This is an expanded version of a comment I posted earlier this week on the hpschd-l. Anyone who wants to get into historical harpsichord tuning and never come out again ought to search the archives of that list. There’s several lifetimes worth of tuning wisdom and tuning folly to be found there. In this post, I discuss one randomly picked topic from tuning lore: the so-called inharmonicity of strings and what to do with it.
A very short popularized version of the theory says that in stiff or thick (or both) strings the partials are out of tune; thick, stiff strings act acoustically as a rod. Imagine a 1950s staircase and its iron handrails. The rods that attach them to the ground say (when one tried harping on them, which one wasn’t supposed to do) plink/plank/plaing/plunk/plong, but mostly “ploink”; the “oi” factor in this ploink indicates that something – in terms of a pure sound – isn’t as it ought to be. When tuning very thick foreshortened bass strings or the treble strings in a modern piano, we are facing palpable manifestations of this inharmonicity. Even in the strings of early keyboard instruments there is theoretically some inharmonicity. This wisdom works wonders for the fantasy of some insiders. (more…)