• OVERVIEW •
A ‘stack of thirds’, alternating between minor and major (i.e. semitone gaps of ‘3, 4, 3, 4, 3’). Proposed by Greek mathematician Dr. Costas Kyritsis as an ideal landscape for simplifying the shapes of all common diatonic chords – a logical point, given that much of Western harmony is built from ‘towers of thirds’ (n.b. also see its ‘flipped’ counterpart: the ‘maj-min’ zigzag).
Outlines a min9(11) arpeggio from low to high, with each string having its own unique tone. This odd-jumping regularity is surprisingly easy to settle into – in fact, the narrowed range is probably its most constraining element (17 semitones: 7 fewer than Standard). Top tip: try playing melodies using nothing but natural harmonics, which scatter in mellifluous fashion – e.g. the positions above <5fr>, <7fr>, and <12fr>.
Harmony: Fmin9(11) | 1-b3-5-b7-2-4
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
I first encountered this ‘alternating thirds’ tuning concept via the blog of Dr. Costas Kyritsis, an Associate Mathematics Professor at the University of Ioannina in Greece. In a lengthy 2016 post entitled Melodic-optimal and chord-optimal tunings: Alternative tunings and comparison with violin, mandolin, & other instruments, he analyses questions around which tunings are best suited to different types of guitar playing – concluding that:
“When chord-playing is the main target, and not so much solo playing, [try] alternating minor and major 3rds [4>3>4>3>4 or 3>4>3>4>3]…This may be called the ‘Harmonic Tuning’…as it is based on the harmonic 2-octave 7-note scale [i.e. all its tones come from the 2-octave Natural Minor scale]. The latter [i.e. this one] is the most natural open tuning.” His reasoning process – as far as I can discern it – runs as follows:
- Triads: The tuning provides a highly regular canvas for reaching all major and minor chords in all octaves. The same basic ‘line’ shape can even be used for both – just hop it up or down a string to switch between maj and min (e.g. x-3-3-3-x-x is major, so 3-3-3-x-x-x & x-x-3-3-3-x are minor).
- 7ths: The geometry of jazzier voicings is also simplified (and who doesn’t want that?) – with handy major 7ths [x-4-4-4-4-x], minor 7ths [4-4-4-4-x-x], dominant 7ths [x-4-4-4-3-x], diminished 7ths [4-4-3-3-x-x], and augmented 7ths [x-4-4-5-5-x]. Impressively, all diatonic 7th chords are playable in uninverted form right up to the 3rd octave, even in low fret positions (impossible in Standard without some crafty inversions).
- Modulations: Due to the tuning’s multiple symmetries, “the relations of relative chords [e.g. Emin & Gmaj] and also chords in the wheel of 4ths [e.g. Em7 > Am7 > D7 > Gmaj7] is immediate to grasp”. This also eases the general jenga-block panic of moving melodic phrases across strings in Standard – instead offering simple diatonic scale modulations via such things as “very symmetric zig-zag patterns“.
What can you make of the zigs & zags?
Kyritsis adds that this ‘alternating intervals‘ concept has historical precedent too: “One similar example is the keyboards [and key buttons] of some accordions, concertinas, or bandoneons: where 4 notes increase in pitch by one semitone, [on] a ‘skew line’…”.
He also expanded on his thinking in a 2018 Music.StackExchange thread: “It can be proven mathematically that the…tuning [with] the largest number of [uninverted triads]…[is] the ‘alternating minor 3rd-major 3rd’: exactly as music theory gives that major and minor triad chords are created…Sometimes it is used in therapeutic harps…[It] is also very instructive [for] harmony – as it is represented directly [and] geometrically…[However] it is not designed for…strumming on all 6 strings: its simple magic occurs only when we play 3- or 4-[string] chords”.
I commend the breadth and odd analytic clarity of Dr. Kyritsis’ investigations (…and honestly, I’m always just happy to stumble across another hardcore tuning nerd). Inevitably, it’s hard to know what to make of all this frantic abstract reasoning without diving in to see how it fits on the fretboard – however I can’t track down any examples of recorded music in this tuning (although Kyritsis mentions using it to “record improvisations, before I pass [them] to the [EADGBE] guitar”).
Thus, it provides you with a vast expanse of largely uncharted guitaristic territory – so go try it out! Does it really simplify chordal movements as advertised? And if it does, what compromises are made elsewhere? (Long live these gonzo avenues of DIY musicology!)
- …send me your experiments!
More musings from Dr. Costas Kyritsis
Insights to share? Comment via YouTube, or get in touch!
• NUMBERS •
- See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!
• RELATED •
—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…
- Zigzag Thirds (Maj): reversing the order of the thirds
- All Minor Thirds: sticking with the first jump only
- Papuan Four-Key: narrowed by almost as much
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- The imaginarium of Dr. Kyritsis: I highly recommend browsing his other music writings too – a vast collection of dense, fiendishly detailed, topic-hopping tracts which combine abstract musical geometry with ancient rhythmic poetry and much, much more. This madcap corner of the online musicology world has certainly provided me with fruitful sparks in my overall tuning quest – and while I’m not quite sure the blog’s title of ‘Simpler Guitar Learning‘ is necessarily the most accurate, I certainly hail the Doc’s mission (“This blog is for making…guitar learning, song composition, and improvisation easier – based on more abstract mathematics of the music…rhythm, and the guitar…It is a new awareness and method, to link mental perception-images, the creation of feelings, and finger actions. The true goal of composition and improvisation is the existential process of creating and listening…We concentrate most of all on the feeling of the sound and new math-musical concepts”)
- ‘Neutral’ thirds: what would it sound like if the two constituent intervals of this tuning – the equally-tempered major and minor 3rds – declared a truce, and joined forces? Well, I guess they coexist harmonically as part of the ‘Hendrix‘ chord (a dom.7#9 voiced as 1-3-b7-#9) – and melodically in the Hindustani Raag Jog (1-3-4-5-b7-8 <> 8-b7-5-4-3-4-b3-1 = SGmPnS <> SnPmGmgS in Indian sargam). Although the ultimate compromise would surely be a ‘neutral third‘: the microtone lying halfway between them (i.e. 350 cents above the root) – which, in looser form, has been a mainstay of blues vocalism from its earliest Delta days (“Cluster analysis was performed…The ‘neutral‘ third was confirmed to occur [and] a similar blending of the perfect 4th and tritone was demonstrated…”)
Header image: close-up of zigzag cloth
George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
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