A Consonance-Based Approach to
the Harpsichord Tuning of
Domenico Scarlatti

by John Sankey and William A. Sethares

This paper discusses a quantitative method for the study of historical keyboard tunings that is based on a measure of the perceived dissonance of the intervals in a tuning and their frequency of occurrence in the compositions of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). We conclude that the total dissonance of a large volume of music is a useful tool for the studies of keyboard instrument tuning in a historical context, although it is insufficient by itself. Its use provides significant evidence that Scarlatti used French tunings of his period during the composition of his sonatas. Use of total dissonance to optimize a 12-tone tuning for a historical body of music can produce musically valuable results, but must at present be tempered with musical judgment, in particular to prevent overspecialization of the intervals.

This study of possible scales used by Domenico Scarlatti first appeared in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, in April 1997, and some of the ideas are further developed in Tuning Timbre Spectrum Scale,. John has made MIDI recordings of all 500+ of Scarlatti's sonatas, and has generously placed them in downloadable form here.

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