How to tune a violin for a beginner?

September 12, 2007 at 04:51 AM · Hi Just reading a discussion on metronomes, as an aside, Oliver Steiner mentioned the following:

Absolutely no tuner (of the kind that tells you whether you "on pitch" when you play into its microphone!) These are so harmful. I absolutely guarantee that anyone who uses one of these to determine whether a particular note in a piece, etude or scale is in tune will train themselves to have terrible intonation.

I'm an adult beginner, been learning for just over a year now, and I'm not confident enough to tune my violin with no help at all. To make sure my violin was in tune I initially tuned every string to my piano - but that apparently is out of tune.

So I started using a guitar tuner with an LED display arrow that shows a note is either sharp or flat. Is this going to ruin my intonation?

If so, what can I do?

I had no teacher contact all summer. Sometimes with new strings or temp changes my instrument will need tuning.

What would folks suggest? I can try a tuning fork for A but what of the others?

Replies (34)

September 12, 2007 at 05:31 AM · That's a good question. First match the A string to some external reference. Then get the sound of a fifth in your head, maybe by singing the first five notes of a scale, and tune the strings that are adjacent to the A string. Once the string is in the ballpark, play the two open strings together and adjust the untuned one until you don't hear dissonance. After the D string is tuned, tune the G to it.

September 12, 2007 at 05:52 AM · No harm will be done tuning your A string to an electronic tuner.You can try singing the opening of Twinkle twinkle to get the interval of the fifth.Play seperately at first then play the two chords together.Your ear will gradually adjust to the sound of the fifth.Learning to tune is best done with the aid of a teacher.In the absence of a teacher you may be better off using an electronic tuner than not being able to tune the strings at all.As you progress you will understand the tuning process better.

September 12, 2007 at 01:36 PM · If you feel your ear is not that reliable yet, go ahead and use an electronic tuner. Folks here would respond to another question about relative reliability of same. They all seem to need tweaking by ear, but some get much closer than others. Consider using multiple fine tuners for a while (or forever.) Built in to the tailpiece often preferred to those attached. You could also ask your teacher to put a very thin tape or to tape a thread over your fingerboard very precisely at the 1st position 4th finger spot. 4th finger on A=E, which is an easy match. Sue

September 12, 2007 at 03:44 PM · I use a Sabine MT-9000 digital tuner. It's also a tone generator, metronome, etc. It seems about as accurate as any other (except, perhaps, for the Seiko tuners), and I've yet to find my instrument sounding out of tune with others' who tuned them using different brands and models.

However, if you ever want to try Baroque music, you'll need a tuner that will let you change the pitch of A from 440Hz to around 410-415Hz. Only a handful of tuners allow that much of a downward shift in the pitch of A, but you'll know when they do, because they'll mention it.

That reminds me:

How do you know when you have a violinist at your party?

He'll tell you.


September 12, 2007 at 03:13 PM · Bernadette,

You might enjoy Terez Rose's story on using a tuner:

(I suffer from the same addiction!)


September 12, 2007 at 03:40 PM · Karl,

That was an amusing article. I used my tuner for a bit for the same reason, and for the very same notes! :)

However, I finally decided I just had to learn to know a spot-on B or C (or even B-flat or C-sharp) when I heard one. Using sympathetic vibrations from fingered G's, D's and A's certainly helped out there, since it was easy to tell if I was hitting the right notes around them. When I started doing that, I managed to nail such notes much more quickly than I'd so far managed with the tuner.

I recommend a digital tuner, absolutely, but only for tuning your instrument. Once that's done, PLEASE, put it away! :)

September 12, 2007 at 04:40 PM · bernadette, since eventually you will be tuning like others, ie, get A (fork or machine) and then tune E and D against A and then G to D, why not start learning to get used to listening to 2 open strings played at the same time, to learn to build confidence in the process?

my suggestion is to get someone tune the 4 strings perfectly for you and you play the 3 sets of double strings,,,,forever:), to help imprint in your ears/mind how they should sound like. often, the softer you play, the more you hear. it may be confusing at first but with time, it becomes so simple because it is. to some it is more instinctive, but i believe anyone can learn to acquire it. just a matter of time.

unfortunatly you can only develop confidence through enough practice, so that one day you dare to say, right or wrong, that your ears are right and the tuners are wrong:)

September 12, 2007 at 04:36 PM · Karl - ha ha, you beat me to it! : ) But honest, I got over that addiction. Well, sort of. Most days. Or not.

Seriously, though - I think the quote on electronic tuners (..."These are so harmful. I absolutely guarantee that anyone who uses one of these to determine whether a particular note in a piece, etude or scale is in tune will train themselves to have terrible intonation") is nothing short of absurd and reeks of the kind of authoritarianism that has me BRISTLING. Oliver? C'mon over to my house. I dare you to say that for a adult beginner of two years, my intonation is lousy and it will always be terrible. You have some nerve.

My intonation is good because I'm not waffling around in the dark, way off the mark. My intonation is good because I check my open strings on the chromatic tuner, turn it off and go practice scales, slowly and carefully, relying on sympathetic vibrations to tell me when my G,D, A and E hit their mark. When it comes time for me to practice my pieces, I will continue to listen carefully, but I know when that nasty C natural on the A string is missing its mark and, for some reason, my B on the A string always wants to sharp. I'll turn on the chromatic tuner, watch the needle swing wildly out of range and laugh out loud. This knowledge educates me. My teacher has praised my intonation and I know it's because I work at it. With a little help from my chromatic friend. (Okay, now you guys all really have to check out the link Karl posted - it's funny, really it is...)

Listen to yourself when you play. If your violin doesn't pick up on sympathetic vibrations, consider trying out some others that are more ringy/responsive in that department (you don't even have to buy, just borrow for an hour, a week). The violin can give you the answers you need, but you have to listen and you have to be patient and perhaps do scales/etudes slower than you prefer, in order to get it right, and only then move on to the next piece of music.

September 12, 2007 at 04:51 PM · >why not start learning to get used to listening to 2 open strings played at the same time, to learn to build confidence in the process?

Yes, great suggestion! It really plants the fifths in the brain.

September 13, 2007 at 10:46 AM · Terez, ha ha that was a brilliant read - I'd love to read some more of your writings!!! And guess what, like some wannabe junkie I wanna rush out and buy one of those babies - but of course I wouldn't admit what I want it for! Probably as well for my easily addicted personality that they may not sell them in my local music shop. (I'm not in the US).

Seriously though it is sooo tempting. I really don't understand the bit about pitch changes on a violin. I'm too green as yet. Makes me wonder though - will I ever get it?

I'm just not overly confident in my own ability to hear correctly right now.

Al - I will certainly have a go at listening to fifths forever - and maybe use my old factory violin and practice tuning that myself.

I'll get a tuning fork definitely. Can you get tuning forks for the other strings or only the 'A'? I really don't trust my ear at all yet.

I must admit, though I love my new violin, I had broken in the factory one, and the sound was different as well as the benefit of the vibrations or maybe I didn't recognize it as sympathetic vibrations, not knowing what they were. My new one still needs to get there and it's frustrating to be starting all over again. The sound's deeper and fuller so I'm not inclined to go back but it does help when the instrument is 'speaking' to you more in a sense.

Thank you everyone - back to the grindstone!

PS: "bernadette, since eventually you will be tuning like others,"!!!!!!

Al, what great faith you have! I almost skimmed over that! Now if that isn't an encouragement and a half!

September 13, 2007 at 10:45 AM · One of you told that using a electronic tuner may lead to terrible intonation. Why is so, if the tuner shows the exact pitch we are at? I would say it may help to train intonation, as far as it shows much more than statistical ear can hear (I, for example, can't yet really hear difference of 5-8 cents, which somebody else would call out of tune) - learning with tuner can help feeling the pitch and knowing what is right. Of course, I'm talking about tuners supporting Pythagorean intonation, not only the equal temperament (which could possibly be the problem). Anyone to enlighten me? :)

September 13, 2007 at 12:21 PM · bernadette, if you really do not have someone nearby that you can rely on to tune the violin for you to get used to the perfectly tuned setup, you may have to get some type of tuner to establish the ballpark/idea/feel,,,so that you can play with the fine tuners (until you are more advanced since pegs are tougher to fine tune), to hear what slightly higher, slightly lower, and right on pitch sound like on one string while playing the double strings (on condition the other open string is spot on). this process really trains your ears on subtle differences in pitch and is something that every violin player eventually has to master. if you rely on a tuner/fork to independently tune up each of the 4 strings, you may miss the chance or fail to appreciate the importance to explore the subtle differences in violin intonation; you will need to use the same mental structure when other finger pressed notes are involved, that is, too high, too low, or right on. i think this may be the point that some experts are talking about, that they are not crazy about relying on machines,,,you have to learn to listen and think and listen, instead of just reacting,,,since you are not playing piano:):):) (this past summer during travel i have been relying on GPS and when i came home, i forgot how to drive. how come you are so stupid, ask my kids)

one thing you can learn to get used to is to establish the A string pitch. here is what i do for my kid (oh by the way i do not play violin and never stayed in holiday express either).

i sit and put the violin flat on my lap, with carpet under my feet:). with my left hand, i bang the A fork in vibration and put the end of the fork somewhere in the mid section of the violin to transfer that buzz onto the violin...winggggggggg it goes.

then with my right hand i move the A string tuner counter/clockwise, up and down the tension.

anticipate the fun part: in search of the right pitch, somewhere, when you hit the right spot, the whole violin catches on a huge vibration. It goes WINGGGGGGGGGG. to say it attempts to levitate off your lap will be too much, but your thighs will feel the BUZZ.

if the saying is such that the most difficult part of a 10k mile journey is the first step, i wonder if you can give that a try. have fun.

ps. i am sure there are tuning forks out there for g, d and e, but you may be the first to amass such a collection:)

September 13, 2007 at 12:36 PM · It is really very simple.

1. No harm will come to your violin from the action of tuning, retuning, and making mistakes tuning.

2. Considerable aural and mental experience and perception will be gained in carrying out the efforts to tune by ear.

3. Relying on a tuning machine may seem like it "jump starts" you to having an in-tune instrument, so that you can get on with practicing the pieces in your book, but in fact if you can't tune by ear, you certainly can't play in tune from a book.

4. That returns us to point 1. Take your new fiddle out and tune it with abandon.

5. It is not important to have the "a" at exactly some reference pitch. Having the relative pitch is much more important. (In fact you might artificially become too dependent on an absolute pitch from a tuner).

6. If your pegs are "sticky" then unwind one string at a time, pull the peg out, and put some soap on it. I use dove, but some swear by hard soaps like dial. If it is difficult to turn the pegs and to set the pitch, you will be hesitant to tune--and remember--tune with abandon!

7. Do not fear your instrument. It is not a mystic box. Learn to keep an eye on the bridge and to adjust it to keep it vertical, and do not fear having to put it back in place should it fall or shift.

September 13, 2007 at 12:57 PM · Hi Bilbo,

The problem is I'm not altogether sure how accurate my relative pitch is in this instance, so to have a starting point ie tuning fork even, just for reference would help to begin with. That's why folks have trouble (just like me) with B and C natural.

And to tune it differently each time ... I wonder, how helpful would that be to overall learning? Or would I end up all over the place?

I'm willing to have a go by all means, but I want one instrument well tuned to practise on too... Anyway, teacher's back and lessons have started, so I'll get one tuned 'by ear' to play on.

Al, your suggestion sounds like a good starting point - will have a go!

September 13, 2007 at 01:06 PM · "That's why folks have trouble (just like me) with B and C natural."

Folks have trouble with b and c natural, e and f natural, a and bflat, f# and g, etc etc when they don't learn to sing the pitch, sing the scale, and match that pitch. The sound has to come from within, and the violin's resonances can help you on the 4ths, 5ths and octaves, as those are perfect intervals and so that resonance is helpful. Thirds are contextual not perfect and so you have to learn to sing the intervals.

B is a 2nd above a' and that is an interval you must know and internalize and be able to produce from memory, from any starting pitch, as part of a melodic scale. Similarly, you need to be able to do two 2nds to get to a major third, and a second and a semitone to get to a minor third, but these thirds are melodic in some contexts, but harmonic in others and so there is no perfectly fixed position for them in all cases.

It is very important to practice hearing the sound of a 5th -- produced by two open strings -- it is a fundamentally important sound, ratio, interval, chord etc etc and it is one of the best places to start with your ear.

Playing against a tonic or drone will refine your sense of consonance and dissonance--in other words playing a g string open and then progressively fingering an augmented 5th, a 6th, a minor 7th, and major 7th and an octave (all on the d string) and diong this on the other strings as well, will develop your ear and your sense of finger spacing. And you'll be able to refine your tuning this way too.

September 13, 2007 at 01:35 PM · "(..."These are so harmful. I absolutely guarantee that anyone who uses one of these to determine whether a particular note in a piece, etude or scale is in tune will train themselves to have terrible intonation") is nothing short of absurd and reeks of the kind of authoritarianism that has me BRISTLING. Oliver? C'mon over to my house. I dare you to say that for a adult beginner of two years, my intonation is lousy and it will always be terrible. You have some nerve."

I missed this quote until now. What on earth is that flame all about?!

September 13, 2007 at 02:13 PM · I'm surprised no one has mentioned listening for "beats" (or the lack of them) when tuning in fifths. Can't explain the physics of the thing, but it's like a wavering in the inner ear, a wah-wah feeling, as you play two strings together, and as they come closer to true fifths, the rate of the beats increases until they disappear altogether and you're in tune.

Bernadette, ask your teacher to spend as much time as necessary teaching you how to tune. Have him tune his own violin, take it out of tune, bring it back, ask you to listen for fifths and beats, and try to copy that on your own violin. It took me weeks to get the hang of it, and months before I could do it reliably. It takes lots of practice to mess with the pegs while you're playing two strings at once! Also, another thing that will help your ear is octaves because it's dead easy to tell if they're in tune or not---you'll hear lots of dissonance until you finally get it and one string just disappears into the sound of the other. Ask your teacher about that as well.

September 13, 2007 at 02:25 PM · "No harm will come to your violin from the action of tuning, retuning, and making mistakes tuning"

Although this is generally true, it's also a little misleading. There are certain things you have to be careful of---over time, tuning and playing and more tuning can alter the angle of your bridge---towards the tailpiece if you're tuning from the fine tuners, and toward the scroll if you're tuning from the pegs. So that's one thing to keep an eye on. Another is you want to try to always bring the strings up to pitch and not past it and then back down, because the latter can exert too much strain on the strings and they can break (I've broken strings this way).

September 13, 2007 at 02:54 PM · I don't understand why some people have a problem with others tuning their open strings with a tuner (specifically the chromatic electric ones).

Yes, if you tune perfectly to the chromatic tuner, your strings will not be tuned in perfect fifths. However, the strings will be very close to in tune. If you have only been playing a year, then you probably have not had enough exposure to ear training that you can confidently tune your instrument. That is perfectly okay. I feel that it would be better to tune your strings to a tuner than to chance it with your ear, unless you can hear intervals very well.

I do not agree with using the tuner to check all of your pitches. I used to do this, and while it helped me to play more in tune, my intonation was still in the cracks. Singing is probably the best thing you can do to help solidify your intonation.

First you must hear the pitch or interval.

Second you must be able to recognize the pitch or interval and keep it in your head.

Third, you must be able to reproduce the pitch or interval.

I hope this helps,


September 13, 2007 at 06:01 PM · >Singing is probably the best thing you can do to help solidify your intonation.

Yup. Forgot to mention this. Great point, because the voice naturally produces something more akin to just intonation than does a piano or chromatic tuner. Then again, I'll ask this - what happens in a duet, like a sonata, when the violin needs to sound in tune with the piano? You get a violinist at the top of his/her game whose intonation is perfect, well, aren't they going to have to compromise in order for the audience to hear a smoother sound between the piano and violin?

Bilbo - by "flame," are you referring to Oliver Steiner's comment or my comment about his comment? My reply was tongue-in-cheek, I hope you recognized, as I do not know Mr. Steiner, and should he arrive at my house, I more than likely would not invite him up to check out my intonation. I would simply argue the veracity of his "never" and "terrible intonation" claims, that's all. It is my nature to debate assertions that present such a black and white picture. Life just doesn't work that way - too many answers lie in between.

September 13, 2007 at 06:59 PM · But I don't find any posts from Oliver Steiner in this thread. I'm totally confused.

September 13, 2007 at 07:25 PM · Bilbo, obviously he said it in a different thread then. Or else people are making stuff up. Your point 5 is wrong, for reasons including things like good operation of the pegs. The whole thing is set up to work with a real A or close to it. Yeah I know, but a beginner would be liable to tune real far away from where it's supposed to be.

September 13, 2007 at 07:20 PM · >I'm totally confused.

Fret not, grasshopper. The truth shall make its way known to you. Close your eyes, now, and recite ohmmmmmmmmm. But make sure it's in A 440.

September 13, 2007 at 10:46 PM · Bilbo,

The message from Oliver was in another thread, on metronomes (I didn't make it up, Jim:-)).

I just panicked a bit reading it thinking I was shipwrecking my playing whilst trying to keep my head above water and tune my instrument to get somewhere. Hence starting this thread.

Anyway, I went out and got a tuning fork today, but I can't hear well enough to know for certain that I have the D tuned correctly if the A is in tune. So for now, I'm back where I started - with the guitar tuner:(

I'll keep practising Bilbo's final suggestion of playing say, a G drone whilst moving up the D string.

Oh, but I have more pressing matters than working on tuning with the teacher - my bow hold is slipping! That's another tangent. I can look at pictures, supposedly have it all OK, till I need to move my hand bowing up and down. I'm planning on asking my teacher to spend one whole lesson (at least) doing just that. And working on it till I get it.

I am not a happy bunny right now.

Maybe I'll re-read Fischer's Basisc for a bedtime story!

September 14, 2007 at 03:40 AM · Patience patience patience.

And Oliver is extremely knowledgeable and he's also correct. In the end you have to hear it.

As far as not hearing the 5ths well, you can come at them from a number of directions so that you gain a better understanding.

1. Sing all the songs from The Sound of Music especially do a deer. This will get you to have the major scale really down pat.

2. Play that scale, starting the tonic on an open string. If you get to the dominant (also known as the 5th, also known as the d if you are key of g, a if key of d etc) and it sounds wrong, then either your scale is wrong, or your string is out of tune. You try again, and work the scales up, down and all around, play with chords etc and you'll get it. IT takes time. It is fun and challenging. This is what I did as a kid.

If you are learning Carnatic music, then don't sing the Sound of Music. Instead listen to South Indian music. But I assume you aren't playing Indian music.

Or just buy a ukulele and play it. It is fun.

May 22, 2008 at 03:43 PM · I have just bought a Yamaha tuner(YT-240),Yamaha said that it is made for violin,viola,cello and bass.Turn out it is no better than a 18$ China chromatic tuner/metronome.

I think it is cheating to say that your tuner is made for violin when it can't tune to perfect fifth.

Now I'm stuck,can anyone tell me how to tune my violin to perfect fifth with a chromatic tuner?

May 22, 2008 at 03:50 PM · Mr.Steiner's point is well-taken, but maybe sometimes folks who are out there (alone) need to use crutches for a bit. The little tuners with the swinging needles aren't really that far off. One of my teachers, Bruce Molsky, is using the newish compact strobe tuner from Peterson; not inexpensive. He's a renowned fiddler who replicates many kinds of ethnic musics well, including the ones that use different pitches, his intonation is exquisite, and he says this machine is OK. How you bow into them is important; slow, steady, w/medium volume. If you play loudly, agressively or heavily at the frog, the needle will swing. Listening to music you know is in tune will help you a lot in the long run. Sue

May 22, 2008 at 04:12 PM · I'm going to try what Shailee suggest tomorrow.

May 22, 2008 at 05:57 PM · One of my priorities with young students is for them to be able to tune themselves; too many simply rely on their teacher or school teacher to grab it and do it for them. This is what I do:

1. have them pluck A and tell me if it's higher or lower than the tuner. They almost always catch on quickly. If they never get it you have bigger ear problems...

2. have them pluck AA-EE in the rhythm of Twinkle Twinkle. They very quickly hear if something is amiss. I also use this with adult beginners.

3. Repeat with DDAA and GGDD.

I think it's much more valuable to be able to tune the strings to each other rather than to a tuner.

May 23, 2008 at 04:05 PM · I use a tuning fork. This may feel strange and you may feel goofey when you first try it, but I would hit the tuning fork and then put it in my mouth and hear/feel it vibrate inside my head and then sing the note. It will buzz through your teeth and sinuses a bit. Look for that feeling as you tune the rest of the strings. An older player who predated digital tuners told me this is the way he learned and demonstrated it. It really works. The feeling is important, or I think it was for us. People can explain sympathetic vibration but once you feel it, it is easier to hear for some of us slow learners. The other strings vibrate too and it is easier to feel the other strings because if they are out of tune there is less "buzz" as they vibrate together. The buzz you feel is very subtle, but you can feel it while you hear the note. I always imagine opera singers must go through this inside their head to sing so well without an external gadget. Once you have a good A then as others said you can hear the vibration. It really helps as compared to hearing it outside by putting the fork against the bridge. Maybe you internalize the sound more and the string becomes an extension of your body is the way I think about it. It vibrates your jaw just like when you play. I then tune the instrument and "check" it with a tuner sometimes if I was having a bad day. It comes out right on the tuner 99% of the time if you do it this way and you train your ears at the same time. As a parent I was really paranoid about my kids playing out of tune and this really worked when we first started. While my kid now has perfect pitch, he can also adjust his relative pitch if he is with a piano that is out of tune or some other instrument. I am convinced tt is just from hearing A in his head all these years. You don't want to rely on the tuner, but it can help you get started as a frame of reference if you are insecure. Take the time now though. You will be glad you did and then use the tuner later if you are in a hurry.

May 23, 2008 at 07:22 PM · Actually, if after you hit the tunning fork to start it vibrating and place the tip on the bridge of the violin, you will hear a very good sound which you can use to tune to. Once, you have the "A" string tuned to pitch, you just need to know what a perfect fifth sounds like. If your teacher plays the fifths for you, your ear will soon learn to distinguish a perfect fifth. It's one of the easiest intervals to identify. When it's right, you'll know.

May 23, 2008 at 11:15 PM · I started using an auto-tuner a few months back to check my intonation, and I think they're a valuable tool to use in learning intonation--if used properly.

During practice, you'll always hit some notes slightly high and others slightly low--it's part of playing to the temper of the instrument. The key to intonation, though, is that you're consistently hitting each note. An auto-tuner will be merciless at showing you if your fingers lack consistency in hitting a given note in a given position. I've found the auto-tuner invaluable for focusing my attention (and left hand) on hitting notes consistently and, by extension, accurately. It's knocked me out of my comfortable rut and definitely improved both my ear and my intonation.

Tuning with an auto-tuner can also be helpful, especially if you're not sure how open strings are supposed to sound together. Auto-tuners are programmed that a pitch has a certain frequency of vibration. If you aren't hitting that exact frequency, you'll show flat or sharp. Auto-tuners do not--and cannot--pick up the fact that instruments are tempered to be tuned slightly out of that scientific perfection. However, if you use the auto-tuner to tune your individual strings, you'll be very close to being in tune. Finalizing that tuning made me discover that somewhere along the line, I had started wanting to hear certain notes consistently sharp or flat of where they needed to be. That made for a nice sound as a solo violin, but was starting to have an effect on my ensemble playing. Responding to the messages of the auto-tuner--whether or not I believe that it's always correct--has definitely sharpened up my ear.

May 25, 2008 at 05:28 AM · I love my tuner. Why? As a musician violinist, I don't play in a vacuum, I play with other players, primarily orchestral or piano. As a result, I need to have a sense of tempered pitch--the tuner helps my ear. I always tune my violin to it. If I want then, I can choose to play certain notes higher or lower, but then I know what it's based on.

For my beginning students/parents, I definitely recommend using a tuner to help train the ear. It's a wonderful tool that I wish I had had growing up.

May 25, 2008 at 06:45 AM · If you don't want to use an electronic tuner, you can use harmonics to check tuning. The a in fourth position, fourth finger, on the A string, can be played as an harmonic, and the a on the D string, (first position, fourth finger) when played as an harmonic, will give the same pitch. And so on for G-D and A-E tuning.

It sounds complicated, but it isn't.

This way, you can be confident that you tune to the right intervals. To get them absolutely in tune, it is best to use the open strings themselves and make the beats disappear.

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