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by Mark D. Poss (Partner - Mouth Music)
I am often asked "what's the difference between tuned and untuned trumps?"
The easy answer is that an untuned instrument is one that has a fundamental pitch that is not a specific key of the western scale. (ie. A, C or F#...) It is what it is at the time of being made, either due to the nature of the instrument, or the time-consuming process of tuning has not been done.
While mouth and throat shape will alter the pitch of a trump to a degree, the fundamental pitch is the most prevalent and most important. If you are playing with other folks in a specific key it is best to be in the same key, or a complementary key such as a third or fifth apart if appropriate.
Some instruments, like bamboo or brass idioglots (one piece), by nature, are not easily, or even possibly, tuned. Idioglots consist of a reed (or reeds), cut into a frame, which are part of the whole. The material, cuts, length and shape of reed(s), and fulcrum point all contribute to the pitch, but precise tuning is not usually accomplished. (Kubings, Dan Moi, and Kou Xiang (Hohos) are all examples of idioglots.)
The skill of the makers and experience at making specific trumps, makes the difference. For instance the Lee Hmong Harps are usually around a 'C' because of Master Lee’s long-time experience, following the same dimension with the same materials and tools produces a consistent product. The bass Dan Moi, made primarily from the same material to roughly the same dimensions, but by different makers (even within the same group), results in tuning that is a bell curve around a 'D#' (+/- a full step or two). Bamboo trumps will vary greatly.
In the case of steel, or other traditionally shaped trumps (including the Potkin Altai – brass frame & steel reed) "non-tuning" may be the result of choice, or the manufacturing process. It is not unusual for a makers, building many trumps of the same style, to produce many hundreds at one time. They will cut and bend the frames; cut and fashion the reeds; apply the reeds to the frames. then sort through the resulting instruments for ones that "naturally" fall at a specific pitch and mark them as such. The ones that do not "make the grade" must go through the laborious process of tuning (usually adding weight to the trigger, and/or reshaping the reed). Trumps that do not go through this time-consuming process are sold as "untuned." After all is said and done, play-ablilty is checked, and final adjustments are made.
Many of the strictly machine-made instruments you may find in the $5 bins at
your local music store have had little human attention. Therefore these are
untuned and the tolerances between reed and frame have not been tweaked to
anything near excellence.
It is also worth noting that in many parts of the world "tuning" to the Western scale is not critical (Bali gamalong for instance) and some makers or instruments simply do not require tuning. Some trumps are forged by methods and/or in places, where exact tuning simply is not feasible.
I hope we’ve answered most of the questions concerning this issue. As always feel free to contact Mouth Music (use our feedback form) if you need any more information.
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Last modified: July 2013 - Copyright 2013 - Mouth Music