What Does Equal Temperament Mean in Music? A Guide to Tuning Systems

Are you ready to unlock the secret behind harmonious melodies? Brace yourself as we dive into the world of equal temperament and discover how it shapes the very fabric of music. This blog post will delve into the fascinating world of equal temperament and its significance in the realm of music. We’ll demystify this essential concept, exploring its history, practical applications, and how it has shaped the way we listen to and create music. So, grab your headphones and get ready to explore the harmonious world of equal temperament.

What does equal temperament mean in music? Equal temperament in music refers to a tuning system where the frequency interval between every pair of adjacent notes has the same ratio. This ensures that each note is equidistant from its nearest neighbor, creating a balanced and consistent musical landscape.

Image of someone playing the piano.
Image of someone playing the piano.

What makes the division of the octave into 12 equal parts so significant?

Equal temperament in music refers to a tuning system that divides an octave (or other intervals) into equal steps, approximating just intervals. The most common form of equal temperament used in classical and Western music is the 12-tone equal temperament (12-TET), where the octave is divided into 12 equal parts. In this system, each step, known as a semitone or half step, has a ratio equal to the 12th root of 2, approximately 1.05946.

To achieve equal temperament, the frequencies of adjacent notes are adjusted so that the ratio between them remains constant. For example, in 12-TET, each note’s frequency is defined as a multiple of semitones away from a standard pitch, often A440, where A is tuned to 440 Hz. This standard pitch has not always been 440 Hz, as it has varied over time.

To achieve equal temperament, the frequencies of adjacent notes are adjusted so that the ratio between them remains constant.

Equal temperament has been widely adopted because it allows music to be transposed between keys without changing the relationship between notes. This flexibility has greatly influenced Western music since the 18th century, enabling composers to explore various tonalities and modulations.

Here is a table providing the key characteristics of 12-TET equal temperament:

Key CharacteristicDescription
System12 equal temperament (12-ET)
Octave DivisionDivides the octave into 12 equally tempered parts
Interval SpacingEqual spacing on a logarithmic scale
RatioEach interval is approximated by the 12th root of 2 (12√2 ≈ 1.05946)
Smallest IntervalSmallest interval is 1/12th of an octave, known as a semitone or half step
Tuning StandardA440 Hz – The note A is tuned to 440 Hz, and all other notes are defined as some multiple of semitones apart from it, either higher or lower in frequency
Instrument UsageMost modern Western musical instruments, including keyboard instruments (pianos, organs, harpsichords), string instruments (violins, violas, cellos, basses), wind instruments (brass, woodwinds), and fretted instruments (guitars)
Tuning ApproximationsSome instruments approximate equal temperament due to technical limitations, while others, like unfretted string ensembles and vocal groups, may use tuning closer to just intonation for acoustic reasons
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

What does equal temperament mean in music? A guide to tuning systems | 717qmgla7zl. Ac sl1500 | audio apartment
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

I’m loving the AKAI MPK Mini MK3 for its compact design and the range of controls. It’s one of my essential tools. The velocity-sensitive keys and MPC-style pads are great for making beats, while the thumbstick and knobs give me precise control.

What are the alternatives to 12 TET equal temperaments?

While 12-TET takes center stage in Western music, there are other equal temperaments that venture into exciting tonal territories. Let’s dive into these alternative divisions of the octave and explore their unique characteristics.

19-TET and 31-TET

Ever wondered what would happen if we divided the octave into 19 or 31 equal parts? These alternative equal temperaments offer intriguing possibilities for composers and musicians. With a greater number of divisions, the tonal palette expands, allowing for finer gradations and more intricate harmonic explorations.

Arabic music and 24-TET

In Arabic music, a different notational convention arises with the use of 24-TET. This equal temperament showcases the rich musical heritage of Arabic traditions, offering a unique perspective on tonality and musical expression. It’s a testament to the diversity and richness of musical systems around the world.

The Bohlen-Pierce scale

Not all equal temperaments are confined to the division of octaves. The Bohlen-Pierce scale, for example, takes a different approach. By dividing the just interval of an octave and a fifth into 13 equal parts, this temperament explores new sonic landscapes that diverge from traditional Western music. It’s a captivating departure that expands our musical horizons.

As you can see, equal temperament is a vast and fascinating subject, extending beyond the confines of 12-TET.

Representation of chord progression in 12 tone equal temperament.
Representation of chord progression in 12-tone equal temperament.

How does the Bohlen-Pierce scale offer a fresh perspective on tonality?

The Bohlen-Pierce scale ventures into uncharted territories, departing from the conventional octave-based divisions. It offers a departure from traditional Western music’s focus on octaves. By dividing the just interval of an octave and a fifth into 13 equal parts, this temperament ventures into a unique sonic realm. It introduces intervals that may sound unfamiliar at first, but they hold the potential to transport listeners to unexplored sonic landscapes.

Its divisions introduce exciting harmonic possibilities and sonorities that go beyond the traditional tonal framework.

With the Bohlen-Pierce scale, you can tap into a tonal palette that embraces the unconventional. Its divisions introduce exciting harmonic possibilities and sonorities that go beyond the traditional tonal framework. Exploring melodies and harmonies within this scale can lead to fresh, distinctive compositions that defy expectations.

Let’s dive into a quick reference table of dos and don’ts to keep in mind when exploring equal temperament in your musical journey.

Embrace alternative equal temperaments.Limit yourself to 12-TET only.
Experiment with tonal nuances.Ignore the subtleties of microtones.
Explore cultural and musical traditions.Shy away from sonic experimentation.
Push the boundaries of tonality.Restrict your compositions to octaves.

What instruments use equal temperament?

Equal temperament is not a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to tuning. Different instruments have their unique considerations. Most modern Western musical instruments are tuned in the equal temperament system. Here’s a list of instruments that use equal temperament:

  • Keyboard instruments, such as pianos, organs, and harpsichords, are commonly tuned in equal temperament
  • String instruments, especially those with fixed pitches like violins, violas, cellos, and basses, often approximate equal temperament.
  • Wind instruments, including brass and woodwind instruments, can also use equal temperament, although some, like trombones, may have the ability to bend their tone and adjust tuning similar to string ensembles and vocal groups.
  • Fretted instruments like guitars and bass guitars typically use equal temperament, although they can be adjusted to other tuning systems.

These are some of the instruments that commonly utilize equal temperament tuning to achieve consistent intervals and facilitate transposition between keys.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of equal temperament?

Equal temperament plays a significant role in music production, home studio recording, and audio engineering. Let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of embracing equal temperament in these realms.


  • Compatibility: Equal temperament ensures compatibility across different instruments and ensembles, allowing for seamless collaboration and integration in music production and recording.
  • Consistency: With equal intervals between notes, composers and producers can achieve consistent tonal relationships, facilitating harmonic coherence and melodic exploration.
  • Flexibility: Equal temperament provides a standardized system that allows musicians to transpose music easily and experiment with various keys without changing the underlying musical relationships.
  • Digital Integration: In the realm of digital audio workstations (DAWs) and virtual instruments, equal temperament simplifies pitch manipulation, tuning, and MIDI programming, ensuring accurate and reliable musical representations.


  • Intonation Limitations: Equal temperament sacrifices the purity of intervals found in just intonation, which can limit the expressive potential and natural resonance of certain musical passages.
  • Inharmonic Overtones: Due to the compromises made in equal temperament, some intervals may produce inharmonic overtones, affecting the timbral richness and harmonic complexity of certain instruments and ensembles.
  • Lack of Tonal Variation: The equal division of the octave can lead to a lack of tonal variation and may not fully capture the subtle nuances and expressive potential offered by alternative temperaments.
  • Cultural and Historical Context: Equal temperament, especially in the context of non-Western music, may not align with the tonal systems and musical traditions of certain cultures, potentially limiting authenticity and cultural diversity in musical productions.

Equal temperament provides a reliable and standardized tuning system that promotes compatibility and consistency across various musical contexts. However, it’s essential to consider the potential trade-offs in terms of expressive potential, timbral richness, and cultural authenticity when embracing equal temperament in music production and recording.

If you want even more tips and information, check out the video below.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Got some burning questions about equal temperament? Check out these FAQs for quick answers!

How does equal temperament affect the sound of different instruments?

Equal temperament ensures consistent pitch relationships between notes, regardless of the instrument. However, the specific timbre and resonance of each instrument can still influence the overall sound and character of the music.

Can I use alternative equal temperaments in my home recording studio?

Absolutely! Many digital audio workstations (DAWs) and virtual instruments offer the option to explore and experiment with alternative equal temperaments, allowing you to delve into unique tonal landscapes and create distinctive musical compositions.

Are there any challenges in implementing equal temperament in music production?

While equal temperament provides a standardized tuning system, achieving perfect intonation can still be challenging due to the inherent limitations of certain instruments, room acoustics, and human perception. However, modern technology and skilled audio engineering techniques can help mitigate these challenges to a great extent.


Understanding equal temperament helps musicians grasp the foundational principles of tuning and the mathematical underpinnings of music. It opens up a world of possibilities for musical expression and creativity. So, go forth, explore, and let your harmonies resonate with the beauty of equal temperament!

Let me know your questions in the comments section below (I read and reply to every comment). If you found this article helpful, share it with a friend, and check out my full blog for more tips and tricks on music production, home studio recording, and audio engineering. Thanks for reading, and keep harmonizing those melodies!

Key Takeaways

This article covered the concept of equal temperament in music, exploring its role in music production, home studio recording, and audio engineering. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Equal temperament provides a standardized system of tuning with consistent intervals between notes.
  • Alternative equal temperaments offer unique tonal possibilities beyond the traditional 12-tone system.
  • Different instruments and ensembles approach equal temperament in their unique ways.
  • Equal temperament enhances compatibility, consistency, and flexibility in music production.
  • It’s important to consider the advantages and disadvantages of equal temperament, including its impact on tonal variation and cultural authenticity.

Helpful Resources

Image Andrew Ash
Written by Andrew Ash, Staff Writer

Hey there! My name is Andrew, and I'm relatively new to music production, but I've been learning a ton, and documenting my journey along the way. That's why I started this blog. If you want to improve your home studio setup and learn more along with me, this is the place for you!

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