Scordatura, meaning “discord” in Italian, refers to retuning the standard tuning of a string instrument.
Composers sometimes use these tunings to make it easier to play in certain keys, as well as to create different open-string colors, or timbre. Some of the earliest examples of scordatura may be found in Baroque music by composers such as Thomas Baltzer and Franz Biber. Biber’s famous Mystery Sonatas (1674) uses a different violin scordatura for 14 of its 16 movements.
Typical scordatura notation practice in this piece, and in many others, is to transpose the part to make reading easier. For example, an E string tuned down to D is still written as E—but sounds a step lower.
Traditional guitar scordaturas are notated without transposition. Most guitarists are accustomed to sorting out scordatura on the fingerboard, but for a developing student they can be challenging. The two most common are:
- the drop-D tuning of ⑥ to expand the low register.
- the ③ to F♯ in arrangements of Renaissance music, which approximates the tuning of the Lute and makes the music fuller sounding and easier to play.
Open and Alternate Guitar Tunings
Folk and pop guitarists experimented with new tunings in the 20th century. These beautiful scordaturas sometimes require lowering string tension by several pitches, which works well on steel-string guitars, but not necessarily on nylon-string classicals.
- open tunings—all strings tuned to a single chord so that only a barred finger or slide is needed for some chord changes. For example: D, A, D, F♯, A, D
Composers sometimes employ complex scordaturas; but when more strings are de-tuned and melodically active, it’s harder to rethink the fingerboard. For this reason, it’s sometimes better to just transpose the parts.
An excellent example is Carlo Domeniconi’s famous Koyunbaba (open tuned to C♯ minor), offered in two staves—the player gets to choose which one to read. The top staff (REAL) is written as sounds and the bottom staff (SCORDATURA) is transposed with a Drop D tuning. For example, reading the bottom staff, the slurred D – F in the first measure actually sounds C♯ – E (as written in the upper staff).
Koyunbaba—C♯, G♯, C♯, G♯, C♯, E
“REAL” audio (top staff)
Which Notation is Best for Scordatura?
The two-staff option in Koyunbaba for either REAL or SCORDATURA notation, makes a lot of sense for players. But which notation is best?
- REAL (sounds as written) notation—If you’re already used to flexibly thinking the fingerboard with Drop D and Renaissance tunings, and you’re sensitive to notes sounding as written, REAL may be best. While this notation accurately shows harmonic relationships and provides deeper musical understanding, it’s obviously harder to visualize.
- SCORDATURA (transposed) notation—This provides a quick connection for learning and visualizing especially if all or most of the strings are re-tuned strings. The main disadvatange is the disconnect between visual and aural learning.
Bottom line: choose the system that suits your individual needs. Perhaps initially use SCORDATURA to learn fingerings, and later reinforce musical understanding with study in REAL.
The scordatura in all compositions for this article is ⑥ & ① =D. Since ① takes much melodic activity, pieces are written in both REAL and SCORDATURA notation (except, the Low D is left untransposed).
If you’re new to re-tunings, the Two Scordatura Studies will help prepare you for learning the more advanced Wintersong or In-“D”-ed above.
- No. 1 focusses on low-register strings to practice reading the low D ⑥. Study includes reading up to fret VII on ⑥, ⑤, & ④.
- No. 2 focusses on high-register strings and is notated in both REAL and SCORDATURA.