Learning how to properly tune your violin is important for many reasons. Not only does it ensure you get the best sound, but it also helps train your ear. Knowing how to tune a violin, however, is often easier said than done. Below, violin teacher Carol Beth L. shares her top violin tuning tips…
Effective tuning is a vital skill for a musician to acquire. For kids just starting to learn violin, parents may want to grasp proper tuning as well, so that they can assist the child in the beginning. In time, however, the student should be able to do it him or herself, or musical independence will be difficult to obtain. Typically, violinists have a pretty standard process for tuning their instrument. Below are some simple tips and tricks to remember when tuning your violin:
1) Start with your A string
Find an A to listen to, and then compare and adjust your A string to match. There are several different ways to obtain a pitch. For example, if you’re playing with other string musicians ask them to play you an A, or if you have a nearby piano that’s in tune use that. If you don’t like either of those options, you can use an electronic tuner (often combined with a metronome) to provide the standard 440 A. There are also apps and online tuners that will tell you if you’re sharp, flat, or in tune. While these can be useful, be careful not to become too dependent on them. As a trained musician, you should be able to tell on your own whether your instrument is too high or too low based on a given pitch.
If you really want to train your ear, make it a habit to listen for the A and match it using your ear. If an electric tuner is your only option, I would recommend using it only for the A string, and then use your A string to help you tune your other strings. Using the electric tuner to check yourself after you’ve given it a go on your own can help you reinforce or adjust your ear.
2 ) Invest in a tuning fork
You may want to consider investing in a tuning fork, which requires less space than an electronic tuner and doesn’t require batteries. Tuning forks are made to vibrate at 440 Hz, or the perfect A. To see if you’re properly in tune, play your violin’s A while ringing the tuning fork. If your violin is out of tune, you’ll hear a distinct difference between the note you’re playing and the note played by the tuning fork.
If you’re around young people, you’ll quickly become very popular after they see the tool’s usefulness. All you have to do is strike it on a table and touch the base to the body of your violin, and they’ll be fascinated when they hear the perfectly in tune 440 A. Many of them will want to try it out themselves, and it will most likely become their new favorite toy (and even disappear!) if you aren’t careful. Amazon carries quite a few tuning forks ranging from about $4 to $14 plus shipping.
3) Listen for the ‘click’
When you’re finished tuning your A string, tune your E string next, followed by the D and G strings. For the E and D strings, use the A string as a reference point to hear whether your other strings are in tune. When done right, you should be able to hear the chord “click.” If one string is too high or too low, the sound will be slightly dissonant, not smooth. For strings that are too close in pitch, they will tend toward an augmented fourth (also known as a tritone), which is one of the most (if not the most) dissonant chords out there. If you can’t quite tell at first if they’re in tune, or if you can’t tell whether the string you’re tuning is too high or too low, try playing the notes separately, and then return to playing the chord. When you reach the G string, use the D string as a reference point.
4) Check the pegs
As you tune, use your pegs only if your strings are more than about one-fourth to one-half a step off, your fine tuners need to be adjusted, or your violin doesn’t have fine tuners. If the string only needs to be adjusted a little bit, use the fine tuners instead. The smaller the instrument, the larger the impact the tuners will have, since they’re pulling back or releasing a larger percentage of the (relatively smaller) string. If the instrument has no fine tuners, sometimes you can adjust the pitch a small amount by slightly tugging on the string and then releasing it, or by pushing on the string in the string box area in the scroll.
5) Keep it safe
If your instrument is exposed to humidity or temperatures to which it isn’t accustomed, be prepared for it to go out of tune. To prevent this from happening, place less stress on your violin by keeping it in a place where changes in temperature, pressure, and humidity will be minimized. The same applies to when you replace your violin strings. Violin strings need to be replaced from time to time; the new strings will change at the beginning as they stretch out in response to the pressure exerted upon them.
6) Adjust to your surroundings
As you become more accustomed to tuning your instrument, be open to adapting to groups that use non-standard tuning. A cellist with whom I sometimes play commonly uses 432 Hz as her standard A, since it was often used prior to modern times. It sounds about a half-step lower than a 440 A. I tune down my instrument to match hers when I play chamber music with her, and re-tune it when I go back to play with my own orchestra. Some professional orchestras tune slightly high – between 441 and 445 Hz – to help the string instruments sound brighter.
Violin tuning is both a skill and a way to train your ear to hear both chords and small differences in pitch. At first, learning how to tune your violin can be difficult. With constant repetition, however, it will become a natural process – and you may even end up with some useful tips of your own! If you’re looking for some additional violin tuning tips, ask your violin teacher to give you some expert insight into the practices he or she uses.
Carol Beth L. teaches viola and violin in San Francisco, CA. She currently plays viola in the San Francisco Civic Orchestra and has been teaching students since 2012. Learn more about Carol Beth here!
Photo by wil p