Tuning System – Equal Temperament vs Arabic Tuning


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Cover Photo by Alexis Baydoun

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The tuning systems for traditional Middle Eastern and traditional Indian music are based on principles of “just intonation” (also known as “pure intonation”), which predates the equal-temperament tuning system in Western music. Pure intervals are mathematically perfect: the frequencies of the two notes in a pure 5th have a ratio that is exactly 3:2, unlike equal temperament. In addition, some Middle Eastern scales use quarter tones, or notes that are in between the semitones of the Western 12-tone octave. For these reasons, we can only approximate the sound of traditional Middle Eastern and Indian music when played on an equal-tempered instrument like a piano. 

“Equal Temperament is a tuning system where the octave is divided into twelve equal parts. This results in each semitone being of the same size, facilitating the ability to play in any key without distinctively out-of-tune intervals. This system is widely used in Western music, providing a versatile and consistent approach to tuning.

On the other hand, Arabic Tuning is a system that differs from Equal Temperament. It is rooted in the musical traditions of the Arabic world. In Arabic Tuning, the intervals between notes are not consistently equal, leading to distinctive microtonal nuances. This tuning system allows for expressive variations in pitch, enabling musicians to convey specific emotions and nuances in their performance.”

We created two brief audio recordings of Fig. H-2 using a software piano to demonstrate the differences in these tuning systems. The first recording uses equal temperament (standard Western piano tuning). The second one uses an Arabic tuning system (Al-Farabi’s 22-tone scale) to exemplify pure intonation. You may notice a subtle difference between the two. The sound of the G Major chord in particular contains more beating with equal temperament, and sounds smoother using the Arabic tuning.

Fig. H-2 Equal Temperament vs Arabic Tuning
A) Equal Temperament
B) Farabi 22

Below is a summary of two tuning systems at a glance:

Equal Temperament:

  • Dividing the octave equally: This widely used system divides the octave (the distance between two identical notes an octave apart) into 12 equal semitones, creating a uniform scale.
  • Advantages: Versatility – equal temperament allows for playing in any key with minimal pitch discrepancies, making it ideal for Western classical music and modern genres. Consistency – the fixed intervals maintain predictability and ease of transposition.
  • Disadvantages: Lack of “pure” intervals – equal temperament sacrifices the perfect consonance of certain intervals (like the fifth) for overall consistency. This can lead to a slightly “out-of-tune” feeling in some keys.

Arabic Tuning:

  • Makamat and microtones: Rooted in the concept of maqamat (melodic modes), Arabic tuning employs microtones – intervals smaller than a semitone – to create unique melodic nuances and expressive possibilities.
  • Advantages: Richness and expressiveness – microtones imbue Arabic music with a characteristic emotional depth and flexibility, particularly suited formaqamsand improvisational styles. Cultural significance – the system is deeply intertwined with Arabic musical traditions and aesthetics.
  • Disadvantages: Limited key flexibility – certain maqamat and microtones might sound dissonant outside their intended context. Learning curve – mastering the intricacies of microtones requires specialized training and aural acuity.

For Additional insights on the topic:

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This is an excerpt lesson from the “Scales in Action” course offered by Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.