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An Instrument With Meantone Tuning

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FOLKS: When giving a lecture-recital, I regularly play on two instruments that date from the mid-1850s. One of these, 6760, has steel reeds (surely not original) and is tuned with equal temperament (probably also not original). The other, 5899, still has both its original brass reeds and its meantone tuning.


I strongly suspect that most of the instruments that date from that period and with which we occasionally come into contact were, in fact, tuned in meantone and have since been brought into line with equal temperament.


I don't find that at all unsual.



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Allan: The steel reeds are probably original, unless it has a mix of steel and brass. Steel reeds were not that uncommon in the 1850s. To find a concertina with all the reeds replaced is rare.


If your meantone instrument has been revalved and ‘fine tuned’ during its life, chances are that the meantone(ish) tuning it has now is not the original. There have been several meantone systems in use over the years: Mersenne (2 variations) Meantone with 2 sharp fifths, etc..

If someone tuned it during the late 19th/early 20th century chances are that it has strong ‘equal temperament’ aspects. Tuners used to ‘up date’ the tuning to the present standards..


By the way, they did not use equal temperament during the 19th century. The standard, after/besides meantone was the ‘well tempered’ system of Thomas Young. Young tempering changed during the 19th century, and got more ‘equal’ towards the 20th century. I tuned my 1818 forte piano to the 1799 Young variation, and my 1853 grand to the mid Victorian Young system that was known in England as ‘Broadwood’s best’ (used till the late 1870s). I assume mid Victorian concertinas were also tuned to this variation.

I tune early concertinas (pre 1850) in meantone, and instruments up to 1860 in Young. It really makes a difference. Young gives a lot more ‘color’ than equal tuning.


Equal temperament was considered extremely boring in those days. I am sure you know of the ‘famous’ mistake in the Grove Dictionary, which, I believe in one of the earliest editions, mentioned that Bach used this ‘equal temperament’ for his Well tempered Klavier…



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WIM: thanks for the cogent reply. . . . . .as it turns out, the instrument may very well not have been tuned during the late 19th or early 20th century. . . . . .it seems rather likely that the instrument was brought to New Zealand shortly after it was purchased (and presumably manufactured) in the mid 1850s. . . . . .moreover, it seems that the instrument never moved from there (and it was "discovered" in an antique shop in Auckland just a few years ago). . . .you actually know the instrument. . . .you've held it in your hands when you stayed at our place. . . . . it's the one with the cracked reed on the low e in the left hand. . . . .the difference between the A flat/G sharp and E flat/D sharp is NOTABLE...............allan

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I think that this is a fascinating discussion. But I really have no idea as to what the terms "meantone" etc. mean. I think it might be helpful to explain to those of us with limited understanding of musical jargonomics.


Thanks -- Tom

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I was vaguely familiar with the notion of alternative tuning systems but unfamiliar with the term "meantone tuning" until I found this interesting set of web pages:


Musical Tuning and Temperaments


It includes a "musical calculator" that shows vividly how much various tuning systems deviate from the theoretical ideal.


(The text says the calculator also generates tones so you can hear the differences, but so far I can't get this to work on my Mac.)

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...I really have no idea as to what the terms "meantone" etc. mean. I think it might be helpful to explain to those of us with limited understanding of musical jargonomics.

Here's the text of a message I posted last March on rec.music.makers.squeezebox:


| Let's see if I can explain this.


| First of all, "meantone" tuning is not a single specific tuning,

| but a class of related tunings. What they all have in common is

| that they tend to keep thirds in tune in the most used keys. They

| do this by distributing an error called the "syntonic comma" among

| the thirds of uncommon keys. They differ by just how they

| distribute it.


| The syntonic comma is the interval difference between two notes

| which would be the same in equal temperament, namely the note four

| perfect fifths above a reference note and the note two octaves and

| a third above it.


| The first is calculated as 3/2 x 3/2 x 3/2 x 3/2 = 5.0625

| The second is calculated as 2 x 2 x 5/4 = 5.0000


| The error ratio, 5.0625/5.0000 = 1.0125 or about 21.4 cents is

| the syntonic comma. It is the ratio of frequencies that has to be

| "swept under the rug" by hiding it in intervals rarely used while

| playing in common keys.


| Some other things that all meantone systems have in common are

| that wherever in the scale a run of three notes are all separated

| by whole steps (C, D, E, for example) the middle one is exactly

| halfway between the others, hence the name "meantone." Also,

| diatonic semitones are always larger than chromatic semitones,

| that is, the interval between F# and G is larger than the interval

| between Gb and G.


| I hope that clears everything up.

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