Technical Library

TUNING XI: Tuning the Triple-fretted Clavichord

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Tuning the Triple-fretted Clavichord…

The Zuckermann so-called “King of Sweden” clavichord was a very popular model, with probably over a thousand built by makers in many countries around the world. It had a 45-note C/E–c''' keyboard with short octave in the bass—the low E, F and G sounding a third lower, C, D & E, and the first chromatic note B. The original design was Triple-fretted with twenty pairs of strings, and intended to be tuned at A493, a tone above modern A440 pitch. 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.

(A Double-fretted version of the “King of Sweden” was made from the mid-1980s, with twenty-eight pairs of strings within the same sized case, and intended to be tuned at A440. You can follow the tuning directions for Kirnberger III which I recommend for the Hubert Double-fretted clavichord on the next page, but tune to Modern rather than Baroque pitch.)

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Triple-fretted Clavichord

The key levers of the Triple-fretted 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', e' and e' and so on.

If your instrument has not been tuned in some time, it may be handy to verify that the maker did indeed set the tangents in the correct position. An electronic tuner or app which can squawk the notes is handy here. The clavichord keylevers are cranked, but the some of the tangents must be further bent at an angle so the notes sharing the same string pair are in tune. Look at each of the string pairs and their tangents in turn. Ideally, the three tangents on a string pair should be located so they are not all bent to the left or right. Looking at the d', e' and e' string pair, for example, there will need to be more distance for the diatonic semitone between the d' and e' tangents, than the chromatic semitone between e' and e'.

Make your pitch source squawk e' in Meantone at A493 and tune that pair of strings with your tuning hammer. Then squawk d' and play the note on the keyboard to confirm that it is in tune. If not, you will need to bend the tangent. To determine the correct tangent position and whether you need to bend the tangent towards the bass or treble, tap the string pair very lightly with the end of your tuning hammer, moving along the string pair until you think you have found the correct position. Bend the tangent to strike at that point, and confirm with your squawk. Attend to the e' likewise. Then check the middle octave of the instrument, making any necessary adjustments. To complete the treble and bass, you can check in octaves from that middle octave.

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 made 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), a simple electronic tuner, or an app.

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 Zuckermann 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 b.) You can check your a also makes a pure third with c'.

5. Determine your e 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 B 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 e (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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