Music is for the birds.
My most cherished time is the dawning of the day sitting on my screen porch having my morning coffee while listening to the birds. The brown thrush seems to be the first to wake up with it’s raspy , hoarse voice, followed by the click-clicking of the red cardinal female and the whistling warble of the red cardinal male. Then, all of a sudden comes an amazing repertoire of tones unmatched by anyone else : The mocking bird has awakened!! Was the mockingbird around millenniums ago when early man exited his cave one morning and heard these amazing tones also? Was that day of long ago maybe the beginning of music??
Fast forward a few thousand years and here we are trying to put these sounds into an orderly group of only 12 tones. [From here on will refer to tones as notes] What should the interval be between these notes that would make it possible to play any melody in any tonality? The Greek mathematician ,philosopher and astronomer,Pythagoras [570 - 490 BC ] is credited with developing this certain interval. Instruments that can do this , like pianos, are called “chromatic” and their arrangement of these 12 notes ,which include those certain intervals, is called an “equal tempered scale”.
The question at this point should be “ how did musicians, after Pythagoras figure out all this, measure this minuscule interval between these 12 notes before the days of electronic tuners” ?? Tuning forks in all tonalities were definitely around in those days but who was responsible
for making the first set of equal tempered tuning forks that became the standard for everyone else to use?? The answer here is the person with the very rare talent of counting the beats[ pulsating sound] between these 12 notes. I don't have either the talent or the training to be able to do this. I can tell whether a certain note is sharp or flat but I cannot measure that amount correctly in terms of an accurate number, much less be able to identify which of the 12 notes I’am listening to . In my 83 years of being on the planet I have only met one person that has the talent to, not only instantly identify the 12 notes by ear, but can miraculously , and very accurately, measure the degree to which the note is above or below pitch. His name is Gilles Losier and you can read about him on page 46 of my book “Made in Louisiana.” A visual analogy would be if someone had the comparable talent of observing a speeding car traveling down the highway and being able to measure its rate of speed in MPH exactly correct using only their eyes!! That would be virtually impossible for most humans, however anyone would be able to say whether the vehicle is moving or not. This analogy is important to remember because we will soon realize how this simple analogy made it possible for certain important changes to develop. Besides the wonderful assortment of 12 note chromatic instruments, there are also simpler instruments called “diatonic” that are based upon an arrangement of only 7 notes. These instruments, like harmonicas, can primarily play in only one certain tonality [key], depending on the pitch of the 7 notes. Very often diatonic instruments have the same intervals between these 7 notes as they did in the
chromatic scale, meaning that if you would check the notes in a 7 note arrangement against the same notes of the 12 note chromatic instrument, they would very likely be the same pitch. However ,since diatonic instruments cannot play a chromatic scale to begin with, these notes are very often tuned differently than the role they play in the chromatic scale. That undoubtably came about because of the musicians dissatisfaction with the pulsating beats in the chromatic instruments, and their quest for a simpler instrument that featured an arrangement of fewer notes that sounded sweeter to the ear. That certain dissatisfaction is certainly what inspired early Cajun musicians to also attempt at rearranging the initial value of these seven notes. From here onward we will refer to the physical act of changing these intervals by using the word “tuning”. All this word refers to is arranging the intervals between these 7 notes so that the end result will produce that certain personal taste desired by musicians from different cultures playing different genres of music.
In my 53 years of servicing and building accordions, I have never seen any of the original old German instruments that weren't all tuned with the same equal intervals as found on a chromatic instrument.
Why did the early Cajun musicians who had figured out how to tune a reed, all of a sudden change the tuning on these original German accordions from equal tempered to a different system, and how did the early Cajun accordion tuners accomplish this without any knowledge of music theory or access to electronic tuners? The answer here to these two questions is the same as the analogy of the
speeding car -not everyone can accurately determined the rate of speed the car is traveling, but anyone can tell if the car is totally stopped. The Cajuns did exactly the same with those unpleasant beats they disliked so much -they kept tinkering with the seven notes until the oscillating beats between two notes was stopped !! And it worked! At least up to a certain point.Today this is pretty much the system, with minor variations, that everyone uses for tuning Cajun accordions. Unfortunately none of us can take credit for this. Pythagoras beat us to the punch again when he developed this seven note arrangement which today is called the just tempered scale.
Neither mathematics, music theory, or electronic tuners are needed to achieve a just tempered scale of seven notes. However, having a decent ear, like most musicians already have, and knowing how to play the instrument helps a lot. The things that motivated me to attempt tuning a reed were undoubtably the same thing that motivated my predecessors-our dissatisfaction with the sound of our instrument.
My musical mentors as a child were people ,who for the most part, could only speak French, had never been to school, couldn't sign their name, and knew nothing about music. What they did know however was how to make great music and what they did have was a good ear which in turn made it possible to become a good player.
The best accordion player I ever heard was a little man by the name of Hiram Courville. He planted cotton with a mule team on my grandfather's farm in the late 40s and 50s. You can read more about him on page 3 of my book
“Made in Louisiana”. He always played on an accordion in the key of D, and although there were instruments at that time in other tonalities like A, G, and C, he always preferred a D box because it was higher pitched. One day he asked me if I thought it was possible to order an instrument in a tonality higher than his D box . He had been in World War I so I think, because of this exposure, he had a slight understanding of the alphabet, at least to the point of knowing that A was at the beginning, and that XYZ were towards the end. Not fully understanding his question and trying to figure out exactly what it was he wanted was rather difficult so finally he asked me “do you think we could order an accordion in the key of Z? “I don't tell this story for the purpose of belittling him, but rather to show the reader how little knowledge these people from his era had about music. What would he have done with knowledge about music? He was already a fantastic player! I was very impressed with his playing skills, but also confused because of his adamant dissatisfaction with his accordion. Like everyone else before the days of handmade accordions, everyone played what was available- the West German built Hohner model HA114 . In those days it retailed for $27.50. He didn’t like the basic mechanics of the instrument but his biggest complaint was the sound. I was too young to understand exactly what he was talking about because in his hands I thought it sounded great. Luckily for me he was a very patient and kind man because he spent a lot of time with me trying to point out the certain sounds he did not like when he played certain combinations of buttons . His biggest complaint was the
top button on the left side that played the
accompaniment. According to him there was something “sour” in the sound. I couldn't hear what he was hearing, but I didn't forget it .He was my hero and I would've believed anything he said. And I did.
Years pass and finally, after I have been playing and listening a lot, I begin to hear what Hiram heard . But what causes it and what would I have to do to change it into something that sounds different?? Finally, one day I felt brave enough to go forth into uncharted territory. I removed the left side [I chose this side because this was the side that Hiram disliked the most] from the bellows to look inside to see just exactly what I was up against. I saw three reeds side-by-side that had deep, scratch marks in various places. Dennis McGee, also, a tenant farming for my grandfather in the 40’s & 50s, used to tell me stories about taking Amedee Ardoin to meet someone in Cecilia, Louisiana that did minor accordion tuning and repair. He would describe how the repair person would file on some of the reeds in different places to change their sound. Maybe I could try that on one of the three reeds but which one and where should I scratch to change it ?? If whatever I did would happen to make it sound worse, how would I remember the pitch and how could I correct it to what it was before messing with it?? I would need to have an identical set of these three reeds as a references so that I could, in the very likely event that the sound would be worst, I would have a reference to what it was like before my experiment. Luckily I had another older accordion with the same tonality so I decided to use it as my
reference. Filing on the first reed only made the sound worse regardless of where I filed. So with enough trial and error, I re tuned the reed to what it was before by comparing it to my standard . The second reed was as unrewarding as the first,. However as I first began filing on the tip of third reed , the problem suddenly became much worst than before so I rationalized that perhaps lowering the pitch might be the answer. And it was. The minute I began filing to lower the pitch of this reed , the sound of all three reeds together began to take on a certain sweetness that seemed very pleasant to my ear. I had unawarely discovered the Pythagorean just tempered scale that, whenever the third of a major triad is flatted by a certain amount of “cents” [ cents being the unit of measurement between notes] there are no longer any beats between the 1,3,& 5 notes of the diatonic scale . And it had only taken me 2500 years ! Man is definitely not created equal. I kept filing away on this reed until pretty soon I reached a point when it began to go sour again. Apparently, there was a limit to how much you could lower that particular reed until it caused a new problem. Now the question was , will this re-tuned group of three reeds still correspond as an accompaniment to the right side when I play a melody? Will it sound better or worse? Imagine my delight when I reassembled everything, played a melody, and discovered that now my left side accompaniment sounded better than anything I was doing on the right hand side. Wow! More tinkering and more playing= more discoveries!
Was it possible to transfer what I had accomplished on the left-hand side to the right hand side?? The right hand side
was so much more complicated than only the three side- by-side reeds on the left side. With this side I was up against 4 banks of 10 each side-by-side reeds instead of only the three individuals on the left side.
My mental accordion repair/tuning manual at this point didn't contain much information. I had discovered, from tinkering with the left side, that there was only one culprit out of those three reeds that was responsible for making the sound undesirable and also I had figured out how to correct it. Undoubtably that same culprit had to be hiding somewhere amongst all those other reeds on the right hand side but where, which one??
More tinkering plus more playing = more discoveries.
By plucking a few reeds with a thin knife blade I soon discovered that the reeds from button 2,3 & 4 were all the same tones as the three I had corrected on the left side and that the remaining reeds from button 1,5,6,7,8,9, & 10 were actually all the same notes, just different octaves. Apparently there was some sort of family[triads] of three notes existing together both on the accompaniment of the left side and also the melody on the right side. Would it also work if I would lower that certain reed on the right side to the same pitch as the one I had previously lowered on the left side?? Only one way to find out -reassemble everything and play a tune. Wow! That sounds great! My mental accordion repair/tuning manual was slowly beginning to get a little thicker.
Up to this point my focus had been only on the reeds that were visible, which were also those that responded when
air was forced through them by the bellows. To focus on the draw reeds, the ones that were on the flip side and not visible unless they were physically removed, was like entering deep water and not being able to swim.
More tinkering, more playing, and now a little bit more information about everything= quite a few breakthroughs. I eventually noticed that the draw side of the three accompaniment reeds on the left side were , like the push side had been before I corrected it, also very sour and unpleasant sounding so why not apply the same procedure to the one causing the problem?? These three reeds were hiding on the button, 1,2,& 3 on the draw . By flattening the pitch of number 2 on the draw, and its octaves, I now had a seven note diatonic scale without the unpleasant beats known as a just tempered scale.
Eventually I would learn that there were three triads in one major scale instead of only the two I had located .The third triad had eluded me because two of the notes were on the draw side, and the other was on the push side. Actually at the time I think it was best not to know about this third triad, because knowing about it, without more pages of info in my mental accordion repair/tuning manual, would only have complicated things. For future discussions, I'll refer to this as the” obnoxious” triad.
Let's now tune a Cajun accordion in C tonality containing a brand new set of equal tempered reeds from the factory. Pythagoras tells us that this 7 note major scale has three triads C ,G ,& F each consisting of the 1+3+5 of their respective scales; C triad c +e +g , G triad g+b+d ,F triad f+a+c. We have learned from playing the instrument that
if we flatten the thirds of the first two triads e & b by 15 cents we have a more pleasing and sweeter sounding accordion. How is it possible that we can play in tune with other instruments with these flatted notes which are actually untuned?? The answer is we can do so very well but 0nly as long as the third we flatted does not become a fifth of another scale or ,worst yet, if it becomes the 1
st[ root] of another scale
Example : our “ obnoxious” F triad f+a+c. What happens here is if we would flatten the third [a ] as we did the 3rd’s in the G&C triad by 15 cents, it becomes the 5th of the D triad making it out of tune with the other instruments when we play a song in the key of G that has an accompanying D chord. The options here are either to leave it equal tempered, tolerate the beats, and play in tune, or raise the root[the 1] by 15 cents, not have any beats to be bothered with but play out of tune. Most players opt for the former alternative especially since F is also an accompanying chords in the key of C.
As mentioned earlier, most diatonic accordions [also known as Melodeons ] have slightly different tunings, depending on the folks that are using them. Melodeon players in Ireland and Scotland prefer an equal tempered arrangement of these 7 tones especially since much of their repertoire includes melodies in Am, the relative, minor of a Melodeon in C tonality. This isn't an issue for Cajun players since the cajun fiddler’s repertoire of minor mode tunes, once very popular, have been all but dropped from the accordion’s repertoire to the point that one of the few remaining songs played in a minor mode would be the
Mardi Gras March. Besides the above preference required by the Irish and Scottish, they also prefer a certain sound referred to as “wet”. This is achieved when one of the middle octave reeds is raised in pitch above the other reed so that when played together, they create a pleasing tremolo, pulsating sound. Normally, the most pleasing effect is produced when the two vibrating tones aren’t more than 15c apart but I have seen instances where the client wanted them 25c at variance. Which is the best choice?? The one that the client prefers is always the best!!
The French Canadian Melodeon players of Quebec are another group of musicians that, like the Irish and Scottish, also require an equal tempered scale with tremolo, however, because their main accompanying instrument is the piano, not an instrument that is readily tuned above or below pitch like a fiddle or guitar, a slight modification can correct the problem. Using only one reed to achieve this tremolo has a tendency to raise the entire pitch of the accordion ever so slightly, but enough to make the accordion sharp as compared to the piano. This undesirable problem can be solved by dividing whatever variance is being used by 2 and applying 1/2 of that amount above pitch to one reed, and the other half to the other reed below pitch. The two reeds are now 15 cents apart producing the desired amount of tremolo, and the piano remains at 440. None of the above are of any concerns to most Cajun players because from day one, their attempts were to remove beats between notes -not add them!! This method of tuning without beats between notes is called “dry”. Today anyone with a $25 chromatic
tuner can do a good job tuning just about any musical instrument found in the Western world. However, regardless of what instrument is being tuned, most technicians will use their tuning equipment only up to a certain point that will establish the scale regardless if it is 12 tones or 7 notes. From then on some technicians will take it a step further and, using their ear, listen to each overall tone, whether it's from 4 strings, or from 4 reeds all sounding in unison, to judge how good it sounds. The electronics can certainly identify whether the note is above or below pitch, but it cannot measure how much that sound pleases your ear. After the electronics are put away, these technicians will begin tweaking these notes in such a way that they take on a slightly different personality in the sense that they seem to come alive. This final part of the tuning process is very personalized since everyone hears notes a little differently and also have their own preferred taste. The parallel would be the way people season their food. Everyone does it to please their own taste buds.
To be continued. Chapter 2 will talk about taking any audible note in your mind and how most people can divide that one note into seven parts to create a seven note major scale without using any electronic device or reference.