Through experimentation we discover ever more what music can do and how it can be improved.

It can be argued that much of music is in a continuous state of experimentation. J.S. Bach played around with different frequency tunings (see below), and next to the organ and the harpsichord, he tried some early pianos -- and didn't think much of them, apparently. Chopin came a bit later and together with several contemporaries helped to establish the piano's firm foothold. It is interesting to note that towards the end of his life, Chopin used an early Pleyel Grand piano that was very fast, because the keys were depressed only about 8 mm, instead of the 10 mm that we generally see now. Did that contribute to the way he composed some of his furiously fast passages (e.g., the "Revolutionary Etude", or the "Prelude no. 16")?

Music continuously evolves and reaches out into new fields, since musicians and technicians keep pushing the envelope.

Currently we are discovering totally new dimensions in music. In the section about orchestration we've already mentioned the enormous impact that virtual orchestras are having on everyday musical products. This process is likely to continue. We're now seeing the birth of totally new instruments, some that we like and others that we detest. With time, we will probably hear even more novel combinations of voices, some great and some less so. Experimentation will show the way, and public liking will make some experiments survive and others disappear.

Historical Experimentation

Let's look at what J.S. Bach may have heard when he compared different frequency tunings. Quite a few pianists are not aware that the A = 440 Hz standard tuning is a relatively recent phenomenon, brought on in good part by the world-wide sales of wind instruments which cannot easily be tuned to a different frequency. The mass market suggests, and finally ends up dictating uniformization.

Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, different base tunings were common. For example, in the latter half of the 19th century, the tunings of French orchestras were distinctly lower from those used in Germany. Even today, there remain some minor differentiations between orchestral tunings, even within the same country.

We present two pieces by J.S. Bach in two forms. On the one hand, interpreted for the modern ear with the strong and clear equal-temperament sound of the K2 virtual piano found in Pianoteq, tuned to A = 440 Hz. On the other hand, using a Werckmeister III tuning with A = 432 Hz on a 1697 Grimaldi harpsichord simulation.

The Werckmeister tuning or something similar could well have been Bach's most frequent tuning. Bach is known to have experimented with a large variety of tunings (see Wikipedia summary and this article). The 432 Hz A tuning was chosen -- without particular historical basis -- on the basis of modern experimentations and arguments. See this video for a comparison of the sound quality obtained with different tunings of A.

The two short pieces celebrate well the boundless energy of J.S. Bach. The first captivates us with its inescapable rhythm, the second presents us with a wonderful melody, again set into a compelling rhythm.

Played by the computer with Pianoteq.


First movement of BWV 807 (piano, modern equal-temperament tuning, A = 440 Hz)

First movement of BWV 807 (harpsichord, Werckmeister III tuning, A = 432 Hz)

First movement of BWV 825 (piano, modern equal-temperament tuning, A = 440 Hz)

First movement of BWV 825 (harpsichord, Werckmeister III tuning, A = 432 Hz)