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June 2009 · Bimonthly







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If you liked this article, you might be interested in:

Warm Ups for the Violinist QWIKGUIDE
by: Carol Ann Wheeler


What to Learn

There are certain intervals in a scale that are called “perfect.” That means when you are using perfect tuning, when you play these two notes together, their sound waves should work together instead of against each other. Hang on and you'll understand!

The perfect intervals are the fourth, the fifth, and the octave. Let's take the octave for understanding the math because it is the easiest. The open A string, when in tune, should vibrate at 440 cycles per second. The A that you can play on the G string (first finger) vibrates at half that speed, 220 cycles per second, when it is in tune. If you were to play those two A's together (first finger on the G string and use the fourth finger on the D string) and they were in tune, they would sound really good together. If one note was slightly out of tune, you would hear “beating”—the sound waves kind of fighting one another. Fourths and fifths also have mathematical relationships that are similar (good ol' Wikipedia will tell you more about that if you are interested).

The fiddle strings are tuned in a series of perfect fifths—E, A, D, G. Back in the day, before electronic tuners, my teacher taught me to listen for the beating to determine if my strings were in tune. As you get closer and closer to the two strings being in tune together, the beating gets faster and faster and suddenly it disappears!

I know it's easy to use electronic tuners and I believe they are a terrific first step to learning intonation, but take some time and learn to listen for the beats between the strings.

Perfect fourths are often used in bluegrass harmony. Think about the singing in Maple on the Hill (Stanley Brothers: http://youtube.com/watch?v=zKsdX4riDyw). If they are in the key of G, the melody singer is starting on a D and the harmony singer is on a high G. Confused? You're thinking that the interval between the G and D strings on the fiddle are a perfect fifth and now I'm telling you the interval between D and G is a perfect fourth. Well—flip a fifth over and you get a fourth.

Anyway, when the fiddle takes a break, it's fun to get that sound of vocal harmony—just remember that the fourth has to be in tune—no beats.

The other two notes in a scale to remember are the third and the seventh. The third is what tells you the difference between major and minor, and it should be a little high in major keys and a little low in minor keys. The seventh in a scale tells you whether you are in a major key (and a high seventh is also used in minor keys) or in mixolydian mode. Don't panic about that fancy name. Salt Creek is in mixolydian—the 7th note of the scale is flat. If you play it in A, the chord starting on the 7th note of the scale is a G major chord instead of a G# diminished that you would find in A major.

How to Learn All This

First step: use an electronic tuner and get your strings in tune with that. Do this every time you practice, and take your time. There's no such thing as “close enough for bluegrass” when it comes to tuning your strings, particularly when you are a beginner. Advanced players learn how to compensate for when a string goes out of tune in a performance situation, but that is an advanced skill.

As you tune your strings, take some time to listen for those beats. Get your strings really well in tune with the tuner, then turn one of your tuners so that the lower-pitched string is a bit flat. Listen carefully for the beating sound as you play the two strings together and turn the tuner back up—it gets faster and faster and then disappears when the string is in tune. Double check with the tuner. Learning to do this is really helpful for times when your batteries are dead in the tuner. By the way, if you are not sure about a string, tune it down with a tuner so you know that it is flat and then bring it up into pitch.

Second step: get a knowledgeable person to put tapes on your instrument to give you a sense of where your fingers should be as you are first learning to play.

Another helpful thing: get a mandolin and learn the same tunes on that because although it is tempered tuning, it will help to train your ear.

Third step: learn your keys. That means, learn what chords go in what key and you can even learn the scales, if you like. That really helps. The majority of fiddle music uses three chords: I, IV, and V. That is, if you count up the names of the notes in the scale (music only uses the alphabet from A to G, so when you reach G, start over again).

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

C

D

E

F

G

A

B

D

E

F#

G

A

B

C#

G

A

B

C

D

E

F#

Right now don't worry about the sharps for understanding the “sharp and flat” business. Just know that in the key of C, the important chords are C, F, and G. In the key of D, those chords are D, G, and A.

It's a good idea to learn where the notes of each of the chords are on the fiddle.

Fourth step: understand your intervals. Fourths sound like the beginning of “Here Comes the Bride.” Fifths sound like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” If you play your open strings, A, A, E, E—that's the first four notes of Twinkle. Octaves are like the first notes of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

When playing in major or minor keys, the third note of each chord should be clear because of its job as definition of key. In major chords i the third should be a teeny bit high and in minor chords a teeny bit low. That's why you'll want to get rid of the tapes after you get the hang of basic intonation—the C you play as part of a C major scale is a teensy bit higher than the C you play as the third of an a minor chord.

Fifth step: the frets get closer and closer on a fretted instrument as you move into the higher fret numbers. The same thing is true on the fiddle. As you learn the finger patterns for B major on the A and E strings, you can use the same patterns for C, Db, D, Eb, E, etc. as you move closer to the bridge on the neck. But your fingers are going to get closer and closer together.

Sixth step: practice those double stops (two strings at once) slowly, listening for the correct sound. Figure out what interval it is and if it is a perfect interval, play it perfectly! Get the melody finger in tune and then tune the harmony finger to the melody finger.

Seventh step: there is a neat thing on the fiddle. If you play a fingered note that has the same name as an open note, you will hear sympathetic vibration. In other words, if you play an A on the E string, your open A string will ring (assuming everything is in tune and that your finger isn't touching the A string). Start listening for that and it will help you to stay in tune. Even a note two octaves above should create sympathetic vibration—the G on the E string will make your G string ring—listen carefully and you will hear it.

Intonation is a lot of work, as you can see but when it is done, you will find many friends in the jamming world.



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.




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