Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Perceptual Economy: Let the Tuning Work for You

"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)." - 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.

Tune wisely.

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.
Don't take my word for it.  Let's see how this thing works.  Let's take a look at some of the enormous symmetrical advantages of Fifths Tuning, using the mandolin as an example.

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."

Our playing field represents notes of the major scale spread out over a couple octaves. We find that there is a simple, easy-to-navigate, symmetrical pattern that emerges. It's the same from top to bottom, left to right.

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.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Cittern: The Instrument of the Future

Those not familiar with the ModeExploratorium are bound to ask three very good questions.  

First of all, What's up with these "Modes" anyway?  Secondly, What's with this obsession with Fifths-tuning?  And finally, What in the world is a "Cittern?" (And why should I care?)
Simply put, it's really all about proposing a really, really good strategy for improvising music on stringed instruments.

The "Modes" part of the question is referring directly to Music Theory. Modes are scales. Scales have component chords. These are essential to effective improvising.  To select the right notes to play over a set of chord changes, or to select chords to play over a melody, we need to know how it all fits together.  We call that "Chord/Scale Theory." And that's usually what you're using (whether consciously or not) when you improvise in music.
So that's why this is a ModeExploratorium.  This is where we explore the universe of melody and harmony so we can do this music thing better, through Modes.

Fifths-tuning?  It's a funny thing - Since guitar has become a predominant vehicle of Western Pop Music over the last hundred years, its tuning became pretty ingrained in the culture: EADGBE.  Licks, chops, tunes, and even genres have been based on what's expedient for that tuning. But very few players question its usability, or whether or not there's a better tuning for guitar - They just become proficient at navigating the "fourths with a major-third speed bump" tuning, regardless of its asymmetry, regardless of whether it makes sense, or models music well, or maps well to the staff. (In our opinion it doesn't do well in these areas.)  On the other hand, fifths-tuning has been around for centuries, tried and true in the orchestra, and it is symmetrical, it does, in fact, make sense, model music well, and map well to the staff.  That's why we're biased toward fifths-tuning.

And what about this "Cittern" thing?  The cittern we're talking about here is the 10-string long-scale bouzouki, probably first named as such by Stefan Sobell, the famous luthier. This instrument, when tuned in fifths like a mandolin/mandola, CGDAE, becomes an extraordinary jazz instrument in that it models music theory very, very well. The extra course really extends and helps to illustrate the wonderful symmetries available in fifths tuning, and makes chord building and scale visualization a breeze. So much so that, we can imagine a day when fifths tuning is the standard, and the mighty Cittern rules the world!  Recall that Robert Fripp popularized a thing he called NST a couple decades ago for the guitar. Guess what - That's basically fifths-tuning, the same thing used on mandolins, violins, cellos, and so on, for centuries.  It makes the guitar into a Cittern, you might say. (With an added string at the top.)

Fifths-tuning in the range of the guitar, with all its symmetry, predictability and simplicity?  It's the instrument of the future. In view of its inevitability, we think it's time to start preparing now.

Proposing really, really good strategies for improvising music on stringed instruments. That's what the ModeExploratorium is all about.  For mandolin family players, or NST guitarists, it's about applying chord/scale theory to organize your arsenal of chops.  For old Standard Tuning guitar players, it's about discovering the ease and simplicity of fifths-tuning for stringed instruments.  

Welcome to the ModeExploratorium.