A comment on the unfortunate misunderstanding among English speakers regarding the string numbers
January 16, 2020
It was about nine years ago when I seriously bumped into this issue for the first time. I was visiting an US based online forum for kanteleplayers and I was following the discussion of our (then) new 11-string kantele guide book Invisible Vibration. I was completely surprised by one comment in which the kantele string numbers introduced in the guide book were commented in such a passionate, almost furious way that one could think I had made a personal insult against someone. The opinion was that the strings “have always been” numbered from #1 onward starting from the lowest string.
I have never been very keen on taking part in online debates, not even if as serious questions are on the table as this one. And so, at the time I acted like a true Finn (with all the 101 Very Finnish Problems) and did nothing, said nothing, went back into forest and enjoyed the peace. Let the time pass and they will learn the facts, I thought. Well, nine years have passed, and only a couple days ago I came across the very same issue – a guide book for kantele in English saying with bright eyes (if a book could have bright eyes) that the string numbers start from #1 from the lowest string. (Sigh.) OK, perhaps it’s time.
I’ll try to be clear. No, in Finland we never use, or have never used, the string numbers like that. Never. (I know, never say never, but I’ll come back to that later.) You could use it perhaps when counting how many strings there are, like “Hmm.. let me see, this kantele has 1, 2, 3… OK, 11 strings!” But if we use the string numbers while making music then the string #1 is referring to the tonic, the keynote, which nowadays in 10 and 11-string kanteles would quite often be the 4th lowest string.
So, if your 10 or 11-string kantele is tuned to D major, then, generally speaking, the lowest string would be A3 (in string numbers: low 5). Now, if the 5-string kantele would be tuned to D major then the string #1, D4, would be the lowest string, and thus the string numbers both in the 5-string kantele and in the 10 or the 11-string kantele would refer to the same note. Logical.
Historically (and sometimes also nowadays) the tonic could also be on the fifth lowest, or on the sixth lowest string – or on several other possibilities, as well, because kanteleplayers used to tune their instruments in different ways and to different keys or modes. Below you can see a combination of some of the possible scales they used:
In addition, they could also change the position of their hands, even in the middle of the song, in order to get different scales, and thus the place of the tonic would change too. So – and here comes the never-say-never part – if you would put the tonic on the lowest string of the 10-string kantele then that would indeed be the string #1. (–I have done that!) But that rarely happens. I know one case from the history: A pastor bought a 12-string kantele from a peasant in 1840, tuned it in C major (which the folk musicians never did) and wrote both the note names and the string numbers for himself under the strings on the soundboard starting from #1 as the lowest string (never done by the folk musicians). Clearly, the pastor didn’t know what he was doing.
Also another never-say-never -thing is the fact that when this old and forgotten small kantele tradition was taking its first steps of revival in Finland during the 1980’s, both of these string numberings were introduced side by side. I remember wondering why. First listing the strings with numbers from the longest to the shortest, and then the different numbers showing the scale degree for each string. It was confusing, I admit. Unfortunately the first way which simply showed how many strings there were, and which never was in use by Finnish musicians, took root in some places abroad. It was an unfortunate misunderstanding indeed.
String numbers are meant to be used as a help when learning, and sometimes it is simpler and easier to talk with numbers than with note names. But if there are several different numberings romping about then it will be a happy mess.
Below you can see some examples of different scales used by old tradition kantele players. The information was recorded by folk music researcher Armas Otto Väisänen during his trips to Karelia in 1916 and 1917. These scales and other information connected to the issue are published in the KIZAVIRZI book (in Finnish only, sorry). Underneath the scales there is the information of the fingering each player used. These numbers (ha!) refer to the fingers like 1 = thumb, 2 = index finger, and so on. > = right hand, < = left hand.