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Science
OUT OF TUNE
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An investigation into the development of musical tuning systems.
Sunday nights 16 & 23 November 2003 12.15-12.45am

Robert Sandall presents a two-part series about musical tuning. Why have musical traditions in different parts of the world developed different tuning systems?

Out of Tune


In Western Europe, we’ve become used to a musical system based on what’s known as ‘equal temperament’ that divides an octave into twelve equal parts. But other musical traditions in other parts of the world have developed different tuning systems, with larger or smaller divisions between the notes. Robert talks to shakuhachi player Kiku Day and singer Natacha Atlas about their tuning systems and the importance of the quarter-tone, a division that rarely occurs in western classical music.

Robert also talks to one of the pioneers of electronic music, Brian Eno, about his early days with Roxy Music, when synthesisers routinely went out of tune. Brian’s latest musical project is a study of church bells. The beauty of the bell sound lies in the complex harmonics and dissonances that resonate when it’s rung. When, Brian wonders, does dissonance cease being pleasurable?

It’s argued that the more varieties of music we listen to, the more accustomed our ears become to different musical relationships. Robert discusses our cultural and psychological response to dissonance with Dr Ian Cross, Director of the Centre for Music and Science at Cambridge University, and with musician David Toop. Both agree that what strikes us today as harmonious might well have struck earlier generations as unpleasantly dissonant. It really does seem to be a case of musical harmony being in the ear of the listener.

Listen again to programme 1 Listen again to Programme 1
.

In the second programme, Robert Sandall looks at the origins of the ‘equal temperament’ tuning system, and weighs up the arguments for and against it. Ian Cross, Director of Centre for Music and Science at Cambridge University, and Roderick Swanston from the Royal College of Music, explain how the system came into being and the kinds of musical problems it helped composers solve.

Musician David Toop argues that the combination of the piano and ‘equal temperament’ is having a stifling effect on music. Geoff Smith agrees - that’s why he’s invented a ‘microtonal fluid tuning mechanism’, which would make it possible to retune an acoustic piano quickly and easily. Charles Lucy takes a different approach. He’s developed a tuning system, “Lucy Tuning”, that’s flexible enough to encompass all musical intervals, even those of the gamelan, one of the world’s strangest instruments, demonstrated in the programme by Maria Mendonca. Robert also talks to two modern composers: Michael Berkeley describes the challenge of writing music for eastern and western instruments; American minimalist Phill Niblock’s work with microtonal patterns have lead some to describe his music as clouds of sound.

It’s argued that the more varieties of music we listen to, the more accustomed our ears become to different musical relationships. Robert discusses our cultural and psychological response to dissonance with Dr Ian Cross, Director of the Centre for Music and Science at Cambridge University, and with musician David Toop. Both agree that what strikes us today as harmonious might well have struck earlier generations as unpleasantly dissonant. It really does seem to be a case of musical harmony being in the ear of the listener.

Listen again to programme 2 Listen again to Programme 2
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