Tuning and temperament of the stringed keyboard instrument in the sixteenth century


Lynn Hoffman

Date of Award


Document Type



Music: General


It was the keyboard instruments, especially the stringed keyboard instruments, that had the greatest effect on music and on other instruments, particularly regarding tuning and temperament. There was no problem in the tuning of the unfretted bowed instruments, for they could distinguish between an a flat and a g sharp. The octave seems to have been divided equally into twelve parts for the placing of frets on fretted instruments. This is essentially equal temperament but was not applied to the keyboard instruments until later in the seventeenth century. The stringed keyboard instrument was more adaptable to modifications in tuning than the organ, for the addition of a note to a stringed keyboard instrument meant only the addition of one or more strings, while the addition of a note to an organ involved many pipes, and was more difficult and expensive.

Since there is evidence of so many tuning systems, it seems probable that uniformity was not common in the Renaissance. Irregular systems were prominent, and tuning varied widely probably not only from city to city but within the same city, and from instrument to instrument. No one theorist was considered to have the right method, though certainly the authors of the systems mentioned in the middle of this paper were likely the most highly regarded, in terms of general use, in their time. Towards the end of the century meantone temperament became the most prominent and widely used system.

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