Viola tuning for orchestra

October 24, 2017, 9:01 AM · I find that when I am playing in an orchestra, my open "C" on the viola sounds flat. I've been advised to tune narrower fifths, and I understand why, but the question is, by how much? What I'm really interested in learning is whether there are any pro orchestras out there who define this for their players, such as "Tune D up by 1 Hz, G by 2 Hz, and C by 3 Hz" or such. Because it seems to me that if every player is making his or her own decision about that, then nobody will be "right" at all.

Replies (28)

October 24, 2017, 9:11 AM · A common topic: Your perfect 5th C string is Not technically out of tune; it is 6 cents (Not Herz!) lower than piano-style equal-tempered tuning that the woodwinds are designed to play. That 6 cents difference is about the same as the limit of human pitch discernment (about 1/20 of a half-step). How the cellos tune the C string depends on the key and the context. When doing chamber-music with a pianist, definitely tune the C string to the piano. Trust your ear. jq
Edited: October 24, 2017, 9:32 AM · This Micro tuner from SHAR ( ) clips on the body of a violin or viola - however, if your viola thickness is a bit fat it might not fit - so try looking at the clip-on model that clips to the bridge and also works on cello and bass ( ). These devices receive input from the instrument by conduction through the wood and are not affected by any sounds in air.

The A pitch of these devices can be varied in 1 Hz increments over a wide range and the tuning seems to be in equal temperament which will tune to fixed pitch instruments (organs, pianos, winds). I've been using them for the past few years before going to piano or orchestra "dates" as my pitch acuity has "softened." For string ensembles I still tune the non-A strings harmonically.

October 24, 2017, 9:25 AM · I cannot begin to imagine the response if the players in a professional orchestra were instructed how to tune individual strings. The music director determines the A to be used (440, 441, 442--alas), the oboist gives the A with the assistance of a tuner, and it is presumed that people's ears are good enough to take it from there.
October 24, 2017, 9:36 AM · Mary Ellen I agree it seems a little authoritarian, but what I'm really getting at is whether there is any consensus, whether people are taught in conservatory how to deal with this, etc.

Also I'm not talking about string quartet where it will depend on the key of the piece, etc. But a typical orchestra where your program might include something in A followed by something in D flat.

The presumption that "people's ears are good enough to take it from there" surely works for a pro orchestra, but possibly not in your friendly neighborhood no-audition community orchestra ...

October 24, 2017, 9:43 AM · In the symphony orchestras I play it is common practice that the brass and woodwind are tuned first, and when they've got that right then the strings tune. Subsequent tune checks during rehearsal are usually for the orchestra as a whole.
October 24, 2017, 10:02 AM · Violas tune? ;-)
October 24, 2017, 10:55 AM · To be fair, you did ask specifically about pro orchestras. I have no idea what might be helpful or necessary in a community orchestra.

Unless we're playing on an open string, we're all adjusting the pitch to the moment anyway. It is super irritating when the pitch has risen so much over the course of a piece that I actually have to finger the open G. (It never goes the other way.)

Edited: October 24, 2017, 12:06 PM · Well actually I was actually curious about pro orchestras, and you answered clearly, so I'm grateful for that knowledge. But it wasn't the answer I was hoping for!! So now I'm walking it back a little. :)

And yes it's just open C and to a lesser extent open G that are in question. For example we are performing the Haydn C Major Cello Concerto and there are some open C's in my part, but it happens in other pieces too.

Edited: October 24, 2017, 1:03 PM · For anyone who didn't get the context for the question:

October 24, 2017, 1:35 PM · "a little authoritarian" = completely insulting

Not your question, which was an honest question and not at all insulting. But for any conductor to dictate to us how to tune each string....

Edited: October 24, 2017, 1:52 PM · Mary Helen wrote: "Unless we're playing on an open string, we're all adjusting the pitch to the moment anyway.". Here's a dumb amateur question. When the orchestra is asked to tune, lets say A:442, all string players will tune their A string, but not the others. Assuming the instrument was originally tuned to A:440 with perfect 5th, isn't that make on violins for instance the open G,D and E relatively out of tune? Isn't that also impact on the instrument's optimum resonance with pulsating tone on double stops on these notes with open strings?
October 24, 2017, 1:52 PM · We tune our As to whatever is dictated to us (442 in your example); then we tune our other strings to our A by fifths. There isn't a fixed D, G, E; they also go up when A is 442. We tune all four strings every time we tune.

Paul's question refers to slightly narrowing the fifth from D to G (G slightly sharp) on the violin, or G to C on viola/cello. I might do that for chamber music but in orchestra I generally just tune the fifths.

Edited: October 24, 2017, 4:12 PM · Tx Mary Hellen, that makes total sense, though I've rarely witnessed it. There's hardly any time to do that in the 10sec of tuning we usually get in our local community orchestra. Luckily we're always tuned to 440 ahead of time!

What is usually the reason for narrowing the fifth in Chamber Orchestra?

Edited: October 24, 2017, 4:58 PM · My experience as a violinist is that I just tune "perfect" fifths, and so do all the other violinists, whereas the violists and especially the cellists are expected to make some kind of adjustment.

I have heard, for example, that one tunes the C string so that its first (viola) or second (cello) harmonic forms a "just" third with the violin's E string when the violinist is tuned in perfect fifths. I could probably calculate the magnitude of the adjustment, but I'd rather hear from others whether they've ever played in ensembles where there has been some kind of "set" agreement within a section or perhaps recommendation from a principal.


October 24, 2017, 6:48 PM · It's a great question, and to give you the practical answer in real life, everyone just tunes the way they like and make whatever they have and make it sound it tune. Sometimes if my bottom string is out of tune in context of the harmony I cover it as Mary Ellen described.

To give you a different perspective, baroque orchestras with an organ or harpsichord will often have string section tune string by string since the poor keyboards can't adjust their pitch. When Yo-Yo Ma recorded his baroque albums with Ton Koopman he said he was quite surprised how much care everyone gave to tuning their strings. Different context requiring different method of tuning.

If you temper your C to make a just third with violin Es, you'll really have a narrow fifth...great for Renaissance consort music but you're probably over thinking about it in the modern orchestra context. With the element of vibrato as well, most of the time open string pitch isn't a big issue. And to add to Roger...I find even in professional settings some of my colleagues don't tune particularly well.

October 24, 2017, 6:55 PM · Roger, I didn't mean narrowing the fifth in a chamber orchestra; I meant in a chamber music ensemble--string quartet, for example. It has to do with intonation as Paul described. But if I have ever done so, it has been very slight. I do think violas and cellos do it more. But in orchestra, fifths.

Roger, really? People only tune their A strings? Or do you mean they tune in advance and only just check the tuning quickly at the official tuning? There's nothing wrong with doing that.

October 24, 2017, 7:29 PM · Tune the instrument in perfect fifths. Don't use your open strings when you can hear that the open string is out of tune with the chord.
Edited: October 24, 2017, 8:11 PM · Dorian thanks for that insight -- helpful! Lydia I agree with you except with the open C one has little alternative. Yes you can tweak it up by fingering at the nut but for me it's always been hard to get that right "on the fly."

Concrete example, at the end of the 2nd movement of the Elgar Serenade for Strings the melody comes into the viola at Bar 68 and there are two phrases, the first seems best played with open G (although obviously not necessarily), and the second, at Bar 74 requires open C. It's really just the occasional "exposed" moment where I get self-conscious about sounding flat. Stopped notes are not an issue.

October 24, 2017, 8:18 PM · When you have no choice but to play an open string (G on the violin, C on the viola) and the pitch has risen enough to make the open string sound flat, your two choices are to play very, very softly, or to cover the string as described by both Dorian and me--place the finger right over where the string crosses the nut so that you can raise the pitch of the string just enough to blend.
October 24, 2017, 10:14 PM · Yes, I meant they tune in advance (at least that's what I do) and only "re-check" the tuning at the official tuning. That said, I think there would be quite a bit of scrambling if the conductor were to change the tuning at that time!
Edited: October 25, 2017, 5:32 AM · When we hear the oboe's A, we know that that it will go up as the instrumaent warms up. I can usually guess by how much.

For the other strings, having tuned in fifths, the fine tuners allow instant adaptation to circumstances..

Historical and other temperaments only apply when playing with keyboards. (But are interesting ear-openers.)

The conductor is in the best (physical) position to judge the result.

Edit. I had the opposite problem in a dance band where the dry heat of the overhead lighting made my wound gut G rise by a full semitone during the first waltz. So I tuned it to G flat and adapted my fingerings While the string came up to pitch on its own!.

October 25, 2017, 5:32 AM · "That said, I think there would be quite a bit of scrambling if the conductor were to change the tuning at that time!"

This never happens. The determination of what the "A" is is made in advance and adhered to for all performances.

Edited: October 26, 2017, 7:29 AM · I asked a pro cellist about this issue. He told me that he always narrows his thirds in ensembles. He doesn't have a strict formula but generally aims for something close to equal temperament.
October 25, 2017, 11:19 PM · "...generally aims for something close to equal temperament."

Oh dear.

Play pure intervals and chords as best as you can. Build from the root, then 5th, then 3rd, then whatever else. It's true from tuning string quartets to the brass section in orchestra. There's ultimately no perfect solution on tuning open strings. Cover it or as Mary Ellen excellently suggested, play it judiciously soft. And depending on humidity and temperament strings go out of tune anyway and we our job's to make it work anyway...

October 26, 2017, 7:30 AM · Sorry I meant to say that he narrows his FIFTHS (that is, the tuning of his strings) close to equal temperament. I should also say that much of his work nowadays is chamber music, often but not always with piano.
October 26, 2017, 8:21 AM · In sring quartets, even using pure fifths, I find myself adjusting thirds "on the fly", according to the surrounding harmony.
Pure fifths are the "meat and potatoes" of tuning; pure thirds are a spoonful of honey.
October 26, 2017, 12:30 PM · I found a passage in the book "Playing the Viola" in conversations with William Primrose where he suggests tuning the D string to a specified pitch, then tuning the other strings to match, like the violin does with the A. This will raise the pitches of the viola strings slightly relative to the violins. From then on, when I tune for practice, that's how I tune. This makes the A string ever so slightly sharp to the tuner's A (maybe +1 cent). I generally tune before rehearsal starts anyway, using whatever tuning standard is used for my orchestra (i.e. usually A=440, but sometimes as much as 442). Also, I think it was Michael Tree who discussed "narrow fifths" on the G to D, and the C to G, otherwise the G and C strings would sound flat. So I do this as well. For chamber music, when tuning, I always check my C string with the cello's for a perfect match. But even then, in some passages, I may stop my C string just above the nut (as Mary Ellen described) to raise it enough to sound in tune in that particular harmonic structure. Plus, I can give it a little bit of vibrato.
October 26, 2017, 6:46 PM · plus one on Lydia’s opinion

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