Author Topic: Tuning in Fifths  (Read 998 times)

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Offline MayorThird

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Tuning in Fifths
« on: February 28, 2022, 07:02:25 PM »
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

TL;DR: I came up with a cool alternative tuning in fifths although I found out I'm not the first one to have found it.  Do you have experience with this tuning?  I'm going to have such instrument made by Seydel and test it!

A few weeks ago I came up with an alternative tuning that I have never seen used in a chromatic harmonica before.  It came to be during the time I was looking for an alternative to solo tuning.  I was especially intrigued by diminished and augmented tuning, specifically their property of being highly key-agnostic: A scale can be played in any key using only one of three (dim.) or four (aug.) patterns, which means you can transpose by one or more thirds simply by starting from a different hole, whereas with other tunings like solo, classical or bebop each key is a bit different.  This greatly flattens the learning curve and makes transposition much easier on diminished/augmented tuned chromatic harmonicas.  However, these tunings come with a trade-off.  With diminished tuning in addition to single notes you can only play minor thirds, diminished triads and diminished seventh chords, albeit in any key.  While many (including me) would call that an advantage compared to solo or classical, I would argue that only having major thirds and augmented chords as it is the case for augmented tuning is rather limiting.

Now, are there any other instruments with the aforementioned shift-to-transpose property?  Yes, most prominently stringed instruments like the violin or the cello.  If you don't know, violins are most commonly equipped with four strings tuned G3, D4, A4, E5 and cellos with strings C2, G2, D3, A3, so they are tuned in fifths.  One interesting aspect of this is that as long as the range of the instrument allows for it, the player can easily transpose a tune simply by starting from another string but the fingering stays the same.

How would the key table for a 14-hole chromatic harmonica look like, you ask?  Starting from C, like this:


|    | 1     | 2     | 3     | 4     | 5  | 6  | 7  | 8  | 9  | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13    | 14    |
|----+-------+-------+-------+-------+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+-------+-------|
| b  | C     | E     | G     | B     | D  | F# | A  | C# | E  | G# | B  | D# | F#/Gb | A#/Bb |
| b* | C#/Db | F     | Ab    | C     | Eb | G  | Bb | D  | F  | A  | C  | E  | G     | B     |
| d  | D     | F     | A     | C     | E  | G  | B  | D  | F# | A  | C# | E  | G#    | B     |
| d* | D#    | F#/Gb | A#/Bb | C#/Db | F  | Ab | C  | Eb | G  | Bb | D  | F  | A     | C     |


As you can see, the odd-numbered blow holes form a segment of the circle of fifths, namely C, G, D, A, E, B, F#/Gb.  They are interspersed with major thirds in order to fit all half-steps in between.  And if you look closely, you will see that you can play all major and minor triads as well as a all major seventh and minor seventh chords while still being able to play scales largely uninterrupted!  To transpose a fifth, just shift two holes!  In addition, this hypothetical harmonica covers the impressive range of C3 to C7 and sharp keys are relatively easy to play, which should make it very practical for classical cello and violin repertoire!  There is still much much more to be discussed here regarding the comparison to dim./aug., patterns, transposition, etc., which you can read in my follow up post as soon as it's up!

That begs the question: Why haven't I ever heard about this?  Why couldn't I find anything online even after intensive searching?  But as it turns out, I am not the first one to have come up with and publicly talk about this chromatic harmonica tuning.  This award goes to streetlegal with his/her post Tuning in Fifths[1] and oh boy, am I late to the party, that was in 2013!  The only other intimately related post I found is from about 4 years later called Spiral 5ths Tuning[2], again by streetlegal.  AFAIK the most closely related tuning is circular, which is similar but stays in one key instead of advancing through the circle of fifths.

Has anyone ever heard of such a harmonica actually in use? streetlegal, if you're reading this, how's it going?  Have you ever gotten hold of a chromatic harmonica in such tuning?

In any case, I am going to order one from Seydel and let you know how it goes!  It'll be a 12-hole harmonica starting from low C.

[1] https://forums.SlideMeister.com/index.php?topic=9024.0
[2] https://forums.SlideMeister.com/index.php?topic=14802.0

PS: I didn't use the built-in table because I think this one looks nicer.

Offline Danny G

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Re: Tuning in Fifths
« Reply #1 on: February 28, 2022, 07:40:36 PM »
Happy New Harmonica

Offline SlimHeilpern

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Re: Tuning in Fifths
« Reply #2 on: February 28, 2022, 07:47:22 PM »
That's cool, but there are always tradeoffs, of course.

Just a few off the top of my head:

- can't play octaves
- very different 'fingering' for playing the same lick in different octaves
- really hard to convert a solo-tuned instrument to this tuning, so the tendency would be to have fewer types of harmonicas available to play once you've gotten used to this tuning.

I do like the duplicated notes that allow either draw or blow, that's very cool.

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Offline SlideMeister

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Re: Tuning in Fifths
« Reply #3 on: February 28, 2022, 07:57:44 PM »
I dunno. (personal opinion) That top end would definitely be a deal breaker, (for me anyway  :P) because I'd have a problem with the "dog whistle" aspect. Who plays that high? Why not start with #1-blow on G or even F?

Offline robertpcoble

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Re: Tuning in Fifths
« Reply #4 on: February 28, 2022, 10:46:36 PM »
"... this hypothetical harmonica covers the impressive range of C3 to C7..."

I think the lowest C is C3, one octave below middle C. That moves the playing range down some.

The diagram might be clearer if the octave of the first note is explicitly designated. [Not even two cents worth.]

A fascinating idea! I love alternate tunings! [That's the reason I play Seydel Circular Tuned diatonic harps - to have all notes in the designated key AND to have full triads on every scale degree.] As Slim pointed out, there are always tradeoffs regardless of the note layout. It all depends on what is most important to YOU.

Crazy [non compost mints] Bob

Offline Gnarly He Man

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Re: Tuning in Fifths
« Reply #5 on: February 28, 2022, 11:07:25 PM »
The SSCH-56 is similar, except the chords are dominant sevenths, and the button is a tritone.

Offline streetlegal

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Re: Tuning in Fifths
« Reply #6 on: March 01, 2022, 06:54:07 AM »
Good to hear that you are going with the Spiral Fifths alternate tuning 8). I don't have such a chromatic (yet) as a full re-tune would be impractical, so the only option is to get the plates made on the Seydel configurator. I reckon that a good way to go with this tuning is to start on G3 (hole 1 blow) and that would give you a chromatic with pretty much the same range as a violin.

When I read your message, I remembered that a few years back jazmaan experimented with this tuning a little on his DM48 digital chromatic. So you can hear him giving it a try on this short recording.

« Last Edit: March 01, 2022, 07:06:42 AM by streetlegal »

Offline MayorThird

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Re: Tuning in Fifths
« Reply #7 on: March 02, 2022, 07:06:01 AM »
The SSCH-56 is similar, except the chords are dominant sevenths, and the button is a tritone.

The SSCH-56 is an absolutely amazing and innovative instrument! By no means can the tuning in fifths come close to its chord-playing capabilities. And yes, dominant seventh chords would be amazing to have! However, I think playing melodies on the SSCH-56 would require quite a lot of practise :D

Offline MayorThird

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Re: Tuning in Fifths
« Reply #8 on: March 02, 2022, 08:05:02 AM »
Good to hear that you are going with the Spiral Fifths alternate tuning 8). I don't have such a chromatic (yet) as a full re-tune would be impractical, so the only option is to get the plates made on the Seydel configurator. I reckon that a good way to go with this tuning is to start on G3 (hole 1 blow) and that would give you a chromatic with pretty much the same range as a violin.

When I read your message, I remembered that a few years back jazmaan experimented with this tuning a little on his DM48 digital chromatic. So you can hear him giving it a try on this short recording.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DseGTT-b8es

Thanks for chiming in and sharing the video!

Little disclaimer: I do not play a stringed instrument. The following ranges are the typical ranges to my best knowledge. Skilled players can play higher.

Regarding which note to start on… Normal violin range is G3–E6. A 12-hole harmonica tuned in fifths starting on G3 would go up to C7, covering concert flute range. If you like this high register, that's great! But if you want to play specifically violin repertoire, you might even want to consider a 10-hole harmonica as there will be less room for error. On the other hand, consider that normal viola range is C3–A5 and normal cello range is one octave below that. A 12-hole harmonica tuned in fifths would cover C3–F6, which contains common viola and violin range. As a bonus you can (more or less) comfortably play cello repertoire an octave up. This is why I'll opt for a 12-hole harmonica from C3 but going for one with less holes and/or starting from another pitch is definitely something to consider for a better playing experience given a certain use case!  :)
« Last Edit: March 02, 2022, 08:08:34 AM by MayorThird »

Offline streetlegal

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Re: Tuning in Fifths
« Reply #9 on: March 03, 2022, 04:59:50 AM »
Yes indeed - some people prefer to have the extra notes at the lower end of the register 8). And there may be people who would have other scale preferences. In my earlier thread I also suggested that such a 12 hole chromatic might start on Eb3 - which would give an Eb-Bb-F spiral and chords, which some jazz players might prefer.