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Author: Subject: Do professional players really tune by ear? Many of my teachers don't
yozhik
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[*] posted on 3-25-2019 at 02:31 AM
Do professional players really tune by ear? Many of my teachers don't


When I first started playing oud I read through a lot of old forums posts about tuning by ear and just intonation:

For example, I read this thread where Brian explains his tuning method using the second string G in Arabic tuning as the reference, and then tuning by ear in perfect fourths (I think this would be called Pythagorean tuning with G tonic?):

http://www.mikeouds.com/messageboard/viewthread.php?tid=16093#pid10...

The method described by Brian made sense to me and was easy for me to learn since I just had to get good at hearing perfect fourths correctly.

My first teacher in Sweden tuned his oud by ear and encouraged me to do so, too. He was used to tuning by ear since he often played with string orchestras that tuned to different concert pitches (A=440 Hz, A=443 Hz, etc). I don't remember which string he started with and his method was not as systematic as the one Brian described-- he would basically tune the strings, play a little taqsim and then fine tune until it sounded right to him. But other than establishing the reference note he never checked individual strings with an electric tuner.

Since then, however, I have met only very few players who actually tune by ear. So I am wondering if this is becoming a lost art or if it is only common in certain situations?

For example, my teacher in Turkey and all of my various teachers here in Egypt (including several from Naseer Shamma's Arab Oud House) have all tuned using tuner apps on their mobile phones. Which basically means they are tuning their ouds like a piano or guitar in Equal Temperament (ET).

Is this the sign of a general trend towards "westernized" standardization of tones in Arabic music? Or is this simply a new generation of musicians and music that are playing music with a different tonality than the previous generation? (I get the impression that Naseer Shamma's students might actually prefer the "western" Equal Temperament tuning since every Naseer Shamma student I have met so far tunes their strings to ET exactly using an electric tuner... perahps this is an advantage when playing the 3- or 4-string chords in Shamma's compositions?)

Or could it be that the difference between tuning by ear (e.g. Pythagorean or other just intonation methods) and tuning in ET is so small for most of the strings that teachers just use it to quickly get in tune for lessons and practice?

Would be interesting to hear your experiences with this since I have been living in Egypt/Turkey for almost a year now and have not really encountered any oud players tuning by ear here. Admittedly, I am mostly in contact with young players that have grown up playing in a conservatory/music school context, so perhaps it's a generational thing and the old players still do it the traditional way.



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Chris-Stephens
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[*] posted on 3-25-2019 at 08:11 AM


I tune by ear! Its the only way to truly feel when the courses are in usison and the intervals are in perfect harmony
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Jody Stecher
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[*] posted on 3-25-2019 at 04:59 PM


I will put it plainly: if I tune a string instrument to an electronic tuner I will be out of tune for every kind of music that ever existed since the beginning of time up until the time that electronic tuners first appeared. I will try to make it even plainer: the different brands of tuners do not agree with each other as to what is in tune. The different models within one brand do not agree. The different "specimens" within each model not even always agree. That being the case it is an "iffy proposition" to trust such a device rather than one's own ears, brain, and musicality.

Sometimes a musician must play in less-than-ideal circumstances. There is a roar from the festival crowd perhaps, or a hum of electric generators, or ceiling fans, or from the stage monitors, or the monitors are reinforcing frequencies in a way that the musician is unsure of tunefulness. In these circumstances an electronic device is a useful tool. One can get close to tunefulness and play adequately instead of horribly.

One more thing: good guitarists do not trust electronic tuners either except as a guide to approximate tunefulness. When changing strings, these aps will get you near to where you want to be. Some electronic tuners, including mobile phone aps, will enable a guitarist to be close to in tune for C major. Move to another key and some small adjustments in tuning are usually needed.
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[*] posted on 3-25-2019 at 05:15 PM


Thanks for your replies and yes I agree with your sentiments Chris and Jody.

I do not know your backgrounds, however, and I am still wondering if this is a geographic or generational thing. I am not really asking what is "right" or "wrong" tone-wise, but wondering what people actually do in practice.

Unfortunately, my actual experience with oud players I've met here in Egpyt is that I've never seen anybody tune by ear nor seen any teachers encouraging their students to do so. Which makes me wonder if this is intentional or not? I've tried to discuss the concept of just intonation with teachers here in Egypt, but the ones I've talked to do not seem know about this concept or maybe its overly theoretical and lost in translation, I don't know.

And in Turkey, my teacher would start every lesson by grabbing my oud and tuning each course of strings exactly to his mobile tuner app.

It would be really interesting to hear from players who have grown up or learned oud recently in the Middle East or North Africa to hear your experiences? What were you taught? how was the concept of tuning explained to you-- or was it even explained at all?
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[*] posted on 3-25-2019 at 07:28 PM


I tune by ear, and overall I have had a better experience playing in tune since I began doing it this way...
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[*] posted on 3-26-2019 at 06:36 PM


By ear man... It's the only way. Sure using a keyboard or piano or electric tuner to get to approximate for one string is ok. But after that the oud has to be tuned to itself. If I am just practicing after the oud has been sitting for a while I just go off the open string Do and start tuning the rest...doesnt matter if it's not tuned to electric tuner since I am playing alone.

Any time you start playing with other people is where it gets more important to be in unisson. So I understand sometimes the need to use a tuner but really should be only for one course and the rest, better tune to each other.




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[*] posted on 4-1-2019 at 03:59 AM


gg to pitch - then by ear...
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Brian Prunka
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[*] posted on 4-1-2019 at 08:36 AM


I'll use an electronic tuner sometimes, especially if it's a concert and I need to quickly get to a specific pitch standard in a noisy environment. Even with an electronic tuner, you can only tune one of each pair to the tuner, then you need to tune the second to the first, because the tuners isn't precise enough to eliminate the beats between unison strings.

But even then, I know that the electronic tuner isn't exact and I will deliberately tune the F a bit low and the A a bit high so that they are actually in tune with the rest of the strings. I also always finalize the tuning by ear, play a few things in different keys/positions and make sure everything sounds right.

With students, I'll use a tuner because we generally just have an hour and I'm trying to get both of our ouds to the same pitch; students are usually pretty slow and imprecise in tuning so it's an expedient to make the most of their lesson time. Again, though, the final tuning is by ear, the tuner is just to speed up the process and make sure our gg courses are starting from the same place.

I may also use a tuner sometimes if I'm playing in nontraditional settings, with piano or guitar and utilizing non-maqam keys (Like E major, for example)—the results are more in tune overall since the piano and guitar are using equal temperament.

But in general, tuning by ear is a necessary skill (even with a tuner) and something that comes up regularly.
Sometimes the qanun or accordion is a bit off, and can't easily be retuned—you just have to tune to them. Sometimes a singer wants everything a bit lower.

Quote:
For example, my teacher in Turkey and all of my various teachers here in Egypt (including several from Naseer Shamma's Arab Oud House) have all tuned using tuner apps on their mobile phones. Which basically means they are tuning their ouds like a piano or guitar in Equal Temperament (ET).

Is this the sign of a general trend towards "westernized" standardization of tones in Arabic music? Or is this simply a new generation of musicians and music that are playing music with a different tonality than the previous generation? (I get the impression that Naseer Shamma's students might actually prefer the "western" Equal Temperament tuning since every Naseer Shamma student I have met so far tunes their strings to ET exactly using an electric tuner... perahps this is an advantage when playing the 3- or 4-string chords in Shamma's compositions?)

Or could it be that the difference between tuning by ear (e.g. Pythagorean or other just intonation methods) and tuning in ET is so small for most of the strings that teachers just use it to quickly get in tune for lessons and practice?

Would be interesting to hear your experiences with this since I have been living in Egypt/Turkey for almost a year now and have not really encountered any oud players tuning by ear here. Admittedly, I am mostly in contact with young players that have grown up playing in a conservatory/music school context, so perhaps it's a generational thing and the old players still do it the traditional way.


I think you're basically right about most of your conclusions. Yes, it is a westernization, yes it fits with some modernistic approaches to the oud, and yes, the differences with the open strings are fairly small and depending on your tuning and purposes may be manageable. But even those small differences could be problematic when dealing with the more subtle aspects of maqam.





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[*] posted on 4-1-2019 at 05:12 PM


Thank you all for your replies.

As expected, the overwhelming sentiment from people on this forum has been "Tune by ear, it's the only way... except sometimes when you are playing with others or in a hurry". :)

For the record, my original question was not whether or not using an electric tuner for all strings was bad (before coming to Egypt, I always tuned by ear myself and am aware of the subtle differences between tuning all strings separately using an electric tuner and using one string as a reference pitch and tuning all the other by ear using naturally occuring perfect fourths and perfect fifths).

I was mostly trying to understand why it was so common among all the players I've encountered recently, especially since most previous posts on this forum echoed the sentiment that "Tuning by ear is the only way!"

So back to my original question, here's a sumamry of situations that have been mentioned where tuning all strings to a tuner might be acceptable:

1. Tuning for a performance in less than ideal environments (e.g. noisy)
2. Playing with equal-tempered instruments or non-modal music setting (piano, key of E major)
3. To save time when giving a lesson to a student
4. Playing in a group of several ouds

I imagine reasons 3 and 4 could explain most of the situations I've encountered as a student in Turkey and Egypt. I had 1-hour lessons in Turkey and at the beginning of the lesson my teacher would grab my oud and quickly tune it to his mobile app if I was taking too long to tune it on my own.

I still wonder however if this is the whole story, however. I had a private teacher come to my apartment in Egypt and he was never in a hurry, so tuning quickly was not an issue. And it was only the two of us in the room. Still he would tune all the strings of both of our ouds using an electric tuner. Maybe it was just a force of habit, since he was used to teaching students in larger groups?

Among players at Nasseer Shamma's school I suspect reason 2 above could also be in play, given the fact that even "Arabic" maqams are taught at that school just like major and minor scales were taught to me in my high school band class, i.e. as a series of scales, arpeggios and chords without any discussion of temperament, intonation, etc. A lot of the young students I hear practicing at the school are playing stuff that sounds like it could just as easily be played on a normal guitar if you take away all the ornaments and slides. But this could also be selection bias since I only meet other beginning and intermediate students and the curriculum in the begininng seems to prioritize playing scales well on a technical level over getting traditional intonation for "Arabic" music.

-----

A follow-up quesiton about tuning by ear: Many of you replied that you tuned the gg string to a standard pitch and then tuned the other open strings "by ear", which I assume in most of the common tunings is a combination of tuning to perfect 4ths, perfect 5ths and octaves, a.k.a. Pythagorean tuning in the key of G.

My mobile tuner app has a "Pythagorean" intonation mode which I can set to any key. So if I first tune my gg course to a standard pitch (e.g. equal temperatment G using A=440) and then tune the other open strings by ear using perfect fourths and octaves, and then check the tuning using my tuner set to Pythagorean mode (with G as the root), it would theorectically show all my strings as being in tune, correct? So I could use this app to "test" how good my ears are?

Or in your experience when you tune by ear, do you end up making even more minor adjusments so that the final tuning isn't even strictly tuned in perfect 4ths/5ths?
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[*] posted on 4-1-2019 at 06:00 PM


I wanted to follow up on Brian's last comment:


Quote:

I think you're basically right about most of your conclusions. Yes, it is a westernization, yes it fits with some modernistic approaches to the oud, and yes, the differences with the open strings are fairly small and depending on your tuning and purposes may be manageable. But even those small differences could be problematic when dealing with the more subtle aspects of maqam.


I was interested in seeing exactly how far off the open strings are from Pythagorean tuning when tuning them using a normal Equal Temperament tuner. So I did some quick calculations.

The table displays the different courses, including the optional High F for the Arabic F-F tuning and alternate tuning for the F/G and C/D bass courses.

The number to the left is the frequency in Hz resulting from Pythagorean tuning in 4ths and 5ths, using the second course gg as the reference. The number to the right is the corresponsing frequency in Hz for Equal Temperament (what a normal electronic tuner would show).

In the middle, I have calculated the difference between these two values in cents.


Code:

Note Pyth. (Hz) Tuning method Diff(cents) ET (Hz)
0 F (high) 348.44 2 P4's up from G -3.91 349.23
1 C 261.33 P4 up from G -1.96 261.63
2 G 196.00 Reference pitch 0.00 196.00
3 D 147.00 P4 down from G 1.95 146.83
4 A 110.25 2 P4's down from G 3.91 110.00
5 G (low) 98.00 Octave down from G 0.00 98.00
5 F (low) 87.11 P4 up from low C -3.91 87.31
6 D (low) 73.50 Octave down from D 1.95 73.42
6 C (low) 65.33 P5 down from G, down 1 octave -1.96 65.41


A couple of observations:


  • According to one researcher, the smallest difference in pitch detectable by the human ear is generally around 5-6 cents (see citation below). All of the calculated differences between Pythagorean and Equal Temperament tuning for open strings are under this threshold, meaning that the difference is probably imperceptible for most of the open strings if you just consider each string in isolation.
  • Perhaps there are other psychoacoustical effects that come into play when considering the overall effect of several "slightly out of tune" strings together, even if the difference for each individual strings is imperceptible?
  • The strings that most need adjusting compared to Equal Temperament are the F and A strings since they are about 4 cents off. This matches Brian's description that the F and A strings are the ones he adjusts manually when he needs to use an electronic tuner.


So it seems that either tuning to Pythagoran tuning completely by ear using perfect fourths or tuning to Equal Temperament using a tuner and than adjusting the F and A strings slightly should both yield an oud tuned more-or-less to Pythagorean intervals for the open strings.

So my next question is, what are the disadvantages of Pythagorean tuning in G for Arabic maqam music?

It seems that many of the maqams starting on D (Re) with a dominant on G (Sol) would work quite well since these fall on open strings and I guess you would want to render this interval as a perfect fourth regardless of the maqam?

But are there specific Arabic maqams that would sound bad in this Pythagorean in G tuning? For example, for maqams starting on D, perhaps the open high C string which is exactly 2 perfect fourths above the D doesn't exactly match up with how the 7th degree should be rendered in some maqams?

----

Reference: D.B. Loeffler, "Instrument Timbres and Pitch Estimation in Polyphonic Music". Master's Thesis, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Georgia Tech. April (2006).
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[*] posted on 4-2-2019 at 08:53 PM


Quote:
Quote: Originally posted by yozhik  

A couple of observations:


  • According to one researcher, the smallest difference in pitch detectable by the human ear is generally around 5-6 cents (see citation below). All of the calculated differences between Pythagorean and Equal Temperament tuning for open strings are under this threshold, meaning that the difference is probably imperceptible for most of the open strings if you just consider each string in isolation.
  • Perhaps there are other psychoacoustical effects that come into play when considering the overall effect of several "slightly out of tune" strings together, even if the difference for each individual strings is imperceptible?
  • The strings that most need adjusting compared to Equal Temperament are the F and A strings since they are about 4 cents off. This matches Brian's description that the F and A strings are the ones he adjusts manually when he needs to use an electronic tuner.



The question of minimal noticeable difference is problematic because there are many ways that intervals manifest in music, and when these differences are tested in isolation you may hear things very differently. Here are various psychoacoustic reasons why there is not a single simple threshold:

1) we hear harmonic (i.e., simultanous) intervals as beat patterns (ratios/interference/etc), so this is a different phenomenon than identifying variation in pitch for isolated tones. If you played two tones 2 cents apart simultaneously, I don't think anyone would have much difficulty telling the difference between that and unison.

2) our brain processes pitch at a subconscious level before we are consciously aware of it. One side effect of this is that notes get pre-categorized according to the musical system we are accustomed to. An interesting phenomenon regarding categorization is that discrimination ability is not consistent across categories. So phenomena that exist at a category boundary will be subject to much finer discrimination than phenomena that exist closer to the center of a category. If you look at two colors in the middle of the red spectrum, they both look like red in isolation and you will likely not be able to notice the difference between them in isolation. However, if you did the same test at the boundary of red and purple, you would easily notice and recall the difference between the two, even though objectively the wavelength/frequency difference was the same.

3) musical categories are contextual (i.e., relative), and so isolated pitch discrimination doesn't actually make use of our musical facilities in any meaningful way, since it is devoid of the context by which we understand what we hear. If you think of the sounds in language, you can understand that how we process individual sounds and how we process words are quite different.



Quote:

So my next question is, what are the disadvantages of Pythagorean tuning in G for Arabic maqam music?

It seems that many of the maqams starting on D (Re) with a dominant on G (Sol) would work quite well since these fall on open strings and I guess you would want to render this interval as a perfect fourth regardless of the maqam?

But are there specific Arabic maqams that would sound bad in this Pythagorean in G tuning? For example, for maqams starting on D, perhaps the open high C string which is exactly 2 perfect fourths above the D doesn't exactly match up with how the 7th degree should be rendered in some maqams?

The pythagorean tuning is prescribed by musical theorists and as far as I know was understood to be the basis for the oud's tuning for the history of maqam music. So this tuning works perfectly well for music in all of the traditional maqamat in their ordinarily occurring positions. If transposing, you could have some issues.

There are some cases where there is an apparent issue with a traditional maqam—the open A doesn't match the A of Jiharkah, for example (it is much too high), but that is not traditionally a problem since one just avoids playing down there.





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[*] posted on 4-18-2019 at 11:01 AM


Depends what I'm playing, and who I'm playing with.
You cannot use tuners if you want natural tuning!

Cleartune is a good tuning app.

Good luck




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[*] posted on 4-19-2019 at 09:28 AM


In my experience, all the Armenian players in America tune by ear. Maybe they use a tuner for one string and tune the rest to that. Undoubtedly, they learned to tune by ear from their elders who immigrated to the US from the Middle East in the early 1910s and early 1920s.

For Armenian-Americans, the string first tuned is generally the A string [G string on an Arabic oud] because we typically play folk music in A Huseyni or A Ussak, with a clarinetist playing out of A.

But on a stage, they'll probably tune the A to whatever the clarinet's A is, and then tune the rest of the strings by ear. I see them do this all the time. All of them. I have never seen anyone pull out an electronic tuner or their cellphone on stage. Also, they play taksims while they are doing this. Not proper taksims but you know what I mean. At the beginning of a dance you will always see the oud player taksiming around with his ear to the belly of the oud and his fingers twisting the pegs.

The only person in the Armenian community that I know who uses their cellphone app, is me. This is because my ears are not sufficiently trained to know how to tune the instrument to itself. I was strangely gifted with some musical skills while others were withheld from me. For example, I am a pretty good singer, but cannot sing solfege/sight read music and sing it. But, I am getting better. I am trying to move toward tuning by ear, not only because knowledgeable people like those on this forum all say that you should, but also because everyone I try to learn from does so. It would seem foolish not to.

Thank being said, I didn't have a good reason for it.

Thank you to Brian for the extremely insightful answer. I was wondering the same thing as Yozhik....since the difference between tempered 4ths and perfect 4ths is imperceptible (as opposed to other notes in the pythagorean or just intonation tunings), does it really make a difference, and why? Brian, you provided a great answer, thank you.

I'm guessing the young people in the Middle East are banking on the fact that the difference between tempered 4ths and perfect 4ths is miniscule. Taking the easy way out.
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[*] posted on 4-22-2019 at 09:40 AM


English is not my every day language but I will try to explain a few points:

At first there is no such thing as a Pythagorean tuning for a oud. It's a consideration in matter of acoustic and history, and some people mean it was use in the old time. But in the old time they had no references out of their ears.

Anyway, the Pythagorean tuning corresponds to the Mahoor maqam with a big third of 408¢ = mode of F. Eventually not a tuning but a scale.

That mean that if your 2nd bass string is a E (Syrian tuning), you tune schould it as a 4th from the A-string - Then it won't fit with the E on the D strings for Beyati on D. But a lot of people use it. I think they plays Beyati on A)

Later came temperaments but that is only relevant for instrument with a fixed tuning (frets, and keyboard)

When tuning a oud without frets you should always tune in pure 4th ans by ear, But it's true that many musicians use a tuner to keep the oud to the same pitch and to approche the best tuning easier, but then they finish by ear. (or they are in hurry)

I can recommand http://www.tune-it.com.au where you can determine a tuning with pure 4th = 498¢ instead of 500¢ the difference is 2 ¢ or a interference of 70 beats/min

You can't use a table with frequencies because it's relative not absolute.
The basic scale is Rast from C to C with cents values as :

000 204 386 498 702 906 1088 1200 (those are shifts of the natural scale coming from harmonics)

F mode begins on F (498) and first 3rd 906 - 498 = 408 = Pythagorean 3rd

I think it is also the scale Çahargah



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