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Beats and Wide Tuning

7 January, 2015 - 12:42
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One well-known result of tempered tunings is the aural phenomenon known as beats. As mentioned above, in a pure interval the sound waves have frequencies that are related to each other by very simple ratios. Physically speaking, this means that the two smooth waves line up together so well that the combined wave - the wave you hear when the two are played at the same time - is also a smooth wave. Tunings that are slightly off from the pure interval, however, will result in a combined wave that has a bumpiness in it. Because the two waves are each very even, the bump itself is very even and regular, and can be heard as a "beat" - a very regular change in the intensity of the sound. The beats are so regular, in fact, that they can be timed; for equal temperament they are on the order of a beat per second in the mid range of a piano. A piano tuner works by listening to and timing these beats, rather than by being able to "hear" equal temperament intervals precisely.

It should also be noted that some music traditions around the world do not use the type of precision tunings described above, not because they can't, but because of an aesthetic preference for wide tuning. In these traditions, the sound of many people playing precisely the same pitch is considered a thin, uninteresting sound; the sound of many people playing near the same pitch is heard as full, lively, and more interesting.

Some music traditions even use an extremely precise version of wide tuning. The gamelan orchestras of southeast Asia, for example, have an aesthetic preference for the "lively and full" sounds that come from instruments playing near, not on, the same pitch. In some types of gamelans, pairs of instruments are tuned very precisely so that each pair produces beats, and the rate of the beats is the same throughout the entire range of that gamelan. This impressive feat of tuning can only be reliably produced by a few instrument makers with long-standing traditions.