from certain tunings. Another reason to dig in to U-Tube.

A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times called this book “a whirlwind tour of Western culture’s big ideas…” That sums it up very well.

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