Blake Howe (Louisiana State University)
In their lessons, violinists must train very hard to play “in tune.” Singers face the same challenge; some, fearful of sounding “pitchy,” might even use Auto-Tune to prevent mistakes in live performance. The slightest change in temperature and humidity can knock a piano “out of tune,” so concert halls usually hire a professional tuner to “retune” the instrument before each concert—a grueling process that can take hours.
To play or sing in tune is to match the pitch frequencies prescribed by a tuning system. Despite an infinite number of possible systems, for the past 200 years most Western musicians have used just one, called “equal temperament.” Listeners have become so accustomed to the sound of equal temperament that its organization of pitch frequencies sounds normal, and a performer’s failure to match those frequencies produces music that sounds wrong. But equal temperament, much like the very concept of normality, is a product of its time and place. It reflects the politics of a culture that values consistency over variety, uniformity over difference—and, as we will learn, a prototypical nondisabled body over the extraordinary diversity of human morphology.