Guitar tunings and adaptive technologies

To pick up on my post about (inadvertently) learning to play the classical guitar, I want to reflect on ways modern ideas in guitar music lower the bar to musical enjoyment for both beginning and advanced players. This was inspired both by Chris Proctor’s workshop and reviewing a page on the CAST website for yesterday’s post on the roles of variation in education.

Even most non-players know that guitar strings are tuned to different pitches. So, what pitches should they be tuned to? There is what is known as “standard” tuning, and on a six string guitar those pitches are E2, A2, D3, G3, B3, E4 (see this Wikipedia page for an explanation of the numbers following the pitches), running from the lowest sounding string to the highest. Adjacent pairs of strings are tuned to an interval of a perfect fourth¹ – if you hum the opening notes to “Here comes the bride” the ascension of pitch from “Here” to “comes” is a perfect fourth.

Here’s the problem: if you strum the open strings together, a bunch of stacked perfect fourths doesn’t sound very good (heck, even a single perfect fourth isn’t all that consonant). So in order to get a decent chord out of the guitar, we have to start fretting notes – pressing on a fret shortens the length of the string and raises the pitch. From there we can get more pleasant intervals of thirds, fifths, and sixths² to blend together.

So if you walk into a guitar store and pick up an instrument tuned in standard pitch and strum the strings, you get mush. You can hear the pitches on this Wikipedia page. Yuck.

How about this for an idea – what if we tune the open strings to different pitches so that when all of the open strings are strummed together, they sound harmonious. This is known as open tuning, and opens up a whole lot of possibilities for players. For starters, the rankest beginner can instantly get a pleasing sound from the instrument. Want to play a different chord? The easiest thing to do is lay the index finger completely along a fret and strum the strings. Wow! Instant chords! Playing the 2 or 3 chords that comprise most folk and rock-and-roll tunes is now fairly straightforward.

But wait, there’s more! For advanced players open tunings open up all sorts of great musical possibilities. Bear in mind we have a resource constraint of four left-hand fingers (and occasionally the thumb) for altering pitches. A lot of instrumental music has 2 or 3 “voices” playing in tandem – there may be a bass line in the music with a lyrical melody played on top, for example. In standard tuning we need to devote at least one finger to hitting the right bass notes, another for the melody, and since we’re jumping around different strings those other two fingers are going to busy, too.

But life gets a little easier with open tunings. For starters, bass lines are often alternations between the tonic and fifth note in a chord. In standard tuning one or both of these would have to be held down with a finger, but in open tuning they’re simply available on open strings, leaving all four fingers free to do something else. Even when changing keys or chords, we can lay down the index finger to shift all of the pitches in tandem, and for the price of one finger we’re in a different key with 3 fingers left to do some interesting work. It may not sound like it’s much of a change from standard tuning, but it’s a big deal.

Again, thinking of a beginner, open tunings may this act of two-voice music much more accessible. The right hand thumb can practice alternative between two open bass strings while the musician concentrates on picking out a melody. The left hand work is much easier.

This whole shift to an open tuning reminds me so much of the philosophy of Universal Design for Learning – including the idea that we should remove unnecessary impediments from the learning environment, and build in supports for those who have differing needs. Open tunings provide a much easier on-ramp for an aspiring musician, including those who may have some limitations in left hand dexterity. I wonder how many kids might stick with the struggle of starting a new instrument if the strings were already tuned to something consonant?

So why aren’t all of the guitars hanging in the music store automatically tuned to open tunings? Mainly for the same reasons we still use a QWERTY keyboard, even though QWERTY was actually designed to retard speedy typing – tradition. We have a ton of guitar music (with chord diagrams to assist the beginner) written for standard tuning, and guitarists often watch one another’s left hand to work out chord sequences. It helps if those chord shapes are consistent. There are several possible open tunings in general use, and music publishing just hasn’t caught up to the concept that the guitar can be (re)tuned into several configurations. There are a couple of other reasons that favor standard tuning, but they’re a bit more technical.³

Thinking of picking up the guitar, even just to doodle? Do you have one gathering dust in your closet? I invite you to give an open tuning a try, and just play around – you’ll be surprised at how quickly real music emerges from under your fingers.


¹ Except for the change from G3 to B3, which is a major third. So much for consistency.

² Musicians use ordinal numbers to count the spaces between pitches. It’s 1-based, so a “unison” is two identical notes. A “second” is the interval from A to B, or D to E, or E to F – two adjacent notes. A “third” is the interval from A to C, B to D, C to E, etc. Some intervals sound more pleasing to the ear than others.

³ Three footnotes in a single blog post? Okay, one reason standard tuning is preferred has to do with reading standard Western musical notation. One learns where C4 is located on the fingerboard (well, the 3 different places it can be fingered easily) and that 1:1 correspondence gets locked into our brains. If you change the string tuning, the location of all the notes changes and sight reading goes out the window. Since there are easily a dozen common open tunings, we can’t continue to use standard music notation – we have to switch to a tablature format, which has actually been around since the middle ages.

The second reason given for standard tuning is that it’s also an equal temperament tuning, meaning one can switch keys in a musical piece without some notes starting to sound out of tune. Open tunings invite a just intonation, but can limit the keys that can be played in a particular piece of music.

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