Friday, February 6, 2009

Using an instrument for other than it's intended purpose?

An e-mail list I am on has had a very active and acrimonious thread this week about the Yepes tuning of the 10 string classical guitar. Reading the thread I realized just how silly I think the notion of right and wrong is when applied to any facet of music.

My primary steel string guitar is a 1945 Harmony Cremona. Not only was almost none of the music I play on it written prior to 1945 but even the styles had yet to be conceived of. It doesn't matter how I tune it. That guitar is not doing anything its maker intended, and probably hasn't since some time in the 1960's, when my mother quit playing it. The maker sure as hell never intended to have wing nut like be holding the pick.

That the standard tuning the Cremona was designed for is still dominant is irrelevant. I have no responsibility to the (original) Harmony Guitar Company, the good people who worked at the Chicago factory, or the intentions of the instrument's designer. There is no right and wrong in music except what is socially agreed upon by individuals.

The question should not be "is he or she right to do this?" The questions (plural) should include "does practice A satisfyingly produce desired result B?" and "...if not, is the result of some other value?"

As any sound engineer will tell you, sympathetic vibration, in and of itself, is neither a good nor a bad thing. The significance of Yepes's findings is entirely dependent on what one is trying to accomplish. Personally, I think he makes a very, very persuasive argument for the sonic benefits of his tuning, assuming you share his goals and priorities. To assume that this is the case with any musician, regardless of instrument, inscribes what music is and can be more narrowly than I, personally, am comfortable with.

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