Transcription of an article in The London Journal (1831) relating to W. Dettmer's 1827 patent (No. 5548)


No. XXXVIII [Second Series],

Original Communications


To the Editor of the London Journal of Arts.

SIR, - As a lover of music, I am induced to request the favour of your inserting a few observations upon the above subjects in your valuable publication. The deficiency of all musical instruments, with fixed notes, to express the true sounds of the diatonic scale, expecially in moduating from one key to another, has been universally observed, and generally complained of by practical musicians. In respect of wind instruments, such as trumpets, clarinets, flutes, &c. the uneven intonation produced by the almost unmanageable variation of the impetus and weight of wind given by the performer, adds greatly to the obvious inherent defect of these instruments; but in keyed musical instruments, having a regular blast of wind, such as the organ, the separate notes of which can be tuned through its octaves upon a system of harmonic temperament according to the skill and inclination of a practised operator, the defects of fixed notes may be nearly obviated.

The pianoforte and similar keyed intruments having fixed sounds, capable of being separately tuned, so as to exhibit an equal temperament throughout all its octaves, may (as well as the organ with twelve semi-tones or keys in each octave) be sufficiently well tuned for the practical purposes of the most delicate ear.

I have carefully attended to the effects of Mr, Loeschman's, and of other attempts to remedy the supposed defects of the scale of twelve semi-tones, without the least reference to the difficulty of execution, or the great cost of introducing additional tones, and am satisfied that upon a good system of tuning, there is produced a more agreeable sensation to the mind by the admixture of the major and minor concords upon a twelve-keyed insturment, than can be effected by increasing the number of the tones or keys, so as to represent all the actual sharps and flats of the scale.

All the instruments I have heard, with a large addititional number of tones in the octave, are monotonous; the several keys and all the chords minor as well as major being equaly harmonious; the modulation from one key to another is perfectly insipid. However good the supposed improvments may be in theory, practial musicians have not supported them, and after years of trial from Lord Stanhops's time, they have only served to elucidate the theorems of the philosopher.

It will be obvious from the foregoing observations, that the great advantage of the organ and piano forte over other instruments, having twelve fixed sounds to express all the note, that is rather all the natural flats and sharps that occur in the octave is, that the several sounds (viz the pipes and strings giving the twelve semi-tones) can be separately and individually tuned, so as to form a combined system of temperament, producing the most pleasing effect to the ear. If that adjustment or temperament is altered to become unequal through the several octaves, the instrument ceases to be in good tune, although many of the chords taken may not be harsh to the ear, many others will become insufferable. Now the supposed improvment in Mr. Dettmer's patent, which is described as enabling the piano forte, "after having been properly tuned to be brought into unison with other instruments of a different pitch, by raising or lowering the tone of all its strings by a simple operation, instead of the trouble of tuning each string separately," is, in my humble judgment, any thing but an advantage, so far as the eveness of the adjustment or temperament is concerned. The patent is I believe worked by Mr. Tomkisson, the pianoforte maker, of Dean-street; at least I have there seen several instruments precisely answering the description of Mr. Dettmer's improvement. I have examined the effect of altering the tension of the wires "by simply moving the adjusting screws of the tension bars," by which means the blocks carrying the pegs are brought into a new position. The whole body of the strings is thus made sharper or flatter as may be required; and I candidly acknowledge, that this alteration of the general pitch of the instrument is a great accomodation to singers who undestand little of music, and cannot alter their pitch so as to sing a piece in a different key to that written, or to others who are so highly finished in the art, and well gifted with accompanying hauteur, that they will not alter their pitch to the instrument and expect (as Madame Cantalini did) that an entire band should rather accompany their sweet voices in a different key to that in which the music is written, than accomodate their "song divine" to the pitch of the band.

Mr Dettmer's improvment is also an accomodation to accompanying instruments, with fixed tones, which are themselves worse tuned than the piano after its new patent adjustment; and I will acknowledge that the instrument after such an adjustment, is not altogether out of tune, when any note is merely sounded with its octave. But the temperament of the instrument is altered in its several distinct octaves, and the adjustment of such equal temperament no longer continues the same throughout the entire scale of the instrument. This is a defect which may be remedied by the making of separate moving blocks to the several octaves.

It is therefore evident that the defect of unequal temperament is inherent in Mr. Dettmer's moveable block, for it gives an equal or nearly equal tension or relaxation of the strings throughout the instrument, although the bass strings are three to six times longer than a treble octave. By this operation, not only is the tension of strings altered unequally throughout the several octaves, but the same length is added or subtracted to or from the longest and shortest strings, to the evident disarrangement of the previous adjustment of the temperament in tuning.

I trust these few observations may prove conducive to the amelioration of Mr. Dettmer's ingenious invention, and not be unacceptable to such readers of your Journal as may feel interested in improvements connected with the delightful science of music.

I am, Gentlemen,

Yours, &c.,


Isleworth, April, 1831.

(The London Journal of Arts and Sciences, 1831. Vol. VII [Second Series]. London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 57-61. [Transcribed by Margaret Debenham, 24 January 2016])

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