Fugue no 4 from The Well Tempered Clavier
Writing and music are two of my favourite things. I’ve often wondered how they go together. My latest musings have focused on the way writing and music both involve the instinct which yearns to predict how things will go. People have a natural capacity to constantly review current circumstances and predict future events. Writing taps into this by creating stories that involve suspense, with clues suggesting how events might unfold, and surprises coming along to keep the reader guessing. Similarly, music has a quality known as “tension,” based on a sense of anticipation followed by release. This relies on alternating tuneful familiarity with some kind of unexpected dissonance.
This last point is interesting when we look at how music has developed into the form we know today. Medieval musicians would have found playing two or three different notes together daring. But from the early fifteenth century, composers were experimenting with more complex harmonies. Complex harmonies were not an easy task to produce on musical instruments of the time. Getting harmonies to sound right for certain combinations of notes, meant careful retuning of notes in that combination. These adjustments would then put other combinations out of tune. To play all harmonies in tune meant constant pauses as instruments were retuned. In 1722 the head of music at Cothan Castle in Germany, Johann Sebastian Bach, devised a solution. Drawing on the work of earlier musicians, Bach worked out a way of tuning a harpsichord so that all harmonies in any key could be played in one sitting without retuning – a tuning known as equal temperament. Bach then published a collection of music – The Well Tempered Clavier – in all twenty four of the major and minor keys. Bach achieved equal temperament by fettling every note so that, bizarre as it may seem, each one was imperceptibly out of tune. In this way Bach found a very delicate compromise which allowed every combination of harmony to work. Incredible precision was necessary. In fact each note had to be retuned to 1.059463094 times the frequency value of the note below to reach equal temperament.
Equal Temperament allowed music to develop as we now know it. Modern machine tools recreated Bach’s near-miracle of individual tuning on widely available musical instruments. Music, more than ever before, became a delicate balance between familiar but potentially boring tunefulness, and exciting but dangerous dissonance. Whether you are a composer or writer, if you can get that balance you are well on your way to success. But if anything shows how hard success is to achieve, it’s that mind-boggling number which Bach strove so hard to find – 1.059463094.