Why do they call it “tuning” to a channel?

Tune to a channel. Don’t touch that dial. Roll up your windows. Hang up your phone. The English language is full of remnants of old technology that don’t really make sense anymore. I mean, no one has manual windows anymore, and so you don’t “roll” anything in order to raise them up. No one has a wall phone with a hook for the receiver anymore, so you aren’t really “hanging up” anything. This sort of stuff is throughout our language and it always has been.

Want proof? Look at the word “calculator.” We all know what it means. It’s a machine, or more recently an app, that does math functions. But the word itself comes from “calculus,” which is a Latin word meaning “pebble.” The word reminds us that a long time ago people counted using stones, not apps. You find examples like that throughout time.

I guess that’s why I don’t mind if people say they’re going to “tape” something with their camera app even though there’s not a shred of videotape to be found these days.

Let’s get back to “tuning.”

We tune to a channel today because in the early days of broadcasting, that’s exactly what we were doing. You first have to understand what “tuning” meant before broadcasting.

In the days before radio, only musical instruments got tuned. To tune a musical instrument is to make sure that when you use it, it makes the right frequency. Otherwise it will sound “out of tune” and wrong when played besides others. For reasons that aren’t really clear yet, human ears don’t like sounds that are slightly dissonant. Tuning makes sure everyone sounds the same.

Until the late 20th century, receiving broadcasts was done pretty much the same way as musical instrument tuning. A device (called a tuner) was set to a reference frequency. At first this was done by turning a knob until the frequency being received was exactly the same as the frequency being broadcast. The tuner blocked out all other frequencies but that one and focused on receiving and decoding that one.

Just like musical instruments this was a process of moving things around slowly until it was perfect.

Tuning television channels

Radio broadcasts take place on a very narrow range of frequencies. AM radio was the first kind of commercial broadcasting in this country. Each station broadcast using a 10kHz section of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Television takes a lot more information than radio, and so the frequency range has to be wider. In the US, it’s 6MHz. Miraculously, this amount of space which was originally used for standard-definition black-and-white is now used for HD with Dolby sound. In the future it will be used for 4K.

But, this makes tuning a TV station harder. Simply turning a knob until everything is perfect is harder and takes more time. So, television tuners were created to let you jump a preset distance and get tactile feedback when you do.

Electronic tuning

Of course, that was all “way back when.” Since the late 1900s and into the 2000s, tuning has all been done digitally, with computer chips focusing on a single frequency range that you can enter in directly. There aren’t any moving parts in a TV or radio anymore, of course.

But, we still call it “tuning.” The word refers to the days when very fine, manual adjustments were needed in order to pull in the programs you wanted, and it’s still here. We may not be doing it the same way, but we’re still doing the same thing.

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About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 6,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.