Office Hours with… Daniel Walden

Yale’s Daniel Walden discusses his fascination with the history of tuning systems, his own tinkering with tuning, and the joy of restoring old instruments.
Daniel Walden

Daniel Walden (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

As an undergraduate at Oberlin College and Conservatory, Daniel Walden spent a lot of time playing music written before 1900, sometimes on instruments dating back to the same period. One day he sat down at a harpsichord that was tuned in what’s called quarter-comma meantone, a common method of tuning in the 17th century.

Walden began playing a piece of music from that period by the Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi and immediately became fascinated with how different the experience was from playing a modern-day keyboard.

Just navigating this completely different tuning was very exciting and stimulating,” Walden said. “It’s like if you had your computer keyboard and every key you pressed gave you a different letter.”

Ever since that experience, Walden has focused his music theory studies around exploring the world of different tuning systems and different keyboards. An accomplished pianist and harpsichordist, he is now an assistant professor in the Department of Music in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

In the latest edition of Office Hours, a Q&A series that introduces new Yale faculty members to the broader community, Walden talks about his fascination with the history of tuning systems, his own tinkering with tuning, and his passion for restoring old instruments. 

Title Assistant professor in the Department of Music
Research interest Global history of music theory
Prior institution Durham University, Durham, England
Started at Yale Fall 2023

What is your primary research focus?

Daniel Walden: Most of my research revolves around tuning and temperament. That’s essentially the science or the logic behind the tones we use when we're singing or playing an instrument, how those tones are spaced in terms of their distance from one another. I’m curious about the many interesting reasons — psychoacoustical, mathematical, cultural — that tuning systems are the way they are.

But more than that, I’m interested in the ways that they’ve served as markers of social identity or even political affiliation. I study the global history of discourse about tuning and temperament, particularly around the turn of the 20th century, a time when colonialism, capitalism, and other forces were bringing cultures and regions of the world into closer contact than before. I look at the way that the differences in musical tuning between those various regions are negotiated, and how certain societies, especially those that had been colonized, tried to hold on to what were understood to be pre-colonial tuning systems as a way of protecting what made their culture unique. I look at how this unfolded not just in Europe, but also in Japan, India, and as of more recently, West Africa.

Do you play around with tonal spacing in your own music?

Walden: All the time. I love to play with these different tuning systems, just tinkering around on my own, but also making music with friends. I play a lot of contemporary music now, and I’m very interested in microtonal and just-intonation contemporary music, stuff that uses tuning systems other than what the piano gives you automatically.

Are you actively performing these days?

Walden: Yes, I’ve been doing some performing this past year. One highlight was a performance I gave at Edition Festival in Stockholm. I did an evening-length piece for just-intonation harpsichord written by a friend of mine, in an ornate Roccoco theater with original scenery — it was a lot of fun. And I’m doing some recording projects on the side. Now that I’m based here I’m looking forward to connecting with people making music in the area.

The Yale School of Music has some antique harpsichords in its Morris Steinert Collection. Do you plan to try them out?

Walden: This is one of the reasons I’m excited to be at Yale. This is one of the best collections of historical keyboards in the world. And many of them would have been tuned quite differently from how we tune keyboards today. They are currently remodeling the building so, unfortunately, right now the instruments are in storage. But I’d love to use them in teaching and performing once the collection is accessible again.

How do you spend your free time?

Walden: I’m sure everybody gives you this answer because a lot of academics do it, but I really enjoy cooking, and I’m pretty good in the kitchen. Now that I’m settled here, I'm also really looking forward to getting back into working on restoring and repairing instruments. This is something I used to do and really loved. Also, we just got a puppy. She’s an Australian Labradoodle and she’s a glorious handful.


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