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Lute tunings

Page history last edited by Andrew Alder 10 years, 10 months ago

This page is about tunings of lutes in the narrowest sense, a series of historical European instruments. The term lute can also refer to all instruments with ribbed bodies, such as older designs of mandolin and saz, or can be used in several intermediate senses. See See also below for other lutes in the more general sense.

 

Intro

 

Lutes had many tunings, many of them predating the general use of equal temperament, and all of them predating the adoption of any pitch standard, so the actual pitches are a matter of conjecture.

 

The frets of a lute are movable, and positioning them is part of tuning a lute. This allows non-equal temperament to be used, within limits. The frets are not angled, so any movement of a fret affects all strings equally. This complication is not encountered with keyboard instruments of course.

 

The earliest lutes for which music and tunings survive are six-course lutes from the Renaissance. With the passing of time, more and more strings were added at the bass end, and the scale length tended to increase slightly.

 

String gauges etc

 

This is a bit more complex than you might think. Real lutes had gut frets tied around the neck, and plain gut strings. And very little power in the bass as a result, unless the bass strings were theorboed to make them a lot longer than the treble strings. 

 

Wound strings seem a nifty idea, but they cut into gut frets. That's why guitars changed to wire frets, and to single courses.

 

Most modern lute players compromise some authenticity to give more playability. And it is a compromise, and a valid one. The lute players of the baroque era would have loved the playability of a modern lute with its wound basses and wire frets! (Or maybe they'd have preferred to go the whole hog and play electric guitar instead.) But if authenticity is your thing, that's good too. Just please don't be too pretentious about others doing their thing, remembering that the people of the baroque era for example didn't like baroque music in quite the same way we do. For example, almost none of J.S.Bach's music was published in his lifetime. He was regarded by his contemporaries as a brilliant organist who wrote mediocre music. End of sermon, but food for thought?      

 

Scale length

 

Modern lutes tend to have a scale length about that of a guitar with a capot on fret 3, and consequently, lute music is often played on guitar with the 3rd course tuned down one semitone, giving E-A-d-f#-b-e', and a capot on fret 3, giving G-c-f-a-d'-g' and a similar scale to a modern lute but of course only single courses. 

 

Tunings

 

5-course lute

 

watch this space!

 

6-course tenor Renaissance lute

11 strings in 6 courses:

 

  • g G - c' c - f f - a a - d' d' - g'

 

8-course tenor Renaissance lute

15 strings in 8 courses:

 

  • d D - f F - g G - c' c - f f  - a a - d'd' - g'

 

10-course lute

21 strings in 10 courses:

 

  • c C - d D - e flat Eb - f F - g G - c' c - f f - a a - d' d' - g'

 

13-course Baroque lute

Probably the most interesting lute configuration, owing to the music written for it in the baroque period and still surviving.

 

24 strings in 13 courses. The lowest five courses are theorboed and cannot be fretted.

 

Standard D minor tuning

 

According to Wikipedia:

 

  • A' A' - B' B' - C C - D D - E E' - F F' - G G' - A A' - d d - f f - a a - d' - f '

 

According to the Lute Society of America:

 

  • A A' - B B' - c C - d D - e E - f F - g G - A A - d d - f f - a a - d' - f '

 

Scordatura

Actually, minister, it's not really a wrong tuning, it's a normal part of playing the lute.

 

The Lute Society also notes that the bass courses might be raised or lowered a seimtone to suit the key of the piece. Specifically, the eighth, eleventh and seventh courses (F, C and G) might be (successively) raised, or the twelfth, ninth and thirteenth lowered (B, E and A). (Note the convention here that the strings and courses are numbered in the reverse order to that in which they are listed in the tuning.) Actually, Wikipedia notes that too, just not quite so clearly.

 

 

See also:

 

 

 

External links

       

 

 

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