TUNING YOUR UKULELE

Part 4: Interval Tuning

While we went through two basic tuning approaches in Part 3, here in Part 4 we’ll talk about one last form of the second approach, Fret Tuning.  In Part 3 we spoke of a Fret Tuning form generally called “Tuning with Reference”.  But in this part, we’ll talk about another form - one that is is sometimes called “Tuning without Reference”.  We were tempted to simply call this “Traditional Tuning”, as this has been the normal way to tune guitar family instruments throughout history and is still common around the world today.  Still, that term is easily confused with certain specific tunings, so we’ve decided the best term for the traditional style would be Interval Tuning We’ll use that term for the traditional style going forward.   Interval Tuning is done in the same manner as the previous  Fret Tuning style – the difference being there’s no tuning fork, etc. to start out with.  You just tune the strings to each other at a comfortable tension or pitch in proper “Intervals”.  Obviously this would have been the choice of most guitar family musicians throughout history.  They weren’t often playing in proximity to a piano or organ, and really, what’s the point in carrying around a pitch pipe or tuning fork? So, Interval Tuning in its most basic form is the simplest way of all to tune.  Free from mechanical devices or reference points, you simply tune the strings in relation to each other.  In this video the delightful Miss Georgia Bea demonstrates the basic way to do it. Not knowing how to call out the strings by numbers, she refers to them as G C E A (”’cept don’t think of them as that notes!”).  And those names don’t even matter.  As the great Sonny Boy Williamson once said, “You can call ‘em yo mammy if you wanna!”  She tunes with no reference, and anyone listening to this video will surely come to the conclusion that the North American population of homo sapien has not lost its ability to hear pitch in the last two decades.  And while she is setting up a linear tuning, you can use the same basic “Unison” procedure with reentrant tuning as well.  Just refer back to Part 3 to see Alex Richter’s method. While a lot of modern players can understand the process of Tuning with Reference, many find it difficult to grasp that tuning requires no reference at all.  The very second the idea of doing away with both the electronic tuner and the tuning fork (or other reference) is brought up, many assume that Interval Tuning requires that a person have “perfect pitch” to be able to put their instrument in tune.  That’s exactly the opposite of what Interval Tuning is about.  Does Miss Georgia appear to have perfect pitch?  Is she tuning to any pitch at all?  With Interval Tuning, pitch is disregarded entirely except for the relation of one string to another.      The idea of fixed note tuning is so ingrained in many players today, that a system without it is often seen as something exotic, something only used by the elite musician.  Players today almost universally think that our common instruments have always been tuned to a fixed set of notes, when actually that is a fairly recent development.  The notes of guitar tuning, for example, only began to be standardized during the 1920s and those notes didn’t gain wide acceptance for a couple of decades after.  For centuries prior to that, no one felt a need for fixed note tuning, and the majority of guitar players around the world – common guitar players, not virtuosos - still feel no need for it. And so there is also often prejudice against this approach coming from the opposite direction; prejudice because this approach is so often used among players without a formal musical education.  In Latin America, for example, even batteries might be a luxury for some, let alone a device like an electronic tuner.  Yet the guitar is part of the culture, and sacrifices are made to acquire one.  Sacrifices aren’t deemed necessary, however, for the sorts of “accessory” items that so many Ukulele players often seem unable to function without.   Don’t think for a second that a lack of formal musical education in our sense will translate to “unskilled” performance.  Basic tutoring often takes place from one player to another instead of with method books or instructional videos.  As these instruments are so common, and have been so down through history, there is a common pool of unbroken experience among players there that simply ceased to exist midway through the 20th century with the Ukulele, at least on the U.S. mainland.  The skill level in these countries is astonishing, and an electronic tuner is seldom seen.  Among the older generation especially, it would be almost a badge of “dishonour” to be seen with an electrical device clipped to a cultural icon, an instrument that has touched the souls of generations without ever needing such aparati. ****************************************************** Finally, don’t think there has never been a formal structure for this approach.  Musical systems based on unfixed tuning can be documented as far back as the 11th century, and have likely always existed.  Up until the the middle of the 20th century, these systems were still in widespread use, and in Europe and Africa they are still in use today.  The last of these systems was the “Kodaly Method of Musical Education” in the 1940s, but what is still the best known of these systems and the one that still survives in some places today was its predecessor, invented in England in the early 19th century and generally called “Tonic Solfa”. Tonic Solfa is a variation on the way to name notes still used in most of the world now.  That note naming system is called Solfa, Solfeo, Solfège or Solfeggio , depending on the country.  While it’s not used very often in formal notation today in the English speaking world, everyone still knows the notes of that scale: do re mi fa sol la ti do (there are some variations).  There are two applications for this system.   One is called “fixed solfa”.  In this fixed system, Solfa names function in exactly the same way as the popular system now used for the English speaking world.  Our notes “A, B, C,” would just use the Solfa names instead of letters, with do  corresponding to C, and so on. The Solfa names are evident everywhere in classical music.  It’s just that we generally change original Solfa names to the alphabetical English names when they’re presented to an English speaking audience.  For example, if Maestro Leonardo Lozano plays a Cuatro piece entitled “Concierto en Re Mayor”, someone playing the same composition in the English speaking world will almost always present it as “Concerto in D Major”.  But with Solfa there is that other major application: it’s what we called “Tonic Solfa”.  In that form, do is not a fixed note, it’s moveable.  Another name for that system is therefore “moveable do”. With symphonic orchestras, do is always assumed to be moveable.  Even Orchestras from the English-speaking world operate this way.  While the great majority of classical presentations are done today at a concert pitch of a’ = 440Hz, conductors everywhere feel free to change that standard as they see fit.  If they feel a given piece has more character at either a higher or lower pitch, they won’t hesitate to present it that way.  The sheet music doesn’t change, it’s just that the higher or lower reference note gives the piece a higher or lower pitch.  The present 440 HZ convention, after all, wasn’t in fashion when most of these works were written in the first place, and “Concert Pitch” by strict definition simply means the pitch that musicians elect to use for any given composition at any particular “Concert”.  One good option on certain electronic tuners is that they also now also offer options to move away from the 440 pitch if you so desire. Tonic Solfa is most widely known for its use in vocal compositions - more specifically works for a capella choirs.  In the days of it’s invention, the Industrial Revolution was taking a heavy toll on the newly relocated workers.  Much of the impetus for the creation of Tonic Solfa was to give these workers a simple way way to sing together in the gathering spots they used for “churches”, and thus to provide a way to ease the burden of their oppressive workload.  Those sparse Sunday   worship rooms had no organs or pianos, so of course there was no sort of reference note for a choir.  Tonic Solfa had a very simple way of writing out the notes, using colons, lines, spaces and only the first letter of the Solfa names.  For those congregations where paper was too much of a luxury, hand signals were even invented for the choirmasters. In the world of the guitar family the signposts of this traditional system are still evident if you know how to recognize them.  If you look, for example, at the packets of some of the older string makers (LaBella & Savarez come to mind), you’ll see that they are sometimes identified by Solfa names as well as letters.  While guitar tuning has long been in linear 4 note intervals, for most of the instruments history, the notes of those intervals were not fixed.  They could be related to each other, however, by giving them the names of the notes of the scale.  A guitar tuning, for example, in the traditional nomenclature, is  mi – la – re – sol – ti – mi or showing the octaves,  mi,, – la,, – re, – sol, – ti, – mi   (note commas, apostrophes or lack thereof). Modern players in the English-speaking world probably just assume that these are simply different names for the fixed notes they’re used to.  And assuming fixed Solfa, that would be correct.  In the fixed system  mi,, – la,, – re, – sol, – ti, – mi  does in fact translate to the English letter form for standard guitar tuning: E A d g b e’.  But most guitar players in the countries that use Solfa notation don’t look on these names as being fixed notes.  For the evidence that these names have always been used for interval tuning as well as fixed note tuning, we don’t even have to look to the guitar.  We can go back and look at the birth of the Ukulele. In our Open Tuning letter in the Tips & Info page archive, we’ve posted the “Original Method & Self-Instructor on the Ukulele” for download.  This was the first Ukulele Method Book to be published in Hawaii.  It’s authors were A.A. Santos & Angeline Nunes.  Senhora Nunes was the wife of Julius Nunes, who at that time was running the workshop established by his father Manuel, one of the three original Portuguese luthiers to come to Hawaii and create the Ukulele.  Remember, the Ukulele, like the guitar, also has Latin roots. This book is generally considered significant because it was written in an attempt to try to keep the original Machete tuning alive.  However, it is noteworthy in other respects as well. On page 5 tuning is discussed.  First is a short paragraph called “Tuning” together with a diagram.  The Machete tuning is given as d’ g’ b’ d”, and it’s assumed this would be tuning the open strings with a piano.  Next is a section called “Fret Tuning”, where as we discussed in the last part, tuning would be done by fretting strings.  Two methods are given.  The first is a “Tuning with Reference” procedure.  The 1st string is the reference string, and from there a procedure is given in the same manner as Alex Richter shows, close to a century later. But then, it goes on to offer another way of tuning, saying: “For those familiar with the Tonic Sol-Fa system, the procedure will seem very simple.  Call the 1st sol (and get the pitch to suit the range of your voice).  The 2nd string is mi; the third, doh; and the 4th, low sol.  (Beginning at the top: S M D S,  or beginning at the bottom, S,M D S ) . Those Solfa notes in a fixed application don’t even translate to the English letter names.  In fixed Solfa the tuning they should be  re – sol – ti – re’ .  But note that Santos & Nunes use the phrase “Call the 1st sol”.  In this respect, you can say Tonic Solfa follows the “Sonny Boy Williamson Method” - you can call the notes anything (”call ‘em yo mammy if you wanna!”) - only the intervals really matter. Tonic Solfa could actually be a fabulous way to write Ukulele music.  Ukuleles, after all, have a much wider variety of standard sizes and scale than guitars.  As such, tunings pitched differently can improve the sound tremendously over the current one-size-fits-all approach.  Since in fixed Solfa, do is middle C, it would fit well with the modern common Ukulele C tuning.  In fixed Solfa, reentrant Ukulele tuning would be  sol - do - mi - la.  The do chord would be what we call a C chord, but when the notes become moveable, it would likely be easier for most players to understand that changing the notes of the tuning doesn’t necessarily mean changing chord shapes.  Tune to B flat, for example, and since that moveable  do  can now become B flat instead of C, the  do  chord can still keep the same shape. ****************************************************** But we’ve probably spent far too much time on these systems and their history.  We just wanted to show that these ideas don’t come out of left field.  These systems aren’t at all necessary to gain the benefits of Interval Tuning.  In Latin America, the home to most of the worlds guitarists, the average player, the fellow playing for himself, his family and friends, knows there are actually fixed notes associated with the Solfeo (spanish) names, it’s just that he generally has no use for them.  The average player would never have heard of “Tonic  Solfa; he would just know that the Solfa names signify intervals, and that there are some fixed notes associated with them for those who might want or need to use them. So we’re not advocating that you need to learn a new system of reading and writing music.   We’re just talking about the “Traditional” way to tune.  Miss Georgia, for example, may never have heard of any of this, and there’s no reason she would need to.  And to reap the benefits of Interval Tuning, you don’t need to learn a new system either. Just as so many of the Latin players tune their Guitars and Cuatros in intervals, Ukulele players during the first great boom of the Ukulele in the U.S. did precisely the same thing.  Yes, Interval Tuning, though approached a bit differently, was once common practice among Ukulele players as well.  Thanks to a new wrinkle in the way sheet music was written, with Ukuleles reading music was based more on symbols than names.  But, with the mid-century decline of the instrument, that approach largely disappeared.  We’ll talk some about the old way going forward - mainly in Part 5. ********************************************** While it’s obvious from reading this page that we feel Interval Tuning is neglected and under appreciated by modern Ukulele players, remember that tuning in any form is simply a means to an end.  Any approach that does the “job” is fine!  So now that we’ve presented three different approaches to tuning, what we want to do next is look at those different “jobs”, or different playing situations.  As we go through some general types of playing, you can see if a particular style of tuning actually holds any sort of advantage for you.  And more importantly, if an advantage exists with one method or another for your particular need, you’ll be able to recognize what approach will work best.
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