[Harp-L] Spiral tuning - The LONG Answer
John Dekker asked:
Could some please tell me what "spiral tuning" means. Thanks.
I first saw "Spiral Tuning" described in Steve Baker's excellent
book, Harp Handbook (which is highly recommended, if you don't
have it already). It is also called "Circular Tuning" by Seydel.
To create it, simply pick a specific diatonic major scale as the
reference scale. Pick a particular note within that scale as the
beginning note for hole 1 blow. (Seydel picks the 5th scale degree
of the reference scale for hole 1 blow.) Using every note in the
diatonic scale, place the notes in succession from blow to draw,
move up 1 hole, place the next notes blow then draw, going all
the way up the harp until you run out of holes. (You won't run
out of notes.)
Here's an example of the Seydel "G" Circular Tuning (which is the
lowest regular [not LOW] key made by Seydel). The underlying
reference key is "C" major. All that means is that the notes which
are used are taken from the "C" major scale: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. The
5th scale degree is "G", so that is the note in hole 1 blow. All
the rest of the "C" major scale notes are used in sequence.
If you start at hole one blow with a line and simply connect the
ascending notes of the reference diatonic scale as you go up the
harp, you will see that the visual image is one of a "spiral" going
up the harp. That is the reason for the "spiral" or "circular" name.
There are some distinct advantages to this alternate tuning.
(1) There are NO missing notes in the two complete octaves of the
underlying reference scale that are available (hole 2 draw to
hole 9 draw). This means that the intonation on all notes in the
scale are the SAME, not different based on the bending technique
used [regular bending or overblowing]. Unlike the great Howard Levy,
I don't have 10 years to spend figuring out how to play all 12 keys
on a single diatonic harp AND to make it sound better than a
(2) Harmonized chords (3 notes) from the underlying scale are
available on every note of those two octaves except for on hole
9 draw and (obviously) hole 10.
(3) All of the notes of the 7 modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian,
Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian) are available. This broadens the
spectrum of music that can be played with the same intonation.
(4) The breath direction change occurs on the octave, in the same
place MUSICALLY every octave, in every mode.
(5) "Blue" notes (b3, b5, b7) are available as draw bends in the first
octave. So, if you're trying for a microtonal approach to blue
notes, you can do it. The bends are half-tone draw bends only. There
is no difference in getting various bends to sound; the mechanism
is the same for all bends. There are no blow bends at all.
(6) Overblowing to achieve full chromaticity is possible. Half-valving
is another possibility for achieving chromaticity. The missing
chromatic notes occur when there is a whole tone difference between
a given draw note and the next hole's blow note. Figure it out yourself.
(1) The breath direction change occurs on the octave, every octave.
Why list this as an advantage AND disadvantage? To ME, it is no more
of a problem than the switch in breath direction at hole 7 on a
standard Richter tuned harp. The breath direction change is an artifact
of the design, and not an attempt to keep a particular chord on all the
blow notes. It is no harder to get used to than the corresponding
breath change at hole 7.
(2) You CANNOT play octave splits (unless you can blow and draw at
the same time; good luck with THAT!).
That is compensated for by having full chords (not dyads) on every
scale degree. The octave split can produce a fuller sound than a
single note, but it is not a completely satisfactory substitute for
a missing chord when used for THAT purpose.
(3) If tuned to Equal Temperament, the chords can sound somewhat harsh.
This can be mitigated by a compromise tuning (which is the default tuning
used by Seydel).
(4) All available bends are half-step draw bends (excluding overblows).
Consequently, it's not possible to get those gut-wrenching slides up
and down to the same depth as on a standard Richter tuned harp. What
is gained in ease of bending loses a little in translation to traditional
blues harp playing.
At one time, this tuning was only available as a "do-it-yourself" project
or from a customizer. Seydel now provides this as a stock commercial
tuning, available on any of their models through the Harp Configurator.
I usually play Seydel Blues Sessions, but am looking very strongly at the
newly available Session Steel (with stainless steel reeds). I also have
a Seydel Deluxe Chromatic that is Circular Tuned. Seydel built it for me
at my request before the Harp Configurator was online. Seydel makes great
harps, and they are one of the most responsive companies to the requests
of harp players. Some players (myself included) have retuned Lee Oskar
harps into Circular Tuning. I do it by replacing reeds; others do it by
using a combination of filing, solder or Blu-Tack putty. The easiest way
(and least expensive, if you value your time) is just to buy them from
Seydel. And, for the record, I am NOT a Seydel endorsee and have no
financial ties to Seydel (except for sending them money when I want
All-in-all, I'm glad I was one of the "early adopters" of Circular Tuning.
I think it is a much more logical layout than Richter for the music that
I play. It makes it easier for me to think about the music as I play and
avoid thinking about HOW to play it on a somewhat limited instrument which
has missing notes in 2 of the 3-octave range.
Hope that helps you decide to try Spiral (Circular) Tuning!
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