Tunesticking—A Primer

Tunesticking: A Primer

6/19/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

The Idea

Chances are, you have already played the instrument about which I am writing. If you have tapped a pencil on a table edge, played imaginary drums with a ruler or a paintbrush, then you may consider yourself an expert. There is no newfangled technology involved in the “Tunestick;” rather, it’s an idea that the cavemen probably picked up on.

Tunesticks, as I like to call them, are any sort of long, thin dowel or rod that produce resonant sounds when hit on a table. Tunestick playing could not be simpler; by grasping the edge of the dowel with one’s thumb and index finger and hitting the thing on a table, one can produce any number of sounds depending on just where the thing is struck. If the point of contact is close to the thumb, the note is low; if the point is further away, the note is high. The idea, of course, is to change the position of contact with every note so as to produce a piece of music.

That is Tunesticking at its very basics. I don’t claim ownership over the concept; indeed, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t tapped a pen or pencil in such a fashion. What sets me apart from the rest is that I had the free time to write about it.

The Instrument

What counts as a good tunestick? Just about anything that would also make a good writing instrument, or a good television antenna, or a good dowel. This is not the rarefied world of string instruments or woodwinds; no, this is an instrument that’s about as diverse as they come. Anything from a television antenna to a ruler can do the job, though some items—no doubt—sound better than others.

The teeming mass of “instruments” that qualify as tunesticks can be divided into two main categories: wood and metal. (I have yet to see a porcelain or clay tunestick perform.) Wood has a number of redeeming qualities to it; the material is quite resonant, durable to some extent and has a satisfying bend to it. There are downsides to match the positives, however. Most wooden dowels are lightweight, meaning the sound does not carry all that well. Wood does not bend as easily as do metal tunesticks, but it has the unfortunate quality of snapping quite easily. There are also the issues of splinters and water damage.

Metal sticks aren’t perfect, but they do seem to perform better than dowels. Their greatest asset may very well be their amplitude: just about any moderate-weight tunestick crafted out of metal can produce a satisfactory volume if struck hard enough. It’s also nearly impossible to outright snap a tunestick in two, though lightweight versions have an annoying tendency to warp and bend after extended sessions. Metal tunesticks also have a somewhat duller sound than wood, in the sense that their notes aren’t quite as pronounced and distinct. There exists no clear winner among the four most widely used metals (copper, brass, aluminum and steel), but brass is an excellent type with which to start; it’s heavier and more durable than aluminum, but more resonant than steel and copper.

A tunestick’s size greatly impacts its sound. The most practical length for an instrument is 6-20 inches; 12 inches is an accepted standard. Nearly all tunesticks are less than a half inch in thickness, with ¼ to 3/8 of an inch being the usual size. Thinner sticks tend to have a richer sound, but wider ones are usually more durable. Finally, before picking a stick, one must make an important decision: hollow or solid? The former delivers better sound quality, but the latter is stronger (and, in the case of wood, much easier to find).

Going beyond the fundamentals

The great beauty to tunesticking, if any exists, is the great potential of the instrument for manipulation. No technical knowledge, no extensive practice is necessary for one to form their own distinctive style.

So far, this article has covered only one-handed tunesticking. One doesn’t have to major in math to realize the potential exists for two-handed “Doubletuning” in which two instruments are struck at once. This takes some coordination, but allows for a “base” beat and a “harmony” beat at the same time. Additionally, the thumb and index finger need not stay at the bottom of the rod. By shifting their position closer to the top, the overall sound of the instrument is changed. An extreme shift (in which the thumb and forefinger lie at the top half of the tunestick) can produce a very unique sound—reminiscent of an alien transmission, almost. With practice and an extra hand, one can change the sound of the instrument by moving their fingers while keeping the tunestick in place.

To put it bluntly, tunesticking is a rough science. There exists no universal standard for notes, no international association, no copyright bills and legal disputes. Chances are, the tunestick will never share equal ground with the electric guitar or clarinet; there’s simply too much deviation and diversity within the field. That, however, is its greatest asset. By stretching the boundaries of the field and taking an otherwise blunt, simple instrument to new levels of complexity, the full potential of the lowly tunestick can be realized. Happy tapping!

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