Tuning The Oud and Keeping It In Tune (Part 1)

12:46 pm Music, Oud

Like any other acoustic instrument, the oud needs to be in tune at all times during performance or practice. The question is how best to tune it.

If you are looking for the best tuning to use, refer to this essay which compares different tunings. You can choose the one that suits your needs best. This post applies to all tunings.

How to tune the oud, comparison between different methods

Whatever tuning you wish to use, you need a method for getting the oud in tune in that tuning. Several methods are in practice:

1- Using an electronic tuner which “listens” to your pitch and gives feedback (usually in the form of needle movements, and or light display which changes color or settles on zero when your instrument is in tune).

This method has its following for a good reason: it is easy for beginning students as it is less taxing on the ear, and it produces reliable consistent results.

It does suffer from a few drawbacks, however. The first one is that electronic tuners are tuned in equal temperament. Remember that Arabic music doesn’t follow equal temperament. So a oud tuned to a tuner will be close but not exactly in tune with itself within the Arabic tone system.

Another drawback is that there is little benefit to the ear when you rely on a tuner. While using a tuner to tune is still better than playing an out of tune instrument, it is your ear that has to hear, whether during performance or practicing, that the oud has gone out of tune. It is therefore very important to “strengthen” your ear. See: “advice for improving the ear in part 3 of the post” (coming Wednesday Feb 6th, 2008 to a browser near you).

Another drawback is that the microphone picks up your instrument as well as anything else that’s going on around you. This makes it less usable in noisy situations such as in a large ensemble.

To those drawbacks you can add the non-musical, obvious, ones of reliance on batteries, tuners falling and breaking, losing the tuner etc..

2- Taking pitches from another instrument. This could be piano, qanun, electronic keyboard, or tuner, to name a few. The oud player hears the pitch and tunes her oud strings to the pitches she is hearing. This approach has the benefits of speed, being in tune with, at least, one more instrument (in the case of ensemble performance), and it actively uses the ear.

This approach suffers from several drawbacks. For one thing, if you are taking the pitches from a piano or electronic keyboard, remember these are tuned in equal temperament which is problematic as mentioned above. The other instrument (qanun, piano) can itself be out of tune. Finally, you are not relying on your ears to hear relationships between the strings. You are relying on it for pitch comparison (to make sure that your string is in tune with the pitch you are receiving) but that is, unfortunately, a different skill.

3- Tuning by ear. The “purist” way. Done well, this approach produces a perfectly in tune instrument. Using it hones the ear, which means you will be able to hear when the oud goes out of tune and fix it. Also, after a while this becomes the fastest method because your ears will hear exactly which strings are out of tune and you won’t need to check all the strings every time you feel something “funny” going on. It will also be faster to correct it without having to wait for a dial to stabilize, or for everything to be quiet so that the tuner will pickup only your oud.

So what is the catch here? This approach takes the longest to perfect. However, it is not extremely difficult. Here’s a fairly detailed guide to doing that.

Tuning by ear, how to

Remember that you are tuning courses (sets of unison strings) that have a fourth, fifth, or octave relation with at least one other course on the oud.

1- Choose one course as reference. D is a good candidate. This course tends to be more stable with temperature and humidity than the higher pitched, plastic G or C. It is also in the middle of the open string range, which means small inaccuracies in tuning tend do not go as far (as compared to starting with the C string). To tune it you can take a pitch from another instrument. You could also use A as a reference course and take the pitch from a tuning fork. The rest of the steps assume D is the reference.

2- Make sure that the pair of strings in your reference course are in unison. You can do that by playing each separately and comparing, and then playing them together and making sure you are hearing a pure pitch that sounds like one string sound.

3- Tune the G, one string at a time. Play the D, then about a second later play one of the G strings. Listen for resonance. Resonance begins around 25 cents from well tuned fifths (or fourths), but is at its cleanest when perfectly in tune. At first, you need to tune up and down around the accurate pitch and listen to the resonance until it sounds cleanest, most hollow, most steady in timbre (without beating, also known as knots by western string players). Tune the other G string in the course to the now in tune, first G string.

4- Now use the G course as reference and repeat step three to tune the C string.

5- Use the D string as reference and tune the A string similar to step 3.

6- If you’re using F for the fifth course, you can use the relationship between it and the now in-tune C string. It is a perfect 12th which is as easy to hear as a perfect fifth. Tune the F string relying on the C as reference per step 3 and you’re almost done

7- Tune the Bass C string to the F string, or to the 2 octave higher C string or to the perfect 12th higher G string, whatever you hear best. (or, better still, use all three as reference), per step 3.

Notice that step three, the one about hearing the perfect fourth (or fifth) relationship, is the most important step to perfect. Take as much time to complete it as necessary to get a perfectly in-tune pair. Take as much time as you need to do that, and remember, it gets faster. Furthermore, as your ears are refined by this approach it becomes easier to pick up an out of tune string (as well as general intonation issues) while you’re playing: You hear it sooner and know how to correct it.

4 Responses
  1. sami :

    Date: May 28, 2008 @ 10:49 am

    Cool series of blogs.

    I have started learning 3oud in January, and since I dont have a teacher or a background in music have faced some fun challenges.

    Until I read you post above I tuned my 3oud using an electronic tuner to E,A,D,G,C.

    I would like to tune by ear, but I have no reference… So I was wondering if you could elaborate on step 3… specifically what do you mean by “resonance”, “25 cents”, “fifths” :)

    Feel free to say its hard to describe sounds using words, go get a teacher, or ask again after a year of practising :)

  2. Saed :

    Date: May 28, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

    Well, four months is a bit short to be able to tune accurately by ear. And if it is at all possible, you should consider studying with a oud teacher.
    However, I am preparing (with the help of a few of my students) an interactive oud tuning page that helps people tune quickly and learn to tune better. I will post an announcement on the blog when that’s ready.

  3. hafithe :

    Date: February 19, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

    hi, i just got a bahraini oud last night and i have absoloutely no background in music or reading notes, tuning or the strumming and i need help online do you have any recomendations??

  4. Shaibi :

    Date: March 28, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

    Hi Hafithe,

    will I would recommend that you visit, the website lourn oud, it is a chargable website, aout $30 a month, but if you can afford it then its great, i have joined this website and learnt the oud with in six months perfect


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