Wednesday, January 27, 2010


We bought Corin a ukulele after he kept wanting to play the "small guitar" of the violin, which is much more fragile, whenever Amanda played the big guitar. One of the reviews on Amazon mentioned that a new ukulele (at least of the quality we could afford) takes a while to hold its tuning, and at the beginning you might need to re-tune every few minutes. (This of course has led to Corin un-tuning the ukulele every time we hand it to him, since he thinks fiddling with the knobs is the first step — meaning it's doubly hard to keep in tune.)

At any rate, that reminded me of something I recently read in "A Perfect Mess," which I still have a dozen more interesting bits to share with you all.

Growing up with my only instrument being the piano, which is tuned only occasionally, I never really realized how of a big deal tuning is in an orchestral performance. I found this explanation from Abrahamson and Freedman to be fascinating and eye-opening (the full passage is on pages 300-306 if you want to read the whole thing):
"Those of us who aren't musicians, or at least trained in music theory, might think ... that sour notes, whether sharp or flat, are the sort of thing that good musicians leave behind in junior high school. ... Or perhaps you know enough to realize it's not quite that simple. Temperature is a factor, for example, in that instruments tend to heat up over the course of a performance, which changes their tuning. The change depends on the surrounding temperature, how much and how loudly the instrument has been playing, and whether the instrument is in sunshine or close to stage lights, among other factors. ...

"At the heart of the matter is the fact that there's really no absolute, universal meaning to "being in tune" — it's a variable, inconsistent, dynamic judgment. ... It's exactly this sort of inescapable messiness that helps imbue performances with the sort of variation and unpredictability that can leave audiences mesmerized one day and bored the next. ...

"Until the eighteenth century, keyboard instruments were tuned like other instruments, ...tuning the keys so that when a scale is played one note at a time, the scale will sound pleasing. ... Owing to an odd glitch in the relationships between the different sorts of notes that seem perfect to our ears, chords that sound lovely when played on one part of the keyboard can produce wobbling and other clashy effects when played on another part. ... These small differences don't much affect the integrity of the scales, but they end up hobbling some of the chords as they are ... transposed into a different key. ...

"Through the seventeenth century, composers simply avoided these troubled chords. .... By the eighteenth century, a number of composers started to embrace ... [an] alternate technique, called 'tempered tuning'. ... The result is that scales no longer sound quite right when played note by note ... but because the note-to-note jumps are more consistent than they are with 'just tuning', a chord that sounds good in one key will sound pretty good in any other key. ...

"A slightly tweaked version of well-tempered tuning called 'even-tempered tuning,' in which all the jumps between notes are made perfectly consistent, finally became more or less standard for keyboard instruments in the 1850s. ... (Bear in mind, therefore, that when you hear a performance of music written before the second half of the eighteenth century [Bach, etc.], you're probably not hearing exactly what the composer intended. ...)

"Unlike pianos, virtually all the standard instruments in an orchestra enlist just tuning to get those pleasing progression of single notes. But the problem of aberrant harmonies between multiple notes played simultaneously doesn't go away; with many instruments playing many different notes, there's plenty of opportunity for the notes to clash. ... A trombonist or trumpet player or violinist ... has to shoulder a share of the responsibility for avoiding interpreting notes in a way that unpleasantly combines with those of other instruments and has to do it by adjusting tuning on the fly [emphasis theirs] throughout the performance.

"How big an alteration is called for depends on the instrument, the note, the key in which the note is being played, and the specific qualities of sound that the musician and conductor hope to achieve. ... Almost everyone in the orchestra is constantly making these adjustments and readjustments in response to the music and to each other. ... That even the pros can occasionally be more inspired than usual in this endeavor is all part of the magic of the performance."

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