|Normal Tuning of the Zither|
|Logic for using the circle of fifths|
|Putting things together|
The tuning system of the Zither evolved over time. Earlier systems, ca. 1850 (cf. Brandlmeier), set the accompaniment strings (Freisaiten) according to a chromatic sequence. The tuning of the fingerboard (Griffbrett) strings went through a number of evolutions associated with "schools" of performance. Historical tuning systems will be covered in another article. For now, this article focuses on the most common tuning system in use today.
There is in fact a musically sound logic behind the tuning of the Zither. In German one would say the pitches are arranged on a "Quart-Quint" basis, that is fourths/fifths. This is none other than the familiar circle of fiths.
FIrst let's look at the arrangement of the fingerboard (Griffbrett) strings. See also the diagram showing the layout of the Zither.
The fingerboard strings are tuned exactly like the cello, with the exception that the a' string is duplicated. The strings are typically numbered starting from the string closest to the player.
Like the guitar, the frets of the Zither fingerboard are spaced semitones apart.
Mother-of-pearl (or other material) inlays next to frets 5, 9, 12, 15 17, 21, and 24 provide visual references that ease finding notes on the fingerboard. The markers at frets 12 and 24 denote the first and second octaves.
The overlaps in scales between strings give the player options to play the same pitch. For instance, c" can be played on frets:
- 3 of the a' string
- 10 of the d' string
- 17 of the g string
- 24 of the c string
Note that some composers take advantage of the timbre nuances for the same pitch played on different fingerboard strings as well as the accompaniment strings. The player can lay down a "sonic carpet" (Klangteppich) where repeated notes are played on different strings. For instance, Isolde Jordan incorporates this kind of technique in her pieces called Mikroludium (e.g., numbers 1 and 10). Peter Kiesewetter frequently uses the sonic carpet technique in his works for the Zither. A great example can be found in his "GIL" works (GIL is Hebrew for Peace) -- number 23 "Am Gitter". Through most of the piece Kiesewetter creates a sonic carpet on a unison, by rhythmically alternating between open d' on the fingerboard and the d' (6th of the accompaniment strings). The effect is one of a shimmering substrate of sound. Kiesewetter's titles provide clues as to the images a piece evokes. "Am Gitter," literally means "on a lattice," and can also mean "trellis." He creates variety through rhythmic variations, dynamics, and tone clusters that punctuate various measures. Perhaps the tone clusters can be viewed as flowers that bloom on a vine crawling up a trellis.
The player can also create the effect of an echo by repeating a sequence of notes in a different position.
Accompaniment strings (Freisaiten)
Every fourth string, or more precisely, every F, A, and C# string, is colored red to aid locating pitches among the accompaniment strings. Red balls denote these positions in the diagram above.
Logic for using the circle of fifths
Though at first it might seem awkward, at least visually, to order the pitches according to the circle of fifths, the arrangement is in fact very practical. Each Zither design reflects balances and trade-offs between constraints, tradition, and acoustical ideals. The most significant and almost immutable constraint is the span of the average right hand, between the right thumb, which has to pluck the highest pitches on the fingerboard strings, to the deepest bass strings the ring or little finger can reach.
At the core of most tonal music is the tension and resolution of the dominant to tonic sequence. The bass notes usually move down a fifth or up a fourth to the tonic. In G-Major it is quite handy that the dominant bass note d (18) is right next to the tonic G (17). The subdominant, or c (16) in the G-Major example, is again next door to the G. So it is very easy to play a I-IV-V-I sequence in the bass. If the strings were arranged chromatically, the player would have to jump all over the accompaniment strings to achieve the same end.
The circle of fifths arrangement also makes chording in the accompaniment strings within easy grasp of the right hand. Anyone who has played the Zither will know that moving between chords is as simple as shifting the fingers in parallel from plucking one set of strings to the adjacent strings. For example, the G Major chord is played by plucking string 5&6 with the forefinger (2), the 9 string with the middle finger (3), and the 17 string with the ring or little finger (4 or 5). (Fingers are numbered 1 through 5 starting with the thumb.) Move each finger one string to the left and the player is prepared to play the C Major chord; move each finger two strings to the right for a D Major chord. For one who has not played the Zither before it might be a little difficult to visualize from diagrams. Once you get a chance to "feel" the chords on a Zither you will quickly understand how simple the circle of fifths logic is. If you do not have a Zither at hand, please refer to these diagrams to get a sense of the logic.
Putting things together
With this basic knowledge of the normal tuning system it is possible to make satisfactory arrangements of music. Simple accompaniment patterns are appropriate for folk and pop music, whether American or German.
With basic knowledge of the circle of fifths layout of the Zither strings it is possible to play a lot of familiar music. Once learned, the cliché "oom-pah-pah" or "oom-pah-oom-pah" pattern in the accompaniment makes a lot of folk and pop music accessible.
The circle of fifths arrangement of the strings, especially in the accompaniment strings, simplifies chording and keeps chord clusters within the span of the hand. Chording on the fingerboard is also common.
As one practices, the arrangement of the notes becomes more familiar. Transitioning to polyphonic and contrapuntal styles of playing comes naturally.