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I have been listening to quite a bit of the Dirty Three lately, and on songs like "Hope" the instruments/guitar are not in tune, and I love the sound. I feel similarly about some West African music (and the song Boyd's Journey from the Ravenous soundtrack now that I'm thinking about it) with similar quality. I'm trying to figure out how to use this in my own playing and writing but I really have no idea how to start.

A few things:

  1. I realize this is a super naive/poorly framed question, but I don't know how to make it better.
  2. I realize that the tuning I hear in the west African music is not out of tune but is intentionally tuned, but I don't know a more appropriate way to describe it.

Maybe what I am asking:

  1. It seems like the altered tuning needs to be... relative to the instrument? I.e. on a ukulele instead of gCEA tuning the g and E typically and the C and A up or down a few cents? Is this so? or relative to another instrument?
  2. This doesn't seem (to me) to be the same thing as just 'playing in a different scale', but... is it?
  3. One instrument I occasionally play is the american version of a tiple, which is a 10 string steel string ukulele that even when it is in tune kind of sounds off. I keep thinking this may be a place to start, maybe tuning one of each string in the courses off just a bit?
  4. Maybe I'm just totally off on all this, but it is compelling and I want to explore it more, just lack the language understanding to do so.

Any thoughts? please be gentle! (And I am stepping out for meetings for a few hours but will be back)

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  • idk your reference, but sometimes this is intentional & others it's just because it's all "close enough for jazz". I once had to study mariachi for a week. Tuning was just … optional [as was timing, but that's a whole other tale]
    – Tetsujin
    Jun 15, 2022 at 16:03
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    I think this is a brilliant question and I hope it gets some good, detailed answers. It’s certainly the case that less perfect tuning can really add to the character of music, but can also just sound terrible, so there must be some ways to objectively assess this phenomenon. I think you’re right that it may often be due to the idiosyncrasies of instruments. Jun 15, 2022 at 17:10
  • @BobBroadley either you tune to the temperament the composer wanted, or you violate their intentions. The rest is entirely a matter of personal taste. Jun 15, 2022 at 17:47
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    @BobBroadley - thanks, and yeah, looking forward to it! Carl: I understand what you are saying here but I am talking about specifically writing music/improvising, rather than altering the tuning of a written piece.
    – Ben
    Jun 15, 2022 at 18:37
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    @BobBroadley - Yes, there's pleasing, there's terrible, and then ... there's hilarious -- I'm thinking of Florence Foster Jenkins. Jun 16, 2022 at 0:44

2 Answers 2

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These are great starting points to thoughts. To some degree, all musical experiences involving more than one person are cross-cultural, because we all inhabit our own micro-cultures. So if we hear someone's performance and perceive it as "out of tune"—that is, not aligning with our habitual expectations about pitch and intonation—there are a few possibilities:

  • We're experiencing a musical culture clash: The performance is actually "in tune" in a different tuning system. Perhaps it divides the octave differently, or alters intonation contextually in certain circumstances ("blue notes," "leading tones"), or actually values what we perceive as dissonant intervals (e.g. ganga). If we can enculterate our hearing to use the standards of the culture generating the music, we would perceive it as "correct."
  • Perhaps the performer also perceives the performance as "out of tune," and wishes it were different. I do my fair share of playing out of tune on gut-string baroque violin, and can blame temperature, humidity, or (when I must) my own skill.
  • Perhaps the intonation is not governed by any cultural convention—that is, it is "out of tune"—but the performer doesn't perceive it or is unconcerned. This is it's own kind of music-culture clash: The emphasis placed on being perfectly "in tune" is its own cultural value that isn't universal. Honky-tonk piano players, folk singers with guitars around a campfire, and many others might correct the most egregious of tunings but not bother if it's "close enough." Also, such "imperfection" might actually be sought out.

When I discovered Sufjan Stevens a few decades ago, there was a moment about 1.5 minutes into the album Michigan, when I actually said out loud to myself the words "aesthetic of imperfection." In the instrumental of "Flint"...

... the pair of instruments (both trumpets? is one a flugelhorn? not sure) are full of tiny flaws. Cracks at the start of notes, changing from one note to the other out of sync, slightly off intonation. Now, they could easily have done a couple more takes and thrown out the ones with cracked notes, and maybe even spliced together the "good parts" of multiple takes. I'm not suggesting that the notes are being flubbed on purpose, but Sufjan is definitely not going out of his way to correct them. His overall gestalt has a "warts and all" approach that perhaps creates a sense of "authenticity"; this music is "hand-made" and of-the-moment, and the tiny flaws make it human. (Now, it's a separate question whether an overt pursuit of such "authenticity" is itself "authentic," or whether it's its own kind of affectation...)

In plenty of genres, there's such a thing as "too perfect." A blues singer pursues a husky, tobacco-cracked vocal tone, and even if he could sing like Josh Groban it wouldn't fit the genre.

So in listening to the music of others, it's hard to know which scenario you're hearing ("in tune for them," "out of tune for them," or "who cares") until you know more about their music and even the individual. But in your own music making, if you're intrigued by non-standard tunings, feel free to continue experimenting!

  • For a string instrument with fixed frets, altering the tuning of the strings will of course have an impact, but no, is not the same as "playing in a different scale." On one given string, all the frets will still be the same distance apart. But if you can access an instrument with moveable frets, like the oud or lute, or a fretless instrument, then you can truly experiment with altering each note.
  • I think I may have heard of the idea of, for an instrument with paired courses like a mandolin or 12-string guitar, of intentionally detuning one of the courses slightly. Supposedly this adds "bulk" to the sound, or a sort of chorus effect. I suspect what we hear more often is the fact that, even if you try, it's darn hard to keep 6 pairs of strings perfectly in tune! Some varieties of tiple even have tripled courses, 3 copies of each string!
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    This is pretty great! I'm going to take some time to digest what you have written and will get back on here tomorrow. Thanks! (okay edited to add, I occasionally play gourd instruments where traditionally one may use a candle to tighten up the gourd if it is too humid, so I appreciate your baroque violin anecdote!)
    – Ben
    Jun 15, 2022 at 18:40
  • @Ben And I've heard of a little Guinness as a means to loosen a bodhran head! Jun 15, 2022 at 18:45
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    On detuning, just want to add that it's a well-known effect on synthesizers: Set two oscillators (sound generators) slightly out of tune with each other for a more interesting sound, either as a fixed offset or a variable offset that drifts over time. Some synths have a "humanize" parameter to add drift to the overall pitch. musicradar.com/how-to/… Jun 15, 2022 at 23:20
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    @AndyBonner Okay, super helpful answer, thanks again. And I have to mention this - would have sent a message privately but couldn't figure out how to do it. My wife was reading over my shoulder when I was re-reading last night and she pointed out that we were neighbors briefly 12ish yrs ago in Mebane, and she is friends with you on FB, Heather Fisher. weirdly small world!
    – Ben
    Jun 16, 2022 at 12:33
  • @Ben my father used to sing Cheek to Cheek as we passed the "welcome to" sign on the way to my (maternal) grandparents' house in Burlington: "Mebane, I'm in Mebane...." Andy: I don't know about your first experiences with baroque violin but when I was in grad school the baroque orchestra seemed to do nothing for the first couple of weeks other than tuning chords. Even if you, your music director, and everyone in your ensemble think you're playing in tune, someone in the audience is going to be irritated by the low major thirds.
    – phoog
    Jun 16, 2022 at 14:27
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There are many different ways to think about intonation. They're specific to the particular musical culture.

Carl Witthoft says in a comment:

either you tune to the temperament the composer wanted, or you violate their intentions. The rest is entirely a matter of personal taste. –

This is a way of thinking about intonation that makes sense within a particular musical culture, which is notated European art music.

Jazz is a good example of a tradition that differs from this attitude. The jazz aesthetic centers on self-expression by the performer (not the composer) and having a recognizable individual voice as a performer. Intonation serves this aesthetic.

Tetsujin says in a comment:

idk your reference, but sometimes this is intentional & others it's just because it's all "close enough for jazz".

This is not at all my experience/perception of how jazz performance works. The best jazz performers (singers especially, but also bassists and reed players) have an extremely precise and controlled way of expressing pitch. They know exactly what pitch they want, but it's elastic, bendy, stretchy, expressive.

If you're not already familiar with Ornette Coleman, you might want to check out his work. I like his classic 60's albums best (The Shape of Jazz to Come, etc.), but the non-rigid attitude toward pitch is better expressed by his later work. Lots of people were influenced by him. The main keyword to use on the interwebs is "free jazz." The Dirty Three song Hope sounds to me a lot like these people were listeing to Ornette :-)

There was a specific cultural thread of the evolution of harmony, which ran from Gregorian chant through its culmination with Bach and the Well-Tempered Clavier. In this thread, the idea is to have an underlying 12-tone chromatic scale, which is compatible enough with the psychoacoustic foundations of harmony to sound OK in any key you feel like modulating to. This is all fine, but it also runs into things like African folk scales, and what comes out of that collision ends up being a reimagination of how to think about intonation and harmony.

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