Category Archives: Science


Tuning a guitar is a thing upon which few people agree. There are many ways of doing it and the suitability of each depends on the experience of the player, the confidence in their ear and the time at your disposal:

  • using an automatic tuner – some guitars have one built into the body
  • tuning to another in tune guitar, string by string
  • tuning each open note to a fretted note on the lower string*
  • tuning the open strings relative to one another
  • getting someone else to do it (or at least to check it)

Rather than argue the merits of these various methods, I’d like to include here some additional considerations which, although initially a surprise, are often a great help to pupils:

  • two things can cause the pitch of a string to rise – pressing it against a fret or tightening it – tuning is all about tightening or loosening the strings
  • most necessary adjustment will be upwards – the only thing (apart from human interference) which can cause a string to tighten is contraction, caused by cold weather – the most likely outcome of the passage of time is that the pitch will slip downwards
  • it is very difficult to tune downwards by a small amount as loosening the tension can cause the string to slip – in such cases, I always tune below the desired pitch and ascend gradually
  • the thickness of the string makes a difference – the thicker the string the less turning required
  • until new strings have been stretched sufficiently to settle at the required tension, they require constant tuning and will initially go out of tune within seconds
  • the initial seconds of a fiercely plucked note often contain a wavering of pitch before settling – so it’s better to listen to notes for as long as possible rather than constantly re-plucking
  • in addition to hearing, one can make use of the vibrations felt by the contact between the back of the guitar and the body – it is possible for a profoundly deaf person to tune a guitar this way
  • any string which is detuned will attempt a return to the original pitch – many guitar pieces tune the 6th E string down to a D and, to ensure that the string does not begin its return journey during performance, it’s better to tune the string way below the desired pitch and tune gradually upwards.

* although possibly the most common method, this is the one I never recommend – for one simple reason – by reaching to adjust the appropriate machine head (tuning peg) you cause the disappearance of the note to which you are tuning.

The Nearness of You

Have you ever seen a theremin played outside Bill Bailleyesque comedy? May I recommend this short video featuring Pamelia Kurstin? Lest you fear that the timbre is going to be a little samey throughout, try to hang on until at least 2:45 when the sound changes dramatically. At 14:15 there is a lovely arrangement of Billy Strayhorn‘s Lush Life featuring Makoto Ozone on piano. What’s nice in this film is the juxtaposition of sensitive playing with extremely merry explanatory dialogue between the items. The musical sensitivity is all the more surprising when you realise that the only parameters specified by the hands approaching the instrument are pitch (frequency) and volume (amplitude). Pupils interested in both science and music might enjoy puzzling out which one is responsible for producing vibrato*. If you haven’t already clicked the Theremin link, try to guess when the instrument was invented.

* an Int 2 concept