By Rick Epping © 1995 All Rights Reserved.
Date: Sat, 24 Jun 1995 13:30:19 -0400
In modern Western music there is an intrinsic difficulty if not impossibility, in reconciling a tuning to both harmony and melody. Simply put, the closer the notes are to the normal tuning found on [modern] keyboards and quartz tuners, known as Equal Temperament, the rougher the chords will sound; likewise, the more pure the chords, the stranger the melody will appear to our ears. Chromatic harmonicas are usually tuned to Equal Temperament, which compromises harmonious chords in order to perform equally well in every key. Diatonic models are not required to perform in all keys so one has the opportunity to better harmonize the chords.
Marine Band style harps were originally tuned to [7 Limit] Just Intonation, where the Major chords were absolutely pure. This worked well for the instrument when played as it usually was- solo or in concert only with other harmonicas. The Tonic, or blow chords, and the Dominant and Dominant 7th chords (1-4 draw and 1-5 draw respectively) sounded wonderful, and the ear would quickly adjust to the difference in melody as it was based on pure intervals anyway. Complaints arose when these models were called upon more and more to play and be in tune with other types of instruments, so gradually the tuning drifted closer to Equal Temperament. Finally, a point was reached when the Marine Band was so close to Equal Temperament that complaints started coming in that the chords sounded out of tune and that it was even beginning to affect the playing style of blues players. The note of the fifth hole draw has by far the greatest variance between Equal Temperament and Just Intonation tuning, and it was noticed that blues players were less inclined to play long, soulful notes on that hole than in earlier times, when the instrument was closer to Just Intonation. The arrival of the MS series offered the opportunity of a solution to the problem.
The Marine Band and Special 20 are the models favored by the more traditional players, blues or otherwise, who are likely to prefer a tuning closer to Just Intonation, especially on the 5 draw note. These two models, therefore, have recently been brought back closer to the original tuning, while still maintaining a certain compromise allowing them to fit in with other instruments. The MS models are tuned as the Marine Band was up to recently, a little closer to Equal Temperament in general, but with the distinction that the 5 and 9 draw are tuned well up, where they will sound right with other instruments, especially in the Sub-dominant chord in 1st position (5-6 draw).
The following charts are given showing the relative pitch of each note in the standard Marine Band, or Richter, tuning. The tunings are expressed in cents, the unit used with most quartz or strobe tuners, and show the variance from Equal Temperament. This variance is the same regardless of which key the instrument is tuned to or how close to A=440Hz it is pitched.
|Original Marine Band Tuning, [7 Limit] Just Intonation|
|Current Marine Band Tuning|
|Tuning for MS Models|
The numbers represent deviation in cents from established pitch, such as A=440Hz or A=442Hz, a cent being equal to 1/100th of a semi-tone.
The Golden Melody Model 542 is tuned to Equal Temperament. Hohner diatonics are tuned to A=442Hz at moderate volume so that they should not drop below A=440Hz at full volume. All tunings represent compromises, so players into tuning their harps may wish to experiment in finding one to suit their own needs best. I use an English concertina to accompany some of my playing and have developed a tuning for this combination based on Meantone Temperament, another system which utilizes pure Major thirds. I play more in the sharp keys, so I centered this tuning at D. By placing the thirds halfway between Equal Temperament and pure JI, the concertina is in good tune with other instruments, at least in the common keys, and produces pleasing chords. Note that the English concertina has buttons for 14 different notes in an octave:
This article is becoming long-winded so I'll leave the topic of tools and techniques of tuning for later. Let me just say in response to a question regarding a note that went flat and would not stay up in pitch after being retuned, that when a reed goes drastically flat, a quarter-tone or more, it has likely developed an internal crack and will not stand up to playing. The harmonica should at this point be repaired or replaced.
This article's origin & life on the web.
Rick Epping wrote the original article in the form of an email to harp-l email group. Later someone saw it's merit, and it appeared at http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/Theater/2845/harmonicas/tuning.txt and lived there for some years. However that site has now gone. A few important corrections have been made since it first appeared, and Rick has given his permission for it to live here.
Date: Thu, 14 Sep 2006 11:17:06 +0100
From: "rick epping"
Subject: [Harp-L] Re: Special 20 Tuning
At the time I started at Hohner in 1987, the temperament pendulum for
Marine Bands and Special 20s had swung from Just Intonation "well" toward
Equal Temperament (pardon the pun), so much so that blues players were
complaining that they were having to modify their playing styles;
the 5- & 9-draw at that time were tuned up so close to ET that players
were not comfortable playing long, expressive 7th chords using the
5 hole draw.
It was thought that the advent of inexpensive quartz tuners may have been partly to blame, as many players had been complaining that their harps were not in tune with their tuners. Or perhaps it was, thanks to the folk and blues revivals of the '60s and the introduction of the harmonica into rock music, the more widespread use of the diatonic in emsemble with ET instruments rather than as a solo instrument, that was the main cause for complaint of their being out of tune.
In any case, it was given to me to come up with a new tuning that would better satisfy the blues players without leaving the instrument too remote from other ET instruments. This task came about around the same time that the automated, Richter MS production was in development and, as the Marine Band was the instrument of choice for the blues players, I took the opportunity to devise a tuning for the MS series that remained closer to ET, particularly with regard to the 5- & 9-draw notes, which in the MS series are more in tune for 1st position subdominant chords than are the Marine Band and Special 20.
I supplied the tuning charts and samples to the factory in Germany but I don't know who came up with the term, compromise tuning.