What Are The Numbers On A Kalimba For?


The Kalimba is not a widely recognized instrument, and when asked, many individuals might not know what you are talking about. However, there is still some misunderstanding of how it works, including what the numbers stand for.

The numbers on a Kalimba denote the degrees of the Major scale to which it is tuned. Most Kalimbas are tuned to C, and hence, the numbers from 1 – 7 will denote the degrees of the C Major scale, which will be C | D | E | F | G | A | B, and these will correspond to 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7.

If you are looking to get a Kalimba and are wondering if it is difficult to play and how it works, then this article is for you.

We will detail all the ins and outs of a Kalimba, going over exactly how they work, how you should play them, and what all the numbers and notes on a Kalimba mean.

Kalimba overview

Let’s quickly go over what a Kalimba is and how it works so we can better understand this instrument and how it effectively makes a sound.

The Kalimba, also known as an African Thumb Piano, comes from the line of Mbira instruments that the Shona people of Zimbabwe came up with

The Kalimba consists of a soundboard or soundbox that metal tines are attached to. The keys (metal tines) vary in length, and each will produce a different sounding note. Furthermore, you get Kalimbas of various sizes, including smaller versions only having five keys, while larger ones can have up to 21 keys.

They will typically be played with one’s thumbs while the box/board is held with the other fingers.

What Are The Numbers On A Kalimba?

The numbers on the Kalimba refer to the degrees of the scale to which it is tuned. It is important to note That most Kalimbas come tuned to the Key of C but can be tuned to various other keys. It is also essential to understand that the numbers coincide with a Major Scale.

The Major scale comprises of 8 notes and will be outlined by degrees (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) that refer to the subsequent notes of the scale.

The notes and degrees of a major scale are as follows;

  1. Starting note (octave)
  2. Maj 2nd
  3. Maj 3rd
  4. Perf 4th
  5. Perf 5th
  6. Maj 6th
  7. Maj 7th
  8. Octave (starting note)

Hence in the case of C Major and without going into too much musical theory, the notes of a C Major Scale will be;

  1. C
  2. D
  3. E
  4. F
  5. G
  6. A
  7. B
  8. C (octave)

Hence the numbers on a Kalimba tuned to C will denote the degrees of a C Major scale, and the numbers will correspond to the associated note.

It will help if you understand that there will be no number eight key because this is the starting note 1, and any other notes labeled “1” will be subsequent lower or higher octaves of it.

Take note that, in essence, you could play notes of a scale that had the corresponding notes of C (if your Kalimba was tuned to C) in them, but you may have to leave some notes out.

For example, if we play the notes on a Kalimba from G, we could essentially play the G Major scale, but we would not be able to play the seventh note, which would be an F# due to the Kalimba not having an F# note.

Thus we could play an almost G Major scale by playing;

  • G
  • A
  • B
  • C
  • D
  • E
  • F# (which is not on the Kalimba)

Playing the F note but beginning from G would result in you playing a G Mixolydian scale, but that scale is beyond this article’s scope.

The only thing you have to understand is that the numbers on the Kalimba express the degrees of the Major scale, and playing those numbers in order will result in you playing the Major scale that the Kalimba is tunned to.

You can recognize this scale by having the “do-re-mi” melody.

How to tune a Kalimba

Depending on the make and model of your Kalimba, you are able to adjust the metal tines in order to tune it. Some Kalimbas will even allow you to tune them up or down a semitone or tone.

This means that you could, in fact, tune your Kalimba to play the “black notes” of a piano and not just the white ones.

To do this will require a digital tuner and then the tool that comes with your Kalimba allowing you to tune it. All you would need to do is either push or pull the metal tine with the tool and then use the digital tuner to check that you are playing the corresponding note correctly.

Here is a video outlining how to tune your Kalimba, and even though this method is used to exact tune to C, all you would need are the degrees of the scale you wish to tune to and then tune your Kalimba accordingly.

How to record a Kalimba

Recording a Kalimba would involve the use of a condenser microphone. Kalimbas are not built with pickups or microphones, so this would be the only way to record it.

Take into consideration that the Kalimba only produces a soft tone, and as such, recording it with anything other than a condenser microphone (like a dynamic one) would result in poor audio.

Condenser microphones have built-in preamplifiers that will boost the audio, making it louder. These microphones are incredibly sensitive and therefore are your best bet to pick up that very soft sound.

The only other factor to consider is the polar pattern of the microphone.

We would suggest going with a cardioid polar pattern because this would pick up the sound directly from one side and not from any other. This would effectively pick up the soft sound from the Kalimba and not any other noises or interferences.

I have written an article on recording ASMR a lot of the recording techniques can be applied to recording the Kalimba.

You can find this article here.

Can you play Kalimba with your nails?

You can most definitely play the Kalimba if you have longer nails, and in some regards, it is often considered better.

This is due to the fact that because the metal tines are so small many individuals feel that they can pluck the metal tines more effectively with their nails than with their actual fingers.

Take a look at this video outlining that it is preferable to grow your nails out to play the Kalimba because playing with your thumbs can actually get quite sore.

I have written an article on using piano sheet music with other instruments. You can read it here.

Conclusion

The Kalimba is an instrument that historically goes back hundreds of years and is still an instrument many musical hobbyists love to play.

We discovered that it is a small musical device consisting of metal tines (keys), and those are mounted on a soundbox or board.

Playing the metal tines on the Kalimba will result in you playing the degrees of a Major scale to which it is tuned. Furthermore, the numbers on the Kalimba are associated with the degrees of the scale, and playing them from one to seven in order will effectively result in you playing the “do-re-mi” scale.

The last thing that we found out is that they can be tuned to different keys, and as such, they can effectively play almost any note in the musical scale.

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