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Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization [Paperback]

Stuart Isacoff
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 4 2003
Few music lovers realize that the arrangement of notes on today’s pianos was once regarded as a crime against God and nature, or that such legendary thinkers as Pythagoras, Plato, da Vinci, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Newton and Rousseau played a role in the controversy. Indeed, from the time of the Ancient Greeks through the eras of Renaissance scientists and Enlightenment philosophers, the relationship between the notes of the musical scale was seen as a key to the very nature of the universe.

In this engaging and accessible account, Stuart Isacoff leads us through the battles over that scale, placing them in the context of quarrels in the worlds of art, philosophy, religion, politics and science. The contentious adoption of the modern tuning system known as equal temperament called into question beliefs that had lasted nearly two millenia–and also made possible the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy, and all who followed. Filled with original insights, fascinating anecdotes, and portraits of some of the greatest geniuses of all time, Temperament is that rare book that will delight the novice and expert alike.

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From Amazon

Involving mathematics, philosophy, aesthetics, religion, politics, and physics, Stuart Isacoff 's Temperament invokes the tone of a James Burke documentary. However, the focus is not on a modern invention, but rather a modern convention: that of tuning keyboards so that every key is equally in tune--and equally out of tune.

With the existing literature tending to bog down in mathematical theory or historical tuning methods, Isacoff bravely attempts to make this seemingly arcane topic interesting to the general reader. He distills the mathematics and music theory into their simplest essences, and draws apt analogies from the everyday. He also generously peppers the text with the quirks and escapades of its more flamboyant central characters; the relevance of the information is often tenuous at best, but Isacoff has obviously done his homework, and he can be forgiven some frivolity.

Less forgivable is his neglect of "well-temperament." Namesake of Bach's masterful collection of 24 pieces (one each in all the major and minor keys), the well-tempered keyboard liberated composers from the howl of badly tuned keys in the way equal temperament did, while preserving the distinct quality of each key. It was a pragmatic and aesthetically rich solution that captivated composers and theorists for decades. Yet Isacoff reserves less than two pages for its description. (Perhaps he deliberately overlooked the topic since it doesn't fit well with his casting of equal temperament's opponents as rigid, dogmatic, and impractical.)

Despite its flaws, Temperament is an accessible guide to a fascinating topic seldom discussed outside musical circles. Though the book may not invigorate hard-core theorists, the amateur musician, armchair scientist, history buff, or plain old curious can glean plenty from it. The advent of digital keyboards--some of which can be tuned to historical temperaments at the flip of a switch--makes this an ideal time for the topic to be rejuvenated. --Todd Gehman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Isacoff, editor-in-chief of Piano Today magazine, tells the worthy tale of how musical temperament the familiar, seemingly fixed relationships between notes on an instrumental scale came to be taken for granted. After centuries of an accepted belief in the mathematical and divine governance of music, the 17th century saw the growth of a fierce debate over experimental new tuning methods. In the 18th century, the modern keyboard allowed for a new kind of tuning, known as equal temperament, whereby each pitch is equally distanced. New musical possibilities opened up, changing composition forever. Isacoff traces music theory contributions by da Vinci, Newton, Descartes, Kepler and Rameau. Unfortunately, he sometimes clumsily attempts to keep his audience's attention with irrelevant, if salacious, gossip e.g., philosopher Robert Hooke "recorded his orgasms in a diary," and King Louis XIV refused to eat with a fork. Meanwhile, he gives relatively short shrift to Kepler and Galileo. His ambitious historical canvas uses extensive secondary sources, but there are research gaps, such as his outdated portrait of Isaac Newton as a total "ascetic." Nevertheless, this harmonics drama will excite music geeks and music historians. (Nov. 24)Forecast: Knopf's prestige guarantees sales to major music collections, and Isacoff's national media appearances (NPR, etc.) may mean good general sales.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and, for the first time in my life, feel that I actually understand the issues around temperament. I would recommend this book to a lot of people but not everyone, as the number of negative reviews illustrates. The negative reviews for this book seem to fall into four categories-if you are in one of those groups then you may want to buy a different book:
1) The lunatic fringe: Examples here are: The review that castigates the book for abusing non-Western music (It's hard to see the point of this complaint since the intent of the book is to discuss the role of temperament in Western music--no real mention is made of any other kind of music); The review by the person who read only a 2 or 3 page excerpt of the book (apparently ignorance is no impediment to opinion); The person who hadn't read the book yet but would post a review when they had (see previous); The reviewer who felt that the book was all about sex (I missed that). And so on.
2) People who were unhappy about the lack of technical detail. While I am obviously disparaging the previous group, these reviewers have a valid complaint. These readers were looking for (as examples): actual scores; more math with more explicit discussion of the exact size of the differentials between similarly named tones; more technical terms (e.g. "hertz"). I have a good grounding in math, read a lot of technical material, but would probably best be described as a "music lover". I'm just not in these reviewers league. Since I don't read music, for instance, a score would be useless to me. For the audience that I represent, the level of technical detail worked very well and is appropriate for a "general interest" book. The author's description of the music met my needs and the prescence of a score wouldn't have helped.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A superficial glide June 24 2004
Format:Paperback
This book is basically a rehash of Isacoff's major source, on which he relies too heavily: J Murray Barbour's 1951/72 "Tuning and Temperament". Barbour's own bias in his otherwise very well-researched book was the assumption that history is a mostly inexorable metamorphosis toward the current scientific triumph (really only a post-Industrial-Revolution conceit): equal temperament, against which all other systems must be measured and found deviant. Musicians didn't always have those same goals, as to quality of the sound they wanted.
Barbour and Isacoff don't say that they did, and they dance carefully around it while offering a facade of musical objectivity. But, the historical SWEEP they present still gives that incorrect impression, overall, because of the way they measure value by their own expectations (the modern triumph over supposedly more ignorant methods) instead of the positive expectations of the people who composed tonal music. I found it remarkable that as early as page 6 Isacoff cites equal temperament as "the final solution"...a chillingly accurate assessment, as to the way it eliminates diversity from tonal music, the way somebody else's "final solution" eliminated human beings.
Isacoff, to his credit, tries to present various sides of the historical issues; but the effort fails as he consistently errs on the side of embracing scientific triumph (as if equal temperament is the only scientifically plausible solution). He seems bewildered whenever presenting a scientist who never succumbed to the lure of the modern "final solution". More problematic, he tries too hard to sculpt personality profiles around all the major players in the historical record, and his observations degenerate into "ad hominem" dismissals of people he'd rather not have us believe.
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1.0 out of 5 stars Nice try, but no cigar. Jan. 14 2004
Format:Paperback
Isacoff has tried to write a book on musical temperament for the general public, and parts of it are fun to read. It does have two major flaws: 1) he greatly overstates his case and deliberately omits a whole lot of information that contradicts his central thesis, and 2), he bends over so far backward trying to keep things non-technical that he not only falls down but ties himself up in knots in the process.
As a harpsichordist, I'm perhaps a little more flexible on the subject of an ideal temperament that is all things to all people, because my experience says there's no such thing. Of the various solutions that have been tried along the way, most of them served the needs of those who used them at the time. In fact, I was disappointed that his website sound samples included Chopin in just intonation and equal temperament, but no Byrd or Frescobaldi in meantone or Faenza Codex in Pythagorean, just to show us what all of those systems CAN do--especially on instruments other than the Steinway grand piano. Believe me, it's a revelation!
On the other hand, when he writes about phenomena such as Cipriano da Rore's _Quidnam non ebrietas_, it would be much more helpful to include a score and a brief explanation of the rules of _musica ficta_ (which were what caused all the trouble in the first place). I happen to own other books which include these, but I shouldn't need to consult my personal music library to read a book that is "for general audiences!"
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3.0 out of 5 stars Sex and Pianos Aug. 25 2003
By Anna Z.
Format:Paperback
Isacoff's approach to making temperament interesting can be summed up in the word "sex". If there is a bawdy detail to be found in even the remotest connection to a 'temperamental' anecdote, he drags it out. The result is a book that often de-rails and mixes very technical information with hearsay and gossip.
On the other hand, temperament is one of the most obscure and complicated elements of music, and even some musicians couldn't care less about it. So a book on temperament that made it to major bookstore chains is no small achievement. Still, the question of the book's audience is a complicated one... those of us who care about temperament to begin with could do with a few more musical examples interspersed with the text, whereas for those to whom temperament is a new concept, the idea of a smaller or larger fifth might need a bit more clarification.

Most troubling to me, however, was the writer's obvious bias towards equal temperament and towards the piano. For him, the whole of western history (and a lot of sex...) has existed with the purpose of developing and embracing the equal temperament, and that pinnacle among instruments, the piano. To those of us who like the sound of a harpsichord, or use different temperaments to achieve more in-tune music, the book's conclusion, and it's author's bias, is unhelpful.
Still I would recommend the book as a read, with the added stipulation that the reader then go out and listen to an early music concert in meantone.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting subject, unsatisfactory treatment
The book is too anecdotal, an amateurish cultural history. Many of the materials are not quite relevant. If the author stuck to the subject the pages could be two-third less. Read more
Published on March 16 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Great fun!
This was a fantastic read! Remember that this book is a LAY book! So certain 'scientific' expectations should be a bit relaxed. Read more
Published on Aug. 23 2003
1.0 out of 5 stars Pretentious and uninformative
The theme of this book, the history behind modern tuning and its effect on the development of modern music and modern keyboard instruments, is a fascinating one. Sadly, Mr. Read more
Published on May 16 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Think musical temperament is boring? Think again!
This book did even more than what I hoped it would do.
First of all, it grabbed my attention. I didn't even know there was problem with our musical scale, let alone a... Read more
Published on Dec 4 2002 by Paul Peterson
5.0 out of 5 stars A book for all musicians.
I'm a pianist and I've read Temperament for the third time. Stuart Isacoff is an excellent writer who has explained tempered-tuning and how it developed throughout the history of... Read more
Published on Oct. 8 2002 by Walter Norris
5.0 out of 5 stars Glen Coleman
I cannot give this book enough praise. In an engrossing 230 pages, I was both time traveler and world traveler as I discovered the forces that gave birth to the piano and chromatic... Read more
Published on Sept. 22 2002 by G. Coleman
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterly written - you WILL enjoy it
I found the book extremely absorbing and interesting, more for its philosophic, religious, scientific, artistic, and historic observations than for its actual musical content. Read more
Published on July 18 2002 by EqualTempTuner
4.0 out of 5 stars Nice Beginner Read
This is one of the most readable books on the history of temperment I have ever encountered! If you have ever wanted to know a little something about European music history, or... Read more
Published on June 11 2002 by Beth
1.0 out of 5 stars Over Blown and Out of Tune
Too many sweeping claims unsubstantiated. Too much gushing and waxing poetical. A dissappointing romantic and culturally biased performance. Read more
Published on May 1 2002
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