In tuning, as in life, better to move up than down

I was abused as a child. The abuse was mostly musical. A trusted family friend started teaching me guitar chords at a very young age and I was too young to know any better. Because of him I have wasted countless hours of my life playing the guitar. In trying to make sense of this tragedy, let me tell you what I have learned.

If you want to play guitar you will spend a lot of your time tuning. This is difficult at first, but what you will learn is that it almost impossible to tune down. I guess that’s why they call it tuning up. If you try to tune down you almost always tune past your pitch and end up tuning back up anyway. Anymore, if my guitar is sharp, I just automatically tune flat and start again.

I also had an old analog radio that I would listen to late at night. I would dial around picking up stations like Juarez, Mexico. Sometimes I could get San Diego. Occasionally I could even get a few minutes of the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville, Tenn. (I told you, I was abused.) But I noticed the same phenomenon. It always worked better if I tuned up. After I had worked through the dial, I would usually just flip it back to the low end of the frequencies without even listening, and start up again.

Out of difficult and painful life experiences we sometimes gain strength and understanding. Later I found out that when focusing a microscope under high magnification, it is always better to focus up. This is true for different reasons, but it still works best. In fact, if something gets out of focus, I usually just flip it back to a lower power and start over again. And then I discovered that when mixing chemicals to exact specifications (called titration) you always mix from low concentration up to the desired concentration. After all, you can’t un-mix liquids very well.

I don’t think I ever had a teacher tell me the principle of tuning up. Except on those occasions when I am teaching someone how to play the guitar (abused children often become abusers) or focus a microscope, I don’t teach my students about tuning up either. It isn’t part of the written curriculum.

They do teach this concept sometimes in graduate school. It’s called hysteresis: a retardation of an effect when forces are changed. It is especially obvious in elastic materials due to internal friction of their molecules, such as the molecules of the string in a stringed instrument. For example, if you hang weights from a rubber band, the rubber band will stretch. But if you start to remove weights, the rubber band will not shorten at the same rate. It takes time for the internal molecules to rearrange in the shorter configuration.

Hysteresis is also a factor in magnetic materials due to changing magnetic forces, such as occur in tuning radios. Radio waves initiate electrical currents and these initiate specific electric magnetic responses. The central portion of the old analog speaker was a magnet that caused the fluctuation of a membrane to create sound waves. But the boundary between two magnetic fields is a little slippery, as you can tell when you try to push two magnets together. So there is often a lag time between changing the frequency and the sound response.

You and I just know hysteresis as a sort of stickiness when trying to adjust something. We almost always have to adjust slowly upward, then find it difficult to correct if we overshoot.

I hope the story of my tragic early life can provide hope to the many music students in the world. Your many hours of music instruction and tuning may still turn into a blessing.

You might still be able to become a biologist.

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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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