Saturday, August 2, 2014

What Exactly is "in Tune?"

A very interesting exchange is currently raging on the Music Theory Society's talk line about overtones and tunings.  I know what I know about overtones simply from experience with them.
  • The piano:  I know that the piano overtones are extremely chaotic and that this chaos can be troubling in the extreme, or marvelous, depending....
  • Unaccompanied voices:  Nothing is more thrilling to me than to be part of an a cappella ensemble; the instinctual tuning of perfect intervals is nothing short of mysterious. (By the way, I find amateurs to be more readily receptive to that level of tuning than most trained professionals.)
  • Mean-tone: or whatever you could call the improvised method of tuning the harpsichord with which I experimented for many years before being blessed with the ability to concentrate all my musical strength on solo piano playing - my life's dream.  At the point where the solo piano work resumed I was no longer able to hear the other, relatively purer keyboard intervals, though the vocal tuning never wavered, interestingly enough.
  • Just intonation:  the kind of very pure within-the-harmonic-series intonation with which some string quartets, notably the Del Sol Quartet, are now experimenting thanks to composers like Robert Johnston--the first time I heard one of these works I practically levitated to the ceiling, it was that thrilling.  This is what quartets are supposed to sound like!  This is what Mozart's quartets are supposed to sound like!

The joke is that I used to sing a cappella regularly with a group of mostly graduate students in Music Theory and or Composition who simply could not look at a printed score without hearing piano pitch.
They could do the warm-up exercise that will produce perfectly in-tune unisons and major thirds; they couldn't read and hear at the same time.