Books in Brief. - 'Temperament: The Idea That Solved Music's Greatest Riddle' - book review

An equal contest. . - The Back Half: Spring Books - Parallels and Paradoxes: explorations in music and society - book reviewTemperament: The Idea That Solved Music's Greatest Riddle, by Stuart Isacoff (Knopf, 259 pp., $23)

What do Pythagoras, Euclid, the 2nd-century b.c. Chinese thinker Huai Nan Tzu, Boethius, Giotto, Descartes, Shakespeare, Newton, Kepler, Rousseau, and contemporary composer Philip Glass have in common? Stuart Isacoff -- pianist, composer, and founding editor of Piano Today -- has woven them into a magnificent story about a great shift in the musical world that took place across centuries and engaged the attention of the Church, the academy, and every branch of the humanities. There are some things that seem so natural, so well established, that we cannot imagine them being any other way. Such is the case with temperament -- the way pianos (and other keyboard instruments) are tuned and how music sounds to our ear. But in fact equal temperament, the commonsense method we now use that divides the musical scale into perfectly equidistant steps, was once a radical idea resisted for centuries by philosophers, popes, kings, and composers.

Temperament involves altering certain mathematical proportions between notes in the musical scale. The vociferous objection to such tampering stemmed from a belief that God, as the Divine Geometer, had established inviolable and harmonious proportions; it was not right for man to meddle with the order of the universe. The problem, however, was that the ancient ideals of proportion were not harmonious -- in fact were downright cacophonous -- when paired with new proportions, like thirds and sixths, that entered the musical palette as music became more complex.

Isacoff has taken a technical subject that even most musicians do not understand -- they tend to leave tempering to the keyboard tuners -- and told a thrilling story that is as accessible as it is absorbing. His imagination and skillful prose help him to explain technical musical concepts like fifths, thirds, and half-steps. Here is how he explains the difference in sound between a third and a fifth: "The sound of this harmony [the third] is sweet and liquid; not airy like a fifth (do to sol), but more condensed, tantalizingly palpable. If the open harmony of a fifth symbolically bridges the dust of the earth and the ceiling of heaven, the sound of a third fills that chasm with something warm and delicious: in a way, the song of the human heart." Isacoff uses felicitous analogies to explain musical concepts, as when he likens the problem that led to tempering to two carpenters trying to make bookshelves flush: Because they use two different scales of measurement -- one based on multiples of two, like octaves, and the other based on multiples of three, like fifths -- their shelves will never line up.

Temperament is chock-full of historical anecdotes and quirky details about the lofty personages who figure in this story. This is a whirlwind tour through the history of Western culture, told with flair and grace.

-- Sarah Maserati