Key of Life 

The idea that solved music’s greatest riddle

“Today’s piano is a miraculous machine,” writes Temperament author Stuart Isacoff, “A colossus of cast iron and wood—filled with screws, hammers, and felt—weighing nearly a thousand pounds. Concert goers the world over still flock to hear its magical sounds, unaware of the long controversy that once brewed over the way its tones are arranged, in twelve equal steps within each octave. For most, the idea that they might be formulated another way has simply never arisen.”

It does seem pretty self-evident, doesn’t it? Clip-art quarter note notwithstanding, there’s probably nothing in our visual lexicon as iconic of music as a piano keyboard: seven white keys, five black keys, do re mi fa sol la ti do. The smug perfection of the modern piano keyboard has been sneakily inculcated in the minds of young piano students for as long as there have been pianos. It’s almost heretical to wonder whether anyone ever wanted more tones to the octave.

Yet people always have. For 20th century composer Harry Partsch, no fewer that 43 tones to the octave were needed to do justice to the music swirling around in his head. There are unsettling illustrations in Temperament of keyboards with 17, 19 or more keys to the octave. There are black keys stacked on black keys and white keys sliced in two for the nimble-fingered clavichordist to belay the clanging and howling of rogue thirds and snarling fifths, circling a plainsong or a sonata like wolves waiting to tear into the old and weak. Most people don’t realize it, but you get the idea right away in Isacoff’s book: Today’s keyboard may look the very picture of prevailing order, but just below the surface roils a debate with roots reaching all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

The source of contention is what lends Isacoff’s book its title. Temperament, as the author puts it, is one of man’s responses to the frustrating discovery that nature, despite our best efforts to decode its proportions and shoehorn them into an orderly and reliable scheme, does not always show its work. The guy who opened the whole can of worms was the Greek thinker Pythagoras, poking and prodding around in the lath and plaster of the cosmos trying to figure out what made it tick.

Pythagoras was the first to use the term cosmos. He was also one of the first Western philosophers to try and decipher the mechanics of music by applying the language of math and numbers, which he perceived as nothing less than the primordial substance around which everything in the universe was arranged. Even today, our understanding of music hinges on his discovery, if you can call it a discovery, of the musical octave. Experimenting with different lengths of string, Pythagoras determined that the most agreeable harmonies occur when the vibrations produced by each string commingle with others in reliable proportions. In an octave, for example, he noticed that the upper string oscillated at a rate of two times for every oscillation of the lower string, or a ratio of 2:1. Pythagoras also described formulas for two other special harmonic relations he thought pleasing to the ear: the perfect fifth and the perfect fourth, each with its own fixed ratio, and each ratio apparently another step toward an orderly numerical map of a universe previously terrifying in its boundlessness.

But there was a problem: The farther the octaves and fifths strayed from their common starting point, the more Pythagoras began to notice his seemingly commensurate ratios decaying and producing stridently discordant notes. Far from helping to tame the tumult of nature with ratios and formulas, the cracks that appeared in this “Pythagorean tuning,” like irrational numbers stretching into infinity behind a decimal point, actually made the universe look even more boundless and terrifying! Though the flaws in his model were kept a closely guarded secret by Pythagoras and his followers, for hundreds of years after his death they merely lay dormant, like spores of a fungus waiting for just the right conditions to make trouble.

The Renaissance was just moist and warm enough for the spores to germinate, and so began the temperament wars. Isacoff likens temperament to filing down pieces of an impossibly complex jigsaw puzzle to force them into submission, and for hundreds of years the problem of how the octave should be divided and its pieces filed into cooperation preoccupied many of the eminent philosophical and scientific minds of Europe. For Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes and Johannes Kepler, to single out just a handful, the implications of temperament reached far beyond the proper tuning of a musical instrument. Temperament was a philosopher’s stone for rendering nature and divinity in miniature. These thinkers were trying to decipher the very code of creation, and in doing so they found themselves buffered by the crosscurrents of Catholic dogma and the Enlightenment, eclipsed by each others’ egos, in turns reviled and rehabilitated during their own lifetimes. Scientific reputations weren’t always the only thing at stake, either—the stake itself, and the bonfire under it, put an end to more than one of Temperament’s seekers of musical truth.

It might sound a little on the dry and theoretical side, but Temperament really is a page-turner. From a musical standpoint, Isacoff—pianist, lecturer, and award-winning music writer—couldn’t have trolled the Renaissance waters with juicier bait than the contentious matter of temperament. Body-snatchers, painters, heretics, alchemists and composers come to life in these pages. Tellingly, he also reserves his last chapter for a handful of modern composers who use alternative temperaments and microtonal increments in their music, hinting that there is a whole new realm of music waiting to be freed from the tyranny of equal temperament. I’ve only heard a little of it, and I can’t wait.

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