Octave stringing: ‘irregular to the rules of music?’

If you asked a modern lute player – any time from the revival of the lute in the early 20th century to the present day – whether their bass courses were tuned in octaves, they would probably say that they were tuned in unisons because none other than the great John Dowland himself had said that tuning in octaves was “irregular to the rules of music”.

The real story is far more complicated, but interesting.

Let’s start with Dowland himself. His comments appear in the “Observations…” in the preface to Robert Dowland’s Varietie of Lute Lessons published in 1610. He is talking about a nine-course lute, the fashionable instrument of the time. This is what he actually said:

Secondly, for on your Bases, in that place which you call the sixt string, or r ut, these Bases must be both of one bignes, yet it hath been a generall custome (although not so much used any where as here in England) to set a small and a great string together, but amongst learned Musitions that custome is left, as irregular to the rules of Musicke.

To take the second point first, he says that octaves were “not so much used any where as here in England” – and he had first-hand experience of what continental lute players were doing. In fact it is the Neapolitan lutenist Fabritio Dentice who is credited (see below) with introducing the practice of unison stringing. To return to the first point, Dowland’s remarks in 1610 concern specifically the sixth course on a nine-course lute and say nothing about the lower courses (“accessories” as he calls them) which were almost certainly always tuned in octaves. In fact, internal evidence from music in 1590s England suggests octaves on the fifth and even the fourth course (see below). It may be that Barley’s instructions (1596), describing a six-course lute with octaves on courses four to six, though taken from an earlier treatise by Le Roy, still reflected common practice in England in the 1590s – the decade when (as far as we can tell) nearly all of Dowland’s solo lute music was written.

Why did anyone ever use octaves at all?

Perhaps the practice originated in the reinforcement of the sound of a relatively dull gut bass string by pairing it with a thin string tuned an octave higher – the octave string providing some of the upper harmonics which the bass string lacked.

The early 16th-century sources are unanimous in giving the tuning of the usual six-course lute as having octaves on courses 4-6: Virdung (1511); Jüdenkunig (1523); Attaingnant (1529). But there are later sources as well: Le Roy (1568/74); Waissel (1592); Barley (1596).

Although most people who intabulated vocal music for the lute did so without considering the octaves, some took them into account. For example, Le Roy (ff.40-43; CNRS edition pp.35-36):

The 4th chapter of the 4th tune:

In the .23. instance [bar 23] of this song Du corps absent, we have to shewe the reader, that in place of a .F. in the laste Minim of that measure, in the second example of the same song, garnished with running poinctes, ye shall find the same .F. chaunged into .D. with a double passage, kepying the fall, whiche was corrupted in .F. neverthelesse the Tune self of the same .F. is founde in the same compainie, and eight of the greate fift stryng: whiche reason could not be in Lutes, tuned after the maner of Fabrice Dentice the Italian, and other his followers. Where those strynges that stande twoo and twoo together, bee sette in one Tune and not by eightes, whiche thei doe for a perfection of harmonie, in avoydyng many unissons, which those eight would cause.

In other words, in his decorated version of the piece he has chosen to leave out a tablature letter “f” on the third course in order to play diminutions on that string, but the note in question is already present as the upper octave of the fifth course – a convenience which would not be possible on a lute with unison stringing.

Also, in the 7th chapter of the 7th tune (ff.49-53; CNRS pp.41-43), he says:

We will frame an example in Tablature, for this seventh maister Tune, upon the song of Orlande, beginning Je ne veux rien q’un baiser de sa bouche. Whiche to them that should be overmuche scrupulous for the losse of certain notes (which notwithstandyng, doe recompense them selves upon the eightes, as it is to be seen to bee seen in the ende of this song) such would sette it twoo notes higher, to save those notes: but thei would be cause of greate difficultie, muche unpleasauntnesse, and constrainte, so that we thinke it better to leave it in his naturall Tune, then to chaunge it otherwise.

In other words, you could accommodate all the notes in the original piece by intabulating it a tone higher, but it would be more difficult to play, and in any case the “missing” notes in question are supplied by the octaves.

Internal evidence from the music itself

Can we tell from the tablature itself whether octaves were used, and on which courses?

Francesco Spinacino (1507) provides us with a very clear example in his intabulation of Haray tre amours (Libro secondo, f.15v.):


Here the little flourish which starts the piece apparently ends an octave lower than it should, showing that the lute must have had an octave on the fifth course.

Octaves used “no where so much as here in England”

There is also evidence of this sort from the music of English composers active in the 1590s, such as John Johnson, Francis Cutting, and Anthony Holborne.

In a galliard by Cutting (Euing, f.29v.) we get:


apparently using the octave of the fifth course to continue the quaver passage but also creating an ambiguity with the bass line.

In his “Sans Per” galliard (Dd.2.11, f.73v.) we get:


suggesting an octave on the fifth course.

In Holborne’s “Patiencia” (Euing, f.39v.) we get:


suggesting an octave on the 5th course and also the 4th course. Holborne’s piece may have been arranged for the lute by one of his contemporaries, but the point stands that this is evidence for use of octaves in 1590s England.

Octaves in the 17th century

In any case, Dowland says that an octave sixth course was common practice in England – of course we cannot be sure of the timescale, but it seems likely that it persisted until close to 1610. In fact, whether or not it ever became widespread is debatable, because octaves from the sixth course downwards were common on “baroque” lutes of all kinds from 10 to 13 courses, where the new tunings require a thinner sixth course than in the old tuning and would therefore have had less need of an octave. If Dowland did indeed use a unison 6th course on his 9c lute, he was probably in a minority, as the iconography (and later, written evidence) shows use of octaves on all the basses from the 6th course downwards, even when the old tuning began to be supplanted by the new tunings, in which the need for an octave to brighten the 6th course was usually less because it was tuned (relatively) higher.

Octave strings in the 20th century

In modern times awareness of the need for octaves was slowed by the use of metalwound strings, which provide some of the higher harmonics which are absent in thick gut strings but which were unavailable to the old lutenists. When octaves are used there has also been a tendency to worry about the octave “sticking out”, so often the upper octave is strung at a lower tension than the fundamental (even though this is counterproductive as far as the “sticking out” issue is concerned); or the high octaves are set lower at the bridge so that they are (supposedly) struck with less force, again with the idea that they will thereby be less obvious. What is really needed is a technique which achieves a really good blend of both octaves so that when a course is played, the listener is only aware of one note, rather than two notes an octave apart.

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