Tuners Are Hurting Our Ears : Teaching Music Through the Back Door
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Tuners Are Hurting Our Ears

by Brett Ridgeway on 06/29/15

I remember once being in the presence of some older musicians and they were discussing the “good ole’ days.” They talked about the times when they would meet together at their local town hall to play, because it was the only place in town that had fluorescent lighting. One by one, they would climb atop a table close to the lights and tune their instrument to the “hum” of the fluorescent tubes. I found this fascinating and inventive, and it got me thinking…

Musicians today are both fortunate and not-so-fortunate to have electronic tuners for maintaining sound integrity rather than resorting to the old-time methods of keeping our instruments in tune. We now tune our instruments with our eyes rather than using our ears. Though I admit electronic tuners are a blessing…they are also somewhat of a curse and become a crutch. Like so many convenient technologies, they save us time, but they ruin (or at least hinder) our ability to train our ears and to gain the skills needed to play by ear. I’m no exception in this regard.

Yes, I use a tuner, but I have begun to greatly limit my reliance on the tool when at all possible. Some instruments have two strings per course (a “course” consists of two or more strings tuned identically): hammered dulcimer, mandolin, and some mountain dulcimers. On my hammered dulcimer, I now tune just one string per course with an electronic tuner, then I tune the second string by ear to the “already-tuned” string. I suppose I could tune the entire instrument by ear, but my ears are just not there yet…though at least it’s a start. Surprisingly, I also find this “old-time” technique a quicker method of tuning rather than using the electronic tuner for the entire instrument. Fortunately, this approach to tuning isn’t limited to just the hammered dulcimer.

Each instrument can be tuned to itself. As many mountain dulcimer players know, if you fret the bass string of dulcimer (D-A-D) at the fourth fret (A), you can tune the middle string (A) to the bass string. Similarly, if you then fret the middle string at the third fret, you can tune the melody string to the middle string, and if your dulcimer has double set of melody strings, simply tune the second melody string to the now-tuned first melody string. Although most players already know this, they recognize it’s a lot more convenient to use an electronic tuner to speed up the process…which is typically the case when it comes to using any technology. Yet we miss so much in life because technology speeds us right by so many wonderful things we’d experience if only we took the old time-tested approaches that those who came before us followed. With the electronic tuners, in the long run it’s the same—we are cheating ourselves, and impeding our learning and hindering our abilities. God gave us ears to hear. It seems counter-productive to use our eyes to tune something meant for our ears, and in doing so, takes away from a gift we often don’t fully appreciate—one that hearing-impaired people would cherish and likely make the most of if given the opportunity. I definitely don’t want to take that gift for granted.

Comments (2)

1. Wayne Jordan said on 6/30/15 - 08:48AM
Good article; I agree whole-heartedly. For 40 years, I made my living as a piano tuner, and I tuned by ear (the way tuners were trained in the 70s). Eventually, digital tuners became the norm and the public began to think that digital is better because it's high-tech. It's not. Digital tuners ignore an instruments inherent harmonics and overtones and focus on pitch. A digitally-tuned instrument sounds sterile. A properly done aural tuning sounds warm and full.
2. Jo Ann Smith said on 7/3/15 - 10:21AM
Great post, Brett. I play diatonic autoharp, where many of the strings are doubled. I depend heavily on the electronic tuner, given the obvious number of strings per instrument and the need to carry more than one to cover different keys. However, I do find myself ignoring the tuner reading at times when my ear disagrees with what the tuner is saying. I also play by ear, preferring to follow the tune playing in my head rather than written notes on the sheet music. I'm sharing your post with the autoharp group on Facebook, as well as on my Facebook page.

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