Published Dec. 11, 2007
I completely disagree with this lead sentence in an AP business story last week: “Musicians of the world are getting a new kind of artistic freedom with technology that eliminates the challenging chore of tuning.”
A new Gibson electric guitar is equipped with onboard tuning technology developed in Germany that allows the newest Les Paul guitar to tune itself, the first self-tuning technology in the world. “It is particularly useful for beginners, who tend to find tuning a headache,” says the article. The guitar also comes with six types of tunings, so a musician doesn’t have to take an extra guitar for alternate tunings or retune during a concert.
I disagree especially with three words in that first sentence: “Freedom,” “challenging” and “chore.” First, I consider tuning a pleasant time with my instrument, listening to its pleasing tones while giving my hands the chance to warm up as my instrument acclimates itself to the change in humidity and temperature after being taken from its case. Tuning is a pleasure, not a chore.
Second, tuning is not a challenge. Yes, it may be for the beginning musician, and it may be for one who depends on electronics. I know people who have played stringed instruments for years, and they have no concept of how to tune without an electronic tuner. Some can’t get an instrument in tune even with a tuner. But it’s possible to learn if one frees himself from his crutch.
An electronic tuner has lights, a liquid display or a needle that tells you if the string is at the correct pitch. Lighted arrows point either left or right to tell you if the pitch is low or high. Some tuners are made to recognize only certain pitches corresponding to the strings of an instrument, and others recognize any note, and the light or needle will point to the appropriate note or the note name will be displayed. It can be easy to tune this way, but it’s a handicap, which is why I disagree with the statement that an electronic tuner provides freedom.
I learned to tune a violin with a pitchpipe and my ears. I was taught right off that violin strings are tuned to perfect fifths, the name of the interval from one string to the next. A fifth is the difference in pitch from the first step of the scale to the fifth, and one way to learn its sound is to think of a song with that interval. Think of "Twinkle, twinkle" in the childhood song, and you’ll know the sound of a fifth.
Using a pitchpipe, which had one note for each violin string, I had to learn to correlate the sound of each string with the sound of each note I blew. That process trained my ears, in other words that part of the brain related to music, and helped me learn the sound of the fifth. After time, I graduated to a tuning fork, which is pitched to the A string of the violin. The player strikes the fork on a knee or other hard object and holds it against a sturdy part of the violin, and he tunes the A string to the fork. He tunes the other strings, knowing the sound of a fifth, from the A.
The guitar is tuned, except for one string, in fourths. A fourth is the sound of “Here comes” in “Here comes the bride.” You can use a tuning fork for one string and use the sound of that interval for all but that odd string, or you can place a finger at the fifth fret and at the fourth fret for the odd string to tune until you learn the intervals. Either way, you’re training your ears. When your ears are trained and you understand intervals, you have earned freedom through knowledge. You aren’t tied to electronics, which require batteries.
I seem to be outnumbered, however. Skill and the chance to learn are being made obsolete by technology, which fascinates people to no end, whether it’s useful or not. I tried to find a tuning fork recently and was surprised that my favorite music mail order outfit had no forks in its catalog and few on its website. The few it had were unusual pitches, telling me they were leftovers that hadn’t sold. Tuning forks mostly had been replaced by electronics.
Despite the prevalence of electronic tuners, I always encourage friends and students to develop their brain. Use electronics if you must, as a learning tool or in noisy settings, but find real freedom in tuning by ear.