Here’s a fun fact to start your weekend: a three-octave, non-chromatic hammered dulcimer has 46 tuning pegs. That translates to two pegs for each of 23 double-strung courses representing a total of 35 notes. Don’t spend too much time thinking about these numbers. The math may hurt your head.

Because each string in each course is supposed to sound exactly like its partner, the act of tuning the dulcimer is a delicate dance that involves unerring ability in the pitch-matching department (NOT my strong suit), patience (REALLY not my strong suit), and endless tiny adjustments with the tuning hammer. The tuning process is further complicated by the shenanigans of the bass bridge. This bridge, which accounts for 11 of the dulcimer’s courses, generally needs to be tuned twice: once to pull it into some semblance of recognizable musicality, and once to correct the effects of the tension on the newly tuned treble bridge. By the time I tune the bass bridge, tune the treble bridge, re-tune the bass bridge, and touch up that handful of notes on the treble bridge that like to cause problems, I’ve generally tuned the equivalent of one-half of a piano. 

In short, tuning this oddball musical remnant of the Crusades is a nightmare. 

Happily, the dulcimer can more-or-less tune itself as it is played, provided that it wasn’t too radically out of tune to begin with. This being the case, I have become comfortable with a fairly high level of dulcimer dissonance, confident in the knowledge that the grating “wrongness” of tone will sort itself out as I continue to play. 

The let-the-dulcimer-tune-itself strategy works quite well when the dulcimer and I are alone. But the strategy quickly becomes a problem when I attempt to play with someone else. Musicians always seem to insist on having a well-tuned ensemble. Granted, there’s nothing at all wrong with being in tune. It’s a laudable condition for musicians who perform in public. But it’s also an arbitrary condition born of arbitrary human expectations and enforced by arbitrary human cultural norms. 

What if those arbitrary norms had never been established? Would the music bring its listeners and performers less joy? More joy? The same amount of joy? (Hint: the musical norms that govern the modern Western music to which most of us are accustomed are neither universal nor eternal.) Or what if each member of a dissonant ensemble just kept playing, confident that everything would sort itself out in the grand scheme of things? 

What if other arbitrary norms had never been established? What if there were no arbitrary norms to determine—inadvertently or perhaps with short-sighted good intentions—who gets dignified housing, who has access to clean water and nutritious food, whose story is believed, whose life is valued? What if there were no arbitrary norms to determine—inadvertently or perhaps with short-sighted good intentions—which land can be sacrificed, which resources can be depleted, which ecosystems can be destroyed? Would life bring us more joy? Less joy? The same amount of joy? 

What if we had the collective courage not to settle on arbitrary conventions at all? What if we had the courage to trust beyond our fragile human inability to see the universal and eternal picture? What if each of us just kept playing, confident that everything would sort itself out in the grand scheme of things? 

  – Lori Randall

 

Click this link to ponder a bit of imperfect music that seems to have sorted itself out in the grand scheme of things.