There are two things that will make a fiddle player unpopular at a jam: squeaky bow and bad intonation. I’ve dealt with the bow issue in another article (Fiddle Sessions, December 2007) and I strongly encourage you to do the work that helps you to make a clear sound.
Now it’s time to talk about intonation. Many instruments, such as the banjo, guitar, and mandolin, have frets. That means that outside of tuning the strings correctly, the player has little control over the intonation. If a fret is in the wrong place, nothing can be done to correct it short of re-placing the fret(s).
On the fiddle, we have no frets. That is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, we don’t have to worry about the frets being in the wrong place. On the other hand, that means WE are responsible for playing in tune and we have no excuse if we don’t play in tune.
Tempered vs. Perfect Tuning
Have you ever noticed that guitar and banjo players have a tough time tuning that second string? Fretted instruments use what is called “tempered” tuning, while the fiddlers have a choice between tempered and perfect.
If you were to tune a piano so that the key of C major (all the white notes) sounded exactly in tune, then if you played in the key of Ab, you would have a problem—the notes would sound out of tune. There are acoustical reasons for this that I won’t go into (Wikipedia.com has several good articles if you want the technicalities), but fixed pitch instruments are usually tuned so that all 12 notes in a chromatic scale (playing all the white notes and black notes on the piano from C to C’) are equidistant apart, acoustically speaking. From a perfect tuning perspective, that means all the notes are just a little out of tune but not so much out of tune that we can’t tolerate listening to it.
The reason guitar and banjo players struggle with that second string is that our ear wants perfect tuning. The B string is a third above the next string—the G string—and in perfect tuning this note is higher than in tempered tuning.
[Carolyn and I differ in our interpretation of what happens to the 3rd scale step. I hear the “tempered” 3rd as being sharp, and usually play that note slightly flat of what a tuning machine reads as “in tune”. – S.P.]
It is difficult to tune the third in part because there are no "beats" you can hear (like the fifth) to help with tuning and in part because the third is where tempered tuning seems to have the most compromises; some people hear the tempered tuning as being too sharp and others as being too flat.
So, we tend to tune that second string too high to suit our desire for perfect tuning, but since the frets are in tempered tuning, that throws that whole string off. By the way, a solution is to use the 3rd fret of the guitar B string (the note D) for tuning purposes.
All of this to say, our ear wants perfect tuning, and the fiddle is capable of doing it. SO, that means you have to know what you are doing in each key.
It’s helpful to understand the function of each scale degree. Let’s take that third again, the second string of the guitar and banjo. A tune such as Boil the Cabbage down is in A major. Jerusalem Ridge, in contrast, is in a minor (it’s helpful to capitalize the major chords/scales and put the minor chords/scales in lower case to emphasize the difference).
The most significant difference between a major scale and a minor scale is the third note of the scale. In Boil the Cabbage, this note is C# (2nd finger on the A string, 4th fret on the A string of the mandolin). In Jerusalem Ridge, this note is C natural—good old regular C. That would be “low” 2nd on the fiddle or 3rd fret on the mandolin.
If you play a half-hearted C—somewhere between C and C#—in either of those songs, your hearers will feel frustrated because you are not communicating a critical piece of information: that you know what key you are playing in. It’s like when someone’s cell phone breaks up as they leave a message on your answering machine and you can’t understand what they are saying.
There is a time and a place for the “neutral” third, where the difference between major and minor is masked—in certain modes (scales that are different from major and minor). In the case of needing to play a neutral third, intonation remains important—it has to be really neutral, not sharp or natural. [Styles that sometimes use neutral 3rds (and even 7ths) include some traditional music of America’s Upper South and Arabic classical music.]
About the Author
Until recently, Carolyn Osborne was the co-director of the Gahanna-Lincoln High School fiddlers, Gahanna, Ohio. She teaches in the Dept. of Education at Capital University.