Natural Tuning vs Equal Temperament

What if I told you that our (modern) Western system of music was built upon a trick that fuzzes out the clarity of harmony? What if there is an ancient, more pure way to tune your music?

There is! And I’m going to explain exactly what these two systems are, why the Western ear has changed, and how we can go back.

A Tale of Two Temperaments

Let’s have a peek into the mathematics behind music.

When we take a frequency, say A, 220hz and double it to 440hz, we get another A. Play them together, and we have a ratio of 2:1. This means that the higher note is oscillating at exactly twice the speed of the lower note. The space between this is what we call an octave. There are twelve notes inside an octave, and we find those notes by simply dividing the octave into twelve equal steps. With me?

This is the way things have been done in the Western world for many generations.

But there is another way to construct music, which can sound and feel immensely more pure, harmonious, and meditative. And it works particularly well with the Native American Style Flute.

The heart of all this is a little mystery: when you sing or play one note, you actually create several notes at once. These extra notes are called the overtone series, and your brain and body know these notes intimately and expect them. Music based upon these natural sounds uses simple, “low-prime-ratios”, which means they are based upon the numbers 1, 3, and 5. (If you have a string instrument on hand, there’s an easy way you can explore this! Read our short tutorial here)

We used to craft all our music around the pure resonances of the natural, overtonal harmonies. You can find this on guitar strings, in valve instruments like trumpets, or embedded in the soundwaves of every note, whether sung or played. This remains true of folk music in villages the world over, and was also true in early Western music.

But the Western mind grew ever more adventurous, the Western ear thirsty for greater complexity and harmonic density. Polyphonic music, previously based on interweaving lines following pure, low-prime ratios, grew to include continual triads and extended chords—large clusters of notes, which became more and more difficult to tune harmoniously without some sort of compromise.

The conventional narrative is that Western classical music simply outgrew the simplicity of nature, and a new system was created to accommodate the new music. Another perspective is that much beauty was sacrificed for the sake of complexity.

Equal Temperament

The solution was elegant in a way – you simply divide the octave into twelve equally-spaced steps. The distance between pitches was given a new metric, called cents – the space of an octave now measured as 1200 cents, and the distance between each half-step on a piano or guitar is 100 cents.

Big problem: this fuzzes out the natural harmony of justly tuned intervals.

Under Equal Temperament, all notes are homogenized, robbed of their individual personalities. Music thereby loses its true center. Sensitive musicians were so opposed to the great loss of beauty in this sacrifice that it wasn’t until about 1917 – towards the end of World War One – that Equal Temperament became the dominant standard. By then, it had been in wide use for quite some time. Where we stand today, the beautiful natural harmonies that make music tick are so distant to most of us that they’re almost unknown, memories buried deep within our psyche.

The Great Western Alienation

This change of temperaments represents a complete transformation of musical culture. The master W. A. Mathieu, in his book Harmonic Experience, explains the history and theory of both temperaments better than anyone, and captures the transition beautifully in words:

“The central energies that define music are not conscious, much less articulated, in the [Western] culture. The universal acceptance of equal temperament in the West has resulted in a splendid body of music, but the accumulated result of centuries of impure, approximate tuning has given our ears a kind of jet lag, a condition of aesthetic depletion. We have no comprehensive music theory today because we are so removed from direct experience of the seed resonances that generated music in the first place. Equal temperament has been something like electric light—highly useful, but alienating us from the basic rhythms of the sun and the moon, the purest phases of being.”

A perfect analogy.

I believe this shift in musical temperament parallels the loss of connection to nature that came through the industrial revolution. You could also compare the rise of equal temperament to the development of soulless, depressing modern architecture. On a broader political level, I believe that our alienation from the pure harmonies of nature reflects the tragic march of colonialism over indigenous and non-Western cultures.

Again, from W. A. Mathieu:

“It is astounding how thoroughly the resonances of just intonation have been submerged. Entire African villages sing nightlong rituals beautifully in tune, but Americans cannot sing “Happy Birthday” in tune in a restaurant. This raises the deeper issue of our separation from what is natural, and perhaps points to a more complete musical behaviour. Maybe, as was thought by Pythagoras, musical harmony really is a model for harmony on a grander scale, and a clear model of our music can teach us something about our present state of separation and loss.”

What this means for Flute players

The real problem for us flute players is there is little benefit in modulating to any one of the twelve key centers. On the Native American-style flute especially, the root note – with all holes closed – rings out richly and strongly, emphasizing its identity as the root from which other notes go.

If we then tune the other notes according to Just Intonation, we restore their precise identities. Our songs become more pure, restful, centered, and clear. If you wish to play more personal music on your flute, solo or with a drone, then the natural way of tuning is best for you.

The beautiful truth is that the natural resonances of Just Intonation are found by any sensitive ear that dutifully explores sound in a peaceful environment. The Natural system of tuning does not belong exclusively to any one culture – it is Universal. 

Thank heavens that it has been preserved in so many cultures across the world, despite the all-to-often obliterating spread of modern Western influences.

By rediscovering the pure harmonies of Nature, we do more than simply gain some pretty new sounds—we connect with deep and profound truths, mysteries that unite the Human Spirit across space and time.

The differences between naturally tuned music and equally-tempered music cannot be overemphasized.

When I first started tuning my flutes naturally, I fell in love with the sweetness and richness of the notes, especially the Pure Thirds, that the equal-tempered thirds of the guitar became somewhat grating and frustrating to my ears. What I did next would shock many classical guitarists – I took to my classical guitar with a pair of nail clippers, deftly removed all of the frets, and modified the action to make it possible to play fretless, so that I could justly intonate my notes and move into a purer, more contemplative music. This was an extreme move, but it really helped my musical ear.

You can get the same benefit by asking to have your Southern Cross Flute drone flute tuned used Natural Tuning. How awesome is that!

2 Comments

  1. No fixed tone tuning system can remove the fundamental part of nature that is the Pythagorean comma. That is, the circle of 12 (theoretical harmonically) pure fifths adds up to nearly a quarter of a semitone more that seven (theoretical harmonically) pure octaves. The only way to have each and every interval pure within and beyond the octave, and in all keys, is to tune on the fly. You can never close the gap by increasing the number of notes within an octave, only make the error between intervals smaller and smaller – but also making the instrument more and more impractical to play (other than by programming with a computer, as in microtonal music). There are guitar fret boards with micro tonal frets, and key boards with the black notes split in to two parts to give a slightly different pitch for C# and Db for example, but these are not so practical or easy to play for the majority and only lessen the error without actually removing it. The human voice and a violin for example can tune on the fly, but can’t at the same time play along with any fixed tone instrument of however many notes per octave tuned to any temperament or intonation if the two are to be harmonically in tune with each other. On top of this, in real acoustic instruments, the harmonics do not line up with their theoretical positions, which causes a stretching of the octaves as you go up in pitch, thus modifying the temperament. All pianos for example, have their own unique tuning curve that deviates from any temperament you want to tune to according to the harmonic characteristics of that particular piano. Human hearing further complicates things and results in higher notes needing to be stretch yet further sharp in order for the result to sound in tune (with the chosen temperament) to us. Individual pitch perception also varies. Unequal temperaments only allow some (not even all possible) intervals to be pure in one key because the act of making those intervals pure can only be achieved at the expense of making others less pure. Some temperaments ‘restart’ at every octave. These less pure intervals are far more dissonant (out of tune with the harmonics) sounding than any interval in a equally tempered instrument, such that some keys are unusable. The ability to be able to freely modulate to any key on a fixed tone instrument makes equal temperament the most sensible and flexible compromise. It is certainly a compromise, but no more or less so than any other temperament. All temperaments have their place depending on the intentions of the composer and it’s horses for courses. There is no such thing as perfect or natural tuning for real life acoustic fixed tone instruments.


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