Some aspects of natural or "untempered" tuning related to Irish traditional music

a first draft by Stephen Jones

I have only rudimentary knowledge of music history and theory. So please bear in mind that these very sketchy thoughts are based:

If any reader can enlighten me further, or point out errors in my thinking, I'll be only too glad to hear from them. Also, I have just bashed this out with no advance planning, so forgive me if it's a ramble...

The advent of the tempered scale

In modern western music, F# and a Gb are the same note. But this was not always the case! A Gb used to be a higher note than an F#. Now, there's only one key between F and G on the piano, and as far as I know, keyboard instruments such as harpsichords and virginals have only ever had one key for both notes.

So, in the old days, if (say) our harpsichord was tuned to allow the player to play in keys that required sharps rather than flats (for example G, D, A, E and their relative minors), everything was fine so long as the player stuck to those keys. But if the player started to venture into keys requiring flats, the instrument would sound out of tune. The more flats, the worse it would sound. So our harpsichord would have to be retuned to play in remote keys. Not a trivial task, and therefore a big nuisance.

This was one of the impetuses for the development of equal temperament, the tempered scale -- a compromise tuning in which F# and Gb were deemed to be the same note, slightly sharp of a true sharp and slightly flat of a true flat (the same applying to all the other in-between notes on the keyboard).

The only problem was that at first it sounded weird. "You'll soon get used to it," said the proponents of the tempered scale. The advantages were alluring... and when the great Bach wrote his masterful "Well-tempered Klavier", 48 pieces in every possible major and minor key, all of which could be played on a keyboard instrument so tuned, the days of "bad-tempered" claviers were numbered.

It did sound weird. But we have indeed got used to it. So much so that anything else sounds weird. And many tuning problems ("issues", in Microsoft parlance) that people must have had in the past have been solved. Or have they? And if so, has there been a price to pay?

(Note: All this is at best a gross simplification. Over the millennia there had been many issues regarding tuning long before even temperament was hit on.... This is way beyond my ken. But for a glimpse into this fascinating realm, check this excellent overview by Terry Blackburn:

Untempered tuning as used by fiddle players

The violin is an unusual instrument in that the player determines the pitch of every note he or she makes by finger placement. Except perhaps for the open strings, but these can be avoided relatively easy. In other words, the player is not bound by a tuning system. This causes very interesting "issues" for classical string players when they play with a piano, or with a string quartet, which are beyond my understanding and the scope of this article.

But the implications for fiddle players are also very interesting. It is instructive to listen to older players -- from both Celtic and American traditions -- who grew up with traditional music passed on orally, perhaps without the benefits of guitar or piano accompaniment, and certainly without hearing recorded music from the moment they were born.

I think I fell in love with Irish fiddling when I bought a fiddle sampler record put out by Translatlantic Records in the 1970s. Of all the tracks -- featuring Irish, Scottish, Shetland, old-timey and bluegrass fiddling -- the one that stood out was of The Blackbird and Rodney's Glory played by Mairtin Byrnes, with Reg Hall on piano. It wasn't just the tunes, or the rhythm, or the lovely full tone. There was something about the sheer quality of the fiddle sound that I couldn't put my finger on, but which completely captivated me.

Years later I played this track for a violinist who was interested in fiddling. "They're out of tune with each other!" he exclaimed. I was taken aback, but on closer listening I had to admit that he was right. This puzzled me until a while later I got a recording of Mairtin Byrnes playing Christmas Eve without accompaniment. This is a pentatonic tune with a tonic of G. All the Bs were distinctly "flat"... yet when I played them as Bb, it didn't sound quite right. The note Byrnes was playing was somewhere between a standard B and a Bb.

I had noticed similar pitch ambiguities in other older fiddlers whose playing fascinated me, particularly Bobby Casey, whose Fs were often just -- well, they weren't to be found on a piano! Surely it couldn't be that these master fiddlers couldn't play in tune... I don't know at what point all this fell into place for me - but I eventually realized that these notes were most often the "untempered" third degree of the scale.

If you're a fiddle player, you can conduct an interesting experiment with this. Play a G-B chord, sounding the G with your third finger on the D string, and the B with your first finger on the A string. Tune it to the piano. Listen carefully. You'll find it's quite a harsh sound - almost a discord! You can pick out the "beats" as the notes interfere with each other. Now, keeping the same G, gradually flatten the B by tiny increments. At some point you'll find that the chord "comes home" into a lovely sweet chord. No more beats. You have just discovered the untempered third!

Try another experiment. Tune your G string down to a D, one octave below your D string. This is a drone tuning used by some old-time fiddlers. I first heard the waltz Midnight on the Water played by a Texas fiddler using this tuning. In fact I think his E string was also tuned down to D. The first full bar starts with an F# on the D string. Play it, sounding the low D at the same time. If you use your normal "tempered" F#, it sounds a litle graunchy. Flatten it a little -- hey presto! That sweet old-timey sound...

Once you've "seen" this great truth, a few things about Irish tunes start to make more sense. Why do people play an F-natural in the second part of Chief O'Neill's hornpipe? Why do transcriptions of Paddy Fahey's jig show B-naturals and Bbs? Well, here's my theory: it's the attempt of players of fixed-pitch instruments to achieve the wonderful, wild, ineffable sound of the older, unschooled fiddle players. And of course, they can't do it. They achieve something else, and frankly, I don't much like it . I like Chief O'Neill's with a flattish F#, not a grating ghastly F natural.

Very few modern fiddle players achieve that wild sound. Unlike Bobby Casey, who as a kid lay in bed listening to his dad playing fiddle all night with Junior Crehan, they've grown up listening to groups, and playing in groups, in which fixed-pitch instruments dominate. The sound is brighter, tamer. We lost a lot with the move to equal temperament...

Many Irish tunes feature some modulation, particularly of the note C. Tunes such as The Gander in the Pratie Hole and Rakish Paddy feature C-naturals and C#s in different places. This is part of the charm of these tunes. But... I have heard a recording of Tommy Peoples playing The Gander in the Pratie Hole in which he didn't modulate. He played the same C all the way through, but it was neither C-natural nor C-sharp -- it was what Scottish fiddler and teacher Alisdair Fraser has dubbed "C supernatural", which occurs in the playing of many Cape Breton fiddlers. Which poses the question: when did the modulation start? Is it actually a post-equal temperament development?

Other instruments

The fiddle -- although in my eyes the greatest of all instruments -- is only one of the instruments that have shaped Irish music. Though its influence has been enormous, the uillean pipes have probably played a greater role. The pipes have their own tuning issues, as any fiddler who plays with one will soon realize. The notes of the chanter are tuned to harmonize with the drones: for example, the note of E, if it were an ordinary E, would sound a horrible discord with the D drone. So it is sharpened a little, to take the edge off the discord. I don't know how this relates to the question of equal temperament -- perhaps it's just another wild card in the game of Irish music.

Now the whistle is an interesting case... People often claim that they are just plain out of tune and nothing can be done about it. Playing your whistle into an electronic tuner is an eye-opening experience. The limitations of the whistle are why the recorder was developed, we are sometimes told. But don't whistles sound great? And anyway, according to what standard does the electronic tuner tell us our whistle is out of tune? Why, the piano standard! The tempered scale. Which I know, from my fiddling experience, is actually out of tune with nature. It's a compromise of convenience to make it easy for keyboard players to get flashy and play in any old key!

I don't know enough about the finer points of theory to go any further into this question. But when the tuner tells me that the F# on my beloved Generation whistle is way flat, well, I don't care. It's probably tuned a few cents flat because for playing in D and G and E dorian, it sounds better that way. So don't fix it, you whistle makers... There's no doubt a great deal more that could be said. But I haven't the knowledge, and I'm away to bed.

9 May 2001