A great battle about music from history (Part 1)

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Western music history is a fascinating subject.  There is much to learn and much to apply to where we are today.  

I do not often do this, but I want to recommend that you buy a book and read it.  It is called Temperament by Stuart Isacoff.  The subtitle is “How music became a battleground for the great minds of western civilization.”  You can buy it on Amazon for basically free if you pay for shipping.  I think I paid $0.15 plus $4.00 shipping for a used copy.  It is an easy and fast read of about 250 pages.

The subtitle probably tells you why I am intrigued by the content.  And I assure you the content is intriguing.  Isacoff discusses how temperament (the science of tuning an octave) was one battle in the war between faith and reason that occurred about 500 years ago.  He takes a very non-technical approach to temperament itself and instead focuses on how culture, religion, science and the arts influenced the debate.  The book is immensely controversial, and most of the negative reviews seem to be written by piano tuners who are annoyed because the content is non-technical.  Trust me that you will be glad it is non-technical.  Temperament is a tedious business.

There is a bit of crass content but nothing that a college level student cannot handle.  Isacoff obviously enjoys pointing out not only the genius of various people involved in the debate (including Isaac Newton, Descartes, Plato, da Vinci and Galileo) but also their foolishness.   He does so in a very funny way and I laughed out loud numerous times while reading it.  Some will be annoyed by his treatment of the Reformers.  He enjoyed pointing out some of their bizarre tendencies and greatly ignored their positive contributions.

I am going to be talking about this subject in detail over the next few weeks because I consider it to be enormously important.  This book did not shape my musical philosophy (I read it for the first time only recently) but if you read it, you will definitely understand better why I say many of the things I do about music philosophy and theology.  

The overview of the book is this: Until the end of the Middle Ages, faith ruled in the development of music, and after that time, reason took over.  One huge battlefield involved the issue of tuning or temperament.  Before the Renaissance, tunings were based on a faith-based philosophy that originated in ancient Greece.  Essentially, Greek philosophers believed that there was a mystical order to the universe and certain laws based on numbers needed to be followed.  For example, Pythagoras was especially influential.  He taught that music should be based on mathematical relationships that he saw in nature.  It was his teaching that led to relationships between pitches being expressed as ratios.  For example, an octave is based on a 2:1 ratio, a perfect fifth is based on a 3:2 ratio, etc.

The problem was that Pythagoras’ ratios were impractical in tuning for various technical reasons and musicians struggled for many centuries trying to make them work.  They had to make them work because the church (who had bought into Greek numerology) believed that tuning outside those ratios was an affront to God and nature.  Men were tortured and burned at the stake for such “crimes.”

As faith gave way to reason at the end of the Middle Ages, the top scientists and philosophers of the day weighed in on the debate and began to push for temperament.  Temperament refers to changing pitches slightly to make them work better across the board.  Here is a short explanation for why this was necessary.  Tuning to a true perfect fifth sounds great as long as you play in a particular key.  However, when you play in another key, that perfect fifth becomes a huge problem because it ruins relationships between notes in the new key.  That is why there are not really any perfect fifths on a piano any more.  Tuners “temper”  (or bend) the pitches of notes slightly so that you can play a piano in any key and it sounds good.

Men like Isaac Newton believed in God and they believed in faith.  But they just didn’t necessarily have much faith in the teaching of the church about music and they did not really think God agreed with that teaching either.  So they pushed for new tunings-tunings that broke the mystical formulas of Pythagoras.  Eventually, they won and equal temperament was born.  Today, 99% of all pianos are tuned (at least attempted to be tuned) in equal temperament, a pragmatic solution that is not perfect but clearly works.

You have to understand a little bit about temperament to understand the book but once you wade through that section, the real story is about the fight between faith and science/rationality.  The principle actors in this drama were highly entertaining men which great minds, enormous egos, and an often inclination toward foolishness.  If you have any interest at all in music and history, you will love this story.

Those of you that are young and trying to formulate your philosophy/theology of music especially should read it.  You will not agree with everything and you need to understand the biases of the author, but there is much to learn from this book.  I am a huge fan of learning both sides of a story and understanding not only the strengths but also the weaknesses of our historical heroes.  It is also good to know who were not really heroes at all.

Much more to come over the next few weeks.

Note: You can read part 2 of this series here.