Exploring Sansula Tunings
A Non-musician Engineer Builds a D Minor Tuning

Each person who encounters the kalimba can have a unique and amazing pathway of discovery. I am very pleased to present to you the kalimba journey of Vlad from Germany. Seeing the technical approach this non-musician brought to the Sansula to create a new tuning and a body of songs for it should inspire more than a few budding kalimba players around the world. Also, his personal journey of learning to make music on his own is inspiring to anyone who thought they did not have musical talent.
— Mark Holdaway


This is the story of how I discovered, well into my adulthood, that I can play and invent music using a Kalimba. It was probably my cultural revelation of the year! I would like to use this occasion to thank Peter Hokema (a German kalimba manufacturer) and Mark Holdaway of Kalimba Magic for introducing me to the art of music :-)! I sort of fell for the Kalimba and really enjoy exploring music within it!

Sansula in D

I had a poor start with music. At school I was really bad at it. They taught us exclusively singing (tunes) and I was never able to hit the right notes. I couldn't make any sense either of the toy instruments I had as a child (many were indeed out-of-tune). In high school I envied the guitar heroes around me; yet a guitar is not at all useful to a beginner who doesn't want to sing and use the guitar for accompaniment.

Many years passed by, until last December. By pure chance, I tried the very simple Hokema B5 Kalimba (a chordal kalimba) in a local gadget store and got curious. I was simply fascinated by the sound of this toy. Later on I found out that the B5 is a single-chord instrument and that's why all notes sound so good with each other.

Sansula in D

After some internet research, I went to the local music supplier and bought the somewhat larger B9 Kalimba (the pocket sansula). This is the first properly tuned music instrument I ever bought. It is also the first instrument I tuned myself!

Shortly afterwards I got bored with the 2-chord default tuning so a Korg tuner and the iPhone Kalimba App from Hokema followed. I tried out some tunings and settled with the "Heavenly A" one. Mark's "Heavenly A" song book followed as well. Mark also helped me understand how tine settings that make chords easy to play make a good tuning.

 

Sansula in D

And: it is fun. I found out that intervals are easy to play and distinguish by ear, chords too. I started to get close to the proper rhythm on the tunes I tried. What's hard is tuning a Kalimba with your bare fingers by using the tine-wiggle method. My fingers did hurt badly on the next day!

I found out about transposing and played around with building simple transposed riffs from tunes I like. Transposing means that you can map notes from one scale to another. As long as the intervals between notes are the same, the tunes will sound mostly right.

This was my first great achievement on the Kalimba. Take that haunting music hit, find the notes for the riff on the internet, transpose and play the tune. Wow, mission accomplished!

 

Finding my own sansula tuning

Now, there's a problem with the "Heavenly A" and with other popular tunings for this Kalimba. They have gaps. You don't get all the consecutive notes on a scale. The upper and lower notes are far apart from the rest and I rarely had a chance to use them in a tune. This is a big waste for an instrument that only has 9 notes! I decided I wanted to invent my own tuning that overcame these issues. I started doing some more research on the internet to discover "my" B9 tuning.

The first hard thing was to decide which type of key to choose. I am a beginner with music and I knew that the Kalimba is an African instrument and is traditionally tuned in strange ways. I wasn't convinced that a Western diatonic scale is the best choice: more internet research for me. I started by understanding what intervals are and what a consonant ("sound-good") and dissonant ("sound-bad") interval means. To keep it simple, I decided to use a major or a relative minor diatonic key (not pentatonic or African).

Being an engineer, I went on with the requirements:

  1. The tuning must have all the consecutive notes on a given scale without gaps (and one more upwards).
  2. I shouldn't make the sharpest note (an E) even sharper: I sort of prefer lower tones.
  3. It should avoid having adjacent dissonant tines.
    • Nearby tines resonate with each other and a Kalimba with 2 neighbor tines half a tone apart sounds awful.
    • For this reason D major didn't work on this instrument.
    • I have no idea why a half-tone on adjacent tines is no issue with the original 2-chord tuning.
  4. Build the tuning in such a way that important chords are easy to play. According to Mark, this does not apply to a pentatonic tuning, since pentatonic is more about melody than about chords. Moreover, tuning for chords and tuning to a certain scale (without gaps) might be disjoint goals.
  5. If you count the tines of the B9 in the ascending tone order, you get this: 6 8 2 5 1 4 3 9 7. The tuning shall not change with this order or require disassembling the instrument and rearranging the tines.
  6. I wanted to avoid pulling or pushing the tines too much (out-of-spec). According to Mark, you can push a tine in a lot (in the sharp direction). If you pull it out a full step or more (in the flat direction), there is not much tine left for the bridge to hand onto, and that tine might require frequent retuning.

 

Sansula in D

 

I ended up with the D minor tuning shown above. Since then I have already learned a few tunes on this tuning, including He is a Jolly Good Fellow, Oh Susanna, My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean, Banks of the Ohio, Ode to Joy and the first bars of Gaudeamus.

I took my time and learned how to read sheet music. Though hard, it is useful because it gives one access to a large variety of tunes and makes transposition relatively easy.

What next? Chords! Simply put, a chord is built from the first, third and fifth note of a given key. Finding which chords work with my D minor tuning was a simple task. I just searched for different keys on Wikipedia and checked if the chord-notes can be played in the given tuning. Here is what I found:

Advantages of the Kalimba

Before discovering the Kalimba, it was not clear to me that I had been long searching for a specific type of instrument. Here are the advantages of the Kalimba (requirements, the engineer's way):

  1. It has a clear, nice and simple sound.
  2. It is a real instrument - you can feel it in your hands, you can play it with closed eyes (in contrast to an iPhone music App!).
  3. It's portable: you can easily put a Kalimba in your pocket.
  4. It is a tuned instrument with discrete notes. The notes are there, you can't play a sound that's not a note on your scale (you can do this on a violin!).
  5. It is polyphonic. You can play two (or more) notes at the same time and build a chord.
  6. The tuning guides your music. A good Kalimba tuning is supposed to put some combinations that sound good at the tip of your fingers.

Apparently, the Kalimba is a shaman's instrument. Keep some beer cold if your long gone ancestors drop by :-). And have fun with it!

Resources that have helped me on my journey