Eli5. Why are different fretted instruments (guitar, mandolin, banjo, etc) tuned differently? Wouldn’t it be easier if they all were the same?

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Eli5. Why are different fretted instruments (guitar, mandolin, banjo, etc) tuned differently? Wouldn’t it be easier if they all were the same?

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Easier for whom and easier for what purpose?

For a large number of purposes.

First, these instruments have been invented by separate communities of people and each of them tuned those to their understanding. We can take a mandolin and tune it into EBGDAE tuning, but it won’t be a traditional mandolin sound anymore.

Second, even the guitar has lots of variants of tuning depending on what you want to do with it. You can tune it to sound as F#maj7 on open strings if you wish. So actually learning something that is unified is not a good way of learning.

So, fretted instruments started really becoming popular and widespread in the later middle ages with the lute, theorbo, vihuela, and early guitar. The thing is, it’s not like there was any kind of “lute standardization league” while people were dying of the plague, so people just tuned to whatever tuning worked best for them. In fact, lutes and theorbos that had a bunch of strings (7-12+ pairs of strings) would often have to retune the lowest pitched stings to match with whatever key the song was in.

So you let that run for centuries, even milenia, and you get a whole bunch of tuning systems, each with thier own strengths, weakenesses, and tradition behind them. This eventually collapsed into the “standard” instrument tunings we have today

Source: am a classical guitarist and wrote a college paper on the history of guitar like, 4 yrs ago