Wikipedia talk:Manual of Style/Stringed instrument tunings

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Why this proposal[edit]

This I hope might one day be a part of the WP:MOS.

It came out of work on the reentrant tuning article. Looking for examples I became aware that the music stave examples already in Wikipedia were some of them first string first, others first string last. Obviously, within a single article that was going to be very confusing.

So I began looking for whether there was any convention, and the answer seems to be no. And the reason for this, once I found someone who actually said there is no convention, wasn't hard to find... There's an inconsistency between the way guitar and other instrument strings are conventionally numbered, and the way they're conventionally listed. In fifty years of reading them I never even noticed, but once it was pointed out it was really obvious.

And the conventions make more sense than you might at first think, and are common to both classically and non-classically trained musos. I think the string numbering probably comes from tablature. It's natural to have the string furthest from you at the top, and it's natural to number strings from the top down. The listing of strings probably comes from chord charts or the like. It's natural to have the string closest to you on the left, and then to start with that string when listing the pitches.

But there are a couple of the many suggestions to change it listed in the external links section. IMO Wikipedia shouldn't support or otherwise these. We use the standards as they are.

So that's what I'm proposing. Andrewa (talk) 19:08, 10 February 2009 (UTC)

I read it and there's not much I can say against it - being a guitar player since 1992. Go for it. --Avant-garde a clue-hexaChord2 20:20, 10 February 2009 (UTC)

Where from here[edit]

The various Wikiprojects that might be interested all seem inactive, with the possible exception of WP:WikiProject Guitarists. Hmmmm.... Andrewa (talk) 06:12, 9 February 2009 (UTC)

See Wikipedia talk:WikiProject Guitarists#Proposed style guideline. Andrewa (talk) 19:15, 10 February 2009 (UTC)

See also Wikipedia talk:Manual of Style (music)#Proposal regarding stringed instrument tunings.

There has been a (very constructive) suggestion there that I should search for articles that might need to change as a result of the proposal, and involve those active on those articles.

I've done some of this searching already, and the proposal is largely just documenting what we end up doing anyway, see may comments at Wikipedia talk:Manual of Style (music)#Proposal regarding stringed instrument tunings. But agree it's time for another look, and the first I turned up was minor changes to the Lute article, see Talk:Lute#Style guideline for tunings. The Lute article is actively under development, so we might get some good input from there.

More to follow I expect. Andrewa (talk) 04:58, 14 February 2009 (UTC)

Helmholtz pitch notation[edit]

See Talk:Helmholtz pitch notation#Another possible variation for another possible change to the proposal, a little more widespread in its implications. Andrewa (talk) 18:49, 14 February 2009 (UTC)

From the discussion there: use of the apostrophe/related characters is definitely wrong. I seem from this article I used the symbol ˌ or ˌˌ for the sub-prime - not sure how valid that is. Interesting. Andrewa (talk) 00:16, 17 February 2009 (UTC)

Not a lot of joy at Talk:Helmholtz pitch notation. Articles which use this possible variation already include lute and mandora (both those links are permalinks to the current versions as I write, so they won't have changed even if the article in question has). I'll add any others I find. The giveaway sign is using a quote on an upper-case letter. Andrewa (talk) 16:29, 20 March 2009 (UTC)

String gauges[edit]

String gauges are almost always... perhaps always... listed as per string number.

Hmmm... curiouser and curiouser... Andrewa (talk) 16:31, 20 March 2009 (UTC)

Pitch or pitch class[edit]

The main thing that still concerns me about this MOS page is that there's no explicit statement that string tunings are better described as actual pitches of indiidual strings rather than as pitch classes of strings or courses.

See for where I'm coming from on this. Andrewa (talk) 06:45, 29 December 2009 (UTC)

Rem historical tag[edit]

I've removed the historical tag... there seems no dipsute that this is a helpful part of the MOS, even if rarely used. Interested in other views of course! The contributor who posted the tag seems to have sought no discussion, nor have they removed the link from MOS:music. Andrewa (talk) 06:55, 6 August 2010 (UTC)

Good Proposal, but . . .[edit]

I agree with most of the points in this proposal. It tackles a sticky topic and deals with it logically and concisely. I have just two caveats:

1) When discussing string gauges for an instrument that nearly always uses wound strings, including the "w" after every gauge seems both fussy and not conducive to easy reading. I would propose instead that if an -unwound- string comes up in that context, it simply be indicated with a "p" after the gauge number (for "plain"). This, too, is a convention that's been around for many years. In fact, when it comes to the guitar there is a "cross-over" point from gauges 0.026 to 0.018 in which one should probably -always- indicate "w" ot "p", since these gauges are apt to appear on a guitar in either form quite commonly.

2) My other caveat concerns Helmholz notation for pitch class. I say Helmholz notation should be abandoned in favor of scientific pitch notation is all modern discussions of instrument tunings. While Helmholz certainly has historical value, it is, nonetheless, a fussy, confusing, and frequently misused system. (What, for example, is one to make of C' as opposed to c', or cc as opposed to CC -- both of which I have seen, sometimes within the same text!)

By contrast, scientific notation is simple, unambiguous, and easily learned and remembered. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 21:40, 7 March 2011 (UTC)

All good points, but I think they can all be argued both ways.
There are problems with scientific notation:
  • It's easily confused with the manufacturer-specific notations used in MIDI documentation, which are superficially identical.
  • It isn't particularly suitable for music, as it was designed for audiology and related subjects rather than music.
  • It's equally fussy to Helmoholtz if strictly applied. Personally I use modified Helmholtz notation which avoids all the fussiness, but considering the precious attachment that other Wikipedians have for the "proper" sharp and flat symbols there's little chance of using it (or a sensible version of scientific notation either).
Both are easy to learn, Helmholtz perhaps a little easier IMO. Both appear in corrupted forms (as described above).
I'd be quite happy to omit the w for instruments or stringings where all strings are wound, agree this is normal but I'm not convinced about the p. Better to just use w in mixed sets, and have a standard that says the qualification all strings wound when that's the case and the ws are omitted.
Just one quibble: Neither Helmholtz nor Scientific notation is used for pitch class, just the opposite. They're both used to distinguish the individual pitches within a pitch class. Andrewa (talk) 02:28, 11 April 2011 (UTC)
Having considered your comments, I disagree with most of your points regarding pitch notation.
  • Since this style guide concerns stringed instrument tunings I don't see any problem of confusion between scientific notation and MIDI pitch notation. In any event, most MIDI technical specs designate a MIDI note number and not a pitch letter, so I don't see any problem of confusion on this point so long as this style guide is applied within its intended context: stringed instrument tunings.
  • You make a legitimate point as regarding the origin on scientific pitch notation; however, the same point applies to Helmholz notation -- it wasn't originally designed for for music, but for the study of acoustics. Therefore one could argue that either system is equally suitable (or unsuitable) for musical application.
The fact that most major musical texts published in the past 30 years have adopted scientific notation argues that Wiki should as well.
Scientific notation is not "fussy". There is no worry about whether one is using a superscript or a subsctipt, or an upper or lowercase letter, as there is with Helmholz notation. I gave examples of ambiguous Helmholz notation in my original comment.
By contrast, scientific notation begins every ocatve on a 'C' and simply uses an integer to designate which octave is being discussed.
For example, any pitch followed by the number 3 is clearly in the octave between C3 and C4 -- there is no confusion as to whether " CC' " and " cc' " are intended to be in the same, or different octaves.
Helmholz is more difficult to learn than scientific notation. One needs to internalize a set of arbitrary rules involving case, multiple repetition of letters, and sub- and superscripts.
By contrast, all that needs to be learned about scientific notation is that each integer represents a particualr octave, and which integer represents middle "C".
As regards pitch class, I'm not sure what your point is. Again, this guide is for presentation of stringed instrument tunings, which concerns specific pitches for specific strings, and not a general theoretical consideration of pitch class.
In re, the comment on wound versus unwound strings: while the "w" is used more frequently, the "p" is also common. I was suggesting the use of "p" only in those cases in which there would otherwise be ambiguity. For example, take this set of guitar strings: 0.048, 0.036, 0.028, 0.020, 0.014, 0.010 -- the lower three need no additiional designation; they only exist in wound form; the upper two exist only in unwound form. But the 0.020 exists in both wound and unwound form. If the unwound version is intended in this set, it would be designated as "0.020p". The alternative is to designate 0.048w, 0.036w, and 0.028w -- which to me seems more fussy. <shrug> Just a suggestion; YMMV. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 09:23, 17 March 2013 (UTC)
I think this is wrong about the original intent of Helmholtz notation... Helmholtz describes it in and developed it for his monograph On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, which is about the relationship between music and acoustics rather than about acoustics generally. (And still a standard text and very good read.)
I'll have a look at the other claims when I have time. Andrewa (talk) 02:29, 15 August 2013 (UTC)

RFC: restructuring of the Manual of Style[edit]

Editors may be interested in this RFC, along with the discussion of its implementation:

Should all subsidiary pages of the Manual of Style be made subpages of WP:MOS?

It's big; and it promises huge improvements. Great if everyone can be involved. NoeticaTea? 00:49, 25 June 2011 (UTC)

Propose Eliminating Helmholz Notation[edit]

Helmholz pitch notation is fussy, ambiguous, and archaic. It is an artifact of the 19th century infancy of the science of acoustics, and has been abandoned in favor of Scientific Pitch Notation in most modern texts. While a few standard music texts (such as Piston's Orchestration) still use Helmholz notation, nearly all of these texts were written 30-50 (or more) years ago. Furthermore, there are a number of other pitch notation systems, most of them also of 19th century origin, which are similar to, yet not identical with Helmholz notation, making for additional confusion.

If these texts were being written only 30 years ago, then Helmholtz Pitch Notation is a 20th century artifact rather than just 19th. And in any case, still a lot more modern than the systems that describe a perfect cadence as V-I or an interval of a single step as a 2nd and of two steps as a 3rd etc.. So I wish you luck in the wider quest of rationalising the way musicians speak, especially whenever numerals are involved.
I'm actually the author of one of these other systems, see
for a rationale and description of modified Helholtz notation or MHN, a system designed specifically for WWW use. That page also summarises a number of variants and issues.
But I don't recommend MHN for Wikipedia. Andrewa (talk) 13:27, 18 March 2013 (UTC)

Scientific Pitch Notation is simple, straightforward, and unambiguous. It should be the only system used when informational material -- such as the tuning of an instrument -- is given.

Disagree. SPN is not simple, as the original system is fussy and so is often simplified, leading to endless debates about what is correct usage. Neither is it straightforward, for the same reasons. And it leads to serious ambiguity because the most common simplified version looks like the most common MIDI pitch notation, which is far more commonly used than SPN.
Most (perhaps all) Yamaha MIDI documentation, for example, refers to middle C as C3. Other makers call it C4 and a few even C5. Perhaps it would be better if they all just said note 60, but they don't and there are some good reasons not to. Most writers describe all of these various conventions as Scientific Pitch Notation. They are wrong on one or two counts. In Scientific Pitch Notation middle C is of course properly written C4, but is more commonly just written C4.
SPN has its uses, its pros and its cons. Andrewa (talk) 14:42, 18 March 2013 (UTC)

Using Helmholz notation in tuning charts is akin to using Roman numerals to express string gauges. I'd like to see a consensus reached on removing the Helmholz references in this style guide, and simply explaining the Scientific Notation system, which is ubiquitous in conttemporary usage. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 08:41, 17 March 2013 (UTC)

Although I prefer Helmholtz personally for several reasons, and disagree completely with most (perhaps all) of your arguments, I'm not necessarily opposed to this proposal. It might even help Wikipedia if we were to standardise, and that's the question here, not whether civilisation or scholarship as a whole would benefit by adopting (so-called) scientific notation. Our cause here is to write the best encyclopedia we can, not to fix outstanding problems in any field of study. See WP:NOT.
If we are to standardise, I would support use of unmodified SPN, using the subscript notation in some way. This IMO will lead to fewest problems in Wikipedia.
But your analogy to roman numerals seems to me to be rhetoric, and perhaps even a straw man.
The first step it seems to me is to discuss this not just in the context of string instruments, but of music generally. Only if we can't get a more general consensus should we try for a more restricted one.
One possible issue is that varieties of scientific pitch notation are more common West of the Atlantic, and varieties of Helmholtz pitch notation to the East. So it's in some ways an ENGVAR issue.
Another possibility would be to standardise on MIDI note numbers. This has the disadvantage that it is limited in range but there would be very few instruments affected, the only ones that come to mind are the 1' ranks on some baroque organs.
Yet another is to use a standard music staff, but this is confusing in the case of transposing instruments, particularly those such as tubular bells which transpose an exact number of octaves. Andrewa (talk) 14:50, 18 March 2013 (UTC)
(And just to restate, Roman numerals are still the standard notation in some musical contexts, particularly for chord progressions, see perfect cadence. You and others are free to advocate changing this too, but it's not within the scope of Wikipedia, any more than eliminating Helmholtz notation and replacing it by either MHN or so-called scientific notation is. You might like to also investigate the naming of intervals... a 2nd plus a 2nd is a 3rd, a 5th plus a 4th is an 8ve, and so on, simply because musicians count the notes at both ends of the interval. So a so-called 3rd is two steps, a so-called 8ve is seven steps,... Good luck. Andrewa (talk) 04:01, 15 August 2013 (UTC))

The main problems with this[edit]


The main problem with (so-called) Scientific pitch notation (SPN) is that (as normally used) it looks like so many other things in related fields:

  • C6 to a jazz guitarist is a very commonly used chord.
  • C6 to a pedal steel guitarist is C6 tuning.
  • C6 to an electronic instrument player is a MIDI note, perhaps but not necessarily the same note as the C6 in SPN.
    • C6 to the player of a Yamaha MIDI keyboard for example is what SPN calls C7, and to some other keyboard manufacturers it's what SPN calls C5.
  • C6 to an SPN user is a pitch. Well, it shouldn't be, actually. It should be C6, which (almost) removes the ambiguity but is almost never used, see below. And when I say almost, I've also seen the subscript used for C6 chords and C6 tunings. So you can't win.
Scientific pitch notation as used in practice

The candidates are not just SPN and Helmholtz. There are many, including but not only:

  • Helmholtz pitch notation, a fussy and redundant system using upper and lower case, prime and subprime.
  • Helmholtz pitch notation as modified by his original English translator Ellis, using repeated letters instead of prime and subprime, and commonly called English Notation or Helmholtz-Ellis notation. Worse than the original is the general consensus.
  • Yet a third variation of Helmholtz notation, this time using underlines and overhead bars instead of prime and subprime, origins not known to me but commonly called German Notation. No obvious advantages or disadvantages over the original.
  • Scientific pitch notation (SPN), another fussy system, this time using subscripts, and not in wide use despite many people claiming to use it (see the diagram at right, taken from the Wikipedia article on SPN, and note the lack of subscripts).
  • SPN as commonly used, a simple system using only an upper case letter followed by a number but easily confused with many other things leading to ambiguity in articles, see above.
  • MHN (Modified Helmholtz notation), my own invention for my own website, see for details.
  • There's a modernised Helmholtz notation, but while I've seen it talked about I haven't seen it used or described. It may be very similarly to my MHN, which I have seen used by others since first developing it. It's a fairly logical direction I think.
  • ABC notation, a machine and human readable notation.

I can't see any prospect of Wikipedia adopting any one of these as its standard, for good reasons in each case. I could be wrong. Andrewa (talk) 05:23, 25 August 2013 (UTC)


The other, perhaps even bigger, problem is that Wikipedia is not the place to advocate adoption of a worldwide standard. Rather, we use and report what other people use and report. Andrewa (talk) 01:29, 25 August 2013 (UTC)

"In a Nutshell"[edit]

I changed the word "always" in this boxed section to "in general".

Rationale: these statements are generally, but not universally true for all stringed instruments. For example:

  • With instruments like violin and viola no particular string is "closest to the player" since in normal playing position the strings are roughly perpendicular to the player;
  • With harp, the higher pitched strings are closest to the player, but the strings are named and numbered from the lowest string to the highest;
  • The low-to-high naming/numbering convention is also true for piano. harpsichord, and xenorphica, which on these instruments runs from left to right, and not far to near;
  • Lap steel guitarists number their strings according to the high-to-low, far-to-near convention, but traditionally give their tunings in reverse order from other guitars (high to low).

At any rate, there are enough prominent exceptions that "always" was not accurate, so I changed it to something more appropriate. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 04:36, 20 March 2014 (UTC)

And I've changed it back, under WP:BRD. I take the harp example as a good one, but I think it needs more discussion.

Perhaps with a very few exceptions, such as some harps? Generally is toothless. It needs to be far stronger than that. Andrewa (talk) 00:11, 22 March 2014 (UTC)

Listing strings in text[edit]

The Listing strings in text section says that note names should be separated by dashes, yet hyphens are used in the example. Over at MOS:MUSIC#Stringed instrument tunings, en dashes are used but not described as such. Should there be spaces separating the note names from the dashes?--Theodore Kloba (talk) 15:53, 26 July 2017 (UTC)

Good points all... I'm afraid I still have trouble getting excited about the difference between the hyphen, m dash and n dash but we should have it consistent and it matters to some.
How do you think it should read? It would be good to tidy it up, and it sounds like you know a lot more about it than I do. Andrewa (talk) 10:19, 29 July 2017 (UTC)
Although the guidance on MOS:DASH doesn't apply directly, I would say en dashes would be most appropriate for tunings. Although spaced en dashes are really intended for sentence punctuation, they may make a tuning more readable. Examples:
E – A – B – E – A – D
--Theodore Kloba (talk) 15:00, 31 July 2017 (UTC)

I have updated hyphens to unspaced en dashes. I have also changed apostrophes to prime symbols.

An additional comment: The sub-prime symbol generated by <sub><small>I</small></sub> does not match the character used in the Helmholtz pitch notation article, which uses Unicode U+0375, "Greek Lower Numeral Sign" (͵) created with &#x0375;. Is there a reason that the subscript "I" is preferred over the other option?--Theodore Kloba (talk) 20:20, 31 July 2017 (UTC) Please see Wikipedia talk:Manual of Style/Music#Helmholtz pitch notation for this discussion. --Theodore Kloba (talk) 20:23, 2 August 2017 (UTC)