As most violin teachers and prestigious musicians would agree, maintaining your musical instrument should have as much attention directed toward it as caring for the family pet. Although your dog or cat doesn’t need regular tuning, your violin certainly does – or your playing skills won’t be popular with family or neighbors!
If this is your first experience with playing music seriously, tuning your instrument may not even have occurred to you. Nor will you notice, necessarily, slight changes in pitch as your violin slips out of tune. However, playing on an out-of-tune instrument will affect your ability to hear pitch changes clearly, and may hamper your progress in learning how to play the violin.
The Basics – Tuning Your Violin
When you first start playing, tuning your violin is something that you might leave to your teacher for fear of broken strings and collapsing bridges. However, it’s a skill that you should really acquire for yourself as early on in your playing career as you can – equate it to taking the training wheels off your first bicycle! Here are some things to keep in mind:
New strings – Ask an experienced violinist (or your teacher) to show you how to put new strings on your violin, and even do it for you the first few times. New violin strings need a couple of weeks to settle in and need frequent tuning adjustment, so don’t get discouraged.
Know Your Violin – Familiarize yourself with which peg relates to which string. It’s easier to navigate the fine tuners, as they’re directly related to the string in question. You can pull up an online violin tuner resource to help you tell the pegs apart, or follow the line of the string up to the peg. To adjust the pitch with the peg, turn it away from you in normal playing position to raise it, and in the opposite direction to lower it. Pegs can stick; if this happens, pull it out slightly, and scribble around it with a graphite pencil to make it easier to move.
Careful Does It – Tightening a string too far or too fast will cause it to snap, so bear this in mind when you’re learning to tune your violin for yourself. If your string is only marginally out of tune, use the fine tuners instead, turning them clockwise to raise the pitch, and anti-clockwise to lower it.
Points of Reference – Unless you have perfect pitch, which is incredibly rare, you will need a reference note to help you out. Tuning forks are a good investment, and there are smartphone apps available to help you, too (more on this later!).
Tuning Your Violin – How Often?
If you’ve been to symphony orchestra concerts, you may have noticed that the violins make constant adjustments between movements with their fine tuners. If you’re playing for more than a few minutes, the pitch can easily slip and need your attention. Slight knocks and changes in the weather, as well as central heating or air conditioning, can also affect your violin’s sound. A good rule of thumb is to assume your violin is out of tune, especially if you’re playing with others!
Tuning to Others – Piano Accompaniment and Ensembles
As you improve and start to play with others – either with a pianist, a string quartet, or even in an orchestra – you will learn that “in tune” is sometimes relative, adjusting to the equal tuning of the keyboard, or even the key of the music you are playing. A little research on equal temperament and key relationships will help to explain this to you.
Be prepared to make slight adjustments, and learn to listen carefully. You might be in tune in relation to the melody line you’re playing, but are you in tune in relation to the chord that your fellow musicians have? In performances, tuning adjustments will be made by finger position, but listen in to your ensemble colleagues when you’re tuning between movements.
Improving Your Ear – Simple Exercises to Help You Improve Pitch Perception
A “tin ear” can be trained, and although perfect pitch is the preserve of a chosen few, something called “relative pitch” can be acquired with patience and regular practice.
Find a Friend – If your ear is very untrained, start by learning to sing back pitches that are played to you. Enlisting a fairly musical friend is essential, as you may not yet be in a position where you know if you’re singing the right notes back when they are played to you. A piano is best, but downloadable keyboard apps are also useful to train yourself on the go.
Listen and Learn – Work on picking out notes from the middle of a chord, or from the tonic, and learn to sing back different intervals. Again, you may wish to have someone to help you with this.
Acquiring “Relative Pitch” – You may find that after playing for some time, you can easily sing back various notes with no immediate point of reference. This is called “pitch memory,” and if developed properly, can turn into relative pitch.
Online Violin Tuners – A Guide
If you have a smartphone, there are several online violin tuner apps, for both iOS and Android systems, which can be an incredibly useful resource. Here are some to check out::
YouTube Tutorials – Particularly useful for the complete beginner, a simple search on YouTube can help you find online violin tuner tutorials to help you out.
If you find it hard to hear pitches played on the piano in relation to your violin, the online violin tuner here may help you with an electronic simulation of the G-D-A-E string pitches.
Smartphone apps – These can be a minefield when searching for an online violin tuner; several reviewers note that the developers don’t know how to tune a violin! However, it’s worth testing these for yourself, as you may find one that works for your needs. We recommend the Android app gStrings Free, but still be aware that some reviewers with keen ears consider the pitches to be as much as a quarter tone wide of the mark!
A combination of a well-trained ear and online violin tuner will aid you in becoming competent and confident in tuning your own violin. Good luck!
Photo by Waldo Jaquith