"There are also broader cultural and aesthetic problems which have arisen from the piano’s dominating role. When a fretless instrument such as a violin gets introduced into a new culture, it can adapt itself to the indigenous musical language, as for example in India.
When a piano gets introduced, however, the indigenous music must conform to the piano’s tuning system. Historically, the piano has been a kind of “colonizer” in this regard. Moreover, the privileged cultural status of the piano has lent an authority to 12-ET which makes it appear superior and more legitimate than other tuning systems.
The more acclimated we are to hearing almost exclusively equal-tempered music, the more natural it sounds and the less accepting we are of alternatives. Music and instruments which use alternative systems, including non-Western music, are perceived as irrational, archaic, experimental, exotic, or just plain out-of-tune–not just different, but deviant from so-called normal 12-ET."
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Isn’t demand in China pretty much singlehandedly keeping the global piano manufacturing industry – and actually, classical music in general – afloat?
unless there’s some hard data to support this i highly doubt it. sure, there’s a lot less interest in mechanical pianos among the general populace of the west (and likely higher in places with rising incomes such as china), but music schools and departments i’m sure account for high enough of a portion of piano profits that china isn’t singlehandedly doing anything in this regard. after all, it’s only large institutions like schools and performance venues (and rich people) that can buy the big, full-size d steinways that cost a few hundred grand. schools also have to buy a bunch of smaller pianos for practice rooms and faculty offices. there are ofc such institutions all around the world, but so far as i’m aware the US is still on top in terms of music schools, although this is currently changing as it approaches collapse and is willing to spend less money on such programs. i think the same is true for classical music in general: universities would keep it alive to some extent regardless of popular interest, and the US is generally preeminent with the caveat that that is likely changing as well; there are plenty of top-tier conservatories in china.
I can’t remember where I read the thing about pianos – I’ll try to find it – but here are some articles about classical music in China. (I didn’t realize that the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra is actually older than the New York Philharmonic). Western media, of course, so take it with a grain of salt.
thanks for the readings! i don’t really know anything about the western music scene in china except that it’s rising, it has prestigious institutions, and that the more peoples’ material conditions improve the more likely they are to study things like music. i think it pretty well demonstrates what actual funding and smart planning can do for musical institutions, as opposed to the many dilapidated institutions of the west. the bit about higher emphasis on things like improvisation, at least in the context of orchestral members, was very interesting. i still stand by the fact that “singlehandedly” is probably a bit hyperbolic, but i could be totally wrong, and in fact i hope i am wrong haha
No idea, I just read this article and thought it was interesting and decided to share it.
Wait, are pianos now racist too?
Interesting. I don’t know anything about music theory, but piano is also expensive, excluding much of working class from using it and obtaining skills to play it. It is also big and hard to move, so it prefer established locations. Socialist countries in Europe did much to spread the piano among proletariat through music lessons in elementary schools being used to catch talents (there was piano in basically every school in Poland for example) and then by music high schools and academies. Trained musicians also had help in obtaining expensive instruments.
As a kid, I was able to study with several musicians who had grown up and been trained in the socialist bloc. These guys were next level.
And due to a quirk in tempering G is slightly out of tune from the theory lol
Any further info you could share? Interested in learning more about this.
My sentence was the wrong way around, G is perfect according to theory (which is very mathematical) but sounds bad when taken in isolation. This is up to personal preferences but yeah.
It’s easier on a string instrument where you can tune strings individually, bring the G on a guitar a bit higher and it actually sounds better lol. I think Adam Neely had a video on it.
Thing is it has to be out of tune or you wouldn’t be able to play harmonics off of it (like fifths and thirds) lol.
I love this.
a few things to note for anyone reading this:
first off, he doesn’t go into the overtone series at all, which i think is helpful for this kind of discussion. having 12 tones within a certain scale or key wasn’t a totally random decision, it’s related to the overtone series, specifically the prominence of unison, fifths and thirds in the overtone series. essentially every “note” as we understand it is actually a whole host of pitches being played simultaneously, in addition to the principal tone. our brains basically filter out the extraneous notes apart from the principal, and that’s why it just sounds like one note instead of technically an infinite number of notes, but the overtone series helps to determine imo some sense of harmony, or what notes sound good with each other. i think this is why things like drones on the principal or dominant can still be seen in non-western music, and can also explain non-western use of the pentatonic scale as well.
the main issue with the piece is that he completely leaves out an important aspect of the development of western tuning systems: they were developed not only to be able to reliably play with other instruments such as the violin, but also in order to further modulate from C major!! before equal temperament, you can think of keyboard instruments as essentially being in the key of C major: the pitches within the C major scale on the instrument were considered “pure,” meaning that they were taken directly from the overtone series. but, the issue with having C major be pure is that the farther away you get from C major the less pure the intervals are: G and F major are a little less pure, whereas F# major was literally unplayable as its own key. this is what he’s referring to when he says that keys used to sound unique from each other: their uniqueness was derived from how far away they were from C major (or whatever key the keyboard was tuned to). the important takeaway from this is that, even back then how people understood keys was in large part influenced by keyboard pitching systems!!
and, just to elaborate on this ability to modulate to far-away keys a bit more, this is so important to understand that i’m surprised he didn’t even mention it once. there was certainly some forays into chromaticism in the baroque period and of course bach wrote the well-tempered clavier in all 24 keys, but this limitation of key is a large part of why pre-baroque and classical era music featured fewer keys with modulations never going very far away from the tonic key. by the same token, this is why we see so much chromaticism in the romantic period: things like neopolitan chords or augmented 6th chords would just sound horrible without some sort of more equal temperament. to take his analogy of colors and painting: what if you were totally restricted to one color in each painting, such as “red”? you could use any shade of red, but only red was allowed. or, what if you were restricted to “warm” colors in every painting? you could surely make beautiful art, but what if you wanted to use more contrasting colors? it’s important to understand this because this is the primary thing that’s gained via equal temperament (and why keyboard instruments could play with every other instrument), while losing unique keys and pure tuning is what is lost. calling it an ivory cage is a little cringe imo
as far as what’s quoted here, regarding western colonialism, i think it’s important to note that piano is simply the mechanism through which 12-tone ET is enforced on other cultures, but it’s not the essence of what colonization or imperialism is lol. if western culture didn’t have 12-tone ET, then it would have some other tuning system imposed on other cultures to the same extent and similarly be unreceptive to indigenous tuning systems. i think it’s a little overblown here because, well, other tuning systems still exist (although i’m sure many no longer do), and 12-tone ET still at least has some relation to the overtone series and thus all other music as well. but, it’s certainly superstructural and ultimately not very important to understanding what colonialism actually is lol
he laments that pianos have essentially stopped being improved to the extent that there’s now a universal standard. this is true: during say beethoven’s era there were constantly both quantitative improvements (more notes, more durability, more/better sound) as well as qualitative improvements (more pedals that could do all sorts of things, more novelty, and ultimately bigger differences between how they played) to pianos. but, he doesn’t at all investigate why this is! the tendency of capital accumulation towards monopoly i think is the primary one. there’s only like two or three major piano producers in the world, and it’s not because they’re constantly innovating anymore. standardization of parts as a result of the various industrial revolutions is another minor reason. i think it would take essentially “central planning” of musical production and education to make meaningful strides/improvements towards just about anything in not just this sphere but all of western music education. i mean, one critical glance at western notation pretty quickly shows how dilapidated and nonsensical it can be.
as far as electronic keyboards not having alternate tuning systems, again this is in large part a result of monopoly. and, you should probably be able to do this with electronic keyboards, but positing it as a replacement for mechanical pianos is equal parts ridiculous and hilarious. i don’t doubt it’s possible to create electronic keyboards with the same durability, feel, and resonance as real pianos but it’s never going to happen with monopolies and the profit motive.
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thanks, glad you enjoyed it!
I did too thank you
People who whinge about 12tet are insufferable. Most of the article is about euro/american classical music except these two paragraphs, and there aren’t any examples given of the piano “colonizing” tuning systems (maybe the problem is the actual colonization???). You can turn on the radio right now and almost certainly hear something that includes pitches outside of 12tet similar to the Gb is different than F# example or the pitch is a continuum example, and there’s no indigenous culture with a 36 note unequal division of the octave reed organ that is being “colonized” by the piano.