Archive for tuning

Scordatura: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Scordatura (simply retuning of the strings from their conventional pitches) is not a technique exclusive to modern music; it dates back to the 16th century, when it was employed by French lutenists, then taken up for the violin by many composers, most notable of whom was Biber. After falling out of fashion in the 18th century (though employed for the viola part in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K. 364 for violin and viola), many 19th century violin treatises mention it (including that of Baillot from 1834), and it was a speciality of Paganini, and after him de Bériot, Vieuxtemps, and others. Also employed in Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.

The technique is also common in much non-classical music, especially amongst folk fiddlers in various places. It’s questionable how meaningful the term is when alternative tunings can themselves become standard (as apparently an a-e-a-e tuning is in parts of Scotland and North America).

It is also impossible to play Nick Drake’s songs on the guitar because nobody knows how he tuned the instrument for different songs.

The Biber Rosary Sonatas are surely the classic examples where each sonata is tuned differently. On the only occasion when I heard them performed live the violinist (Elizabeth Wallfisch) had three different violins, each of which was immediately tuned for its own next sonata once it had been played, laid down, and then retuned again when its turn came round. It’s actually a bit of a palaver which detracts a bit from the whole performance because so much time is spent tuning the instruments.

Some Italian words that used to begin “dis” now begin with just “s”. So scordatura probably used to be discordatura.

Flats, Harps & Sharps

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on June 17, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


The key of B is occasionally written as C flat, so I presume that it is technically possible for the key of E to be written as F flat? If this is the case, I can’t think of a piece of music written in the key of F flat.

Am I correct (yes I know I am) in thinking that it suits harpists (sometimes) to play in keys like C flat?

I also understand that Havergal Brian would write in E sharp rather than F.

So far as Brian was concerned, it is (I presume) that writing with all those sharps and double sharps gave a somewhat more exotic flavour than the mundane single flat (B flat) of F major. Equally, moving sharp feels to the composer as if he is turning the screw, whereas going flat does the opposite. None of this can of course be heard by the listener.

Part of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen uses F flat major, which one commentator has called “a bitter enharmonic parody” of the earlier manifestations of E major in the piece.

But I must admit I wouldn’t have noticed.

In the case of the harpists it is to do with the neutral, up and down position of the seven pedals.

A modern concert harp when “glissandoed” will play a diatonic scale of C flat major when all seven pedals are in the up position. This is why harpists always use a C flat tuning fork to begin their tuning routine. Each pedal has three positions (up, middle and down) respectively raising the pitch of the strings it controls by one semitone. Each pedal is dedicated to altering one of the notes of the scale, hence the C-pedal will affect all the C-strings, the D-pedal all the D-strings, etc. Thus when all 7 pedals are put into their middle position the harp will play a scale of C major, and when in their fully down position, they will play C sharp major. By fiddling around with the pedals (which you will notice harpists do all the time, like some demented organist) they can set their harp to play any sort of scale. It needs quite a brain to do it, but if you look at an orchestral harp part it does have instructions about what to do.

Well, it’s easy, really. Most of the harpists I know are extremely serious.

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