~ American music theory / tuning up the pitches ... ~

'a refinement of pitch becomes the essential tweak for creating chords ...'

"What is remarkable about Western music is that by its chosen scales, modified through equal temperament, and by developing complex forms and complex instruments, it has raised the expressive power of music to heights and depths unattained in other cultures."

In a nutshell. At the start of our theory discussions here we discover the organization of our 12 pitches from purely occurring natural, organic sound and how we temper or re-tune these same 12 pitches just a wee bit when building them into our modern fretted guitars. For it is this more recent re-tuning process of these original 12 that allows us to create the full spectrum of key centered, diatonic harmony and beyond that we enjoy today.

For in our American musics, it's this 'in tune', tempered pitch harmony that supports the potentially more 'variably tuned' blue notes within our melodies. When we combine them together, we create that indigenous American musical effect that has re-energized the world on more than one occasion.

blue notes

As peoples merged on this continent, America became the new crossroads of cultures. From Europe came the equal tempered pitches we associate with the piano and its glorious range of chords. From Africa up through the Caribean Isalnds came the naturally tuned diatonic scale melodies and various stringed instruments and drums.

Combining the two here in America for the first time, we have a musical core which features naturally tuned and freely interpreted melody notes supported by the rigidly tuned pitches for stacking into chords. So by re-tuning these fairly ancient melody pitches we create the pitches to make the chords? Yep, pretty much. It took a couple of hundred years to figure out the way to tune them up but surely it was worth the effort.

The 'in the nutshell tuning super trade-off.' The nub in all of this hundreds of years of tuning developments really boils down to the quality of the third scale degree above the root pitch, both major and minor, but mostly the major 3rd. When we tune up the pitches to create chords, our thirds are tempered just a wee bit sharp in comparison to the pure natural pitch as created by the division of the octave into the simple 5:4 ratio.

minor 3rd
a wee bit sharp

Cats with the keen radar back in the day, around the 1600's or so, simply could not accept this 'wee bit' of tweeking their pure, celestial major 3rd. Even if it opened the door to a complete, full spectrum of harmony. Resistance lasted till the composers finally got the 'piano / forte' from Christofori in 1700.


Thus 'equal tuned' empowered, no chord or colortone, within any of the 12 major and minor key centers was off their palette. And such as it is today. So we trade off a bit an aural purity to gain our modern musical resource described here as 'anything from anywhere', a perfect matchup of pitch and playability with our guitars.

building a tuned guitar
a natural organization of the pitches
equal tempered pitches
the blues rub
evolution of tuning
"I have to be my own teacher, curious to know the reason for things."
Laurindo Almeida


sans le tritone: My French language version of "without a tritone."

(1) Ottman, Robert. Elementary Harmony, First Edition, p. 4. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

(1) Appel, Willie and Ralph T. Daniel. The Harvard Brief Dictionary Of Music, p. 221. New York: Pocket Books, a Simon and Schuster Division of Gulf and Western, 1960.