The Well-Tempered Tune

Devoted to perfecting the sound of pianos and harpsichords
7D2_3533-3The Well-Tempered Tune


The phrase “well-tempered” was first used by the German tuner Werckmeister in 1691 to describe a method of tuning that removed the “wolves” heard in previous tuning methods. The goal of his new tuning method was to provide a “practical organization of the tone system within the twelve steps of an octave so that impeccable performance in all tonalities is enabled.”

Many people are surprised to learn that there is more than one way to tune a piano or harpsichord. There are many parameters that need to be optimized in a tuning, and they cannot all be optimized simultaneously. Sacrifices or compromises must be made, and the final tuning is a subjective decision. As a result, no two tuners will tune a piano in the same way, and occasionally even the same tuner will find it difficult to reproduce what a client previously thought was an ideal tuning.

Please scan this website for further information on the peculiar properties of acoustic pianos and what makes them so special, and what makes tuning them so gratifying.

Some comments on electronic tuning devices (ETDs)

Perri Knize’s book “The Grand Obsession” beautifully describes one person’s quest for the ideal piano sound. If you have read Knize’s book you know that an outstanding tuning can be captured electronically. And not only can it be captured, it can be created with the more advanced ETD. I use an ETD coupled with aural methods to confirm the tuning of a piano. The quality of the tune that can be obtained with some of the most recent ETDs is comparable, if not better, than what has been obtained in the past by most aural tuners. In fact, the vast majority (~90%) of piano tuners working today use ETDs. The best ETDs provide a highly accurate tuning that can be tailored to the unique character of every note on a piano, and once the tuning is created it can be reproduced at any later time with high precision. ETDs are especially valuable if a pianist wants to venture beyond the 20th century equal temperament and explore the wide array of historical tunings that are most appropriate for classical music, i.e. music written prior to 1900. They also allow the tuner (or pianist) to explore different stretches, such as Marc Wienert’s “Schubert concert tuning” described by Perri Knize.

I strongly believe that more pianists should be using ETDs to tune their instrument, or at least to touch up the tuning when needed. I believe this is essential not only to ensure the future of the acoustic piano, but also the piano technician. Most instrumentalists know how to tune their instruments. Unfortunately, pianists are an exception and have learned to view the piano as a black box in more ways than one. Most go through life having to play an instrument which is usually out of tune, and when they are lucky enough to obtain a high quality tuning, they know that it’s only going to last for a short time. As a result many professional pianists have learned to ignore poor tuning. This is remarkable given the high cost of a piano, and the care and time that has gone into the design and building of these instruments, as well as the many years that a pianist spends in developing their technique.