Technical Library

TUNING XI: Tuning the Triple-fretted Clavichord

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Tuning the Triple-fretted Clavichord…

The Zuckermann Triple-fretted “King of Sweden” clavichord was a very popular model, with probably over a thousand built by makers in many countries around the world. So many of these instruments have now changed hands, that I’ve been wanting for a while to write some instructions for the new owners, to help them with the very occasional tuning such a stable instrument demands.

Triple-fretted Clavichord 14K jpeg

Triple-fretted Clavichord

The key levers of the instrument design were cranked with Quarter-comma Meantone in mind, and the temperament set by the initial maker locating and then bending the tangents to strike the strings at the correct point.

The great advantage of triple-fretting you’ll discover, if you haven’t done so already, is that for most of the instrument, you only need to tune four notes per octave—all the others will come into tune as a result. For example, all three notes b, c' and c#' come from the same pair of strings, as do d', d#' and e' and so on.

To help you navigate your way around the tuning pins, some like to color the top of all the Cs with a black permanent ink felt marker. You’ll need your tuning hammer—we make a specially elegant one, complete with stringing hook—and a tuning mute so you can silence one string of each pair to avoid confusing your ears. To ensure you return your instrument to the same basic pitch, you’ll also need a pitch source like a tuning fork (I suggest A440 for the tuning method below) or a simple electronic tuner.

Using the mute requires a little intelligence: Play the note with your left hand, and slide the mute in directly behind the tangent. Now continue from that point, tracing towards the bridge, and leave the mute close to the bridge, allowing its thin tail to rest on the soundboard. The furthest string of the pair is now damped, and you are ready to tune the string closest to you. When you are happy with that, you pull the mute out and bring the unison into tune, adjusting the tension of the string of the pair that is furthest from you.

You can find a full discussion of both Tuning Background and Historic Temperaments in the Technical Library. Here, I’ve revized the tuning directions to take account of your specific instrument, assuming that your instrument is in good condition and the maker has adequately setup the temperament when he built the clavichord.

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“Meantone” is too often misused for any other sort of tuning than equal temperament. But here are simple directions for setting Quarter-comma Meantone as proposed by Pietro Aron in 1523, on your triple-fretted clavichord:

1. Tune g' to your A440 fork. That’s your g' above middle c', and if it seems nonsense that I’m telling you to use an A440 fork for that note, remember that your clavichord is scaled for A492, a tone above modern pitch.

2. If you do most of your tempering in the octave below middle c', you may find it a little easier to hear, so tune a perfect octave down to g. (By virtue of your triple-fretting, f and f# are in tune without you doing anything.)

3. Tune up a pure third from g to b. Remember the beauty of the absolutely pure major thirds in this temperament, all of them shown in the diagram by those straight lines. (This step also magically brings your middle c' and c#' into tune.)

4. Determine your a by tuning a perfect third up from f. (This will provide g# and bb.) You can check your a also makes a pure third with c#'.

5. Determine your eb by tuning a perfect third down from g. (This will provide d, a perfect third down from f# as well as e, a perfect third down from g#.)

6. Most of your work is already done—now you really just have to extend your temperament throughout the instrument by tuning in octaves, checking the pure major thirds as you go. Let’s do the bass first. Tune your c an obvious perfect octave below middle c', checking that it makes a perfect third with e. (This also looks after c#.)

7. Tune Bb from the octave above, checking that it makes a pure major third with d. Again by virtue of the triple-fretting, your B is tuned, but you can’t use the third above to check, because as the diagram shows, it is an eb (diminished fourth), not a d# (major third)!

8. Now you are in the unfretted range of the compass, where each note must be individually tuned from its octave above. Don’t forget your short octave bass—The keys that appear to be E, F# and G# each sound the third lower: C, D and E. These notes are strung heavier than the surrounding ones that sound their “real”, apparent pitch.

9. Complete your remaining two treble octaves by tuning each of the Ds, Gs and As in octaves, again checking for your pure thirds in the relevant keys.


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