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My Tortured Relationship with the Digital Tuner

With the arrival of each new technology and gadget, we have a familiar interaction curve: dismissive (or derisive) laughter, then curiosity, then grudging appreciation, then tentative acceptance, then, occasionally, obsessive attachment.

Tuners arrived on the scene a number of years ago of course, but the recent drop in price of the technology has made them ubiquitous. Most guitarists now sport the little gadgets, attached to their instrument's headstock like barnacles, even in concert. My feeling about them remains conflicted. 

On the one hand, my students generally play better in tune, and they get there more quickly, thanks to digital tuners. We have them, handily, in the form of apps on our phones as well as the clip-on variety, so we always seem to have access to this form of assistance. 

But I think often of the bigger picture. There's the obvious: can you still tune your instrument if you forget your tuner or the battery dies? But it's more subtle, even more insidious than that. Tuning is a delicate balance between science and art. Each instrument is highly individual, unique. Tuning them requires both a high level of sensitivity to their idiosyncrasies and an acute awareness of the nuances of interval size and "well-tempered" tuning. [Note my post on harmonics.] Digital tuners don't have that sensitivity. 

A well-tuned guitar often includes slight pitch compromises, for the good of the overall effect. We make adjustment decisions based on the key we're playing in, or the presence of certain exposed intervals in our scores. Or based on deficits in the current strings we're using (this one is sharp when fretted but that one goes flat, etc). Or in acknowledgement of intractable design flaws our guitars may have, such as a string seeming too low when open but too sharp when fretted, etc. 

When we rely solely on the digital tuner, these subtleties are ignored and the results are often disappointing. This is a case of a device which lifts the "masses" up considerably (fewer beginning students playing terribly out of tune)--a good thing--but which dumbs-down the upper end. Advanced players stop relying on their ears and their understanding of harmony, the sound of intervals, the pulsating beats which tell us how clearly in tune the two pitches are. They learn to be less sensitive to the special nuances of intonation which can transform a sonority from pretty into sublime. And, hey, what will they do if the battery dies?!

I don't like the theatre of it either, and what it tells the audience. Yes, I'm getting used to it, but it seems "wrong" to me: the performer sitting on stage staring intently at that gadget slightly behind the headstock of their instrument while tuning. Tuning is now a visual activity? Not an aural one? Strange. And, to me, off-putting. 

If I had my way, they'd not be permitted on stage. They are useful in a noisy room, say, when you are playing with an orchestra or large ensemble and everyone is tuning at the same time. They are terrific for beginners. But guitar students should be weaned off them early and taught how to tune their instruments by ear. Imagine an orchestra in which every member had a clip-on tuner on their music stand next to the stand light. They all simultaneously tune while staring at their personal gadgets waiting to SEE proof that they are in tune. 
Odd, I think. 

It's true that there are plenty of players, even professionals, who perform out of tune as a matter of course (some famously so). We can work on this and improve our skills and sensitivity. It is part of being a musician. A fundamental part. Yes, tuners are convenient! But if we always delegate tuning to a gadget, it seems to drain some of the authenticity out of the whole endeavor. At least, to me...

University of Akron Guitar Ensemble Concert

Dustin Moralle's Senior Recital

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