Perfect 5th: Tuning

September 29, 2010 at 06:46 PM ·

My name is Esteban Ariel Schillaci and i want to know that

Replies (42)

September 29, 2010 at 07:17 PM ·

There's a good introduction to the subject here:

September 29, 2010 at 07:34 PM ·

If you tune in perfect fifths, rather than the slightly narrow fifths usually used, your E string will be pretty out of tune with your own G, and even more so with a violist's or cellist's C if all have tuned in perfect fifths.  By the time you are down 4 fifths, from the E to the C, the necessity of tuning in narrower fifths is screechingly apparent.

The problem with temperament is that any system involves compromises; each method had it's downfalls.  A bunch of string players can play together in Just intonation without much trouble.  It's harder, but not impossible, when you add wind players, and once the piano shows up, it's all over.

September 29, 2010 at 07:59 PM ·

Unfortunately, there isn't really a way to prevent tuning issues from cropping up.  It comes down to math -- Western music is based on the assumption that twelve fifths fit neatly and perfectly into seven octaves, but they don't, not exactly.  They come close, but it's not dead-on, and the amount by which it's off is small but more than enough for the ear to detect.  You'll always be approximating.

The instrument that angsts the least about this sort of thing is the voice, because it's tuned anew for every single note.  They often lean toward just intonation, but not always.  Strings, guitars, and most others have to adjust for it consciously.  Pianists have had it forcibly eradicated so we can pretend it doesn't exist until we hit a third in the bass and our teeth clack together. :-)

There are a couple books around on tuning and temperament that are a worthwhile read.  As is the case with most unsolvable problems, people tend to have strongly held opinions about the various adjustment systems that revolve around pretending that the circle of fifths closes.  Each has its advantages and disadvantages.  Ultimately, it's just sort of a wing-it-and-see type of thing.

September 29, 2010 at 08:44 PM ·

 Ariel on a violin don't try to be too clever. Buy yourself an electric tuner and tune G D A E, why complicate things unless you want to play Indian music. Leave the teeth chattering to other people. When you play with a piano, tune on the four notes that the out of tune piano will provide. The two ladies above gave very good advice.

September 29, 2010 at 10:03 PM ·

 A friend, who plays in an amateur string quartet, went on a weekend workshop last summer, hosted by a professional quartet. One of the tutors explained to the class why the cellist and violist tuned their C strings slightly sharp (so a narrow 5th between the C and G).  The reason was that the E harmonic from the open C would then come into line with the open E strings of the two violins, thereby improving the overall sound of the ensemble. (Now try getting an amateur symphony orchestra to do that!).

September 29, 2010 at 10:21 PM ·

 On Sunday we're performing Mozart's Requiem with a church choir.  This work ends on a resounding open chord of 5ths and octaves (no thirds - guitarists call it a "power chord"). It's very impressive.  The conductor explained to us at the orchestral rehearsal last week that if you have a really good ensemble playing perfect open 5ths and octaves in the right acoustic you can hear the major 3rd coming through from the harmonics, and also a low difference tone at the octave.  If the composer were to introduce a minor 3rd into the final chord that would have muddied the sound.  In the Renaissance they knew this, and so a motet in a minor key would usually finish on an open chord, or a major chord - this was known as the Tierce de Picardie (of obscure origin, apparently).

In the case of the Requiem, my opinion is Mozart had his own reason for the final open chord  - he was leaving an open question.

September 30, 2010 at 02:11 AM ·

Thanks to all!!!!!


October 9, 2010 at 09:27 AM ·

Obscurity  in origin of the picardy third results partly from a problem of translation.

Picardy is a French county As you might know ,any  french  word is either masculine or feminin (non neutral words).The adjective related to Picardy  is picard for masculine words and picarde for feminine word. Third beeing a feminine word in french. Third beeing feminine we say  Tierce picarde translated Third of Picardy suggesting  that its origin comes from this county.

However this explanation is unlikely because picardy third was present all over Europe.

Actually in old french there was the adjective " picart  "  which meant  "sharp"  .According to rule of counterpoint "  imperfect consonnance (3th 6th ) followed by perfect consonnances Fiiths octaves unisson) sound better when major therefore in minor modes  the third was sharped "la tierce picarte" that becomes tierce picarde for intonation raison.

Concerning the  tuning of the fourth string, I just want to reminds the fourth Paganini' secret .It tuned G string a quarter of tone higher


October 9, 2010 at 12:26 PM ·

I discussed some of the practical aspects of this with a member of the quartet in residence at summer camp.  She said that in her quartet they go over each cord and decide which two instruments are playing the true note and which are adjusting theirs to provide the harmony.  The result was amazing to my unseasoned ear - a swimming creamy chord progression.  I think I truly fell in love with chamber music (which I have always liked) at that moment - the insight made it so much more special.

Disclaimer - I don't really understand all of the above and I hope I am still on point!

October 9, 2010 at 12:50 PM ·

Isn't doing it the way the pros do it still the best?

I don't think it's good advice to use an electronic tuner or the piano keys. Both methods may be ok for absolute beginners, but tuners are never accurate enough, exept the very expensive ones (peterson strobe tuners). And most piano keys are too much out of key, one should only use the a as a reference.

October 9, 2010 at 12:55 PM ·


Yes, I think I was refering to not too advanced players when I suggested using the piano. And tuners are out as far as I'm concermed too. Professionals just use their ears.

October 9, 2010 at 12:55 PM ·

Sorry, I meant Tobias!!!

October 9, 2010 at 05:09 PM ·

Trevor, as to your comment "Now, try getting an amateur orchestra to do that!", I play in a community orchestra whose conductor is a fanatic about intonation, intervals, etc.  He likes his thirds pure and narrow, harmonies perfect, accidentals where they ought to be in relation to key, modulations, etc.  It's been an experience.  The strings have come along willingly; some of the winds have found it rougher going.  My hunch is that since the fingerings for an A-flat and G-sharp, for instance, are the same on a wind instrument, wind players are much more resistant to the idea that they are actually different notes.  For those of us with non-fretted stringed instruments, there's a whole world of temperament out there.

October 9, 2010 at 05:27 PM ·

wind players are much more resistant to the idea that they are actually different notes.

wind players are resistant to many ideas...

Sorry, couldn't resist.

October 9, 2010 at 05:32 PM ·

Lisa, I don't doubt it; but there are "amateur orchestras" and "amateur orchestras"!  

I'm fortunate in playing in a string chamber orchestra, a good percentage of the membership of which consists of former or current professionals, and we always engage a paid conductor who is an active professional.  

Our current conductor is red-hot on intonation.  I'm quite sure he will make his views forcibly known if we don't distinguish between E-flat and D-sharp, or play the open A instead of a fingered G##!  But there are indeed amateur orchestras where the players or conductor don't/can't make such distinctions, and, as you say, the situation isn't helped by brass or woodwind who don't seem to be aware of such intonational distinctions, although a skilled player of a blown instrument would be able to make them.  

October 9, 2010 at 06:13 PM ·

We have a concert tomorrow.  One of the pieces is Hovhaness' Fantasy on Japanese Wood Prints (the other two are the Janacek Sinfonietta and Martinu's 4th symphony- wish us luck! ) Anyway, the Hovhaness asks the wind and brass players to bend certain notes a half-tone up and down rather than re-finger.  This again, I think they find not so much physically as mentally challenging.  Portamento just isn't taught to clarinetists the way it is to string players!  And yes, that's the perfect set-up for remarks about all wind players being mentally challenged.  Anyway, I think this is another instance of the confines of the instrument creating and reinforcing concepts of what pitch and intonation actually are.  The trombones are really the only exception- their instruments have a certain amount of fluidity.

As violinists/violists, we often will play an F# on the D string with a high second finger, and the corresponding Gb with a low third.  It's usually the best fingering, especially when in a position or key signature where open strings aren't an option.  The idea of so-called enharmonic pitches actually being different makes sense in a way it doesn't to a pianist or woodwind player.

October 9, 2010 at 06:22 PM ·

 In some music genres other than classical, woodwind players are more than happy to bend notes, do portamento, and vibrato.

November 19, 2010 at 06:04 PM ·

One caveat with respect to pianos.  If you are playing a piece that includes piano, you will want to tune at least your A to the piano so you are not way out of line, won't you?

November 20, 2010 at 02:58 PM ·


Electric tuners are great. At some point, tuning should be accomplished by getting the A, and the E, D, G should be tuned to the A by ear.  The only way one develops their ear is to use it. 

June 11, 2015 at 05:30 PM ·

If you really want to play well tuned pitches give up your modern vibrato. OK for solo work, but the modern tendency to use vibrato has destroyed well tuned, consonant harmony.

Even bands and orchestras who start out playing tempered notes unconsciously tend to drift out of tempered notes because it is more consonant.

We in the violin family when playing together are lucky enough to be able to play without compromised pitch.

Jack, Born in the Middle ages.

June 11, 2015 at 05:39 PM · When I play with a piano, I tune my A AND D to the piano.

June 11, 2015 at 08:43 PM · If you are tuning 5ths to a piano you are definitely tuning too narrow.

June 11, 2015 at 09:44 PM · You are only "using" Pythagorean tuning if all notes, including the fingered ones, are derived using pure fifths and fourths. The resulting thirds and sixths are very harsh (worse than in equal teperament), and semitones are tight.

Compromises are inevitable if the harmony is to make sense...

June 11, 2015 at 10:26 PM · Only 2 cents too narrow. Better than having a G that sounds flat compared to the piano. :D

June 11, 2015 at 10:48 PM · I agree, if you play with a piano they won't budge. So, I tune my violin with the piano's GDAE.

The middle of their keyboard is often equal temperament. But, as you move toward the high end they are usually tuned increasingly sharp. And, as you move toward the lower third they are usually tuned increasingly flat. Why? The answer I have gotten is something like "it sounds better that way." Duh.

I haven't actually counted all of the known compromised (aka tempered) scales, but my best guess is somewhere north of 100.

June 12, 2015 at 12:10 AM · We had a rehearsal with piano this evening for a concert coming up this weekend - two piano concertos in one programme*, Beethoven 2 & 4 performed by Stephen Hough. Two concertos in a programme was fairly common a century or more ago, but not today, so we're relishing the experience.

Anyway, getting back to tuning ... the orchestra tuned to the piano A, as usual, but I noticed early on that the piano's equal temperament didn't sound right compared with the orchestra's temperament. However, tuning settled down as the rehearsal progressed, so I imagine the orchestra instinctively adapted to the piano's temperament.

* The two symphonies in the second half of the programme are Mozart 35 in D (the "Haffner") and Haydn 76 in E-flat. The Haydn isn't performed all that often, which is a pity because Haydn likes his jokes with the second violins in the last movement, giving them out of the blue several unexpected bars of broken octave scale passages at speed.

June 12, 2015 at 06:47 AM · Trevor

Would that concert be with the Bristol Classical Players?

It seems there are lots of new groups since I last played in Bristol many years ago now!

June 12, 2015 at 11:22 AM · Peter, yes, Bristol Classical Players it is, at St George's Hall on Sunday evening.

June 12, 2015 at 12:06 PM · Jack, just to be boring, the piano tuning is "stretched" at either end for two reasons:

- ours ears do not percieve acoustically equal intervals as equal, outside the staffs;

- intervals sound in tune when the higher note and its overtones fit into the overtones of the lower note; but overtones are rarely real "harmonics", because strings don't behave quite as the physic books describe. ("Inharmonicity")

June 13, 2015 at 03:29 PM · According to David Finckel, original cellist with the Emerson quartet, that ensemble tuned using electronic tuners - and he still recommends it: . He said it eliminated one source of arguments.

I think he uses a Korg tuner. So I got the habit from him after he released his 100 "lessons" on line. It certainly helps getting the cello and viola C strings in tune with a piano. I've got several brands of electronic tuners, including one that senses the instrument's vibrations regardless of how much outside noise is present; all these tuners agree with each other to at least 1 Hz or better.


June 13, 2015 at 04:47 PM · Back to an answer of the original question in this string, quote from Ariel : "If I tune my violin with the Perfect 5th system that means I'm tuning using the Pythagorean System, is that right?"

This is my present understanding, I am no expert so I am open for enlightenment.

The term "perfect 5th" is rather indeterminate. If the original question was "pure perfect 5th" and he means tuning with no beat being produced when 2 neighboring strings are played together the answer is Just or Pythagorean tuning with out any temperament, aka compromise. (I am not clear on the difference between "Just" & "Pythagorean". They may mean the same thing.)

If tuned that way only the A = 440 cps will be in tune with instruments that tune to tempered scales. So, ideally we don't play the open other 3 strings. (But, who doesn't cheat ocassionally?)

I use a Peterson strobe tuner that allows me to tune to Just and many different temperaments . It is very accurate. But, more difficult to use than simpler, less accurate tuners. While bowing it is very difficult to stop the strobe. This shows how there are factors (some mysterious) that affect pitch such as pressure of bowing, imperfect strings, friction at nut and bridge, etc.

I use a pickup on the bridge fed directly into the tuner so that I get a signal that is unaffected by others in the orchestra playing while I am tuning.

I laugh when I get an A to tune during an orchestra tune up. OK, I've got an A. What do I do with my other 3 notes. Really, in the time given and confusion are we suppose to tune the other 3 notes accurately.!

Bottom Line. While playing I am continually listening to others for a consonant, center of pitch. And, I like to rib staid conservative violin players who use wide vibrato by saying: "Vibrato was invented by violin players who are hunting for pitch."

June 14, 2015 at 12:08 AM · In some professional string quartets the cellist and violist tune their C strings very slightly sharp so that the E harmonic from those strings resonates with the open E strings of the violins, otherwise there would be a clash if the C strings were tuned an exact 5th below the G.

Many violinists will naturally play the B on the E string slightly flat so as to get a good resonance from the open G (but not if they're playing in the key of A).

A good guitarist will choose a specific pitch for his G string depending on the resonances expected from the particular key he may be playing in.

I have an old recording of Boccherini's quintets for guitar and string quartet. It is clearly obvious in many places that the temperament clashes between the fixed fretted tuning of the guitar and the tuning of the quartet could not be easily controlled (bottom line is that guitars are b----rs to tune).

June 14, 2015 at 09:46 AM · Surely (stop caling me Shirley) if you do not tune with perfect fifths with no beat then when you have to play double stop fifths they will be much harder to get in tune? It's hard enough anyway, and a hell of a lot of violin music has double stops with fifths. Also if you have to use say open A and E as a fith in a chord, it's going to be glaringly out of tune. In comparison octaves are much easier.

Is all this wierd tuning worth it just to be occasionally spot on with the piano when most of the audience won't notice anyway? Let's get real!!

June 14, 2015 at 10:55 AM · And those who do notice will understand.

June 14, 2015 at 11:07 AM · Vocabulary.

Perfect fifth (as opposed to augmented or diminished fifth) is a musical, rather than acoustic, term. In french, une Quinte Juste, which is confusing, as "juste" also means "in tune", or even "the right note"...

For nice smooth, beat-less thirds and fifths, we can use use "pure" perfect fifht, "pure" minor sixth, etc, etc.

Just Scale is an attempt to use both pure fifths and pure thirds in the same scale. It can work in unaccompanied choral singing, or in string quartets, but not in keyboards as some notes have to shift a little as the harmonies change.

Simple practical demonstration:

Play B on the A-string, double-stopped with the open E. Pure Pythgagorean fourth! Now keep the finger in place and play it double-stopped with the open D. Horrid Pythagorean sixth!. Now slide the finger a couple of millimetres back till the D-B is a nice pure sixth.

(BTW 2 or 3 millimetres is wider than my vibrato..)

Narrowing the fifths? Here we are into the hundred or so keyboard temperaments.

- Equal Temperament narrows the fifths by a couple of cents. (Frankly, a pretty decent compromise...)

- Meantone Temperament, (which I have tried on my piano) narrows the fifths by around 5 or 6 cents, to allow rather few pure major thirds. Similar to the adjustmets outlined by Trevor.

- Other temperaments juggle with thirds & fifths of varying sizes.

June 14, 2015 at 11:31 AM · I just play out of tune and then it doesen't matter anyway ...

June 14, 2015 at 01:57 PM · But we still have not addressed (with close fifths etc) the out of tune fifths on the open strings where we can't shift a finger slightly to tune. A lot of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas have these problems.

I also note that soloists with concertos with orchestra always seem to take the oboe A and then tune perfect fifths (i.e. without beats) and the same with the piano A in recitals. Have they all got it wrong?

June 14, 2015 at 07:28 PM · In any case, the shift in oboe pitch as it warms up is more than the discrepancies I describe.

June 14, 2015 at 07:59 PM · You don't often hear warmed up oboists, they are usually pretty cold when they get to the mortuary.

June 15, 2015 at 01:58 PM · Peter, the concert last night at St George's was a sell-out and a resounding success - it's not every day a major soloist (Stephen Hough) performs Beethoven's 2nd and 4th piano concertos in one programme, separated only by the interval. Definitely to be remembered as an "I was there when ..." event.

St George's are now providing a Personal Assistant for the orchestra, such as looking after the artistes' secure area (aka green-room), giving us a 5-minute warning for when we're due on, and being generally helpful.

June 15, 2015 at 02:01 PM · duplicate post

June 15, 2015 at 04:38 PM · It sounds as if music in Bristol is in a healthy state.

I used to play in the Colsten Hall (hope that's the correct name) and the theatre there. I used to be very fond of the old place.

Pleased the concert was a success and Stephen H played well. He's a nice bloke and I've often seen him at concerts.

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