Tuning meantone by ear

Ther’e’s nothing wrong with it. I just pointed out it uses the old and deprecated frames technology and therefore it is difficult to link to a specific page inside the site.

Ok. The details of Carey’s website are OT. Start a new topic if discussion is to continue. I only mentioned it because I could not link directly to Carey’s meantone instructions, which the the topic under discussion.

Your way is how I have always done it, and to me makes the most sense. The tricky part, of course, is getting the four intervening fifths equally tempered to each other, and this is the one part of the process where I have found using a tunng application (I use PitchLabPro) very useful. I did have a European harpsichordist friend however, who militantly insisted on giving preference to tuning by the fifths as is described above (I’ve not watched the video).

A minor side cavil not related to the substance of your post, Claudio. At least in North America the term ‘hitchpins’ refers to the pins to which the loops of the strings are attached, in the case of harpsichord 8’s, along the tail and bentside. The others are generally called ‘tuning pins’ or ‘wrest pins’ instead. Just to avoid any confusion out there.

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I’m going to give the alternating fifths and fourths a spin!

Hi Owen: sorry, indeed I wrote “tuning pin” and then “hitchpin” for the same item, which is obviously wrong, anywhere! I stand corrected.

Over on the Cera thread, there was brief discussion how long it takes to tune. Claudio suggested that the report of Bach tuning harpsichords in 15 minutes was “apocryphal”, even though Forkel got it from CPE Bach, supposedly a reliable source.

I submit that it shouldn’t be taking that long today, either, at least to get one or two registers done by ear. Any more than that and it’s cutting into your practice time. It’s a musical skill and a listening skill to cultivate, being able to fix things quickly whenever needed. Apps are OK, but they don’t make the task much faster, if any.

Accordingly (sic…), I decided to time myself in a normal-paced session. I usually allot myself 12 minutes to do the whole 8-foot, and then I decide if I’m impatient to start playing immediately, or if I will go ahead with the 4-foot. On days when I’m not starting over, I put in about 2 or 3 minutes maximum with only quick checking and fixing in bass and treble.

Did it work?

I recorded it all, so I could go back through afterward and measure how much time each step took. I figured this could also be a demonstration for this thread, showing that it doesn’t really take much longer to get all the octaves right by using checks of fourths and fifths all the way. I do all those checks without thinking about it.

Daydreaming can happen during the task. I remember that in part of this session my divided listening attention was on the cats fussing with their food bowls in the next room.

I took these notes while watching the source and waiting for the video to upload.


Tuning a harpsichord by ear: 8-foot and 4-foot, single manual. Bradley Lehman.

Morning of September 19, 2023. Unedited video, total time 23:47. Device: iPhone 13.

This is a fair test of doing everything fresh, and calculating nothing. This harpsichord started in Bach/Lehman from A440, but only on the 8-foot register. The 4-foot had not been tuned for at least 3 weeks across several weather changes, and it was flat.

The conversion is to a regular meantone, Eb-Bb-F-C-G-D-A-E-B-F#-C#-G#, tempering all the fifths evenly “as much as ye ear will bear”, which for me is about 1/5 comma. The major thirds are all slightly sharp. The wolf diminished sixth is at G#-Eb.

I picked this temperament because I felt like sight-reading through some William Byrd pieces. The music has enough open fourths and fifths in the counterpoint that it would bother me to play it on this harpsichord with fifths narrower than 1/5 comma.

This temperament has no pure intervals, except octaves. Some other temperaments go a minute faster, if they have several pure fifths.

I am not counting any beats. I am merely listening for comparative qualities among the intervals.

There is no technology here newer than a tuning fork (which was invented in 1711), except for the recording device and the overhead light.

0 to 0:30 Sit down and show briefly that the previous temperament was circulating (playable in all keys, no wolf). I had tuned it yesterday to play some of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

0:30 to 1:00 Get satisfied with the new C from the tuning fork. The new C 523.3 from the tuning fork is higher than the old C, so there is apparently some general pitch-raising to do among the naturals. I probably should have tuned the higher C to the fork first, but I went directly to middle C as my starting point, tuning its overtones to the fork. Plus, it might have been faster to hold the fork in my teeth so I could play the C with left hand and tune it at the same time. Whatever. I don’t get into the teeth thing.

1:00 to 7:45 Set the new temperament. (6:45, and I often do it faster than this.)

C to E with the desired quality. C to G and E to A each temporarily pure. Use G and A to set D with equal quality; the checkpoint is that the beats in the D-A fourth are triplets against the beats of the G-D fifth. Use D and C to update the G to its correct compromised place. Use D and E to update A. C-G-D-A-E are now evenly spaced.

Make C-F-Bb-Eb with that same quality of fifths or fourths, and checking that they make the right quality of major thirds under existing notes (F-A, Bb-D, Eb-G).

Make E-B-F#-C#-G# with that same quality of fifths or fourths, and checking that they make the right quality of major thirds above existing notes (G-B, D-F#, A-C#, E-G#).

7:45 to 13:45 All the octaves of bass and treble, and checking all the fifths and fourths along the way to test that the octaves are good enough. The fifths and fourths tell me if the new note I am working on might be slightly too high or low.

From the starting C to this point, all of the 8-foot register is now done (it cost me 12:45 minutes). It goes much faster if I am not setting a completely new temperament: usually about 9 to 10 minutes. Or, if I am setting up for everyday playing, I take only about 2 minutes to check a few octaves.

13:45 to 22:55 All the 4-foot register done, including fussing with several notes that were not plucking as cleanly as I would hope. 9 minutes for that.

So, the whole instrument was done in 22 minutes from the starting C.

If I didn’t care about the 4-foot, it would be 13 at this relaxed pace (stopping after tuning the 8-foot). I don’t usually want to put in more than 10 minutes tuning, so I can get to playing. I will probably turn off the 4-foot most of the time, anyway. I tuned it today mainly to train it up to pitch again.

If I had another 8-foot register on this instrument, that would be another 4 or 5 minutes to copy all the unisons.

(If I would use a tuning app at the beginning, it wouldn’t really save me time. It’s only for the middle section of the keyboard to set the temperament in 5 to 7 minutes. I am doing my checks of fifths, fourths, and thirds anyway so I can get the right qualities into the intervals, not looking at the app. After setting about 15 pitches I turn off the app, and do all the octaves by ear with all their checks of fifths and fourths. This means I need to have the shape of the temperament already memorized with its pattern of tempering the fifths, and I am not working from any cents or other numbers.)

Again, this one is “as much as ye ear will bear”, and trying to be as 16th to 18th century as possible about it. I don’t enjoy hearing quarter-comma on this harpsichord because the fifths bother me too much when playing contrapuntal music. My ear doesn’t bear them. So, I sharpen my starting major third a little bit, and everything else is derived from there.

If I ever want to do 1/5 and be sure it’s 1/5, I start with a temporary step of C-E-B pure. Then, I get my fifths C-G-D-A-E-B to fit into that C-B (moving the E up to a good guess, first, and then working C-G-D-A-E until those and E-B all sound similar). It doesn’t take as much as 3 minutes.

Bradley Lehman

Le 19/09/2023 19:24, Bradley Lehman via The Jackrail écrit :

So, the whole instrument was done in 22 minutes from the starting C.

For a total of how many notes? A little over100? Not very far from
Claudio’s 40 minutes for a five-octave three-rank instrument (183 notes).

Thanks a lot, very useful and enlighting.
Tuning apps do slow down tuning.

I’ve never heard of anyone tuning the four-foot except for a
performance. (half-kidding only)

Dear Bradley: we appear to be in full agreement!
The timings I quoted (and in my UT book) were for a 5-octave 3-choir tuning: 40 minutes and certainly not less than 30.
I understand your instrument is less than 5 octave, but let this detail aside.
Your “relaxed” timings are: first 8’ in 22 minutes, 4’ in 13 minutes, second 8’ in 5 minutes: total 40!
Exactly my time!
It is “relaxed” for you because you are an experienced tuner, but most harpsichordists will require all those 40’.

I keep envying you all being able to do that in so small time. I need an entire hour for 81 notes three ranks.

There is a thing I apparently do differently, would you mind to comment on it?

If I am tuning by ear:

  • I set the octave with the chosen temperament on the lower keyboard.
  • I tune the unisons to that octave on the upper keyboard, by pressing both keys on lower and upper keyboard.
  • I tune the octaves on the lower keyboard. Each note I tune, I tune its unison on the upper keyboard, then go to the next. I check octaves on the upper keyboard as well.

If I am tuning by tuning apps:
I tune one note by app, then its unison by ear, then the next note and then its unison. Octaves by ear of course, as described before. For each note I tune by octave, I tune its unison before going to next note.

This way I have the entire bass half of harpsichord tuned before going to treble. I think this way the treble will be less disturbed by tuning the bass which is already tuned.

Only at last I tune the entire 4’ from bass to treble.

Maybe it’s overdone? Pointless? It’s not more work, though.
I am asking because I understand you all tune the entire 8’, then the entire second 8’ etc. while I tune both 8’ in the same moment a note at a time.

Dear All

What a luxury if you can enjoy taking a leisurely 40mins to tune a harpsichord! There is rarely that time available in the professional world.

Here’s a time-lapse of me tuning a Kevin Fryer 1997 Flemish Double after 1638 Ruckers at the 2008 Carmel Bach Festival. What takes just over twelve minutes in real life is compressed here to thirty-eight seconds.

Harpsichord Tuning — Time-lapse



The other thing about ‘never more than a quarter of an hour’ is that if you are always tuning the same temperament and checking it every day, you often don’t actually have to move a lot of the notes. A lot of the ‘tuning’ might be checking whether the intervals you set up yesterday are still there.

FWIW … I just got the actual Forkel quote

“He tuned his Harpsichord and Clavichord, and was so skilful in the operation that it never took him more than a quarter of an hour. It enabled him to play in any key he preferred, and placed the whole twenty-four of them at his disposal, so that he could modulate into the remoter as easily and naturally as into the more nearly related keys. Those who heard him frequently could hardly detect the fact that he had modulated into a distant key, so smooth were his transitions. In chromatic movements his modulation was as easy and sequent as in diatonic. His Chromatic Fantasia, which is now published,129 bears out my statement.”

This is rather explicit that Bach did not need or want to retune between different keys.

Claudio, I don’t know where you are getting “22” and “13” for my “relaxed” timings as demonstrated.

As you can see directly in the video and in my annotations, I did the first 8’ in 13 minutes and the 4’ in the next 9, and I asserted that a second 8’ (had there been one) would have been another 5. The whole video is shorter than 24 minutes, and that’s with some non-tuning time wasted at the beginning and the end of it.

I do remember 40 years ago when I had a college work-study job taking care of their harpsichord, and it took a full hour to do 8+8+4. That was inexperience as a beginner, and trying to do it with beat rates.

Bradley Lehman

Dear Domenico. Not me. Read my UT book! I tune simultaneously the two 8’, both in the temperament and in the extensions by octaves. And in my UT book I explain the how and the why in detail.

And yes, Bradley is a very fast tuner, I am not that fast, and you are not unduly slow. Many people need a full hour for three choirs.

Dear Carey. Plese re-read my posts: I wrote (twice!) 30 to 40 minutes for a 5-octave 3-rank instrument. You are talking Ruckers single, about half the number of strings.

Dear Thomas. I have recently had an article about Forkel published on Harpsichord and Fortepiano. There I show (supported by evidence and also by scholarship) that Forkel’s assertions about everything Bach supposedly did are utterly unreliable, whether or not coming from Bach’s sons.

As I wrote in the article (and also here above!) , Forkel 's is so inaccurate that he is likely not to refer to a full-size 5-octave 3-choir (as per my own timing estimates), but to a 4-octave fretted clavichord! Or else, of course, to just fixing the tuning, not a full retuning.

Dear Claudio

Sorry, but I must now reluctantly and gently take you to task on this forum for not reading my post nor viewing my very short time-lapse video: I clearly identify the Kevin Fryer instrument I am tuning as a Flemish Double after 1638 Ruckers.

Most musicians I know wish to spend their time playing their harpsichord, rather than tuning it. If it takes an hour to tune, I’d suggest some more practice may be required. I acknowledge, though, that some players never really get the hang of tuning. That’s OK.