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The Truth about Temperaments

The Truth about Temperaments

by Edward Kottick

originally published in Guild of American Luthiers Quarterly Volume 12, #2, 1984 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume #1, 2000

There is a good deal of misinformation in print about consonance, dissonance, scales, harmonics, intervals, tuning, and temperaments. Even textbooks and scientific journals have gotten these subjects wrong, and I hope to correct the situation.

Let us begin with the terms “consonance” and “dissonance.” These words have two separate sets of meanings, one musical and psychological, the other acoustical and physical; and they are often confused. From the musical point of view a dissonance is a combination of tones which, dictated by usage, projects a quality of restlessness, motion, direction, or instability. Dissonances want to go somewhere; that is, they want to resolve to consonances, which have, of course, the opposite effect. Consonances are combinations of tones to which we ascribe the qualities of restfulness, stability, and a feeling of arrival. Note that I have described the character of these terms as something dictated by usage, rather than as qualities inherent in the combination of tones. Since around 1450 (the beginning of the Renaissance) major and minor thirds and sixths, perfect fourths, fifths, and octaves have been considered consonances, although a distinction is made between perfect consonances (fourths, fifths, and octaves) and the others, which are imperfect consonances. Every other combination of tones is considered dissonant, including the fourth if it appears above the lowest sounding note.

Music needs both consonance and dissonance. Without the latter it would be bland, dull, and lacking in direction. Although we may not think of composers such as Palestrina, Bach, and Chopin (to pull some names out of the air) as dissonant composers, there is an enormous amount of dissonance, as we just defined it, in their music. Furthermore, a dissonance is a dissonance only if we all say so. In the music of John Phillip Sousa a major chord with an added sixth (which makes a dissonant second to the fifth) is a dissonance; but in a jazz style that same combination of tones is treated as a consonance and is perceived in that way. In polyphonic music (music of more than one part) of the Middle Ages the third was considered dissonant, but around 1450 it began to be perceived as a consonance. This is an apparent contradiction only if the interval itself is considered in vacuo; but in the context of the music, medieval composers treated thirds and sixths as unstable combinations that needed to be resolved to perfect consonances, while Renaissance composers, and all those who followed up to the 20th century, considered thirds and sixths consonant and the building blocks of music.

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