Examining tuning – a universal string-playing experience – from multiple perspectives: Ming dynasty microtonality to modern neuroscience via Vedic mythology, anticolonial Andean folk, slow-mo string oscillations, and more. Tuning may well be the guitar’s most conceptually interconnective zone…
Article Map (click to expand)
—Why should we care about tuning so much?
—Expanding our scope: what is the ‘impatient meditation’?
—Five concise methods, and how to combine them effectively
—Emotive context, mental focus, and necessary imperfection
—Broader considerations: What else should we be thinking about?
—In depth: Electronic tuners vs developing the ear
—In depth: Fret-matching (variants on the ‘classic tune-up’)
—In depth: Reference strings and audio samples
—Might it be the guitar’s fault? Diagnosing intonation issues
—In depth: Natural harmonics and two ‘beatless’ methods
—Explainer: Equal temperament vs just intonation
—In depth: Chordal checks, octave resonances, and deviant thirds
—‘Inharmonicity’, or why perfect tuning doesn’t exist
—What is James Taylor’s microtonal ‘stretched tuning’ setup?
—Other physical considerations: looking after your guitar
—Don’t panic: how to make tuning adjustments ‘on-the-fly’
—Immersing the whole self: psychological, ritualistic elements
—Concluding thoughts, further reading, tuning puzzles, etc
Tuning fundamentals: musical and conceptual detail
This article examines the strengths, weaknesses, and incongruities of established methods, while also discussing psychological self-preparation, the science of string vibration, and some broader considerations including instrument care and ‘tuning on the fly’.
In other words, this is the ‘why’ as well as lots more detail on the ‘how’. We analyse James Taylor’s microtonal ‘stretched tuning’ and trace the design of the guitar’s fretboard to the epic mathematical treatises of the Ming Dynasty, also seeing what ancient Vedic musicology shares with the cosmology espoused by 21st-century string theorists.
All the while, we will broaden our understanding of what tuning is – and can be – all about. Above all, its fascinations are to be found in its interconnectedness.
Equal temperament vs. just intonation
To understand what is going on underneath all this, we will delve into the concept of ‘temperament systems’ – the overall frameworks from which we derive our musical intervals. There are several of them, with the guitar’s ‘12 semitones to an octave’ system being known as ’12-tone equal temperament’ (sometimes shortened to 12tet). Though dominant in modern Western music, equal temperament it is just one of many possible approaches.
Put simply, 12tet is a kind of ‘average’, approximating the ‘purer’ intervals associated with the key centre. The equal spacing of intervals allows us to switch between different keys, but markedly changes their overall resonances.
‘Pure’, natural harmonics-based systems are used to build another approach, known as ‘just intonation’. Have you ever noticed how natural harmonics are played by dividing the string into basic fractions? At 12fr we chop it in half, at 7fr into three parts, at 5fr into quarters, at ~3.8fr into fifths, at ~3.2fr into sixths, at ~2.6fr into sevenths, at ~2.4fr into eighths, and so on. You can see this clearly with loose strings.
If we carry on like this, we get a set of frequencies known as the ‘harmonic series’ – in essence, an ‘unpacked’ version of the open string note we started with. You may have stumbled across these curious sounds by running your finger down the 6th string while picking near the bridge:
Just intonation, of which there are many sub-variants, involves something very similar. In all justly-intoned approaches, simple whole-number ratios are used to derive the intervals, with the process typically entailing various sequences and combinations of the most important natural harmonics for the key centre.
Different temperament systems through time and space
Many tuning systems are in use around the world. Persian, Arabic, and Turkish traditional music all use different varieties of quarter-tone, and India’s classical artists find melodic inspiration in the fiendishly detailed śrūti system of scalar microtones.
Different ragas call for all manner of alterations – for example Raag Darbari calls for ‘ati komal ga‘, the ‘extra flat minor 3rd’ (although debate has raged for generations about just how flat it should be). Many musicians tune to ensure justly-intoned relationships between the raga’s vadi and samvadi (‘king’ and ‘queen’ notes), which may even end up clashing with the scale’s root, as in the oddly-shaped Raag Marwa.
The modern dominance of equal temperament is largely a product of Western hegemony over global popular entertainment forms. For most of a century now, piano-tuned American pop and the sounds of European orchestras have variously filtered through into the world’s charts, commercials, and concert halls, embedding 12tet in our minds. But it appears unlikely that the system was even a Western invention.
The origins of 12tet seem to lie in ancient China, although just how far back it can be traced is a matter of debate. Chinese classical folklore venerates Ling Lun, a mythical hero said to have invented music itself. Legends tell of how he could charm the birds with bamboo flutes and slay mighty demons with the power of his earthenware drum.
Some claim that he wrote about equally-divided scales in the 27th century BCE. Historians dismiss this entirely, on the basis that there is no evidence of any written culture having existed in his supposed historical period other than “rudimentary inscriptions on oracle bones and pottery”. It seems that 12tet was instead developed over many centuries, forming in steps and jumps.
It’s hard to say when exactly it was ‘created’ – in fact, it wasn’t until 1917 (with the advent of machine calculation) that 12tet’s note frequencies were precisely worked out for our now-standard A440 system. He Chengtian, a Chinese state mathematician, seems to have impressively approximated them in the 4th century AD, but most scholars credit Zhu Zaiyu with properly formalising the system in the late 16th century.
A musician, physicist, and choreographer as well as a prominent Ming Dynasty prince, Zhu Zaiyu expounded his discoveries in a sequence of pioneering musicological treatises presented to the royal court. His Fusion of Music and Calendar laid the groundwork in 1580, and his Complete Compendium of Music and Pitch, coming in 1584, gave the first detailed account of how to derive 12tet’s intervals. (The latter runs to 5,000 pages, i.e. one for every single word of this article so far – and he had time to choreograph flag dances too).
By this point, Western thinkers had been experimenting with similar ideas for centuries. Aristoxenus of Tarentum, a pupil of Aristotle, discussed the idea of equally-divided scales in the 4th century BCE, and Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo) composed short pieces in a somewhat equally-tempered system. Stevinus, a Flemish mathematician and military engineer, came very close in his On the Theory of Music (c.1605), but got a few of his sums wrong, leading to some intervals being a little too far off.
None in the West reached Zhu Zaiyu’s level of concise mathematical codification – he was the first to record that the ratio between the frequencies of two adjacent 12tet notes must be equal to the 12th root of two (each of our frets is around 6% longer than the last, as 12√2 equals ~1.06).
He fashioned a set of 36 large bamboo pipes to demonstrated his concept, the ingenuity of which led Belgian musicologist Victor-Charles Mahillon to conclude that Europe of the 1890s (home to Mahler, Debussy, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg) had not yet reached the same level of tonal sophistication.
Zhu Zaiyu’s fabled pitch pipes, 16th-century China
Western composers have turned to a countless array of non-equal temperament systems throughout history too – in fact, 12tet didn’t come to the fore in Europe until around the late 18th century (it’s an oft-repeated falsehood that J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was written to celebrate the advent of equal temperament – in fact, his coverage of all 24 keys was in part an attempt to bring out the differences between them).
The Ancient Greeks were tuning instruments to harmonic ratios over 2,500 years ago (something even referenced by Spinal Tap), with ‘Pythagorean tuning’ being based on a stack of perfect 5ths (3:2 ratios). ‘Meantone‘, in use since the 16th century, prioritises consonant major 3rds, and ‘Werckmeister III‘, devised by a 17th-century German organist, aims to balance consonance with greater flexibility between keys (it even lent its name to a Hungarian dramatic film, described by the BBC as one of the finest foreign language works of the 21st century).
Variants of equal temperament also abound in today’s world. You don’t just have to divide the octave into 12 – for example ‘19tet‘ (19-tone equal temperament) splits it into 19 equal ‘fret divisions’ (listen to how gently eerie it makes Giant Steps sound), and Dolores Catherino composes warmly emotive synth pieces in 106tet, including the aptly-named Towards the Continuum.
And let’s not get started on George Secor’s ‘miracle temperament‘, Harry Partch’s theory of ‘otonality/utonality‘, or the ‘Blackjack scale‘, named for its 21 equidistant steps (mainly because I don’t understand them very well yet). You can read more about curious temperament systems on microtonal composer Kyle Gann’s website.
Anyway, the best route into microtonality is to listen to it with an open mind, without worrying about theory. See what you find in Michael Harrison’s Tone Cloud II, which uses justly-intoned intervals to create shimmering, pulsating effects, almost as if the notes are bending through each other. In his words, “the tuning has so many beautiful and exotic sounds…every time I played it, I discovered new harmonic regions and felt like an explorer in unknown and distant realms”:
Many believe that justly-intoned systems give a clearer, more natural sound, with intervals generally resonating in a more settled, mathematically tidy manner. But they have their own angularities as well. According to minimalist icon Terry Riley, “just intonation has real dissonance…you have some ‘howling’ intervals that sound atrocious” (he’s not joking – listen to the ‘wolf fifth’, named for this reason).
It also limits flexibility in other ways, making it near-impossible to change between keys – as the ‘pure’ tones are only pure when considered in relation to their own ‘fundamental’ frequency (i.e. their open string note). In other words, once you have picked your root note, equal temperament gives you 12 possible ‘centres’ to switch to within the same basic interrelative framework, while just intonation keeps you tethered to your starting point in some inescapable way.
None of these systems are inherently better. The purer resonances of just intonation may have a certain settled simplicity, but if we were just after settled simplicity then we would avoid all sources of dissonance in our music. And while their mathematical neatness has a conceptual as well as a sonic appeal, it does not ultimately mean we have to prefer them overall.
A superb Wire profile of the late avant-garde pioneer Tony Conrad explains how he spent much of his life railing against “the tyranny of the Pythagorean worldview, whereby the proportions found in the intervals were elevated to a cosmic hierarchy, a divinely endowed ‘harmony of the spheres’, fixed for all time”. To him, this type of thinking “reeked of aristocratic oppression, and entrenchment in such an elitist system left no role for the agency of the individual”.
However philosophical you want to get about it, we’re pretty much stuck with equal temperament on the guitar anyway (despite curious custom builds with winding frets, and even some amazing DIY lego-quarter-tone inlays). But it is vital to understand why our music sounds the way it does for ourselves – this should be a matter of principle, and I guarantee it will come in handy sometime (…try making your own scales out of just the natural harmonics).
Temperament issues are widely misunderstood, and many skilled musicians often make basic conceptual errors. Even Fender’s website gets it very wrong (“
sounding the 9th-fret harmonic of the G string and tuning the 5th-fret harmonic of the B string to it…is as absolutely reliable as harmonic tuning for all the other string pairs”).
Even trained, perceptive musical ears can lead us astray, with the equal temperament vs. just intonation issue above being one manifestation of this. We in the West are more accustomed to hearing equally tempered intervals, but part of our mind still yearns for their ‘pure’ equivalents. After all, the overtone series is literally everywhere around us – every note and sound we hear is made up of fundamental frequencies and their respective overtone series.
Our ears can particularly mislead when it comes to major thirds (e.g. the 4fr vs 3.8fr example above). By ear, we may end up tuning a fretted third too low, moving it closer towards its justly-intoned alter ego…before switching to a shape with its third on a different string and finding that things sound awful.
We could tune the latter chord in a similar manner, before switching back and finding ourselves in an even worse place than where we started – as now one (or more) of the other chord tones will be out. This can be clear when comparing E and C major shapes, and in a certain sense can affect those with developed ears more (e.g. studies suggest that choral singers, when untethered to the piano keys, end up choosing more justly-intoned intervals).
On some perceptual level, these thirds-based issues are unavoidable. Because the fretted 12tet major third is about 1/7th of a semitone higher than its justly-intoned counterpart, the G# in a standard Emaj shape (on 1fr 3str) can seem sharp, as can the E in a Cmaj (2fr 4str), the C# of an Amaj (2str 2fr), the B on 5str of a Gmaj (2fr 5str), and so on.
Some other intervals, including the tritone, minor third, and major sixth, have even larger deviances. This table lists the standard 12tet to JI differences (i.e. ‘how much is just intonation different to the fretboard?’).
Admire the symmetries in the final column. The numbers are mirrored around the most deviant note (the tritone) on two axes: both ‘vertically’ (+ and – get reversed), and ‘horizontally’ (the sequence of their ‘signless’ absolute values is reversed too). Perhaps unsurprisingly, plotting out this sequence forms an undulating wave, much like that of a vibrating string. There are some deep interconnections here.
‘Inharmonicity’ – why perfect tuning doesn’t exist
If you think about it, whenever a guitar string vibrates, it is, in a way, ‘bending’ as well. On looser strings you can see this with your own eyes – as they move back-and-forth to produce the sound, they must stretch themselves a little to fill out each oscillation (basically, a wavy line between two points must by definition be longer than a straight one).
See it in motion with an ultra-slow-motion camera filming at 10,000fps – over 400 times faster than standard (n.b. most ‘slow motion guitar string’ videos on YouTube aren’t quite what they purport to be, instead showing either ‘row-by-row’ pixel rendering, or coincident effects from the interaction of the string movement path and the frame rate of the camera…kind of like how a helicopter seems to hang in the air if its rotor speed matches the shutter speed of the camera. You need a really slow camera!)
And as all guitarists know, bending will raise the pitch. In effect, this means that the frequencies emitted by any vibrating string are always a little unstable. They ring sharper overall, constantly varying throughout their oscillation in complex, finely-detailed ways.
In technical terms, the string is producing overtones which are not whole-number multiples of the fundamental, caused in part by its ends being less elastic than the middle, which leads to unequally-distributed tensions. This phenomenon, a form of ‘inharmonicity’, is apparent if you pick the low string firmly – it starts out noticeably sharp, and can never settle fully. Here it is in a superlow tuning to accentuate the effect:
Why is this an issue for guitar tuning?
If inharmonicity caused all the strings to sharpen by the same amount, then it wouldn’t really affect our tuning in any meaningful way. But this is not the case – shorter, thicker, and looser strings are affected far more, especially when plucked forcefully.
And while all of a guitar’s strings are the same length, they vary greatly in their thickness and tension (on a standard electric, some strings can be five times thicker than others, or twice as tense). The upshot is that our lowest-pitched strings will experience more inharmonicity, coming out sharper and less stable.
This is more pronounced on steel-strings compared to nylon, and will of course vary by fret position (there are even ingenious scientific projects that use this quirk for ‘auto-tabbing‘ – each position brings different inharmonicities, so you can to some extent reconstruct where something was played from analysing mp3 files, rather than just identidying the note).
Inharmonicity is an in-built feature of vibrating strings – there’s no way to fully avoid it. So does it matter? In a sense, not very much, because both tuners and our ears pick up the actual note emitted by the string, which must by definition include its inharmonicity.
But this isn’t everything – for example, we must consider our picking dynamics, which can greatly increase the effects of the phenomenon. And some ears are more sensitive than others. So what can be done about it?
James Taylor’s ‘stretched tuning’
Fingerpicking legend James Taylor is known for his intense precision. He cares enough about inharmonicity-related issues to have derived his own, impressively precise tuning setup to counteract it, lowering the strings of his acoustic guitar slightly to ensure their overall resonances are more evenly pitched. Similar methods are also used by piano tuners to overcome the vast differences in string construction across the range.
He flattens each string by a specific amount, allowing him to pick at strong volumes and accommodate for the similarly sharpening effects of the capo (perhaps an even greater factor overall). In his ‘stretched tuning’, EADGBE are lowered by 12, 10, 8, 4, 6, and 3 cents respectively – watch him explain it below, and hear Paul Davids comparing the tunings here.
Every guitar would require subtly different adjustments, so there isn’t so much point matching Taylor’s to the final cent. It’s the principle that counts here – essentially, to ‘lead with the ear’ and use technology to help us understand what we’ve discovered, and how to recreate it. So it out and see what sounds best – a classical guitarist recently told me that they raise the thinnest two strings up a little in solo performance for a similar effect.
‘Sweetened’ tunings: Taylor uses Peterson-brand tuners, who boast (seemingly with justification) that their ‘Strobe tuning’ technology is 30-40 times more accurate than most other high-end models on the market.
Some of their designs even have in-built ‘sweetened tuning’ presets (now including Taylor’s), designed to guide you towards optimal resonances for the guitar and key. According to the company, “we can purposely shift certain scale notes…if we choose wisely, we can make the most important chords in a given key the perfect ones”.
I don’t think the £50+ price tag will be worth my money for a while – ear training is free and fun, and I don’t want to rely on technology unless I have to. But James Taylor is undoubtedly a musician worth listening to, and many other guitarists report impressive results with the equipment. I hope they continue to explore these avenues.
- For the hyper-curious – see my bonus ‘tuning puzzle’ around whether it’s possible get a guitar to Taylor’s precise tuning without the aid of any electronic technology (tl;dr: yeah, I think so, by using harmonic ‘beat rates’, but the method is almost hilariously impractical).
The guitar itself: other physical considerations
Guitars are comparatively sturdy instruments, designed to survive the chaos that comes along with navigating crowded, dimly-lit gig venues. They may seem to absorb a dizzying array of knocks just fine – but, like a heavyweight boxer, the true damage is often hidden from view, affecting their connective and structural architecture rather than the visible outer layers.
So we should look after them. For tuning, three areas are particularly relevant: restringing, action setting, and where they ‘live’. I’ll leave the detailed guidance to my fine co-teachers at Guitar World – have a read of Kathy Dickson’s Restringing Guide and Alex Bruce’s Guitar Care articles. Some key points:
—Choose strings of the right tension and character, experimenting with different gauges and materials if needed (remember how much tension and thickness affect inharmonicity levels). Tommy Emmanuel places places great importance on this.
—Think about whether you want a tenser, thicker wound 3str or not, and how a capo will affect things. And if intonation issues aren’t being caused by the strings, the truss rod may need adjusting.
—When restringing, wind neatly and tightly, and lock your tuners. If you switch between different tunings a lot, pull each string off the nut and crumble a little of the graphite from an HB pencil into its groove (a trick I picked up from my teacher Guy Harrup).
—Make sure your guitar has a healthy place to rest. Protect it from knocks, and avoid parts of the house which are damp or where temperature and humidity vary a lot, e.g. next to windows or radiators. A cheap wall hanger is a great way to do this (you can hide the screw holes with filler so the landlord won’t notice when you move out).
—Get a hard case too, and learn how to periodically clean your fretboard, strings, and pickups. You don’t need expensive cables, but do look after them. And be aware of how fluctuations in power supply and battery level can cause your pedals to pitch-warp slightly – something I’ve occasionally found with my looper.
—Soundcheck as well as you can, aiming to tune up before you go onstage. And if you can’t, make sure you do it at non-performance volume. Stay focused, and always be prepared to grab any quiet moments before the drummer sits down, or to demand some silence when they do.
Don’t panic: ‘on-the-fly’ adjustments
Even if we walk onstage with an ideally-tuned guitar, it can drift out as we play. The heat from stage lights may cause issues, and absent-minded bass players can wander too close, clashing headstocks and pushing our pegs out. And if you break a string on a floating-bridge guitar (e.g. a Strat or anything else with a whammy bar), the overall tension drop will sharpen all the others.
We learn to expect the unexpected, but scenarios like are still a nightmare, often leading to confusion and suppressed panic. But there are ways to adapt. Most obviously, we can improve our ability to tune ‘on-the-fly’, for example by slightly detuning a string or two, starting to jam, and trying to correct them without losing the underlying flow too much.
To see how smoothly this can be done, watch how Tommy Emmanuel squeezes a G string adjustment into the tiniest of gaps in his energetic Beatles Medley, at around the 1:50 mark. (This is basically the legit version of Nigel Tufnel’s infamous violin retune in Spinal Tap). In fact, ‘retuning as you play’ is a virtuosic performance technique in its own right – check out Jon Gomm’s astonishing Passionflower:
You can learn other ‘escape methods’ too, such as bending one note of a chord slightly to counteract a flat string. Sometimes this isn’t so hard, and sometimes it’s physically impossible. Also, learning to play solos up and down one string (another sitaristic trick) will ease the risks of a floating-bridge – after a breakage, you may be able to get by for a bit without retuning all the others too.
Psychological, ritualistic elements
Audiences love a skilful mid-song adjustment, that audibly achieves its purpose without disrupting the music’s flow. Apart from showing the crowd that we care about what they are hearing, it reminds them that the music is being created here and now – and can go wrong at any moment.
But the unpredictability of musical performance is of course a double-edged sword, heightening its emotional possibilities while also causing an incalculable weight of cumulative anxiety (‘…what if it does go wrong?’). We’ve all felt pre-stage nerves, just like our forebears did – no flamboyant, confident guitar icon really started out that way.
In Hendrix’s words, “It was so hard for me at first…when it was time for us to play onstage I was all shaky, so I had to play behind the curtains. I just couldn’t get up in front. And then you get so very discouraged. You hear different bands playing around you, and the guitar player always seems like he’s so much better than you are…Sometimes you are going to be so frustrated you’ll hate the guitar, but all of this is just a part of learning. If you stick with it you’re going to be rewarded.”
Backstage jumpiness will carry over into our music, causing us to overplay or freeze up. We can use the tuning process to alleviate some of these anxieties – in fact, it’s hard to think of a better time for a little calming, ritualistic focus. We play best when we’ve got ourselves in the zone beforehand, with fully-attentive minds and a relaxed central nervous system.
● Exercise: Calming rituals – three breaths
The impatient meditation recommends taking three slow, deep breaths as you tune – once at the very start, once as you test your tuning against the key chords of your piece, and once again at the end, as you rake the 12fr natural harmonics. Doing this will heighten our perception of sonic texture, connect us to the sentiments of the music, and help convert our frantic nervousness into creative energy.
When my mind is tense I tend to play too many notes, aimlessly wandering around the Dorian mode as if filling up the awkward pauses in a conversation. Taking a few calming breaths helps me to phrase my lines with more intent and clarity. After all, superb phrasing is just as much about the gaps – or ‘breaths’ – as the melodies themselves.
You can also use visualisations, a common preparation tactic among elite athletes. Maybe picture yourself out on stage, flying through the performance with aplomb, or even laughing about your inevitable mistakes with bandmates afterwards. Or you can gain some psychological perspective by thinking about the long term (“in a few years will I really care that I played messily that night, so long as I did my best to relax into it all?”).
See which meditative methods work for you and for the situation at hand (I’d prepare for a bluesy pub jam very differently to a fingerstyle recording session). Try humming the chord tones, silently counting to a given number, or even tensing and relaxing your whole body in time to the rhythm of the upcoming piece.
If you’re worried about coming across as a stereotypically weird, introverted guitar nerd…well, this might happen. But as mentioned, we should call to mind one of the key lessons from our instrument’s social history – you can get away with looking as strange as you like, just as long as you sound good (just ask Parliament/Funkadelic). In the end, the important thing is that you feel ready.
The impatient meditation is designed to foster an open, flexible approach to tuning. The art can never be fully mastered, but deepening your engagement with it will reliably broaden your musical horizons, combining the mathematical and the metaphysical with the immediate fascinations of sound itself. The ‘chain of perception’ includes everything from physical vibration to auditory, psychological, and cultural association.
We should generally be sceptical of purported ‘quick fixes’ for our playing (‘five secrets to become a fretboard superninja overnight…’). Guitar is an infinitely complex endeavour, with countless interlocking variables and a vast repertoire that would take even the most talented musician many lifetimes to master.
In the end, there are few shortcuts. But effective tuning habits may just constitute a genuine guitar ‘hack’ – a little more focus on this area will actually improve your entire sound, often very quickly.
But nobody can really ‘hack’ their way to understanding things on a deeper level. As we have seen, going back to basics is not itself a basic process. For most of us, tuning will be lifelong endeavour. Pandit Rupak Kulkarni, one of North India’s leading bansuri (bamboo flute) masters, told me in an interview how he will eternally seek to “become one with Sa” (the raga’s droning, ever-present root note).
For some artists, tuning even goes beyond the limits of the individual self. Kolkatan slide guitar virtuoso Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya hopes that his own intonation dedication will lead him to be reborn as a musician of yet-greater powers, who can continue the shared quest (“this is a lifelong journey, which will eventually end with you and start with someone else…”).
This worldview draws on concepts from Vedic metaphysics that stretch back almost 3,000 years. Devout Hindu musicians find solace in nada brahma (‘universe as sound’), the belief that all creation arises from an eternal cosmic vibration. Hazrat Inayat Khan, a latter-day Sufi mystic, wrote that “all down the ages the yogis and seers of India have worshipped the word-god or sound-god…[on which] all occult science, all mystical practices are based”. His son Vilayat taught his followers that singing could connect them to “the vibratory network of the universe…the cosmic symphony”.
Maybe you have to learn to love tuning if you have this many strings…
Remarkably similar sentiments also crop up in the musings of modern theoretical physicists. In the words of YouTube celebrity Michio Kaku, Professor of Theoretical Physics at CUNY, “What is physics? Physics is nothing but the laws of harmony that you can write on vibrating strings. What is chemistry? Chemistry is nothing but the melodies you can play on interacting vibrating strings. What is the universe? The universe is a symphony of vibrating strings…We now, for the first time in history, have a candidate for the mind of God. It is cosmic music, resonating through eleven-dimensional hyperspace.”
While the parallels between jamming and mathematical string theory are to me somewhat vague, they are certainly beautiful and provocative, which is what really matters here. I think that 17th-century polymath Gottfried Leibniz does perhaps the best job of articulating why it matters so much to get our frequencies right, looking inwards rather than outwards to elaborate on how the unconscious absorbs all:
“Music is a hidden arithmetic exercise of the soul – which does not know that it is dealing with numbers, because it does many things by way of unnoticed conceptions – which with clear conception it could not do. Those who believe that nothing can happen in the soul of which the soul is not conscious are wrong. For this reason the soul, although not realizing that it is involved in mathematical computation, still senses the effect of this unnoticeable forming of numbers…”
So, despite being one of the first things we learn, tuning can provide a window into the very nature of sound, and perhaps the heart of universe itself. Or…maybe you just want to use it to chill out for a few seconds and not sound wrong afterwards (I often feel like I’m in both these camps at once).
Either way, there’s a lot to explore, with ideas that interconnect disparate areas of musical appreciation, bridging the limitless worlds of music, science, and sound. Eventually, the thought of tuning up can actually get you excited rather than feeling like a chore…
“Sorry for the tune-up…but what the hell, cowboys are the only ones who stay in tune anyway” (Jimi Hendrix, on stage at Woodstock)
Further watching, listening, reading:
● I’ve drawn from countless articles, tuning guides, and instructional videos in my research and wider learning here, with most hyperlinked inline. The best is probably Gerald Klickstein’s Tuning the Guitar by Ear – although many others are great, including by Martin Taylor (How to tune by ear), Simon Powis (5 methods for classical guitar), Tommy Emmanuel (String care and tuning techniques), Peter Oberg (Classical guitar harmonic tuning), and of course James Taylor (Bonus tuning lesson).
● If you wish to delve further into the sensory, scientific, and metaphysical curiosities of vibration then there are many points of departure to choose from. Hear temperamental tuning rebel Tony Conrad further discuss Pythagoras, and let Evelyn Glennie explain how she became one of the world’s best classical percussionists despite being (in the usual sense of the word) deaf. And ever noticed that the start of Beethoven’s 9th sounds like the orchestra tuning up?
● Read about how the noise of construction site machinery can be reduced by pumping out ‘inverse waves‘ of frequencies designed to cancel out those of the loud vibrations. Or how woodwind instruments get sharper by 3 cents per 1 degree Celsius rise in air temperature. And peruse the part of YouTube full of ‘frequency sweeps’, ‘subharmonic anomalous low frequency vibration‘ and other such auditory oddities.
● And hear the ‘hyperpiano’, an invention by Kevin Hobby and Bill Sethares which uses inharmonicity and asymmetric string designs to produce an array of otherworldly intervallic tensions. Apart from being captivatingly strange-sounding as a solo instrument, it also led to the creation of what must surely be the world’s first microtonal glitch-hop (hyper)piano track.
● ‘Necessary imperfection’ has been a main theme of this whole exploration. And while some imperfections are admittedly less necessary (or useful) than others, chaotic tunings can sometimes add a lot to the music. Have a listen through Guitar World’s rundown of 6 songs with out-of-tune guitar or bass parts. Much better than paying Gibson $1000+ for a self-tuning monstrosity, which doesn’t even use the ‘under-tug-up’ method.
● Tuning in the news: ‘Mosquitoes harmonise their buzzing in love duets‘ (National Geographic, Jan 2009) & ‘Woman watching man tune guitar loses libido and will to live‘ (Daily Mash, Oct 2018).
George Howlett is a London-based musician and writer. I play guitar, tabla, and santoor, loosely focusing on jazz, rhythm, and global improvisation. Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the human voices, cultures, and passions behind them. Recently I’ve worked long-term for Darbar, Guitar World, and Ragatip, and published research into tuning and John Coltrane’s raga notes. I’ve written for Jazzwise, JazzFM, and The Wire, and also record, perform, and teach in local schools. Site menu above, follow below, & get in touch here! everything here will remain ad-free and open access
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—guitar & global music—
George Howlett is a London-based musician and writer. I play guitar, tabla, and santoor, loosely focusing on jazz, rhythm, and global improvisation. Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the human voices, cultures, and passions behind them.
Recently I’ve worked long-term for Darbar, Guitar World, and Ragatip, and published research into tuning and John Coltrane’s raga notes. I’ve written for Jazzwise, JazzFM, and The Wire, and also record, perform, and teach in local schools. Site menu above, follow below, & get in touch here!
everything here will remain ad-free and open access