The shocking truth about tuning.

March 24, 2018, 1:38 PM · I recently was experimenting with a dandy little tuner called CLEARTONE (I think) and decided that I played within a +/_ 20 cents window.
So, this time I bothered to tune very carefully and the difference was awesome ! (at +/- 5 ) !!!

Maybe I have a good imagination. Maybe I should take up the saxophone. (my second love). Maybe I need a better tuner. What if I were a soloist just going on stage?

The improvement with the careful tuning even encourages me to practice !!

What might be the pro approach to tuning?

Replies (28)

March 24, 2018, 2:41 PM · And you think that the sax will be easier? I doubt it.

A player who comes in to the shop and plays in a local symphony once mentioned that one of his instruments sounds best tuned a bit sharp, so he tunes it where it sounds best and plays in tune. I couldn't do that, but he does.
Another friend mentioned a soloist who would play scales, in tune, warming up, and when the rehearsal began he would play the open strings of his instrument to show that they were not in tune, then tune with the orchestra.

The tuner is a tool, but it won't help you play in tune!

Edited: March 24, 2018, 3:31 PM · Unless you need to tune to any external source, such as principal oboe in an orchestra, a piano, or even the playing of an orchestra (as Ricci did when he was in the green room waiting to go on stage) then the only reference tuner you would need that is 100% reliable is the tuning fork. That makes you listen - no eyes looking at a needle flickering on a screen.

Even the tuning fork can eventually be dispensed with as your ears get accustomed to the timbre of individual notes, as Scott points out above, and its resonance. I believe I'm reaching that stage now in that I can often tell whether the A is precisely in tune to A440 just by plucking it when I open the case.

I think that with time the brain remembers A440 at a deep level, and this is where use of the A440 tuning fork comes in on the way to that deep remembering.

The story Duane tells about the soloist warming with in-tune scales on an out-of-tune violin reminds me of some great teachers (Heifetz, perhaps?) not allowing the student to re-tune during a lesson, on the excellent grounds that the player wouldn't be able to stop in the middle of a movement during a performance to re-tune - people tend to notice - so they must learn to play in tune under all conditions. Tuning between movements is ok,of course, as we did last night in a performance of Britten's "Simple Symphony" for strings (which in some respects belies its name) immediately after the pizzicato movement, when re-tuning was necessary for many.

Edited: March 25, 2018, 5:38 PM · I'm not sure the brain remembers A440. People rarely develop perfect pitch. But you may be on to something when you mention timbre. I think it's likely instrument-specific, because each instrument responds a certain way to a pitch. I recognize the sound of my own viola playing A440, and I can tune the A string to 440 +/- 0.3Hz (i.e. within less than 1 cent) with no tuner or tuning fork or oboe A at all... but I can't do it with anyone else's instrument, only with the exact instrument that I've had for the last 12 years. I definitely don't have perfect pitch.
March 24, 2018, 6:24 PM · I can understand contextual and subjective tuning and what works is all that matters.
However, recent events have spoiled me and I won’t be satisfied until l have a more consistent approach.
Incidentally, I wonder what an orchestra would sound like witth everyone in perfect pitch,
One of my strange gimmicks now is to listen to the violin as a chord. I.e. sound a string and then
Listen “to the box”.

March 24, 2018, 6:39 PM · An orchestra should be tuned consistently, usually to A=440, but sometimes to something higher (a 442 is pretty common these days for its brighter sound, for instance).

You listen for purity between the fifths -- no "beats".

March 24, 2018, 7:10 PM · Whenever I tune my viola to perfect fifths (no beats) I find that my open C and G sound flat relative to the violins. Trying to figure out why that might be.
March 24, 2018, 9:33 PM · Interesting fact, saxophone is relatively easy to play. The fingerings are consistent between the two main octaves(where as with clarinet they are not,) save for the octave key. The embouchure does not take as long initially to adjust to like the flute. It's very easy, especially with tenor saxophone where the embouchure is more open, to pick up and make a sound.

The trouble comes with making the saxophone sound pure and the fact that very few notes will ever be "in tune." Many notes are too sharp or flat and require much "lipping down" and alternate fingerings depending on the context, tone, and pitch required.

I took many informative lessons from a professor in college and learned a lot about saxophone, though it was never my passion.

March 24, 2018, 9:38 PM · "Whenever I tune my viola to perfect fifths (no beats) I find that my open C and G sound flat relative to the violins. Trying to figure out why that might be."

It's possible the violinists are playing sharp.

Pitch often goes up during the course of a piece; it's so annoying when I have an open G note near the end and have to finger it to be in tune with the rest of the orchestra.

Edited: March 25, 2018, 9:39 AM · I love the ClearTune app! I learned of it when I emailed the leader of a local early music consort with some questions about their tunings and temperaments. So remarkable that for $3.99 I now have (via app on my phone) a better tuner than the electronic tuners I paid much more for just a few years ago.

I put Cleartune on my phone and prefer it very much over the other 2 tuning apps I had --so much that I deleted the other 2 completely. I like the instant readout both of dial at note name AND of exact frequency in Hz --getting an immediate HZ readout is something I've been searching for, since I want to experiment with other temperaments using a spreadsheet to calculate interval frequencies from various tonic note (root) frequencies.

ClearTune is so easy to use, I can calibrate my A to any frequency --the consort leader said they usually tune to 415 but sometimes take the A lower when doing early French music. He said they usually use a sixth-comma meantone temperament, which is one of the very many temperaments on ClearTune. The temperaments make the fifths narrower and thus the thirds also narrower, making the thirds closer to "perfect" without ruining the fifths. Cleartune even has a setting for selecting the temperament root, which sometimes I change to fit the key of the piece I'm playing. The temperament root is important in the sense that it is like moving that key to the top of the circle of fifths, so it is the most "harmonic" and those keys furthest away from the top will have the most dissonances.

This local (to me) early music consort's usual preference is for 1/6 comma meantone temperament in baroque music (narrowing the fifths to emphasize the quality of thirds --though "perfect" thirds would require 1/4 meantone temperament, making bad fifths), and the Pythagorean tuning for medieval (with emphasis on pure fifths). That aligns with the history and advice I read in Ross Duffin's book "How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony." Duffin says that temperaments approximating 1/6 meantone seem to have been preferred by Bach and Mozart and some virtuoso violinists of the 19th century (replacing 1/4 meantone of some earlier renaissance music), and rues how even some Early Music players of the violin family of instruments today resist moving away from tuning their open strings to perfect fifths, despite accompanying keyboardists and lutists who are using 1/6 or other meantone temperaments that would narrow those open string fifths. I have read in various online articles that "Meantone" means the third is halfway between the root and the fifth, but Duffin says meantone means the whole tone is exactly half of the major third --and none of these artcles or books have told me how half is defined, so I imagine it would be in cents.

Mr. Duffin's main intended audience seems to be modern players of modern music, but even so he advises violin-family players that --when not accompanying a piano tuned to equal temperament-- a chromatic (minor) half step should be 4 commas and a diatonic (major) half step 5 commas, so a whole step is 9 commas total and a flat is 1/9 step higher than a sharp, amounting to a just intonation system wiping out the enharmonic system imposed by equal temperament. Duffin says this 1/9 of a whole tone, the difference between a minor and a major semitone, is now technically called a diesis, though historically it was just called a "comma" (one of several different sorts of commas in scale systems).

Paul, if you wonder why tuning open strings of a viola to perfect fifths will bring your lower open strings flat compared to the same notes in higher octaves, it's because a series of perfect fifths will never come down on the octave, so for example in starting the circle of fifths at C, after going through all 12 keys you will not come back to a higher C but rather a pitch that is higher by a "comma" than that C would have been. For example, Duffin explains how 12 perfect fifths would mean 3/2 x 3/2 x 3/2 x 3/2 x 3/2 x 3/2 x 3/2 x 3/2 x 3/2 x 3/2 x 3/2 x 3/2 = 129.746 whereas 7 octaves would be 2/1 x 2/1 x 2/1 x 2/1 x 2/1 x 2/1 x 2/1 = 128. This discrepancy is what is indicated by the famous "Pythagorean comma." In fact there is no natural overtone interval (except the octave itself) that ever adds up to a perfect octave (2:1) after spiraling around. That's where the comma comes from, creating a "wolf" note (dissonance). The various temperaments were invented to spread out that comma among the intervals of the scale, since the discrepancy has to end up somewhere. In equal temperament, such as in modern piano tuning, each fifth is narrowed by 1/12 of that Pythagorean comma, to create octaves of 12 evenly spaced semitones.

In teaching myself to play violin, I concentrate on 17th and 18th century music, and so far the extent of my grappling with temperament has only been in tuning open strings. My ear is not yet subtle enough to discern temperament in fingered notes, I just play whatever sounds to me most "in tune."

But I expect temperament issues are even more important with fretted instruments, as there seems to be little room for slight adjustments by rolling the fingertip on the string. Authentic-style viola da gambas have frets that can be moved, so temperaments can be changed that way. But imperfectly, since different strings will be stuck with the same spaces between the perpendicular frets, despite any "true" temperament requiring different spacing between different notes.

March 25, 2018, 1:50 AM · Paul and Mary Ellen - I know Will speaks the truth but some of us like it simple. Arithmetic dictates that if you tune to make each adjacent pair of strings a perfect fifth apart (factor of 3/2), the more perfect fifths you tune sequentially below A4=440Hz the flatter the pitch becomes relative to A4=440, A3=220, A2=110 etc. That's why the instruments of a string quartet are often tuned with the C/G and G/D intervals slightly too close, in order for the C strings to sound in tune with the violins' E. That's why it's so common to find orchestral cellos tweaking their C strings up a bit in mid-performance.
Edited: March 25, 2018, 5:52 AM · as opposed to what my tuner says, I keep both my E strings a tad sharp. sometimes not even enough to register on the tuner. my open strings are ok, maybe the D on one of them needs to be sharpened just a bit sometimes.
March 25, 2018, 4:50 AM · If you want to hear what is probably the closest to perfect intonation in action you can't do better than to listen to a good a capella ensemble performing renaissance vocal music by Byrd, Tallis (my favourite), Gesualdo (famous for his innovative harmonies centuries before Wagner), Palestrina, Victoria, Lassus, and a few others.
March 25, 2018, 6:09 AM · I use an app called Tunable which does a great job showing students how their tuning adjusts with bow pressure as well. I recently stumbled upon a book that talks about tuning theories from Tartini and Campagnoli. It then goes form the mathematical approach to what is perceived. Basically, if you have ever recorded yourself, felt happy with the intonation but then hear it back sounding horribly out of tune it might be that you were in tune but the notes need to be adjusted for the listener. The very short description from the book is squeezing half steps together, raising sharps and lowering flats.

It's a fun little challenge to be "in tune" as an F# played perfectly in tune with a D according to the physics should be lowered slightly but for the listener played in a scale or passage leading to a D it should be raised. I'm debating doing my Master paper on tuning and the perceived vs. actual vibrations as there is no clear-cut answer.

March 25, 2018, 8:19 AM · I don't have this quite first-hand, but someone who knows a member of the Takacs Quartet told me that they use a tuning app in their rehearsals. Given that their superb sound doesn't just come from playing three Guads (and a nice cello), it may be doing some good.
March 25, 2018, 9:32 AM · Will,

I like your remarks about creating octaves.

However I am also intrigued about the practical possibilities. Is it possible to raise most amateur violin performance just by very careful tuning? This could really damage chin rest sales !!

March 25, 2018, 10:14 AM · Darlene, regarding octaves, I think of the octave (2/1) as the only sacred (inviolable) perfect interval, because without perfect octaves we would have no immovable ground on which any other interval could stand, no firm reference note (root), "no tuning" at all. As a melody moved from note to note, say perhaps using "just intonation" where each melodic interval were whatever that "perfect" (overtone ratio) interval would be between those 2 notes, you'd end up wandering around through what would sound like random pitches, never getting back to the same frequency twice unless you went backwards through the sequence. The natural overtone intervals just do not line up with each other, and so within the sacred octave some (or all) other intervals must be tempered (usually narrowed) so we never lose that root note as our tonal reference through all octaves.

Regarding whether "better tuning" would lead to better violin playing, of course to a point it would, especially to the extent that open strings are played, but beyond open strings even I can almost instantaneously roll my fingertip to get the right pitch even if the open string is not quite in tune --and at this early point in my playing I am a terrible violinist, I cannot yet even call myself a musician, just an "adult learner."

In some ways I wonder if intonation is "more important" for me because in baroque music we don't use a lot of vibrato, unlike more modern playing where the custom seems to be some amount of vibrato on virtually any note of length, behind which a certain amount of inexactitude of intonation can be smeared into the vibrato?

March 25, 2018, 11:28 AM · I think vibrato can cover a multitude of sins. Your remarks about baroque and intonation are interesting.. (and true, I think.).
March 25, 2018, 4:11 PM · One thing I found when playing in a period-instrument pit orchestra for a Rossini opera (gut E, A, D-- varnished but unwrapped with metal) was that when properly set up with the correct after-length, overtone richness was quite significant.

By the same token, however, if I played even slightly sharp, the reinforcement I got from the violin's overtones disappeared and my sound lost whatever power it had before. With synthetics and metal wrapping, there would have been enough sizzle under the ear to persuade me that I was sounding great while out of tune. No such luck while using pure gut.

March 25, 2018, 4:34 PM · The key is to play notes that sound good. That's correct intonation. If it sounds bad to you, then it's out of tune, and if it sounds wrong to others, then it's also out of tune. Just listen to the timbre and pitch of every note you play, and practice with a drone when possible.

Record yourself and you will get a very accurate idea of how others hear your intonation.

March 25, 2018, 5:42 PM · As for tuning strings more accurately... I don't think it would matter unless people are using open strings extensively. Intermediate level players should already have little or no difficulty playing in tune with an ensemble on a badly-out-of-tune instrument.
March 25, 2018, 6:12 PM · I agree with Andrew. Only seems to be a real problem with lots of rapid double stop changes and fifths.
March 25, 2018, 8:47 PM · If you think you were playing in tune but upon listening to a recording of yourself, it sounded out of tune, then you were not playing in tune. Most likely you were listening to the notes you *thought* you were playing instead of the notes you were actually playing. Recordings don't lie.
March 26, 2018, 6:23 AM · Just curious. What recording devices/hardware do you suggest for students?
March 26, 2018, 6:24 AM ·
March 26, 2018, 6:57 AM · Whatever you have lying around is fine. I have Voice Record Pro (around $5, I think) on my iPad, and I just put my iPad on my music-stand when I want a casual recording. I use my iPhone for casual recording, as well.

I have a Zoom Q4n for performance recording and other circumstances when I want better-quality audio/video.

March 26, 2018, 8:37 AM · I just pull out my iPhone in lessons when I want students to hear what I'm hearing.
April 3, 2018, 5:55 PM · Anyone else tune to A441? My teacher taught me this (her teacher was the concertmaster of the BSO for 40 years, and they tuned to 441) and it helps because my playing is pretty vigorous and all my strings start going a little flat whenever I play.
April 3, 2018, 6:31 PM · My orchestra tunes to 442. I hate it.


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