r&r diary – Catching a Sunbeam – 03.03.13

imagesThe super-string theorists tell us that everything is  just vibrating strings. We are all just vibrations, everything is a frequency, a melody in the grand symphony of the universe.  Get your head around that one Pilgrim!  I do love it when sober-headed physicists talk like besotted mystics. If you play music, you know all about vibrations. If you play a stringed instrument, you spend lots of time tuning those strings.  Tuning is a subject that expands and gets more complicated the more you look at it.

That note you’re tuning to is not a particle, it’s a wave and it’s not something you can put in a box. The closer you listen, the more you hear, the less you know. Some notes are pleasing, some notes go well together, some notes are displeasing, and don’t go together. But it all depends. Western music, Eastern music, modern dissonance.  What is music? What is noise? It’s all in the ear and the brain of the hearer!

And what’s pleasing and displeasing may hold for other species too.  We live with two Cockatiels and a Parakeet and Puccini, U2, The Beatles even The Rolling Stones seem to agree with them.  But late John Coltrane, Nine Inch Nails, Metallica, and  The Who, well, not so much.

It seems like tuning should be simple.  But it’s not. There are all kinds of methods to get you to “standard tuning,” but there’s lots of disagreement on how standard, standard really is, and there’s many ideas about how to make your instrument sound pleasing to the ear.  You can tune up, and one chord sounds great, and another sounds off. Or you move up the fret-board and some notes are sharp or flat. If you have perfect pitch, like my friend, Mr. Mo Ukulele Raconteur, well a flat or sharp note, a poorly-tuned instrument, a badly-sung note can drive you to distraction!

So  famous guitar players like James Taylor have come up with their own tuning tricks.  Or Buzz Feiten  has designed a unique system that builds in “off-sets” that provide “tempered tuning,” across the fret-board. Then there is open-tuning (see Keith Richards), or alternate tunings (check out Jimmy Page), or down-tuning (think Jimi Hendrix or Death Metal)

And if you’ve tuned a guitar, you realize that you are trying to catch something not exactly catchable. If you own a strobe-tuner  you can actually visualize how elusive and slippery that note can be.  There is no exact point where you have arrived, there is only a continuum, a frequency, a vibration.  It’s like trying to catch a sunbeam. You can get close. You think you have it in your hand, it’s there, it lights you up, but it’s not yours to hold. There’s a lesson there… – Jammer

Postsrcipt: “The note is eternal.” Pete Townshend, like some of the  romantic poets, was actually ahead of the string-theorists on the mystical nature of the universal vibe. Here’s Pete from his song, “Pure & Easy:”

There once was a note pure and easy
Playing so free like a breathe rippling by
The note is eternal
I hear it, it sees me
Forever we blend as forever we die

I listened and I heard music in a word
And words when you played your guitar
The noise that I was hearing was a million people cheering
And a child flew past me riding in a star

Pete Towshend

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