Sep 20, 2012 at 11:02AM EDT
Bach was an advocate of the new system of equal temperament, wherein all the notes are tuned equally, meaning that they’re all slightly (albeit tolerably) out of tune. The benefit of this system is that it allows for one to change key within the course of a piece. Bach wrote the well-tempered clavier as an argument for how awesome the new possibilities presented by equal temperament are. Bach systematically demonstrates in each key all the new chordal and harmonic possibilities presented.
The well-tempered clavier shut the book on that debate. Since the time of Bach, equal temperament and the key changes it allows for have been standard in classical music.
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