On the well-tempered question

ed Foote
7 min readAug 25, 2020


On the question of temperament:

With a dollop of asseveration, I say at the outset that assigning any sort of esoteric, cosmic, or spiritual value to musical pitch of A-440, A-432, or even, perhaps, A-457.3245, is, in My HO, pure bunkum. Perhaps there may be a commercial angle that is worth pushing, but that is of scant concern to fans of Euterpe. Now, while the heathens have gotten something to rage at, hopefully we can kick that canon over in a corner and bang our temperaments together in peace.

The first question I pose to ponder is the hankering, (however ardent and noble), to confer appellations such as “good” or “bad” upon the innocent intervals born of the sounds of nescient strings. While most agree that purity evokes visions of dulcet airs rising from the harps and lyres in Elysium’s garden, reality tempers such reverie. Housed in the 12 cell prison of the keys, there are, of necessity, fractious factions that disturb euphony with unavoidable dissonance. The ugly question of who is good and who is bad bides its time. Is it possible that all vociferations have value, requiring only the proper perspective in listening? How to minimize the disturbance while maintaining all members of the congregation is the onerous task that befalls the tuner.

Tuners, those poor, wretched, bundles of nerves and ear-drums, whose burden it is to mold mellifluous results out of chaos, are often overly sensitive to disorder. We have an inherent attraction to neatness and its second cousin, regularity. Charged with harnessing harmony for profit, we will usually seek the easiest and most efficacious path to the pot of gold found right beyond C88 and the snap of a tool-case. Straight lines being the shortest route, they urge us to the application of equality for all, and we are usually happiest escaping with our swag while leaving behind the least amount of ambiguity and question. Equally tempered simplicity, sold in the name of refinement, is an acceptable scheme in the most rarified and haute salons, stages, and shag-carpeted dens.

However, some tuners, (be they audacious or intrepidly pioneering), while lounging in their pride, seek other cats begging for a skinning and leap into the wilderness with tools of sharpness and flats. When these bushwhackers leave the industrial world to its ennui, they impel us to listen to a wide assortment of yowling and moans as the mechanized hum of equal thirds is taken off the straight and narrow path and thrown into a variety of harmonic scenery. No more feckless wandering among the keys, no more carefree modulations among dangerous clefs, as the ever-present chance of consonance falling into dissonant chasms looms.

The pricks of careless commas mingle with incoherent vistas, foreign and unwelcome to those accustomed to the well-groomed predictability of the equally tempered terrain. Adding to the screech of excessive tonality are the disappointed mewlings of the uninitiated invitees to this new texture. While some inch closer in inquisitiveness, others flee in disgust, leaving in their wake scornful imprecations and assurances of ruin.

Those of us that have not yet fled such dystopian musical possibilities, may investigate what beckons inquisitive souls. Though found in myriad places, the restful repose of natural tranquility rarely claims our initial scrutiny in the well-tempered soundscape, as the lurid appearance of the overly-expressive third will often storm center stage and dispense frissons right and left among the hopeful seekers of enlightenment. “Fie! so, this is what we have purchased with our tolerance? ” is a credible query, but wait! There is a balm for the burn of chromatic color and its suspected injury. A shade for the brilliance may be needed upon first viewing, much as the smoked glass (yes, I said GLASS), is welcome on first leaving the cave.

Though the first taste of the habanero often seems like a mistake, some familiarity with its use can allow the fiery fruit to move from bane to asset in an epicure’s palate. A similar case can be made in terms of the audible appetite, to leave the safe, monotonous, pablum behind and open the doors to the spice rack. Though various combinations of mixtures require experience to appreciate, there are some basic elements that the chef of the clef can grasp immediately. The first component that can yield the most dramatic flair is the third.

The major third occupies a place of preeminence in the psycho-emotive kingdom, due to its immediate influence on the senses. Purified it pacifies, widened it awakes. Whereas the difference between a pure fifth and an equally tempered fifth is a nuance beyond the vast majority of listener’s perception, the same cannot be said of the third. The distinction between a pure third and one injured by the stretch of 14 cents is large, and its effect profound. Given sufficient time making the damage democratic and hardwearing, vapid fate can cause the listener to overlook the stultifying mantle bestowed on this poor interval, and to accept the tedious gruel as feast.

To this table returns the well-tempered tuner, ragged and mauled by the vitiations of his crusade, yet still clutching his reticule of harmonic spices. Perhaps his trek has endowed him with the subtle skill needed to season the musical plate so that epiphany might find enough rising tide to float the barque of the Baroque and beyond in full color. Fueled with dearly bought finesse, his flame of inspiration may illuminate the nooks and crannies of composition left obscured by the haze of ubiquitous, busy, thirds. With a grain, grin, or even a smile of fortune, perhaps he may inspire interpretations of the canon (wrested from the A-432 devils), so that pianists might be freed from the insipid shackling of their beloved scale to the gods of math and regularity.

But enough of matters moot and elusive. The meat of the menu is the difference between sameness and variety. Before the musical maître d arrives, with tuning hammer in hand and eyes lit with zeal, let us consider the cost of the courses; the numbers that define the qualitative by the quantitative.

Given a 12 slot container for the comma, we find that to allot equal dissonance to the thirds we must stretch them 14 cents, (actually 13.7 if one wears bow ties and tweeds and balances their checkbook to the penny) beyond the silken shine of purity so attractive to singers, string players and other assorted musical devotees. Cents are a logarithmic division so it may be more accessible to consider that in the middle of the piano, this 14 cent tampering with perfection creates a wavering protest that oscillates 7 times per second on the F-A third, and slightly above, middle C joins with it E to complain 10 times per second. Even though the speeds are different, they occur at different levels of pitch and our logarithmic ears perceive them as equal in their quality of “tuneness”. All thirds are treated thusly, and if properly “tuned”, all sound with the same degree of concordance, tattered and dingy as it may be.

While any other instrument in the orchestra would be hounded out of the pit while their handlers would be thrown into one if they addressed harmony this way, the piano has carved out its singular ownership of this cacophony. Its uniform destruction of the thirds’ consonance has inured the ear of the majority of its audience to the wavering cries of dissonance, and the poor third, desecrated as it is, is accepted as musically valid. When the world is covered by soot, the smudge is overlooked.

Into this begrimed domain plods the well-tempered crusader. His wohle-cloth applied to the pane yields areas of luminescent consonance by pushing the soot aside. The ever-present grunge yields to the effort, allowing various hues of glowing clarity to appear at the expense of growing shade. Thus is sameness destroyed and variety restored, but it is not for all. Many prefer the equality, as there is no need to shift positions to avoid the cluttering dissonance produced. They will not be assuaged by the salesman’s spiel; the accumulated refuse required to brighten the parlor, even if located in rooms seldom visited, is too odious to allow to exist. “Spread it all back evenly, so that we are not troubled by decisons” is the cry. Entrophy reigns, Erato weeps.

Others rejoice over the multifariousness, euphoric over euphony, delirious with the diversification of tone and texture now audible. The doubtful crossing of the bridge from homogeneity to heterogeneity is forgotten and the lights and colors, having gone from gray to the rainbow, delight. Upon a more full consumption, the palate and palette begin to find uses for the contents of the refuse bin. What once was dissonant detritus is found to be useful timber to frame melodic structures, as the prickly F# provides the rough stepping stone to calm as the passage steps lightly over a modulating stream. When the unavoidable ravages of time deliver a funereal need, perhaps a funeral itself, we can dig out Ab minor to suppress gaiety long enough to properly grok our plight. Every plant in the garden finds a place, every warp in the tapestry has it woof.

What are dark clouds but reminders of sunshine’s beauty? Can gratitude be garnered by those that have never lost? Is love not more dear to the broken heart than to the one never bruised? Does Music resolve more intensely with colors among the black and whites of the keys?

Plutarch said, “Music, to create harmony, must investigate discord”. So we leave the tuner to his own lights, and when paths cross, we all have the choice whether or not to investigate those tonal trails laid out for us by others.





ed Foote

Piano technician, career in Nashville with 38 years as technican at Vanderbilt University, 36 years in recording studios . Specialist in temperaments