Why Tune?

You picked up your dulcimer to run through a couple of tunes. There’s no one else listening. No one will care if your instrument is slightly out of tune. And you only have a few minutes to practice. Why bother to tune for that?  This thought came to my mind a few weeks back. I had about 15 minutes of free time before I had to leave, and I wanted to start reviewing my patriotic repertoire – getting ready for impromptu performances for Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day. America the Beautiful, Star-Spangled Banner, and God Bless America are always included in my go-to list of tunes to play during the summer.

Now you know tuning a hammered dulcimer takes a good while, and I have a wonderful MasterWorks instrument. It holds its tuning quite well, but eventually the bottom strings will go flat about a quarter tone, and the higher strings go sharp about a quarter tone. Many folks wouldn’t even notice the difference.

BUT I DO. And so I stopped right in the middle of playing America the Beautiful, and took the time to tune. Here’s why.

  • It didn’t sound right. No matter how well I can play America the Beautiful, it just doesn’t “sound right” when my dulcimer is out of tune – even by just a little. Same goes when playing my guitar, ukulele, or mountain dulcimer.

  • That led to a sloppy technique. Well, maybe this is just me. But since my instrument simply wouldn’t deliver the desired sound even though I was hammering all the right strings, I relaxed and kept moving forward when I hit the wrong strings. BAD decision. I should always stop and hammer out the notes of a difficult section (get the pun?) more slowly, until I can play the measure or phrase correctly.

  • Wrong notes might sound right. If you’re a beginner learning an unfamiliar fiddle tune and your instrument is out of tune, you might not even recognize when you strum, pluck, or hammer the wrong note.

  • An out-of-tune instrument lowers satisfaction. Even just one string slightly out of tune can cause every chord to sound bad, let alone an entire tune. A beginner might not know WHAT is wrong, but they will know something doesn't sound right.  At the end of the practice session, they could feel like they haven't progressed or accomplished much of anything.

  • Lowered satisfaction has a negative impact on learning. In other words, if playing your instrument doesn’t give you joy, you’re going to practice less often and for shorter periods of time. If it doesn’t sound good, and it doesn’t feel right, you might put your dulcimer back in its case for another day, instead of practicing for another 10-15 minutes.That’s just the plain truth of the matter.

So that leads to another interesting question. Is it ok to tune by ear, or should you always use an electronic tuner? I think tuning by ear is good ear training, and I often tune my guitar and mountain dulcimer by ear. However, when playing with others, I recommend that you always use the electronic tuner. Otherwise, you might be in tune with yourself, but off by a quarter pitch from everyone else.

Happy tuning!



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