Mean tone temperament OTTAVIANO PETRVCCI
Image2.gif (125078 bytes) Mean tone temperament

The pieces presented here will sound at their best if played on an instrument tuned according to a so called mean tone temperament. In the most used form the fifths c-g, d-a and g-d' are too narrow, the major thirds above and under d, e, g en a  and the major thirds above c and f are pure.

Tuning by ear provides better results than using an electronic device. If you want to know why, read "Tuning for dummies" by Paul Poletti.

Composers from the 15th and 16th centuries confine themselves to modes or keys playable on the white keys of the keyboard, only the b-flat being used as a key signature. Within a piece extra accidentals are used, but modulation is not that systematic as we are used to in compositions from the 17th century onward.


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In a temperament from the 18th century or later this music will sound less well. Especially in the 18th-century temperaments according to Werckmeister the thirds e'-g'-sharp and a-c'-sharp sound definitely false. These thirds are common in the cadences of 16th century music. They are hardly better in the alleged temperament in the graphic representation on the title page of the manuscript of J.S. Bach's Wohltemperierte Clavier. This very good temperament has been (re)constructed by Bradley Lehman in two articles in Early Music of 2005. In later issues of this periodical his theory has been challenged with valid arguments. Bradley's site also contains instructions for other temperaments, for instance the temperament by Matthias Sorge from 1744, under the buttons Practise - Tune it: expert, page down.

Tuning according to the most usual mean tone temperament should be als follows. Each string to be tuned should be turned a little bit looser at first before tuning it up (that applies to all temperaments).

1. Use a tuning fork or another device to produce an a' at the height prescribed for your instrument (mostly 415 or 440 Hz).

2. Tune the a'-string of one of the registers (choirs, stops) of your instrument. The sound may have no beats or wows, but should be pure.

3. Tune a to a'.

4. Tune f to a and a', f' to f. Control whether the chord f-a-f'-a' is pure. Tuning the tenth f-a' is often easier than the thirds f-a or f'-a'; it will be helpful to put a little weight on one of the keys to keep it down.

5. Tune c' to f and c to c'. Check whether c-f-c'-f' is pure.

6. Tune e to c and c', and e' to e. Check whether c-e-c'-e' is pure.

7. Tune g' to c', but g' should be just as much too low as to not offend the ear. There may be about 4 beats to a second. Tune g to g' pure.

8. Tune d' to a', but the d' should be just as much too high as to not offend the ear. There may be about 4 beats to a second. Tune d to d' pure.

9. Check whether the number of beats in the chords g-d', d'-a' and c'-g' is equal. If necessary turn g en d' a little bit up or down to attain that. Tune g' to g pure again and d to d'.

10. Tune G to g and A to a.

11. Tune G-B-g-b as described in 4.

12. Tune  A-c-sharp-a-c'-sharp as described in 4.

13. Tune B-flat-d-b-flat-d' as decribed in 4.

14. Tune d-f-sharp-d'-f'-sharp as decribed in 4.

15. Tune e-flat-g-e'-flat-g' as decribed in 4.

16. Tune e-g-sharp-e'-g'-sharp as decribed in 4.

17. Tune the other strings pure with the octaves; check also the tenths.

In pieces from the early 17th century sometimes d-sharps and a-flats occur. In that case you tune the e-flat down to d-sharp and the g-sharp up to a-flat. Frescobaldi sometimes uses d-sharp and e-flat in the same piece. In that case one of them will sound false. In 17th-century instruments especially from Italy sometimes the d-sharp and e-flat and the g-sharp and a-flat keys were split up in two half keys, each with its own action and action.

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