On Soṇa and tuning instruments

In the famous story of Soṇa, the former musician, we hear the Buddha giving a simile based on the tuning of an instrument. The story appears in AN 6.55 and its various parallels: Pi Tv Kd 5, SA 254, EA 23.3, Zh Mi Kd 6, Zh Dg Kd 5, MA 123, and in various Sanskrit fragments, and probably other Vinaya passages.

The instrument is the vīṇā, which is usually translated as “lute”, but in fact it was more likely to be something in the arched harp family. They’re an instrument that remains quite close to the bow.

Arched harps are visible in several coins of Samudragupta, about 700 years after the Buddha.

As you can see, it has a resonator on one end, and a curved bow-like neck on which the stings are strung. This similar to the Saung, a very ancient instrument still used in Burma.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, now you can actually see these being tuned. Here’s a nice clip of a modern vina being tuned. While this doesn’t resemble the ancient instrument very closely, it gives a good sense of the delicacy of the process: Indian tuning is far more fussy than Western.

Here is a clip of tuning a saung:

Here is another little clip showing just how difficult this is:

There’s no keys or even a defined notch for the strings, just a string tightened around the neck. Tuning like this is a highly skilled task.

Famously, Soṇa is asked about whether the vina sounds right when it is tuned too tight or to loose. To understand this simile it helps to know a little about traditional Indian music.

There would have been no notion of absolute pitch as we have today. Each instrument, and each singer, would have been tuned to its own natural resonance. This is called the ṭhāna.

In acoustic theory, each space or thing has a more-or-less well defined resonant frequency. This is a where the length of the sound waves matches, or divides into, the size of the thing. If you play around with a voice or instrument and you hit a resonant frequency, it’s as if the whole thing “takes off”. Suddenly the sound is not just “in” the thing, it becomes the thing. You can easily find the resonant frequency of the room you’re in, as long as it is bare enough:

There’s little wonder that the ancients believed such relationships revealed a secret harmony to the universe. Of course, its “just” physics and numbers, but, well, maybe that’s the same thing.

In European music, such frequencies are avoided. This is because the harmonic system is based on an artificial division of the octave into twelve (acoustically inaccurate) semitones, and the whole set is pitched at an absolute level, irrespective of place or player. Middle C is the same everywhere. The advantage of this is that it allows for more flexibility in harmonies, and especially the transposition between keys that is fundamental to large-scale musical construction.

This innovation, attributed to Bach, can be understood philosophically as an expression of the European tendency to detach from nature, bending nature to its will by imposing its own artificial structures upon it. In such a system pitch is egalitarian: every note has the same meaning in the absolute sense, and is only given meaning by the particular context. If you hit a resonant note, it sings out and announces itself as special.

(Incidentally, this artificiality is the secret of the blues. The famous “blues third” is a tone between the minor third and major third. It approximates the true acoustic third, which was presumably used in the traditional music of Africa. But when it’s forced into a rigid western tone-grid, it sounds like a plea to escape, like you’re reaching for your true home.)

Indian music never went down this road. It has always been based on the idea of a fundament, the ṭhāna, a basic reality that underlies all else. You can hear this is the drone of a sitar. Sitars can’t change keys. Everything else, all melody, harmony, form, and rhythm, are merely temporary variations that emerge from this and return to it.

Obviously this has strong connections with Indian philosophy. But in music at least, the philosophy is really just a theoretical explanation of the normal acoustic state of affairs. A single string, on a bow for example, resonates with its own pitch, and comes back to that.

The pitches of Indian ragas don’t force an artificial equality on intervals as does the western system. Each of them corresponds to an exact harmony of the underlying ṭhāna. Each comes from the fundamental resonance, and in turn reinforces it.

The particular ṭhāna of an instrument would be sensitively worked out by the player as they gradually learn to adjust it to the ideal pitch. It’s not just a simple matter of making it line up with a pre-determined pitch. This is what the Sona Sutta means when it refer to the vina as saravatī, literally “possessing sound”.

Obviously this would cause problems when instruments played together, and this would have to be worked out by the musicians beforehand.

So when an instrument was out of tune, it didn’t just mean that the strings clashed with each other, it meant the whole instrument was not sitting right. It just wouldn’t sing, or more technically, “resonate”. It was not saravatī.

This is very different to our more robust and industrial modern instruments. We can tune a guitar “tight” if we like and, within limits, the tone is still pretty much the same. But Soṇa’s out of tune harp would have sounded off, ill-fitting, just not right.

And just like when your meditation hits that sweet spot, you know when the energy resonates: it sings.


Thanks Bhante! And aren’t we glad for your immediate past life!


Thanks Bhante. Really interesting. I love that sutta and that analogy the Buddha gave Sona. Your explanation makes it so much more vivid.


The point about instruments using natural resonances is well-taken, and an acoustically striking phenomenon. With all due respect, the analogies with European musical systems, however, are a bit over-simplified.

In European music, such frequencies are avoided.” Referring to natural resonances? The pipe-organ creates magnificent vertical resonances, based on superimposing numerous ranks of pipes corresponding to the natural harmonic series, building from foundation frequencies in the range of 16-32 Hz (and with modern digital “virtual” organs, down to 8, even 4 Hz – all these below ca. 50 Hz arguably “felt” as much as “heard”), adding octave, octave+fifth, 2nd octave, tierce, next 5th, 7th, next octave, 9th, etc, up through the series to pitches in at the upper limit of hearing (ca. 20k Hz).

Notably, the pipe-organ goes back to ancient Greece, and this use of harmonic series originating in the Pathagorean series, as known in the theory as subdivisions of vibrating string length – translated in terms of pipes into length of the resonating tube. An “8-foot” rank of pipes (normal pitch, as, say in a piano), means the pipe for the C two octaves below middle-C is about 8-feet long. (Middle-C itself is about 2’ long –organ keyboards use a range of 5 octaves, from 2 below middle-C to 3 octaves above it.) A 16-foot rank sounds an octave lower (typically a stop for the pedal keyboard), and 32-foot rank (longest pipe 32’), yet another octave below (lowest note vibrating at 16 Hz). Then there are added 4’, 2’, 2-2/3’, 1-3/5’, 1’, etc. ranks, such that at “full organ”, a single note pressed sounds pipes ranging from, at the extreme, 64’ long up through the highest harmonics in terms of pipes a couple of cm long (high-pitched whistles, in effect).

(In fact, up to the turn of the 20th-century, pipe-organs were arguably the largest and most complex artifacts of European technology altogether. For those of you “down under” with a yen for such music, here’s a youtube, with visual effects, of one Cameron Carpenter – one of the greatest living musicians – playing a major Bach composition (ca. 8 minutes) on the organ at the Sidney Opera House: [YouTube])

On the other hand, it is true that organs are “voiced” to avoid creating disproportionate key-relative resonances (often artifacts of the space – the cathedral nave, or the concert hall), and yes, enable relatively equal resonances across the range of musical keys. Still, one can easily experience such resonances at various places in the space, and especially noticed when one moves around. (A friend of mine, composer Rolf Gehlhaar created a composition once using a circular space surrounded with some 16 sound sources (digitally driven) emitting constant very low frequency mixes, where the audience “created” the piece by moving around in the space, experiencing the various resonances occurring at spatial harmonic nodes.)

Also, in the case of brass or woodwind ensembles (“choirs”), natural resonant frequencies still play a major role. This in fact complicates orchestral composition, as these types of instruments, despite elaborate mechanisms (valves and slides) always retain something of their resonant oddities. This, it could be said, actually adds to the edge, the color and excitement of orchestral sonority.

As to “the [European] harmonic system is based on an artificial division of the octave into twelve (acoustically inaccurate) semitones” – yes and no. “Equal-temperment” (absolutely equal division of the 12 tones as common today) was not universally implemented until about the turn of the 20th-century, or later (actually about the same time the Vienna-school post-expressionist “12-tone” composers in fact “deconstructed” the entire tonal-harmonic system of classical music). Johann Sebastian Bach used “well-tempered” tuning common in his day, which allowed use of, modulation through any key, but wherein each key retained a distinctive harmonic “color”. (Wikipedia) “Each key then has a slightly different intonation, hence different keys have distinct characters. Such ‘key-color’ was an essential part of much 18th- and 19th-century music and was described in treatises of the period.” Anyone familiar with Bach’s music will recognize the distinctive musical character he gives to pieces sharing the same key. (The wikipedia article outlines all the arcane details of the tuning system(s).)

Even today concert pianos are tuned with the upper registers increasingly “sharp” – slightly out-of-tune on the upper edge – which adds brilliance; if tuned perfectly the tone would sound rather dull, or “flat”, in those registers.

Actually, in some modern organs, the earlier harmonic temperaments are preserved – for instance, on the Fisk-Nanny organ at Stanford University (Herbert Nanny was my organ teacher there, back 55 years ago), one keyboard has all the “black” keys split, forward and back, into two keys, e.g. differentiating C# from D-flat, etc., with corresponding additional appropriately tuned pipes.

But – to completely shift gears, and come back home here – a key ‘bhāvanā’ teacher I’ve been privileged to have, Ven U. Jagara (over several retreats, who led me successfully into jhana practice), teaches that the Pali term “sammā-” (as in “Right-” in the steps of the 8FNP) also carries a meaning of musical attunement. He uses the analogy that, like in an orchestra, every element, every factor has to be perfectly attuned to realize the goal; any little dissonance anywhere stands out like a sore thumb. To my mind this analogy also extends to the workings of many of the fundamental Buddhist lists; e.g. what makes the difference between the 5 “faculties” (indriya) and the 5 unshakable “powers” (bala), or the difference between having just some sense of the “7 factors of enlightenment” (bojjhanga) and having them all fully “established”. Nibbana as sublime resonance?

(Jagara had a musical background in youth, prior to his 35 years of ordained life, which probably has to do with why his perspectives in teaching work so well for me – with my 8-years of university in Musikwissenshaft, and decades of playing organ, harpsichord, etc. Also an affinity with Ajahn Thanissaro, who in an interview once recounted his college days “getting stoned and listening to classical music”, as well as his eventual relinquishment of all that.)


Beautiful, thanks so much! It must have been an amazing thing to go into a cathedral and experience that sound. We’re used to huge buildings and cavernous sounds today, but in those days it must have been truly awe-inspiring. You’re actually inside the resonant chamber!

I only hope that one day someone who knows as much about Indian music can school me in that just as well.