I am learning a bit of Greek folk music on the mandolin for an upcoming duet – don’t set your expectations too high! The nature of the music complicates my usual process which is – listen to the tune a few times and start picking it out. No matter how many times I listened to the tune, my ear could not translate it for my fingers. I acquired a copy of the printed music which included the mandolin intro. I read music the same way a turtle covers ground – very slowly. But slow is ok when you’re working with pen and paper – converting the classical notes to mandolin tablature* - one note at a time. Once converted to tablature I can do a passable job of playing from paper until my fingers learn what they’re doing.
But – what’s the deal? If you can hear one tune with your ears and find it with your fingers – why should another tune be different. The notes are the same. Right? The answer is that the intervals (the spaces between the notes) are different. Backing up a step – the mandolin is fairly easy to get along with because it’s tuned in even fifths -G D A E. If you are not a musician, shorten the alphabet to 7 letters – A B C D E F G repeating in endless succession. When you pass G you end up at A again and so on. Touch your thumb and say ‘G’ then keep counting off letters till you touch your pinkie. You should be on ‘D’ – the same will happen for D-A and A-E. The notes the mandolin strings are tuned to are separated by even fifths. This means, among other things, that every major scale on the mandolin is, in terms of finger placement, the same. It shortens the learning curve a lot compared to say, the guitar. And, being an American Heartlander, I’m pretty used to hearing music that proceeds in even thirds and fifths. It’s what we do! It’s almost fair to say that, like the mandolin, I have been tuned that way.
Greek music is based on intervals of even fourths. The ancient Greeks heard in fourths and tuned their original stringed instruments to even fourths (the modern mandolin has undergone some evolution). To make a long story short - I can’t hear the Greek music right and my fingers are frustrated, being forced to deviate from familiar patterns.
It makes me think – What was wrong with those ancient Greeks! Well, no, it makes me think that being ‘tuned’ to the world makes it very difficult to hear properly what I shall call – The Music of God. But we can be realigned. Personally, I find The Music of the World more discordant and unpleasing all the time.**
*Tablature is a form of written music designed for string instruments. For mandolin the musical staff has only four lines – one for each string. (Guitar Tablature has six lines) instead of notes you write numbers on the lines. The numbers represent the frets on the mandolin neck. A ‘5’ on the first line means the note produced by pressing the first string at the fifth fret, etc.
**I’m being metaphorical here. This is not a diatribe against any musical genre – though I never did catch the disco vibe!
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church