08.09.2008

As I mentioned in my last post, the second event of the concert in Long Beach was a set of guitar pieces by Lou Harrison, performed by John Schneider (of the Partch Ensemble). Harrison (1917-2003) was an American composer who wrote mostly in just intonation, a system of tuning based on pure mathematical ratios, as opposed to the irrational ratios used by the more widespread equal temperament. (As a brief aside: Many hold that just intonation is a purer and more beautiful tuning than equal temperament–the standard in western music from the 19th century to the present day–but the former becomes impractical after a certain harmonic point because some intervals get so out of tune that they become unusable.)

Before Schneider played the pieces (he actually played two suites), he gave a brief talk about Harrison, the tuning he used, and the pieces themselves. The most interesting part of his discussion was his explanation of the guitars he used. Typical guitars use equal-tempered frets, so that they can play with pianos and other equal-tempered instruments, and their fretboards look like this:

However, in order to play just intonation music on a guitar, the fretboard must be modified, to look more like this (the man in this picture, by the way, is Schneider himself):

Remarkably, he showed the bewildered audience that the fretboard was actually a magnet–he slipped it right out from under the strings and held it up to show us. The neck was magnetic, he explained, and the justly-tuned fretboards were put on large magnet boards–just like a kitchen magnet–so they could be interchangeable. The pieces themselves were very good, and held my interest much longer than the other pieces in the concert. I recorded a video of the performance on my cell phone, which you can see below. Neither the video nor the audio quality is too good, but you can hear how the tuning is different from a normal guitar.

Tuning is really a fascinating subject. If you’re interested in learning more, you can find articles and resources at the website of The Just Intonation Network, as well as the excellent Tuning Information page on Kyle Gann’s website.

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  1. Gravatar

    Darth_Harbison on 08.10.2008

    This may be a somewhat ignorant question, as I have absolutely no idea how long the guitar has been around/widely used, but . . . you said that equal temperament has been the standard since the 19th century . . . was just intonation the norm prior to that? And do the two go beyond guitars (and similar instruments) into music at large, or are they fairly limited?

    I thought that the guitar in the video seemed to sound more “classical” (in the layman sense of the word, not the technical musical sense) than I’m used to hearing guitars sound . . . is that because of the music he’s playing, because of the just intonation, or both? (Or is it because I was conditioned by your post to expect such a thing?)

  2. Gravatar

    Courtney on 08.11.2008

    Dang that was the one of the more tripped out guitars I've ever seen! (I would just go out and say most tripped out, but I'm really not into commital/black&white statements right now… I go through phases… hmmm) Pretty awesome. Thanks for sharing.

    C

  3. Gravatar

    ryan fleming on 08.11.2008

    I have found this article to be one of your most interesting posts here on “The Listening Blog”. I actually read over Kyle Gann’s website and really enjoyed it.

    It was very interesting to see how many cents each just toned interval was from the equal tempered interval. For example, in a C major scale, the major third is an E. Since a major third is four half steps above the root, this means that an E is 400 cents above a C. However, in just intonation, the major third is a 5/4 ratio to the root (or equivalently 386 cents). I found this interesting because I remember in marching band, whenever a major chord was played, the director said to lower the third. I never knew the meaning behind this altering of the tuning in the chord. But I now understand that the director was trying to take an intstrument playing the third at 400 cents and lower it to the “better” sounding 386 cents used in just intonation. By the way, this is also the reason for having a tuning slide located on the first valve of a trumpet (to manually alter the tuning of certain notes.)

    Very interesting stuff!!

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