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Posted by on Dec 5, 2012 in Just Intonation | 0 comments

Untempered Vs. Tempered

I’ve been listening to yesterday’s chord progression showing off the b7.

I think it offers an excellent opportunity to hear the difference between equal temperament and just intonation.

Equal temperament works by implying or evoking a note rather than playing it exactly. There are dozens of singable notes per octave; ET represents them all with just twelve tones.

Some ET notes are close to their just counterparts; the 4 and 5 are close enough to be essentially right on. The major third is not so great. It’s 0.8% sharp, enough to change the feeling it produces.

The ET b7 is even further off, a full 1% flat of the untempered note. For me, this is enough to change its flavor entirely, and dilute its resonance to the point where it’s just not the same note. I would contend that the real experience of the b7 is not actually available in equal temperament.

Here it is again:

And in ET:

To me, the real b7 sounds triumphant, like its arms are outstretched to the sky after a great victory.

The ET one sounds very different. It’s not unpleasant, but it sure is different. It it a little sad? The leaping dance is gone. The b3 is flat too. Poor minor, no wonder she’s sad! A mortal has seized the hem of her garment and made her earthbound, in order to put her in his power and make her a little better behaved.

Now go back and listen to the JI version. My experience is that I hear it a little sharp for a second, and then it settles in and wow. This is all subjective; you may hear entirely different things. But this example makes it pretty clear, I think, that JI and ET do not sound the same.

So here we have a note, with a distinct (and unique) personality, that produces a physiological sensation that just isn’t quite available in equal temperament. There are a lot more of these to come, with strange and beautiful colors. Really getting into JI and the lattice is like getting the 64-color Crayola box for Christmas. Orange-yellow and yellow-orange, what riches!

One of my favorite phrases in any song comes from the great Greg Brown. In Eugene, from The Evening Call, he says,

The Northwest is good, once you get off I-5 and wander up and down the Willamette dammit, on the back back roads. I know a few people who’d let me park in their drive, plug in for a night or two, stay up late, and talk about these crazy times — the blandification of our whole situation. And then back to the woods. A dog is bound to find me sooner or later. Sometimes you gotta not look too hard — just let the dog find you.

The blandification of our whole situation. Nice one, Mr. Brown. I recommend going back and forth between the last two vids a few times. Deblandification!

By the way, The Evening Call is packed with great lyrics and music. Top notch.

Next: The Minor Second

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