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GORDON RUMSON replies to Patric Standford's article
on keys and the decline of tonality


In Response to Patric Stanford's not-so-recent (!) article on the Decline of Tonality ...

I would like to suggest that part of the reason for the decline in tonality is the shift towards Equal Temperament in modern performance. Contrary to most dictionaries, and sadly for far too many musicians, Equal Temperament -- in actual achievement -- is recent. The scholar Owen Jorgensen, after extensive research and with copious documentation, suggests its accomplishment in practice only around 1915 (sic). Prior to that Equal Temperament -- where each semitone interval is exactly the same size -- simply did not exist. What people tuned and what people heard were semitone intervals of slightly different size.

The result was that each key (say B Flat major versus E flat minor) had a discernible character based on slight differences in the sizes of the tempered intervals. Composers wrote music to take this into account. This also explains the frequent references in music literature to the 'Character of the Keys'. With the advent of Equal Temperament the 'Character of the Keys' was lost.

We are at the same historical stage of awareness with Well-Temperament (as this earlier form of 'tuning' is sometimes known) as music was in the 1940s and 50s when mean-tone tuning (yet another system) was being applied to early Baroque keyboard music (such as that by Frescobaldi). Today, no self-respecting harpsichordist would perform that repertoire in Equal Temperament (except by grim necessity) though the choices for the tuning are considerable. And there may occur a time when Classical, and even Romantic era music will be played in an appropriate temperament (not Equal Temperament). Which one it will be (and again, there are several choices) will be in the hands of the musician.

The development of Equal Temperament resulted in the reduction of musical material from many keys into one key, one temperament, one tonality consisting of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale -- the only scale now open to use. Schoenberg's serial compositions can not be played in the temperaments that were practiced earlier.

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Copyright © 26 June 2006 Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Canada


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