Scordatura [skordaˈtuːra] (literally Italian for "mistuning"), is a tuning of a stringed instrument different from the normal, standard tuning.[1] It typically attempts to allow special effects or unusual chords or timbre, or to make certain passages easier to play.[2] It is common to notate the finger position as if played in regular tuning, while the actual pitch resulting is altered (scordatura notation). When all the strings are tuned by the same interval up or down, as in the case of the viola in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, the part is transposed as a whole.

Bowed string instruments

The invention of scordatura tuning has been attributed to Thomas Baltzar, a prodigious German violinist and composer who is known to have used the technique in around the 1660s, at least a decade before Biber composed his "Rosary Sonatas" in which he employed the tuning technique. Of course, German violinist Hans Hake (1628-after 1667) includes 3 works in 'Vorstimmung' ("upset tuning"] for 2 violins (#25, #29, & #33) in his collection "Ander Theil Newer Pavanen,…" (Stade: Elias Holwein, 1654) making this attribution false.

Scordatura was much used by composers for viola d'amore, violin and cello, including J.S. Bach, Biber, Vivaldi, Ariosti, Vilsmayr, and others in compositions for violin during the early 18th century. A special type of notation was used to make it easier to read. This notation was also used to notate music for the viola d'amore, an instrument played and composed for by composers such as Biber and Vivaldi. The viola d'amore used a great number of different tunings and writing music for it in scordatura notation was a natural choice for composers of the time.

Notable usage of scordatura in Western art music


Violin with strings crossed for Biber's Resurrection sonata

Viola d'amore



Double bass

The double bass is sometimes required to play notes lower than the E to which its lowest string is normally tuned. This can be accomplished with a special mechanical extension with which some double basses are equipped or the composer may ask the double bass to tune down its E string, as in, for example, the third movement of Brahms's Requiem, in which Brahms has some of the double basses tune the E-string down to D in order to sustain the low D pedal point or in the 9th Movement of Ma mère l'oye (Cinquième tableau - Laideronnette, impératrice des Pagodes), in which Ravel has the double basses lower their E-strings a semitone. (George Crumb's exceptional A Haunted Landscape requires that two bassists use C extensions and still tune down past them to B.) Other kinds of scordatura occur most commonly in solo double bass literature, especially including one that raises all four strings a whole step to F'-B'-E-A.[4]


Main article: Guitar tunings

Alternate tunings other than symmetrically stepped-down versions of standard or drop-D tuning (where the lowest string is tuned down two half-steps for simple barred power or fifth chords) are rare in modern guitar music, but before the nineteenth century they occurred more often. Drop-D tuning remains common.[5] The sixteenth-century guitar typically had four courses (rather than six strings, as the modern classical does), and the seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century guitar typically had five courses. These were subject to a variety of tunings, such that there is some difficulty establishing which, if any, to consider the standard tuning from which the others deviate.[6] It is sometimes suggested that classical guitarists wishing to read Renaissance lute or vihuela tablature tune their guitar E-A-d-f-b-e' since these instruments in this period usually have the major third between the 3rd and 4th strings.

With the exception of bands using seven-, eight- or recently nine-string guitars to extend the instrument’s range downwards, rhythm guitar for modern metal almost universally uses stepped-down versions of standard or drop D tuning, with musicians and amateurs alike commonly using terminology like “tuning to C” (same pattern as standard tuning, but all strings lowered by four half-steps) or “Drop C tuning” (drop-D tuning lowered two half-steps; for drop tuning the sixth string from “C standard”, the tuning is named “Drop-B-flat”, as it is the lowest note in a tuning that names it, not the actions taken to convert a guitar to it). Conversely, other tuning patterns are rare, with the few popular acts using them commonly widely recognized for the fact (Prominent examples being bands Sonic Youth and Soundgarden).

In certain kinds of folk music alternate tunings for guitar can be fairly frequently found, most typically open tunings where the opens strings are tuned to full major, minor, suspended or extended chord.[5]


  1. Grove Music Online, Scordatura, David D. Boyden/Robin Stowel.
  2. The Harvard Dictionary of Music, second edition, "Scordatura", Willy Apel
  3. Riley, Maurice W. (1991). The History of the Viola, Volume II. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Braun-Brumfield. pp. 138–143.
  4. Grove Music Online, Scordatura, "2. Violoncello and double bass", Mark Chambers.
  5. 1 2 Grove Music Online, Scordatura, ‘3. Lute and guitar’, James Tyler.
  6. Grove Music Online, Guitar, ‘3. The four-course guitar’ and ‘4. The five-course guitar’, James Tyler.

See also

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