Original Preface (eliminated owing to word count limitations)

“Before one plays of the lute he must have his lute well strung and well tuned as it behoveth to get good ink, good paper and a good pen before one undertakes to write well. Therefore to follow good order we shall begin by this discourse, since that it is impossible to play well unless the lute be well strung and set in tune.”

– Burwell Lute Tutor

You would have been hard pressed to find anyone more skeptical about the entire concept of historical temperaments than I was. I had no quarrel with equal temperament. It had only rarely offended me, and the little I’d heard about the possibility of the existence of unequal temperaments seemed like remote and obscure rubbish easily dismissed as a product of the ravings of the fanatical wing of the authenticity police in search of the unattainable Holy Grail for those who cared more about being correct than practical. And yet all the same, their whimsy charmed me, and the nagging, but tacit acknowledgement that the professors and players who recommended unequal temperaments were among the finest scholars and most outstanding musicians I had ever known was the thread that kept me from completely dismissing the concept out of hand. Despite my ever so slightly dwindling skepticism, I was still not willing to give it much thought. No time to waste on tomfoolery, trickery, black magic, occult arts, and smoke and mirrors. At this very moment you too might even be asking yourself why you are squandering your time on something as basic as tuning when you could be practicing instead.

For me, it started shortly after I began graduate school at Case Western Reserve University. At the time, my major professor, Ross Duffin, was preparing his chapter on tuning for the first edition of A Performer’s Guide to Renaissance Music and, having limited direct experience with fretted instruments, he tried to talk me into exploring turnings and temperaments on fretted instruments to help him with his work. In retrospect, it was an absolutely reasonable request. I was his graduate assistant, after all. All this tuning and temperaments business was all a bunch of nonsense, I protested. Unruffled and to his credit, he let me be. For a while. And then he asked again, and again I told him that I was totally disinterested in the topic. Finally, after an appropriate cooling off period, he asked again, a third time. At that point, I realized that he would eventually wear me down until I acquiesced. And so to make him stop, I agreed to come to terms: in exchange for applying myself to the subject in so far as it served the purpose at hand, he agreed to drop the subject and never bring it up again upon my completion of the task. Under his guidance during his seminar on tunings and temperaments that semester where we learned to tune harpsichords in a dizzying variety of temperaments by counting beat rates, I begrudgingly figured out how to set my frets in meantone temperaments, expecting nothing more than the faithful discharge of my duties and the freedom to move on to things that interested me more. And then I heard it.

For those of you old enough to remember, it was similar to the experience of viewing a color television after having grown up with black and white TVs. What had been grey was now Kodachrome to extend the dated metaphor slightly further. Moving from one chord to another actually felt like leaving one place and arriving in another; paradoxically there was both a stirring sense of forward propulsion and stability at the same time. Vivid dissonances led to serene consonances. Real tension and real resolution. Gone was the general sense of dis-ease I have now come to associate with equal temperament in tonal music. All of this happened in a matter of moments. I felt like Paul dusting himself off on the road to Damascus. I truly did become like a child again because everything was now new. The slight inconveniences associated with meantone temperaments on fretted instruments were so insignificant compared to the benefits gained, one of which was that my relatively inexpensive student lute immediately sounded louder and more resonant.

More grateful than chagrined, I shared the good news with Dr. Duffin, who didn’t miss a beat and plotted our next conquest: the rest of the members of my violin band, Oberon’s Fancy. At the time, we were preparing for a completely memorized performance under the aegis of the Boston Early Music Festival fringe concerts. We didn’t have much spare time to reinvent the wheel. Our strategy was this: we would tell my compatriots that I was experimenting with a new temperament on my lute, which was true, and ask only that they try to match my pitches. This we did with the additional hint that the flat notes should be played slightly higher than normal while the sharp notes were to be played slightly lower. More than anything, my bowed string colleagues were to rely on their ears. Given the time constraints and the pressure of the situation, Dr. Duffin and I agreed that if the end of our three-hour rehearsal, the rest of the band hadn’t acclimated to the new temperament, we would revert to equal temperament and come back to fight another day. And then they heard it.

Within forty-five minutes, it was as if they had been playing in meantone temperaments their entire lives. Better yet, they asked if I’d either been practicing a lot or bought a new lute. To their ears I provided a much more secure and considerably louder accompaniment to their two violins, two violas, and cello.

Around the same time, I attended a student classical guitar ensemble concert at a nearby institution where I witnessed an entire performance become unglued because of tuning problems. They were very good dedicated players, but the harder they tried, the deeper into no man’s land they fell. They floundered and then foundered: confidence gave way to concern, concern to utter confusion, and utter confusion to catastrophic malfunction and its attendant terror. The tuning was obviously spiraling out of control, and yet they had no idea why. To their credit, when many ensembles would just soldier on by ignoring the tuning problems, these young chaps valiantly regrouped and tuned again and again, but each time they raced farther and farther out to sea into the Bermuda Triangle of tuning where the apparent shoreline to the west was just another mirage to the east, leading them inexplicably and inevitably toward their doom.

What sealed their fate and derailed what would have been an otherwise splendid performance was their faith in tuning by comparing harmonics at the 5th and 7th frets. This method looks cool and can be carried off with a nonchalant flick of the wrist, but it does not and cannot work, that is, unless your frets happen to be totally mis-positioned, or you have mastered the refined skill of counting beats. For many guitarists, classical and non, attempting to tune with this method becomes something of a nervous tick. Witnessing this very preventable fiasco inspired me to write my first article on tuning for Soundboard, the Journal for the Guitar Foundation of America: “The Secret of Tuning by Harmonics.” The secret, as you now know, is that it doesn’t work. Following the advice of my lute teacher, Paul O’Dette, I then published a series of articles on historical temperaments on the lute in the Lute Society of America Quarterly, and over the course of succeeding 20+ years, I have performed on several CDs and in countless concerts in unequal temperaments.  In writing this book, I am following Vincenzo Galilei’s advice by advocating for what I know to be true from direct experience. But this book is not about my journey. It’s about your journey.

We have all heard the joke that lutenists spend half their time tuning and the other half playing out of tune. Around the same time that young Mary Burwell’s instruction book memorialized the epigraph that begins this Preface, Thomas Mace wrote in his Musick’s Monument (1676) that a lute player spends 60% of his time tuning and 40% of his time playing, which we can pray is nothing more than an obsolete, but entertaining jest of a bygone era. And thirty-eight years earlier in Parte Terza of his Rime Burlesche (1638), Modenese poet and theorbo virtuoso Bellerofonte Castaldi penned a short, light-hearted dialogue that describes opening a music book, picking up the theorbo, and preparing to play “il ballo di Fiorenza.” But first he must tune:

– Eccola, ma convien prima accordarla

Cr, cri, già le sei corde sono unite

E i contrabassi pur sono al suo loco.

   – Buono strumento da sé stesso parla.

-Tron, tron, com’è sonoro, che ne dite?

[- Here it is (the theorbo), but I should tune it first

Cr, cri, already the six strings are in tune

And even the contrabasses are set.

– A fine instrument that speaks of its own accord.

Tron, tron, how resonant it is, what do you say?]

Cr, cri” sounds to me very much like the “creak” sticky tuning pegs can make when tuning.[1] This charming little vignette is a rare glimpse into the mind of a virtuoso reminding himself that despite his excitement to play, he must tune first.

All lutenists and unfortunately almost everyone else are familiar with Johann Mattheson’s entertainingly disparaging critique of the lute that appeared in his Das Neu-Eröffnete Orchestre (The Newly Inaugurated Orchestra) in 1713: “If a lutenist lives to be eighty years old, surely he has spent sixty years tuning.”[2] We are less familiar, however, with the more germane sentences that follow:

The worst of it is that among a hundred (especially non-professionals), scarcely two are capable of tuning accurately. … It would be best if each lutenist would carefully attend to his mistress, seeing if she could be taught to value tuning more than playing. Who knows that he might now and then succeed, and then he would have accomplished enough.

A careful reading verifies that, as Mattheson subsequently stated in his response to Ernst Gottlieb Baron’s vicious attack on him “in defense of the lute,” Mattheson’s comments were primarily directed at lutenists rather than the lute, and more to the point, to amateur lutenists. At face value, Mattheson is not asking for much. More time tuning, less time playing. First things first. Tune, then play, not the other way around. Whether we like it or not, that is how the world perceives us, and there is some truth to the matter. In our enthusiasm for our cherished instrument, we want to play. Now. The lute and viol are such tactile instruments that we cannot wait to excite the air around us with their transcendent sound. Nevertheless, although we cannot un-ring the bell, if we are fastidious enough about our tuning, we may be able to surmount the ill effect of such widespread misconceptions that besmirch our reputations. But, as you will see, the benefits of devoting greater attention to tuning extend far beyond preserving our good name.

[1] Dolata, “Castaldi’s Practice Room,” 32–33. In personal correspondence, Victor Coelho adds that the “cri cri” could also be the sound of the strings slipping through the nut. The “Tron tron” refers to plucking the contrabass strings.

[2] Smith, Baron and Weiss contra Mattheson: In Defense of the Lute, 50–51.


Additional References and Resources

Haverstick, Neil. Harmonics and Spirals: The Code of Music. Box 150271, Lakewood, Colorado, 80215, USA, $25 + $5 postage in the US, $20 overseas.

Lute Iconography Database

Reinagel, Fred. Double Your Pleasure—or Double Trouble?



The errors listed below are mine and mine alone.

Page Table, Diagram, etc. Error
xx Acknowledgments Fran Anderson for her generosity, kindness, and wisdom in her role as the book’s editor. I could ask for no better.
109 Table 5.1 1/5 comma perfect 5th should be 697.6
179 Figure 7.9 This figure is courtesy of Michael Kudirka.
263 Bibliography  Rogers Covey-Crump


Color Illustrations