Guitar – my left arm is tired, I’ll try string skipping

I’m in the early stages of another attempt to learn to actually play the guitar, which started little more than a week ago. I own two guitars that have been around for years, sadly reminding me that they’d rather be played than gather dust.

I’m presented with the same difficulties as the last time – my muscles don’t want to co-operate and my left arm doesn’t want to stay up, and this is in addition to my left hand aching and my index finger burning from contact with metal wires.

I want to carry on but my body is saying “No!”. At least my right arm is ok so what can I do with that?

I’ve been working on the main riff from Black Dog on Led Zeppelin IV. I’m late to the appreciation of Led, and I really like this riff, so it’s an incentive to work on it. The difficulty is that you have to skip over strings to play the minor 6th – string 5 to 3 and 6 to 4.

With this in mind I started practicing string skipping on open strings to give my arm a break: 6-4, 5-3, 4-2, 3-1. This pattern on even beats at around 140bpm using a metronome. It’s easier to think about hitting metronome clicks on every pluck for me. The same pattern could be reversed and mixed up.

What I’ve found with string skipping lessons is that the emphasis is on what the exercise is rather than what you do to skip a string. The obvious problem with skipping is that you hit the in-between string, and what your picking hand needs to do is gracefully hop over that string reliably.

So I watched my right hand to see what happens when I ask it to skip strings. You can make two separate pick movements, which is fine when you play slowly, but I see this won’t work very well speeding up. I think I need my pick to glide over in one motion without a slight “reset” before picking the next string. It looks like my pick is floating at a constant speed, “dipping in” to hit the strings on the way.

I thought it was worth noting this for later, as I have a belief that when good guitar players give lessons, they can’t describe or have lost awareness of what they did to master a technique. In many cases it must be sub-concious learning because some players can’t recall specifically working on technique.

iTunes volume adjustment stuck!

If you have playlists with variable musical genres, the volume adjustment option in iTunes is essential if you don’t want to be constantly fiddling with volume controls. Once you’ve set up the adjustment it’s possible to mix classical, ambient, IDM and progressive metal (if you happen to have my taste) so they transition doesn’t sound too jarring.

Unfortunately when trying to get a playlist to work properly, I discovered that iTunes couldn’t save any changes to certain files. I changed the volume, and iTunes reduced it while the file played, but going back in to “Get Info” showed the previous volume adjustment.

It's stuck
It’s stuck!

This was clearly unacceptable and a solution had to be found immediately…

It was suspiciously looking like a tagging problem, and I didn’t have a program that could read out all the information in a file. Fortunately I found a program called Kid3 that reads any tags in an mp3 or AAC file, even ones it couldn’t recognise.

Weird "Unknown" tag

For this particular file there was a strange “Unknown” tag here, which Kid3 can remove. The next time you load up iTunes, you’ll be able to adjust the volume successfully.

The final recipe is:

  1. Use “Open in Finder” to locate the file in your library (on Windows I believe it’s “Show in Folder” or something similar)
  2. Quit iTunes
  3. Start up Kid3 and drag the file to the main window
  4. Check for mysterious tags and remove them
  5. Start iTunes back up and verify you can adjust the volume

The benefit of this method is that you don’t have to remove files from your library and lose rating or play count data. Removing and re-adding won’t affect any odd tags in your files.

Understanding the Harmonic Series

Most approaches to music theory tend to be quite dry, at least in my experience of studying it, so it is refreshing to encounter another way of getting the hang of how music “works”. Ron Gorow’s book, Hearing and Writing Music, seems to offer a path into music for the aspiring composer that involves really getting inside the fundamental principles.

The first thing that has started to fascinate me is the harmonic series, which can easily be found on a string instrument. I happen to have an old guitar hanging about, so I had a go with that, as I’d already learned how to play harmonics. It’s a pleasant sound, but a closer look at what’s going on reveals something interesting about the structure of music.

By placing your finger lightly on the guitar string half way along, you force the string to vibrate in the second harmonic, which sounds an octave higher than the fundamental. The tone is closely related to the fundamental, and it is percieved as being the same in some way, although “higher”. Moving the finger two thirds of the way up the string produces the third harmonic, sounding a perfect fifth above the second.

The perfect fifth is generally considered the most “stable” interval, and across numerous cultures it is generally regarded as having a good sound. The Chinese tuned instruments using perfect fifths and derived their pentatonic scale in that way. The fifth seems to gravitate towards the root or fundamental tone, relating to the concept of “resolution” in theory. What sounds “final” to the ear has a strong relation to the properties of harmonics.

The fourth harmonic completes the second octave with a perfect fourth. The fourth isn’t as stable as the fifth, and feels like it wants to go “up” to the root note. It is said to have an ambiguous quality, or indeterminate state, but I feel that the ascending fourth has a slightly more satisfying resolution.

In the equal tempered system, that enables compositions to use any of the keys, the fifth and the fourth are the only natural intervals, maintaining the tone of their pure harmonics. The other intervals are progressively detuned to produce accurate fourths and fifths up and down the scale.

The natural thirds emerge from the 5th and 6th harmonics, a major third and a minor third. These fit into the space of a perfect fifth, and in fact form a major triad. At this point we have the main foundations of diatonic music, and the familiar 12-semitone scale.

When you think about music in such fundamental terms, it really aids understanding, and it is easier to get the hang of older musical conventions, such as the modes used in plainchant of the middle ages. Modes seem to make much more sense when you consider this predated the equal-temperament system, and tuning was only done to one key. The modes allowed a variation in mood without the diatonic system of major and minor keys, because if you tried to do that with an instrument tuned to natural intervals the result would sound wrong. The rules of modes are designed so the composer of melodies can achieve the desired feel of a piece.

I may say “designed” but my thinking is more towards the idea of discovery. Before the idea of equal temperament, musicians were familiar with the process of tuning with perfect fifths (platonic tuning) and using the ear as a guide rather than mathematics. What we now call the major scale could be formed from that, but there would usually just be the one scale used at any one time, tuned to whatever sounded best. Modes were probably discovered as musicians studied the sounds of the intervals produced in the scale, noticing that a different “colour” emerged if the scale was played from a certain tone.

Modes can be emulated easily by making use of only the white notes on a keyboard. The basic “major” mode on C is essentially a major scale, but starting on E instead results in a minor third emerging, giving the sound of a minor key, although it is not quite the same. Because the mood can only be maintained by staying with the note order, composing with modes leads to a kind of static quality in music. Before the advent of equal temperament, most music would tend to be like this, and mostly melodic as harmony is fairly “limited”, or minimal to give that kind of music its due.

This is pretty much what you might learn in music theory books, but what Gorow suggests is to spend time familiarising yourself with the sound of each interval so you can identify it instantly and “feel” what a fifth or fourth is before considering symbols on a stave. Music theory tends to start with a discussion of notes rather than what they are supposed to represent. The phenomenon of a fifth is the same no matter where it appears in the audible frequency spectrum, and has no fundamental relationship with standardised tuning (i.e the A above middle C being set at 440Hz).

Ultimately, perception of intervals is the key to perceiving melody and harmony, and intimate knowledge of each interval is essential for the composer. Talented individuals may get there faster without necessarily being concious of the fact, but systematic study is just as valid.