"According to Gestalt theory, the perceptual system works on economic principles and tends to reach the maximum efficiency (i.e., increase of quality, goodness, and accuracy) with minimum invested energy (i.e., reduction of processing load)." - informaworld.com abstract of "Symmetry, complexity and perceptual economy" by Markovicacut and Gvozdenovi
Simple is way better.
Guitar players usually learn Standard Tuning (EADGBE) at the outset. After all, there's a big history behind it, and a lot of tunes, even genres, are born from it. How many popular rock and blues tunes are "in A" or "in E?" How many licks in the standard rock guitarist's repertoire are convenient to grab in Standard Tuning, but maybe near impossible in any other? And so on. So it makes sense to learn in that tuning, now that it has such a foothold in popular culture. But does it make sense to stay there? A guitarist may go his whole musical life assuming "that's just the way it's done." Or, "I've invested far too much time in this tuning to look for a 'better way.'"
But life is hard enough. Why let your tuning work against you, too?
If the truth be known, that fourths-with-a-major-third tuning we call Standard is actually pretty asymmetrical and inconsistent. And per the Psychologists - That asymmetry makes it inefficient, and requires more energy to work than, say, something consistent and symmetrical.
From time to time I have heard players say, "I don't get this Fifths-Tuning 'symmetry' thing everyone talks about. What symmetry?" That certainly goes for guitar players in Standard Tuning. And some mandolin- and violin- family players have said the same, not realizing how powerfully their fifths-tuned instruments are organized. The symmetry, once you see it, makes things really simple. Psychologists have long known that a simple, repeating, predictable pattern makes things easy for us humans to deal with. And the mandolin is one big predictable pattern!
Perhaps the "increase of quality, goodness, and accuracy" are most apparent when you are called upon to improvise over challenging chord/key changes. That's when you'll really need a "reduction of processing load." That's when fifths-tuned predictability pays off, big time.
Guitarists, you can join the party as well. New Standard Tuning, as we have discussed in prior posts, is tuned mainly like a mandocello on the bottom and a mandolin on top with an added high G. Fifths-tune your guitar this way (CGDAEG), and you'll see what all the fuss is about.
Visualizing Patterns: Perceptual Economy
One of the most important things we can do to get the most out of a mandolin, or any fifths-tuned instrument, is to find the intervals of the major scale (w-w-h-w-w-w-h) and see how the relationships lay out on the neck. The beauty of the consistent fifths (as opposed to other tunings) is in the symmetries you find on the instrument. The major scale, for example, produces a nice compact symmetry that makes complete visualization and navigation of the instrument a snap. Let's call this the "Playing Field."
The symmetry is actually discovered on the second degree of the major scale (marked as the "Dorian Center) which is the tonic of the dorian mode (the ii of the major scale).
So how did this happen? Why is it so easy to see this simple, predictable, memorable pattern on the mandolin? Well, that goes back to how the major scale works. Look for example, at a keyboard. You'll notice that from D upward, you see a mirror-image of D going down:
This yields the dorian intervals going up the scale from the D, w-h-w-w-w-h-w, and the same pattern going down from the pivot, w-h-w-w-w-h-w. It really makes navigation on the instrument a breeze. We're not talking about putting it on autopilot and playing junk - Rather, the predictability eliminates a lot of work. Perhaps we can refer to it as "Perceptual Economy", i.e., symmetry=simplicity, lack of symmetry=complexity.
And remember, this benefit is not only enjoyed by mandolin- and violin-family instruments; Guitarists can leverage the beauty and symmetry of fifths-tuning through NST (New Standard Tuning). And, as always, we can take this symmetrical pattern and move it all around the neck, move it over a string - We always "see" where we are all the time, and there's no energy spent figuring things out. We can just get down to the business of PLAYING.
Perceptual Economy. A good reason to love Fifths-Tuning.