The Well-Tuned Piano

For the tuning, see Well temperament.

The Well-Tuned Piano is a long, improvisatory, solo piano work by composer La Monte Young. Begun in 1964, Young has never considered the composition or performance "finished", and he has performed incarnations of it several times since its debut in 1974.[1] A typical performance lasts five to six hours.[2] The Guardian described the piece as "one of the great achievements of 20th-century music.[1]


La Monte Young was born October 14, 1935, in Bern, Idaho. Growing up, he often listened to the sounds of nature spilling into his log-cabin home. Young cites these sounds as inspirations in later life, and his compositions often involved drones and atypical tuning.[3] With saxophone as his primary instrument, Young attended Los Angeles City College and UCLA, where he studied composition with Leonard Stein, a student of Arnold Schoenberg, and counterpoint with Robert Stevenson, a student of Igor Stravinsky.[4] Young is often described as one of the founding fathers of minimalism, along with Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass,[5] as well as an advocate for Indian classical music.[6] In 1962, Young married visual artist Marian Zazeela. The two have often collaborated on projects that combine visual art and music, including The Well-Tuned Piano. As an audience member at a live performance of The Well-Tuned Piano, one is surrounded by the, "pure and intense color sensations," of The Magenta Lights.[7] These lights are magenta in color and are installed into the performance area and projected throughout the space.

Inspiration and influence

Young gives credit to Dennis Johnson, a former schoolmate and composer from UCLA, for inspiring The Well-Tuned Piano. Johnson wrote an extensive, improvisatory, solo piano piece titled November in 1959, a few years before Young began working on The Well-Tuned Piano. Although the piece is said to be as long as six hours, the tape recording made in 1962 cuts off suddenly after only an hour and a half.[8]

Young has also been influential to many composers and musicians throughout his life. Dennis Johnson cites Young as an influence in his composition, The Second Machine, which is based on four single pitches of Young's Four Dreams of China.[9] Composer and critic Kyle Gann[10] has said that The Well-Tuned Piano, "may well be the most important American piano work since Charles Ives's Concord Sonata, in size, in influence, and in revolutionary innovation."[11] Gann has also called the piece "the most important piano work of the late 20th century."[12] In his book, Four Musical Minimalists, Keith Potter states that The Well-Tuned Piano is significant, "in the contexts of musical minimalism, of musics working at the interface between composition and improvisation, and of twentieth-century music for solo piano."[13]


Magic chord.[14]  Play 

The tuning of the piano used in The Well-Tuned Piano is the most important aspect of the piece. When Young dates the piece as 1964-73-81-Present, the years 1973 and 1981 identify significant changes in the tuning.[15]

Young has always performed The Well-Tuned Piano on a Bösendorfer Imperial Piano, which is larger than a standard acoustic grand piano, spanning eight complete octaves, with nine notes extending the bass of the piano.[16] Young describes the pitches of his tuning as being, "derived from various partials of the overtone series of an inferred low fundamental E-flat reference ten octaves below the lowest E-flat on the Bösendorfer Imperial".[17]

Although it might seem that Young is giving a nod to Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier with his title The Well-Tuned Piano, musical tuning and musical temperament are two very different things. Temperament actually involves the deliberate mistuning of pitches to make the overall octave more or less usable in various different tones. In The Well-Tuned Piano, Young is aspiring to get all intervals perfectly in tune, using just intonation, which is often called pure intonation. This means that all pitches are derived using simple whole numbers, such as 1:1 for a unison pitch, 2:1 for an octave, 5:4 for a major third, and 3:2 for a fifth. Using just intonation eliminates 'beats' (waves in pitches' amplitude), often heard when various instruments seem to be playing out of tune.[18] To an ear not accustomed to just intonation, these pitches may sound unfamiliar since they are not in tune with standard equal temperament.

(≈ cents)
E 000 000.00 E 1/1
E 100 176.65 F++ 567/512
F 200 203.91 F+ 9/8
F 300 239.61 G+ 147/128
G 400 470.78 A+ 21/16
G 500 443.52 A++ 1323/1024
A 600 674.69 B+ 189/128
B 700 701.96 B 3/2
B 800 737.65 C+ 49/32
C 900 968.83 D 7/4
C 1000 941.56 D+ 441/256
D 1100 1172.74 E+ 63/32
E 1200 1200.00 E 2/1
Western chromatic scale tuning vs.
Young's tuning for The Well-Tuned Piano[19]

A more complex explanation of Young's tuning method is offered by Kyle Gann. According to his article, "La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano", Young modifies the seven-limit tuning process, which usually involves tunings based on 3:2, 5:4 and 7:4 ratios. In the tuning for The Well-Tuned Piano, Young omits any ratio involving the number five, such as the major third, 5:4, and the minor third, 6:5, which western-music listeners are accustomed to hearing.[20] Young instead uses ratios involving the number seven, known as septimal, such as 9:7 for the septimal major third, and 7:6 for the septimal minor third. To understand the difference between the 5:4 major third, and 9:7 septimal major third, consider that 5:4 is equivalent to 386 cents ( Play ) and 9:7 is equivalent to 435 cents ( Play ).[19] This difference is audible to the listener by comparing the tuning for each pitch of the western chromatic scale with the chromatic scale used in The Well-Tuned Piano.

The Well-Tuned Piano is based on a pitch lattice of perfect fifths and harmonic sevenths.[21]


The Well-Tuned Piano, being improvisatory in nature, as well as ever-changing, has no specific form. The closest a listener can come to understanding the structure of Young's piece is by studying the liner notes from the 1981 Gramavision recording. Within the liner notes, Young breaks the performance into seven major sections and further deconstructs each of those sections into multiple subsections. The sections and subsections are not notated or described, but simply listed along with the duration of each section so a listener can easily follow along.[22] The seven major sections are as follows.

  1. The Opening Chord (00:00:00-00:21:47)
  2. The Magic Chord (00:21:47-01:02:29)
  3. The Magic Opening Chord (01:02:29-1:23:54)
  4. The Magic Harmonic Rainforest Chord (1:23:54-03:05:31)
  5. The Romantic Chord (03:05:31-04:01:25)
  6. The Elysian Fields (04:01:25-04:59:41)
  7. The Ending (04:59:41-05:01:22)

The subsections are often called themes, and each is vastly and descriptively labeled. A few examples are "The Flying Carpet", which belongs in The Romantic Chord section, and "Sunshine in The Old Country", which is found in The Magic Opening Chord section. Each theme is made up of a specific, unique combination of pitches. However the smaller themes found in one larger section will often have many pitches in common.[23]

Performance history

Young gave the world premiere of The Well-Tuned Piano in Rome in 1974, ten years after the creation of the piece. Previously, Young had presented it as a recorded work. In 1975, Young premiered it in New York with eleven live performances during the months of April and May. As of October 25, 1981, the date of the Gramavision recording of The Well-Tuned Piano, Young had performed the piece 55 times.[24] The only other person to ever perform the piece besides Young is his disciple, composer and pianist Michael Harrison. Young taught Harrison the piece, which not only allowed him to perform it, but also to aid in tuning and preparing the piano for performances.[25] In 1987, Young performed the piece again as part of a larger concert series that included many more of his works.[26] This performance, on May 10, 1987, was videotaped and released on DVD in 2000 on Young's label, Just Dreams.[12]

Each realization is a separately titled and independent composition. Over 60 realizations to date. World première: Rome 1974. American première: New York 1975. Chords from The Well-Tuned Piano (1981–present), are presented as sound environments. Includes: The Opening Chord (1981), The Magic Chord (1984), The Magic Opening Chord (1984);


The playing waxes and wanes, with the slow parts ritualistically simple and repetitive and the fast parts whirling and flurring notes together into eerie, independently generated voices….This sort of music is certainly not for everyone, and even for those who respond to it, there is sometimes the question of whether it should be concentrated on, mediated upon or simply lived through. Whatever one does, Mr. Young remains a fascinating if austere figure in our musical life.
The grand performing space was dimly lighted with magenta lights. There were no chairs. Listeners wore no shoes, reclining on plush white rugs….The work lasts about four hours, and listeners are encouraged to attend numerous performances. This listener's consciousness became a little restless after two hours of overtonal influence, but Mr. Young has clearly achieved something extraordinary, creating unexplored regions of sound.
Edward Rothstein, New York Times (1981), [28]
My personal experience with The Well-Tuned Piano was one of just such heightened concentration...the flow of momentum marshaled the vibrations of air in the room, slowly making the ear aware of sounds that weren't actually being played….I thought I heard foghorns, the roar of machinery, wood blocks, a didgeridoo, and most powerfully, the low, low vibration of the 18-cycles-per-minute E-flat that the ear supplied as the "missing fundamental" of the piano's overtones.
Kyle Gann, The Village Voice (1987), [29]

On 3 January 2016, a performance of the Well-Tined Piano was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 between 1am and 7am (GMT). This was reported by the BBC as being performed by the composer.



  1. 1 2 Service, Tom. "A guide to La Monte Young's music". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  2. Potter, Keith (2000). "La Monte Young". Four musical minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-521-01501-1.
  3. Grimshaw, Jeremy (2001). "The Sonic Search for Kolob: Mormon Cosmology and the Music of La Monte Young". Repercussions. 9 (1): 80.
  4. Farneth, David (1987). "La Monte Young: A Biography". The Well-Tuned Piano: 81 x 25 6:17:50-11:18:59 PM NYC (Media notes). La Monte Young. Gramavision 18-8701-2. Five compact discs.
  5. Potter (2000), p.1-2.
  6. Grimshaw, Jeremy (2009). "La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and the Just Alap Raga Ensemble". American Music. 27 (4): 521.
  7. "Marian Zazeela: Narrative". Retrieved October 30, 2012.
  8. Gann, Kyle (2010). "Reconstructing November". American Music. 28 (4): 481. doi:10.5406/americanmusic.28.4.0481. (subscription required)
  9. Gann (2010), p.482.
  10. Gillespie, Don D. "Gann, Kyle". Grove Music Online. Retrieved October 13, 2012. (subscription required)
  11. Gann, Kyle (1993). "La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano". Perspectives of New Music. 31 (1): 134. doi:10.2307/833045. JSTOR 833045. (subscription required)
  12. 1 2 Gann, Kyle (2002). "Pinned Down by the Piano". The Village Voice. 47 (36): 122. Retrieved November 7, 2012.
  13. Potter (2000), p.80.
  14. Grimshaw, Jeremy (2011). Draw A Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young. p. 176. ISBN 978-0-19-974020-8.
  15. Gann (1993), p.141.
  16. Botstein, Leon. "Bösendorfer". Grove Music Online. Retrieved October 13, 2012. (subscription required)
  17. Young, La Monte (1987). "Notes on The-Well Tuned Piano". The Well-Tuned Piano: 81 x 25 6:17:50-11:18:59 PM NYC (Media notes). La Monte Young.
  18. Lindley, Mark. "Just (pure) intonation". Grove Music Online. Retrieved October 12, 2012. (subscription required)
  19. 1 2 Welch, Allsion (1999). "Meetings along the Edge: Svara and Tāla in American Minimal Music". American Music. 17 (2): 184. doi:10.2307/3052713. Retrieved September 26, 2012. (subscription required)
  20. Gann (1993), p.135-136.
  21. Gann, Kyle (1997). "La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano". Retrieved November 7, 2012.
  22. Young, La Monte (1987). The Well-Tuned Piano: 81 x 25 6:17:50-11:18:59 PM NYC (Media notes). La Monte Young.
  23. Gann (1993), 143-144.
  24. Young, La Monte (1987). "Performance History". The Well-Tuned Piano: 81 x 25 6:17:50-11:18:59 PM NYC (Media notes). La Monte Young.
  25. Feldman, Morton; Young, La Monte (1987). "A Conversation on Composition and Improvisation (Bunita Marcus, Francesco Pellizzi, Marian Zazeela)". RES Anthropology and Aesthetics. 13: 166. JSTOR 20166768. (subscription required)
  26. Palmer, Robert (April 5, 1987). "A Maverick Eases Into the Aboveground: La Monte Young". New York Times. Retrieved October 1, 2012. (subscription required)
  27. Rockwell, John (May 13, 1975). "La Monte Young Performs His Solo, Well-Tuned Piano". New York Times.
  28. Rothstein, Edward (September 15, 1981). "Music: La Monte Young's Well-Tuned Piano". New York Times. Retrieved October 1, 2012. (subscription required)
  29. Gann, Kyle (June 8, 1987). "Maximal Spirit: La Monte Young". Music downtown; writings from The Village Voice.
  30. Olewnick, Brian (2011). "The Well Tuned Piano 81 X 25 (6:17.50 - 11:18:59 PM NYC)". Retrieved 7 November 2012.

Further reading

External links

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