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7 January, 2015 - 12:32
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There are times when tuning is not much of an issue. When a good choir sings in harmony without instruments, they will tune without even thinking about it. All chords will tend towards pure fifths and thirds, as well as seconds, fourths, sixths, and sevenths that reflect the harmonic series. Instruments that can bend most pitches enough to fine-tune them during a performance - and this includes most orchestral instruments - also tend to play the "pure" intervals. This can happen unconsciously, or it can be deliberate, as when a conductor asks for an interval to be "expanded" or "contracted".

But for many instruments, such as piano, organ, harp, bells, harpsichord, xylophone – any instrument that cannot be fine-tuned quickly - tuning is a big issue. A harpsichord that has been tuned using the Pythagorean system or just intonation may sound perfectly in tune in one key – C major, for example - and fairly well in tune in a related key - G major - but badly out of tune in a "distant" key like D flat major. Adding split keys or extra keys can help (this was a common solution for a time), but also makes the instrument more difficult to play. In Western music, the tuning systems that have been invented and widely used that directly address this problem are the various temperaments, in which the tuning of notes is "tempered" slightly from pure intervals. (Non-Western music traditions have their own tuning systems, which is too big a subject to address here.)