V.com weekend vote: Do you tune strings individually, or using fifths?

November 11, 2016, 12:36 PM · Do you tune your strings one at a time, or do you primarily do it in double-stops, tuning the fifths?

I still remember my wonder, as a young violinist, when an experienced violinist could play two strings at a time to tune, mysteriously arriving at some kind of perfect synchronicity of pitch. How'd he or she do that?

strings in space

In the beginning, I tuned one string at a time, and my ear could tell me pretty well what the fifth was, without playing a double stop. Eventually, though, my ear started understanding what my mind did not know about the physics of fifths: that there is a 3:2 ratio of sound waves, thus when they are in perfect relation, the sound waves literally do sync up. It's a very precise measurement. I began to rely on the double-stops for tuning, especially in orchestra.

Then came the chromatic tuner. The chromatic tuner was not around when I was a beginner, however, and its invention made me think anew about tuning. Chromatic tuners are pretty darned accurate. To be sure, chromatic tuners are based on equal-temperament pitch. Yet, they don't seem to throw the intervals as badly as, say, a piano does. I decided it's not a bad way to tune, especially when one has a little time in the studio. One can always check the fifths at the end.

Yet after experimenting with the chromatic tuner, I still generally make sure my A is right and then tune in double-stop fifths. Is this because the battery died in my chromatic tuner, or because it's a better way of tuning? I can't say!

Please vote in the poll, and then share your experiences about tuning, and what you feel are the merits and problems with different ways of doing it. Also, someone tell me what is the best kind of chromatic tuner - it might be more than the battery! ;) I want one that will do different A's -- 440, 442, etc.


November 11, 2016 at 08:35 PM · I check my strings to see if they are "close enough" for teaching individually and teach my students to use a tuner so they can hear what in tune sounds like. After that they learn 5ths and eventually I let them tune anyway they want. I think it's faster to tune by 5ths really.

November 11, 2016 at 09:06 PM · I tune the A first, using a tuning fork or electronic tuner that gives the 440 pitch. Haven't used a chromatic tuner so far. Then I tune the remaining strings in double-stop fifths -- A-D, D-G, E-A. Can tell right away if the fifth is right on or if a neighboring string needs adjusting.

BTW, the radio tone at the top of the hour is 440 for a number of networks, so one more way of checking if you can't get your hands on the usual tuning devices. The computer serves well, too.

November 11, 2016 at 09:17 PM · I tune the A string. I then approximate each tuning individually, then I do my final check by playing harmonics: A string 1/3 string length harmonic [where 4th finger E would be] making an E6 vs. the E string 1/2 string length harmonic E6. I tune the upper E string slightly(!!!) flat compared to the A string harmonic. Then I play the A string 1/2 string length harmonic A5 vs. the D string 1/3 string length harmonic (where the 4th finger A would be) A5, and tune the D string slightly(!!!) sharp compared to the A string harmonic. Finally, the D string 1/2 string length harmonic D5 vs the G string 1/3 string length harmonic D5 (where the 4th finger D would be) and tune the G string slightly(!!!) sharp compared to the D string harmonic. Each harmonies unison has to be tuned with the bottom note slightly sharp because if exactly in-tune Pythagorean Perfect 5ths (3:2 ratio) were to be used, the two outermost strings would be slightly out of tune with each other. This debate about Pythagorean tuning (exact ratios), vs. mean tone tuning, true tone tuning, equal temperament tuning, etc. has been going on for centuries, and will continue. There is no "one-size-fits-all" solution., although equal temperament is the most versatile for most situations.

November 11, 2016 at 10:16 PM · I used to use a tuning fork and then do the fifths. However, working with the youth orchestra and tuning a whole lot of instruments I've found the chromatic tuner to be so much faster and there is no need to bow the strings that I've stopped doing the fifths. I do occasionally play the fifths just to keep the sound in my head.

Let's not even discuss the theory of equal temperament and the "dreaded comma!" OK, A-sharp and B-flat aren't really exactly the same precise position on the fingerboard but,...

November 11, 2016 at 11:17 PM · I used to use the chromatic tuner for each string when my daughter was young. These days she rarely uses Clear Tune even for A, except when a new string is put on, and then use the 5th method. The speed and quality of tuning seem to have a direct, positive relationship to her violin skill.

November 12, 2016 at 12:16 AM · I tune my violin A-string with a tuning fork, and reality check it with a digital tuner if the situation permits. Then I tune the other strings in fifths, using my bow, and listening for the interference beats. I sometimes reality check them with the tuner too, situation permitting.

My digital tuner is the Petersen i-Strobosoft app loaded into my iPhone. I unequivocally endorse this product. It's very economical, assuming you already have an iPhone, and it's accuracy and flexibility are incomparable. I sold every other tuner I had, including a hardware model Petersen Strobo-Plus HD tuner, after I got the iStrobosoft.

A few important features:

1) Tunings can be "sweetened," which means that you can switch from equal temperament to perfect fifths when desired. There's a huge range of sweeteners available for many different instruments.

2) Petersen makes a clip on tuning pickup designed specifically to plug into your iPhone's headphone/earbud jack, allowing you to tune in a noisy environment. They also make an adapter that allows instruments with 1/4" phone plug terminated cables to be plugged into your iPhone.

3) The pitch standard can be varied from A-440 when required.

Some things I've learned since I've had the iStrobosoft are:

1) The pitch is different when a string is bowed than when it's plucked. And strong bowing yields a different pitch than soft bowing. I always tune with my bow applied softly.

2) Tuning isn't really an exact science. There's a great deal of subjectivity and choice about intonation.

I also have a Wittner A-440 tuning fork on a resonator box in my practice space. When I play an in tune A the fork will vibrate loudly in sympathy, so I always have a bit of an affirmation that I'm doing it right, and if I'm not getting that strong sympathetic response I know that I'm likely out of tune. It's kind of like having your guardian angel there to hum the correct pitch for you. ;)

November 12, 2016 at 12:56 AM · I agree with Joel, I get my A from an app on my phone called cleartune which is excellent. Having got the A, I tune the 5ths and then check the harmonics. If there is a discrepancy on the harmonics I go back to 5ths.

Strings stretch differently and fitting one new string can upset the tuning as it wont be stretched. That is why I always change a set of strings at a time, expensive but worth it. I keep the old strings for emergencies.

November 12, 2016 at 01:04 AM · I actually play E to G then go back up to the E string in fifths.

Because the sound is so familiar I can tell if a string is off in a split second.

November 12, 2016 at 03:03 AM · I use the fork for a and then the harmonics method.

3rd, l play the open strings on 5ths and sometimes

I even play harmonic 5ths which sound like the violin's

open strings (e/a then a/d and finally d/g). These 4

methods give my students the opportunity to know

their fingerboard as well as how to learn if there is a

string that has became 'false' and may need replacing.

November 12, 2016 at 05:08 AM · I have an app that's called "Tuning Fork" and with a tap it just plays an "A." It can be adjusted to different tunings, although, if you want to do anything besides 440, you have to make adjustments. There isn't a preset tuning for 442, oddly enough--just 444.

November 12, 2016 at 05:17 AM · I judge the pitch of the A string with my own ears (solo situation). I have a set pitch range that is acceptable (less that 1/2 of a semitone). I tune to another sound in ensemble situations, however.

November 12, 2016 at 09:35 AM · I tune the A, then double stop 5ths and then a quick check with a chromatic tuner. One that's popular on the trad scene in Edinburgh these days is the D'addario Micro Violin Tuner that clips to the violin and can be left on when playing if playing in drafty pubs where the tuning changes a lot over the course of an evening!


November 12, 2016 at 01:45 PM · I pretty much think that using chromatic tuners for tuning your instrument, unless maybe you want to get the A from it, is a thing for beginners. Many students also have their teacher tune the instrument in the very beginning, and many are dependent on the teacher to tune for way too long, I must say. After the beginning stage, everyone I've seen simply gets an A from somewhere and then tunes each string together. I haven't seen many violinists and violists use harmonics to tune. That seems to mostly occur with cellists and bassists. In an orchestra, by far the most standard is to have an oboe play an A for everyone, after the concertmaster stands up to signal that it is time to tune. I simply can't imagine using a chromatic tuner to tune strings individually in a group that large.

November 12, 2016 at 03:13 PM · My finger hit the wrong button; I tune A then in fifths, & I use a fork, not a chrom. tuner. I like its sound better

November 12, 2016 at 09:45 PM · I tune in fifths except for when I feel the need to mire myself in the endless wilderness of alternative systems of temperament because then I can waste an unfathomable amount of time arguing with people on the internet about minutiae and historical arcana instead of practicing the violin and thereby actually improving my intonation.

Like Pamela, I like a clip-on tuner for my A -- I use the one from Shar that clips onto your scroll. It fits the viola too, just barely.

November 13, 2016 at 06:04 AM · I tune the A and do double stops. I have used a Korg model (looks like the current KT-40) ever since I started playing. It lets you set the A, which I admit is easy to change without knowing it. My string quartet companions use a tuner that clips onto the peg head and they tune each string separately--moving the tuner from one peg to another is so much fussing.

November 13, 2016 at 09:26 AM · A and double-stops. When I'm at home I take my A from a small electronic keyboard that I keep handy, or from an app called "G-strings" which also shows how close you are to the correct pitch (in a whole range of temperaments, if you are into such things ;) . If I need to check my judgement on intonation I check first with the keyboard to make a judgement by ear, and then double-check it with the app.

I find using the app very helpful to check whether my fingers and indeed my ear are right about things - it's helping me become a lot more precise.

November 13, 2016 at 01:24 PM · I tune in fifths when I'm playing in an orchestra or solo, but tune chromatically when I'm playing with a keyboard accompanist so that I don't sound comparatively out of tune.

November 13, 2016 at 02:21 PM · I've heard that violas and cellos sometimes slightly sharpen their G and C strings.

November 13, 2016 at 03:55 PM · Paul, that is especially so in a string quartet setting, depending on the keys the music is in. For example, if C major is the predominant key of the piece the C-strings of the viola and cello in standard perfect 5th tuning will have E-harmonics which will be audibly flatter than the pitch of the open E-string, or in words the E-string will not be able to resonate properly in a chord of C major played by the ensemble. The practical solution, which was taught to a cellist colleague of mine when he was on a quartet workshop, is to sharpen the C-string by a small amount (perhaps about 1/6 tone? I haven't done the calculation yet) which will bring about the desired resonance. It's not a good idea for the violinists to flatten their E-string to attain the effect, because doing so will have unwanted side effects on their instruments, upsetting the violin's internal resonances and behaviour of the bridge arising out of a reduced tension in the E.

Sharpening the cello and viola G-strings by a similar amount so that the C and G are an exact 5th apart is desirable to ensure good resonances.

[Edit added an hour later] I've done the calculation. The frequency of the violin's open E is 660Hz. The E harmonic of the cello C tuned by perfect 5th tuning is 652Hz, a difference that is obvious to most ears.

The frequency of the cello's C in perfect 5th tuning is 65Hz. This has to be raised to 66Hz to give the necessary resonance with the violin E. Tuning the cello C up from 65 to 66Hz doesn't sound much, but at that pitch region it is about 1/6 tone, which is hearable.

Practically, the cellist would play his E harmonic and tune up the string until it matches the violin E.

November 13, 2016 at 04:51 PM · I play often with a piano quintet, the cellist and I get both an A and C (minor chords) from the piano to tune the outermost strings and then use 5ths for the middle two. This sharpens the lower strings a bit so they don't sound flat against the piano and violins.

I use the clear-tune app when away from home, but use my Peterson Strobo-flip at home. Like the app mentioned above, it has many sweeteners available and it is easy to change the A. The clearTune app also allows you to change the A.

November 13, 2016 at 09:01 PM · I play the A and tune, then I turn it off. The rest is the usual A-D D-G A-E

November 14, 2016 at 01:45 AM · On of my teachers, Harold Wippler, always began tuning with the E because it was the least likely string to be out of tune!

November 15, 2016 at 05:36 PM · Trevor -- wow thanks, that is exactly what I was hoping to learn -- the frequency of the adjusted C string on the cello.

November 18, 2016 at 03:08 AM · First the A to a fork, or piano or oboe, depending on the circumstances, then 5ths.

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