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Language is simply the most important factor in human survival.  Without it our species would likely have perished long ago.  Societies can be said to advance as their language becomes more expressive, in other words, as their ability to communicate improves. With the Ukulele tribe, unfortunately, language is still at a very primitive level.  This is not the fault of the tribespeople themselves.  Powerful forces have held them back, forced them into “segregated schools”, so to speak.  As in all suppression, this sort of thing is supposedly done with the best of intent.  After all, the Ukulele tribe is a group of simple folk - to expose them to a world beyond their ability to understand would simply cause those poor pitiful souls unnecessary and undue stress. Actually, I don’t really think the music publishing industry has purposefully set out on a course to hold back the Ukulele and it’s people (at least I hope not).  The lack of expressive ability in the musical language of the ukulele is sometimes present with other instruments as well.  Any time an instrument, for example, is only tuned one way, it’s inevitable that a lot of “musical slang” will come into being.  This slang takes the form of words and expressions, that if not understood in their restricted context, turn out to be misleading at best, and often simply inaccurate. The context of the Ukulele has been to tune them all the same way.  The publishing industry will fight tooth and nail to avoid the situation they have, for example, with the violin family.  There, since every member of the family has a tuning appropriate to the size of the body, the industry is left with no recourse but to publish different books for each instrument.  Maybe they haven’t suppressed a musical vocabulary with the ukulele on purpose, but it does give rise to those feelings of paranoia when you realize how simple it is to acquire a basic language, and how much it helps your ability to speak about your instrument.  The Ukulele, after all, should have graduated tunings like the violin family.  If you can’t adequately discuss it, however, it’s likely never to come to pass (like that Tower on the left).  So take a few moments - read a single internet page, and let all the confusion and darkness fall away.    String Numbers First, we should identify the strings by their numbers.  While it seems somewhat counter intuitive, as you hold your instrument, the 1st string is on the bottom, and the numbers go up from there (see instrument drawing at right).  Using numbers for the names of your strings is obviously a much better way to communicate when you begin talking about the various possibilities for tuning.  An “A” string, for example, could be anywhere, based on what key you are tuned to. “Reentrant” & “Linear” tunings? Most stringed instruments are tuned in a “linear” form.  Linear means that the notes progress down the line in an equal regulated step-by-step fashion.  With Ukuleles and Guitars the notes can drop four notes from one string to the next.  Done in this fashion, these are called “4ths tunings” or “Tunings in 4ths”.  With other instruments like the Violin or Mandolin, the notes drop 5 notes from one string to the next - these are called “5ths Tunings”.  The Ukulele is now sometimes tuned in “Linear 4ths”.  Some ukulele players also use the term “low 4th” tuning.  That’s a much better option than the term “low G” tuning.  Again, your 4th string could be any note depending on your tuning.  Linear ukulele tuning gives an ukulele a more guitar-like sound.  It is sometimes favoured by players who like melody playing, as it gives a slightly wider range of notes. Traditional ukulele tuning is not linear, but reentrant; even more specifically “high reentrant”.  A reentrant tuning is where one of the notes “re-enters” the linear progression.  With traditional ukulele tuning this is the 4th string.  While from strings 1-3 the notes drop in 4-note intervals, the 4th string does not drop 4 notes from the 3rd string, but is an octave higher than where a linear progression would ordinarily put it.  Therefore it “re-enters” that linear progression with a higher note, and for that reason can be called a “high re-entrant tuning”.  Because, however, the 4th string is a full octave above what the pitch would be in a linear tuning, the chords are still played the same way, and it is also still refered to as a “Tuning in 4ths”.  This high re-entrant tuning gives the traditional ukulele sound, where in a strum, the first and last notes struck are the highest.  Again, the term “high 4th” would be a better option for describing Ukulele reentrant tuning than “High G”.   “High G” is descriptive only in the limited context of C tuning, and actually, “High G”, in true musical terminology, refers to something else altogether.  When we get to Pitch Notation, we’ll see why. There is also a “low” re-entrant tuning.  This is what is commonly used on the Uke’s Latin Uncle, the Cuatro Venezolano.  In this form, take any linear ukulele tuning and now drop the 1st string one octave.  It’s the 1st string that now “re-enters” the 2-3-4 progression with a “low” note, hence you now have a “low re-entrant” form.  Playing this set-up, the first and last notes in your strum are now the lowest notes, instead of the highest, as with Ukulele reentrant style (contrasting samples are on our Cuatro String Set page).  There are other forms of reentrant tuning, such as the Eddie Freeman Special, where the 2nd string of a 5ths progression re-enters an octave lower, followed by a normal 5-note interval to the 1st string, so this style of tuning can take many forms.  Now let’s look at how to write notes. Pitch Notation Standard pitch notation is one of those things that should be in every ukulele players vocabulary.  It’s been around for almost two centuries now, and is also known as Helmholtz pitch notation.  Hermann Helmholtz was a 19th century scientist who worked in a wide variety of fields besides acoustic theory.  You easily could put him up with the likes of da Vinci - in other words, a true genius.  But like any genius, he understood that the best tools are the simplest.  His pitch notation has everything going for it as a way to write notes.  It’s simple and it’s comprehensive.  That’s why it’s the “Standard”.   Even if you can’t read notes, you can use the chart below.  Middle C is written as c’.  That’s the same c’ that’s the root note of modern standard ukulele tuning.  You can go up or down the clef to find your other notes from there.  So at this point let’s see how we write out a tuning with standard notation.  Earlier, we mentioned that the string numbers seemed counter intuitive.  One reason is that we usually strum from the top down - in other words 4-3-2-1.  You use that same reverse order when writing a tuning.  Go 4- 3-2-1.  Therefore, the most popular modern tuning today would be written g’ c’ e’ a’.  That is reentrant Key of C.  Linear Key of C would be g c’ e’ a’.  You’ll find a chart on our Tunings page with a complete write-out of all the common tunings.  Now, though, let’s get the real meaning when we say tuning to the “Key of C”, or “C tuning”. The names of Keys in Tuning On our “String Sets” page we gave a shortcut to knowing the name of the key of your tuning.  In 4ths tuning, your third string is the root of your key, and also the name of the key you are tuned to.  Here we’ll give the more complete explanation.  The “key” you are tuned to more properly refers to the name of the chord that is heard when your ukulele is strummed “open” or without fretting.  The most common tuning in the U.S. in the modern era is the key of C.   The notes g’ c’ e’ a’ (reentrant), or g  c’ e’ a’ as well (linear), give a C6 chord when strummed open, or without fretting any of your strings.  The more precise name for this tuning then, is C6 tuning.   In general use, however, the “6” is dropped, and it is referred to as C tuning.  Tuning to these notes, in other words, means tuning to the key of C.  To give a second example, let’s look at another common tuning, the old “Ukulele Standard” key of D.  We’ll write three varieties.  The linear form is written a - d’ - f#’ - b’, the high reentrant form is a’ - d’ - f#’ - b’ and the low reentrant form would be a - d’ - f#’ - b.  Strumming any of these arrangements open gives a D6 chord.  Going back to the shortcut for naming chords, we see all the 3rd strings in these tunings are D strings, so in all three cases, you are tuning to the key of D.  The chord shapes will the same in all three, the chord names are all the same, and you will play them the same when it comes to chording.  The octave differences on the 1st or 4th strings will come into play only when picking.  To differentiate you call them “Linear D”, “High-Reentrant D” and “Low Reentrant D”.  If you don’t like the “High” and “Low” terminology, “Ukulele Reentrant D” and “Cuatro Reentrant D” would also work. Of course, if you’re writing the notes, you can skip the names altogether.  Especially with this last example, you should now see how much simpler it can be to write notes in standard notation.  With only “Ukulele slang” at your disposal, you would likely take a small paragraph to explain what you mean, maybe reference your explanation to something else that might be misunderstood, and generally risk not getting your idea across at all.  With standard notation, you just write 4 letters, maybe with some apostrophes thrown in, and then there’s no doubt about what you mean. .............................................................. If you have some musical training, then none of this page is likely news for you.  If this is all new to you, however, we hope to have explained everything so perfectly that it has immediately become clear and transparent.  Likely, we’re not really that good, so it may take a couple of readings for it to all make sense.  Maybe bookmarking this page for reference will be helpful.  However, nothing here qualifies as rocket science, so even with the possible shortcomings with our explanations, there’s still only a single internet page to digest.  Absorb this small amount of knowledge and you’ll have a basic standard musical vocabulary for the Ukulele. We think you’ll be surprised with what this can do for you.  In entering the world of music, you may sometimes feel like a lonely fish swimming all alone in a deep dark ocean.  There’s a natural reluctance to talk about or even try to do things when you are unsure about expressing them, either verbally or in writing.  Amazingly enough, you’ll find that being able to talk and write confidently about your instrument, in and of itself, will lead to a better understanding of it, of its potential, and what you can make of it.  It will lead to your evolution as player, and a more evolved player is a happier player as well.  Be happy!  

TERMINOLGY

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Hermann von Helmholtz
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