Scales and Tunings

This is the range of notes that can be played on the 21 Kora strings.
The bridge shows the strings related to the notes in the notation.
(The x is not a string but a percussion effect.)
The green line in the bridge follows the ascending and descending scale.

Tonal Base

The absolute base pitch of traditional instruments may vary between about E (deepest guitar string) and the A above it.
However, F seems to become standard.

software can either use F as tonal base for the notations.
Here we use F, so the intervallic steps (given in Roman numbers) in the 4 octaves (deep, lower, upper, high) are:


deep octave (incomplete, 4 notes), played with left thumb
steps I, V, VI, VII

lower octave (complete, 7 notes), preferably played with thumbs
steps I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII

upper octave (complete, 7 notes), preferably played with forefingers
steps I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII

high octave (incomplete, 3 notes), played with right forefinger
steps I, II, III

This tuning schema is found where ever the Kora is played.

This is the assignment of the 21 Kora strings to the keyboard.
Dark colors means to be played with the thumbs, light with the index fingers.
Red colors are at the left hand, blue at the right hand.

The 23 string Kora has additional step IV and step II in the bass.
Also step VI is tuned down to step III.

A 22 string Kora normally has additional step IV.
Different ways of detuning step VI are used depending on the need:
most often to step II or step III.

Even on a 21 string Kora the step VI can be tuned to step IV or step III.

Traditional Tunings

The tunings have different relative distances between the tonal steps, other than on the just tempered Western scale:

step III (A) und step VII (E) can be rather major (Hardino)
or minor (Tomora Mesengo) or in between (Tomora Ba, Silaba),
step IV (Bb or "German"-B) can be augmented (B or "German"-H) in Sauta tuning,
even step II and VI can differ from a just interval,
only step I and step V are always one fifth apart.

For Sauta tuning the step IV in the scale is tuned up by one halftone.

There are 4 traditional heptatonic tunings with microtonal intervals.
The scales given below in Cents (1 halftone = 100 Cents, 1 octave = 1200 Cents) have been measured and generalized by R. King.

For comparison the intervals of the tempered F-Major tuning are given in Cents:

F 200 G 200 A 100 B 200 C 200 D 200 E 100 f

The - and + signs below the notes indicate the difference to the tempered scale.

Tomora Ba also called Silaba

Mostly used for the Tiliji (western, Gambia) repertoire.
This is considered the original or most typical Kora tuning in contrary to the others which are said to be derived from Balo (Balafon) and Kontingo (Ngoni) tunings.
Similar to the western Major scale, with step III and VII slightly lowered.

Intervals in Cents:

F 200 G 185 A 115 B 200 C 200 D 185 E 115 f
           -                       -

Tomora Mesengo also called Tomora

Mostly used for the Tilibo (eastern, Mali) and Casamance repertoire.
Step III and VII between major and minor, step II and VI slighly augmented.

Intervals in Cents:

F 230 G 95 A 175 B 200 C 230 D 95 E 175 f
     +    -                 +    -


Mostly used for the Tilibo (eastern, Mali) repertoire.
Similar to the western Major scale, with step III and VII slightly augmented as well as step II and VI slightly lowered.
Intervals in Cents:>

F 185 G 220 E 95 B 200 C 185 D 220 E 95 f
     -     +                -     +


Mostly used for the Tilibo (eastern, Mali) repertoire.
In Gambia and Casamance sometimes a "Half-Sauta" is used:
only the step IV in the upper octave is tuned up to Sauta, in the lower octave it is left to Hardino.

Intervals in Cents:

F 185 G 220 A 200 B 95 C 185 D 220 E 95 f
     -     +     ++         -     +

Microtonal Tunings

software provides a Wave Player, capable of playing sampled sounds of Kora strings
with arbitrary sample rate (frequency).
Thereby the whole instrument or every single string can be tuned microtonally.
The tuning can be saved and loaded, the above listed tunings can be used and modified.

Praxis of Tunings

African Korafola (Kora players) normally are not concerned with absolute pitches,
this question arises only when they play together with keyboards or other Western tuned instruments.

If they play with a second Kora or with a Balafon, Ngoni they just match to a common base pitch
that is ok for both players and for the singing voice.

If they play alone they don't care too much about pitches and sometimes not even about tunings
- there are all kinds of microtonal variations to be heard for the step II and VII between major and minor,
more to minor when using Tomora tuning, more to major when using Hardino.
The tunings are learned by ear, therefore there are considerable regional and individual differences.

Most music pieces are thought to be played in a certain tuning, though this is not obligatory.
Some Hardino-songs may also be played in Sauta and reversely.
Some songs played normally in Tomora Ba can also be heard in Tomora Mesengo.

However, younger Korafola tend to play in bands together with Western instruments where they need to tune to them.
So it is very common to tune the Kora to a just Western F-major scale. This standard tuning is usually called Silaba.