There are various reasons for shifting a tuning. One could be that you want certain notes in the scale to be at the bottom, like with the Orchestra/Solo tuning mentioned above. When this is the case, the whole instrument is normally transposed when the key is changed, so that the root note is always located in the same place on the harp.
Another reason, and the one this post is about, is to fit a certain range of notes. In a thread about the EDharmonica tuning, Rishio points out that going below a low e forces unpleasant bends, and starting much higher makes the top octave too shrill. For me, the reason for shifting is to try to match the range of another musical instrument, namely the fiddle.
My idea is this:
If each octave requires 4 holes, as is the case with the Solo, PowerChromatic and others, a 10 hole harp spans about two octaves and a third. This is about the same range that a fiddler normally use when playing traditional Irish or Scandinavian music! So: Why not shift the tuning so that the lowest note roughly matches the lowest note on the fiddle, which is 'g'? For example, take a look at the following harps in the popular keys of G and D. They both follow the same pattern, similar to that found on a PowerChromatic, but with one blow note raised in each octave.
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f# a c d f# a c d f# a 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 g b d e g b d e g b
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a c# e g a c# e g a c# 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 b d f# a b d f# a b d
In some ways this concept can be likened with the use of a capo on a guitar. Some guitarists play in different tunings, just like we do, and when they want to change the key of a tune they use a capo. This can be slightly awkward, as you need to play on a different part of the neck, and the dots on the neck don't really match what you are used to, but it works well for many guitarists. The normal way of changing to a harmonica in a different key is more like tuning all the strings up or down. The result is that playing in the new key uses exactly the same movements as the original key. The comparison is far from perfect, but I think it captures at least some parts of what is going on. The guitarists accept the capo, because it is much easier than retuning the whole instrument, and cheaper than keeping one guitar in each key. I think that we could do this as well, and that we might benefit from it.
I recently had a harp made in the same tuning as displayed above, but in the key of A and starting on a 'g#', mostly to evaluate the tuning itself, but if I find that I like it I plan to include the two above described harps to the collection.
Traditional music often develops in close connection to the instruments used. If a fiddler plays a tune in D, there is a low 'a' below the lowest root note, while tunes in G have a very low root note with nothing below it. For someone who wants to play fiddle music, it thus makes no sense having many notes below the root note on a G-tuned harp, while on a D-tuned harp you need at least three notes below the lowest root note.
Have any of you done anything similar to fit the range fiddles of some other instruments? I'm sure other musical styles also have typical instruments with certain ranges, and that tunes in different keys could be different enough to justify shifting the tunings. Any thoughts or input?
(I also make some points in the PowerBender versus EDharmonica thread, so some more points could be found there!)