Why do we tune in 5ths?

March 9, 2010 at 03:13 PM ·

Good Day. Being an adult beginner I have found the violin both interesting historically as well as a daunting undertaking.  I am compelled to ask "why things are?".  So, why do we tune in fifths instead of , say, fourths or octaves.  Is there an actual practical reason or just custom?  On a side, why, then, are basses tuned in fourths?  Thanks,  Clif


Replies (27)

March 9, 2010 at 03:25 PM ·

Violins are tuned in fifths because this harmonic relationship produces the richest set of overtones. Gambas, which are tuned in fourths, have a somewhat less resonant series of overtones. This probably has as much to do with their difference in sound as does the shape difference. Contrabasses are tuned in fourths because they come to us from the gamba family. As time has passed, they have morphed into a hybrid of gamba and violin, and many players are now exploring fifths tuning. Even though it produces problems for the player in certain passages and keys, the difference in sound is striking.

March 9, 2010 at 05:31 PM ·

Another reason for tuning in fifths is that we have 4 fingers. Try playing some of the same music on a cello (also tuned in fifths), where we tend to come up one finger "short" (in every sense of the word) and you will see!


March 9, 2010 at 05:38 PM ·


I'm not dismissing what you've said, but I suspect it may also have simply to do with how things lie on the fingerboard. Due to the small size of the instrument, I could imagine it being discovered that if the strings were tuned in 4ths, the 4th finger would be rendered useless in the first position. Also, it must have been recognized that the natural frame of the hand from 1 to 4 formed an octave.

In looking at all the interval options, I'd guess that the tuning system of 5ths is a product of maximum utility. 


ps Andrew, we must have been typing at the same time!


March 9, 2010 at 10:58 PM ·

I guess with 5ths you get to explore the instruments range ... Why don't we tune in 6ths then? XD

I guess its called a perfect 5th for a reason. Maj Scales are built using 5th, its easy to think in to. Its also easy to build Minors using 4th (when going backwards)

March 9, 2010 at 11:36 PM ·

for heaven`s sake guys and gals.

Its simply because we have four fingers.

Case closed.

March 9, 2010 at 11:39 PM ·

I was under the impression it had to do with the temperament(s) used at that particular time when the rebecs evolved into the violin, etc.????

March 9, 2010 at 11:45 PM ·

SPEED!! The most important element of music. If it was tuned to octaves you would have to move your hand around more. And if it was tuned to fourths you would do 3 note per string scales and that is fast but not as fast as 4. But the one note per string arpeggios in fourths tuning are extremely fast but you cant do as much besides straight up and down the arpeggio at fast speeds as you can with 2 notes per string. The fifth tuning is one of several reasons I switched to violin instead of guitar.

March 10, 2010 at 01:10 AM ·

I have a different perspective. I'm a fiddler.

The fiddle is tuned to fifths because that is harmonic with how we drink.

March 10, 2010 at 01:57 AM ·

I couldnt play anything after drinking that much. A little wine can be good but there is a fine line between the amount that makes you better and the amount that you cant play at all.

March 10, 2010 at 03:20 AM ·

A violin is tuned in 5ths so it won't be confused with a clarinet.

March 10, 2010 at 04:02 AM ·

I was asked a question like a year ago


"Since when did you play Saxaphone?"

March 10, 2010 at 05:01 AM ·


To be honest, I couldn't either, but as a fiddler, I have a reputation to maintain.

March 10, 2010 at 05:47 AM ·

This might be my best opportunity to finally find out something that has bugged me for a long time:

why then is a guitar tuned all fifths except for the second string which is tuned to a smaller interval?

March 10, 2010 at 06:24 AM ·

Guitars are tuned in fourths except for the oddball string. At least in Spanish tuning. Some folks like to tune their guitars to various open chords, which can be a lot of fun.

Tuning in fifths is a beautiful thing. I can still remember how much I loved it when I played my first mandolin after years of guitar. It was so easy and logical to find those notes, to transpose around, just a great and good concept that worked beautifully for the scale of the instrument.

You don't mess around with perfection. (Or spit into the wind, or step on Superman's cape).


March 10, 2010 at 02:58 PM ·

Scott (and others)-- fingering differences and how many notes lie under the hand are more a function of string length than string tuning. Historically, I cannot recall reading much discussion about the fingering differences between gambas and violin-family instruments except to point out the obvious; that one has a greater range when the instrument is tuned in fifths. For example, it takes a five string bass tuned in fourths to provide as many notes as you get with a four-string bass tuned in fifths. Almost all the historical discussion on these two families has dealt with the difference in sound. I'm am quite convinced that half the difference is due to gamba construction with flat backs and heavy bracing compared with the lighter full arching of the violin, and half to the natural overtone series that occurs when the strings are a fifth apart. Somewhere around here (unless it vanished during my last computer crash) I have some frequency plots showing the strength and distribution of acoustic peaks in the two families. The fifth-tuned instruments have more frequency peaks, stronger frequency peaks, and higher frequency peaks. If you have a willing cellist available, have them tune their instrument in fourths and play something and you will hear instantly what the difference is.

March 10, 2010 at 03:35 PM ·

The violin hasn't universally been tuned in fifths. Paganini used alternate tunings, Biber has sonatas tuned in alternate tunings and there is a lot of fiddle music that uses alternate tunings.

These alternate tunings are called scordatura. 

March 11, 2010 at 02:47 PM ·

Alternate tunings are very possible. Many fiddle tunes bring the bottom 1 or 2 strings up, so they resonate more with the key of the tune. Think of how Hardanger fiddles work. Relatively few melody notes land on the lower strings in a number of fiddle styles, but there can be the sense of right finger-wrong note until you get used to the tuning. Cajun music is regularly played tuned down a whole step. It sounds different, and feels different under the fingers & bow to me. Not everyone notices what I think I do. Check out Darol Anger's playing for someone who is doing a lot of experimenting these days with tunings. He often drops the G WAY down. There is a limit to how wide an interval you might expand to on the upper strings before the strings are under so much tension that they break or wear out very fast, put undo stress on the neck or end, or don't ring well when bowed. You really can't tune in 6ths (ex.G-E-C#-A#, or maybe F/F# etc.) since that's just too much stretch for current E's.  Someone who really wanted to do something like that would probably need to also think about instrument design & construction, bow design & hair tension, string design, and the practical implications of not having the same pitch on 4th finger & the next open for fingering  & bowing flexibility. Think of the gyrations cellists have to go through sometimes since the hand holds the space of a 4th or 4th# up from open. Sue     

March 11, 2010 at 04:03 PM ·

 Guitars have the one odd interval (in standard tuning) because that creates the two octave correspondence between the open 6th and 1st strings, which allows for bar chords and makes things easier in general due to that symmetry.  The interval of a 12th between the 5th and 1st strings is also helpful.   On renaissance lute and vihuela that major 3rd interval is between the 3rd and 4th courses rather than the 2nd and 3rd.

I think the standard tuning of the violin in fifths is due to several factors already mentioned:  number of fingers and how far they can be stretched apart being primary, anything else such as modulation to keys up a fifth being secondary.  I think viola using the same fingering as violin is a bit of a stretch, literally, and I'm surprised that cello uses the same tuning as violin/viola due to the ncecessary fingering adjustments.


March 11, 2010 at 09:18 PM ·

Thank you all, learned lady and gentlemen.  So, as I take it, the answer is "yes, part musical sonority, woodworking engineering, ergonomic, and tradition"    The oblique relationship between the modern big bass and the gamba,right(?) I find refreshingly interesting.  From my reading over the past two years I am amazed at the numerous imaginative instruments that have been invented and used, then allowed to fade to obscurity.  

Thank you all so much, I look forward to seeing what new wisdom is shared each time I am able to visit the site.



March 12, 2010 at 04:17 AM ·


I take offense that you thank the learned ladies and gentlemen, but don't mention the fiddler that posted! I'm much more ad hoc than learned!

Actually, I don't hold a grudge, so don't worry about it.I actually was thinking about posting something less humerous about the perfect fifths; something about the precision of the sound that the violin can produce, and the harmonic balance of thought that goes with the progression of fifths that enhances thought; we think more cleanly that way. However, as a fiddler, I need to step back, and not think so deeply.

March 12, 2010 at 05:00 AM ·

There wasn't a mention that a fiddler is unlearned :)

Unless my learned eyes never read those words

March 12, 2010 at 07:35 AM ·

Yeah, but it ruins my image!


March 14, 2010 at 06:03 PM ·

Some here have suggested the reason is purely because we have four fingers, so we can play one note per finger. I suspect this may be correct, but in that case, why aren't the cello strings tuned in 3rd's or 4th's, to make their life easier?

I like the explanation that the violin resonates better if it's tuned to 5th's than it does tuned to other intervals. I find it strange that so many violinists choose to tune their violin to close 5th's, to solve some of the problems of consecutive 5th's getting "wider". I think that is a bad compromise, as the violin doesn't resonate nearly as well.

March 15, 2010 at 02:55 PM ·

Mr Hoang:

What is a "Close 5th"?  This is new to me. My understanding is that a 5th is a stable interval that doesn't lend itself to diminishment or augmentation.  The stability making it sufficiently easy  to recognize; that an entire crowd of instruments can be uniform from the single starting note "A".

Thank you all for your time.





March 15, 2010 at 03:03 PM · i assume the close 5th is one in equal temperament.

March 15, 2010 at 08:55 PM ·

One also has to remember that before the Baroque period, music was written using parallel 5ths & 4ths which were seen as having the least decadence and therefore divine in nature! Even in the Renaissance major 3rd's were viewed as lacking Holiness! Tunings for centuries were dictated by religious philosophies! The violin came from the Viols, which came from the Rebecs during a time when Religion and Science were virtually viewed as one and the same! Tunings were to accommodate the school of thought (philosophy) of music at that time and carried over into the following epochs!

If I heard correctly!

March 16, 2010 at 03:56 AM ·

I don't know the historical basis of this, but I believe and tell my students that the "standard" way a stringed instrument is tuned is almost entirely based on its physical size compared to the human hand.  In my experience, stringed instruments are primarily tuned in one of three ways: an open chord, fourths, or fifths.  All of these manners of tuning produce similiar resonance (after all, it doesn't really matter if you are resonating with a string a fourth above or a fifth below).

Western stringed instruments seem to me to be tuned in such a way to enable the player to comfortably play all of the degrees in a diatonic scale across all strings, while maximizing the instrument's range, without changing positions.  Thus the larger scale length guitar, bass, and gamba are tuned in fourths, while the smaller violin, viola, mandolin, tenor banjo, bazouki, etc. are tuned in fifths.   Of course there are minor exceptions, mainly to enable the playing of closely voiced chords as mentioned above in relation to the guitar.

As far as the cello, it seems to be the odd duck in this regard.  I imagine that it is tuned in fifths for the sake of symmetry with the other viols it was expected to play with in a string orchestra.

Of course, most stringed instruments also have alternate tunings that are utilized by more advanced players to achieve a certain effect and these tunings don't necessarily follow this rule.

In other words, I agree with buri.

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