Tuning without tuner same as with tuner. How come?

September 24, 2011 at 01:45 AM ·


today a violin teacher tuned my violin. It was the first time anyone but myself tuned the little thing. Curious, I've switched on my electronic tuner to check the frequencies (the person who tuned it was a real pro and had only used the tuner for a 440Hz A). Surprise: the tuner agreed totally with it. How come? The tuner frequencies are equal temperament frequencies, the same as my piano's... how come it didn't show a D string, for instance, as a bit flat, or sharp? I'm puzzled.

I've discussed my confusion with the violinist, but she didn't even understand what I was talking about (perhaps a language barrier, but I don't think so). I'm very confused. General relativity paradigm is just about to collapse (neutrinos were found traveling faster than light!!!!!) and now I'm struggling with this other paradigm (just versus equal)... my world is falling apart. Somebody help me, please.


Replies (24)

September 24, 2011 at 08:28 AM ·

Ha!  I did the same thing with my past teacher - after long lectures about tempered and non-tempered, the violin tuned by ear was almost exactly the same as that by the tuner. 

I've no idea why either.  As a returner it took me a while to 'get my ear back' and I relied on an electric tuner to fine tune mine too.  However, for a while now I have been tuning the A and then the rest by ear - I find that the D tends to be a bit flat and the G even more so with the E almost exactly the same as the tuner.  Since the difference is accumulative the G is the best indicator (to exaggerate the effect tune th E to the tuner and the other strings from the E). 

I hope my observation is the right direction else its back to the fingerboard!

September 24, 2011 at 08:43 AM ·

When I came back to the violin after about 5-6 years of having learned how to play flute, ukulele, and piano in particular, I found myself tuning to equally-tempered fifths instead of perfect fifths. It took me about a year or two to get re-used to listening to how the strings were "sympathizing" with each other, for lack of a better word.

I think piano affected this the most, as the not-quite-"perfect" sounds of certain intervals were drilled into my head, and going back to the violin exposed me to less equally-tempered notes again.

September 24, 2011 at 09:04 AM ·

But what about the topic Cyril?  When you checked your perfect 5th to a tuner were they different?

September 24, 2011 at 09:53 AM ·

Maybe this may help


My calculations for the Just temperament( perfect fifths) when using a tuner

G string   -4 cents

D string  -2 cents

A string   0 cents

E string +2 cents

Equal temperament is not off buy much when it comes to  fifths.


September 24, 2011 at 10:00 AM ·

 we don't have an electric tuner at home so i have no idea whether all tuners are made with the same quality or more importantly, exactly how accurate they are even if they are made to the highest quality possible with the existing technology.

here is my speculation , keeping in mind the statistical terms, sensitivity and specificity.  to start off, we have to assume or acknowledge that there is no perfect machine out there. even a shark that can smell out blood miles away in the ocean is not perfect.  sensitivity means the tuner can correctly identify a pitch when it is really there.  similarly, specificity means when the pitch is off, the tuner identifies it as off.

thus, my theory is that it is possible that the tuner in question is not THAT accurate and it considers something close to the pitch in question as right on.  the machine may not be able to distinguish the tiny difference between just and equal.

 addn: just saw charles' calculations above.  if they are correct, that means within certain range of cents, the tuner may not be able detect it, thus the world shattering dilemma.


September 24, 2011 at 10:13 AM ·

To Elise, oh yeah, definitely. When I was still in my "coming back" stages, the notes were almost completely locked onto the 0 mark. Eventually my ear got used to the Pythagorean(?) tuning, and my tuning eventually came out with a perfectly in-tune A, a slightly flat D, a slightly more flat G, and an almost unnoticeably sharp E.

To Caroline, I wouldn't worry that much about how your teacher decides to tune. With so many different instruments out there, tuning is practically subjective. Since you're probably comfortable with tuning in perfect fifths, you should continue that way. That's how the violin has been tuned for a long time, anyway. Don't quote me, though. I'm unfortunately not a sound engineer.

This is a good thread to read for more about perfect fifths and temperament, though: www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm

September 24, 2011 at 10:28 AM ·

I like the Snark tuner it's quite accurate.It's seems to have two different algorithms or sensitivities. One sensitivity brings you close ,like a tuning peg, and the other fine tunes the sting ,like a fine tuner.

September 24, 2011 at 11:38 AM ·

Thank you all for your answers and for the links.

I had asked about the tunings on another thread, but I've started this one because, after reading the old one, it didn't  ask/answer the same questions. My other thread was about tuning and intonation to play specific pieces, and the like.

I wanted to add that, when I tune to perfect fifths, my tuner disagrees with it my ear doings...

I'm feeling really bad about this, and last night I lost my sleep on it.


Still about tuning and teachers: today I've settled with a teacher (after seeing a few ones: yes, now I'm spoiled for choice!!!!!).

My new, new teacher, has a piano. I was going to tune myself, but he took the violin and tuned it for me. He played an A on his piano and tuned the violin to it. My heart sank: his piano has a very, very strange A. I'm about to check the *exact* (precision issues notwithstanding) frequency. It is way higher than 440 Hz, that's for sure. To my ear, it was screaming out of tune.

I've been struggling to *learn* the pitches. And now, having lessons with this piano... what is going to happen to my ear? I didn't bring the issue up... didn't have the guts... I struggle a lot with everything, and once I get something going, it's disheartening to start over...


September 24, 2011 at 12:26 PM ·




September 24, 2011 at 01:44 PM ·

 "I've been struggling to *learn* the pitches. And now, having lessons with this piano... what is going to happen to my ear?"

This raises a question that a number of the intonation threads on v-com have not dealt with.

Most orchestras take their a from the oboe; when I move from one to another, the a is quite often significantly different--whether because the oboist isn't great or because s/he is using an a other than 440, I don't know. 

If I relied on a-440 as the one end-all/be-all a, I would be suffering, but I was taught intonation in terms of interval as much as in terms of absolute pitch, so I more-or-less-automatically adjust.  Sure, there's a weird taste in my ears for the first few minutes, but then it all smooths out.

what do people do who are totally wedded to a-440?  How do you cope with ensembles (or pianos, organs, etc.) that are not a-440-based?

September 24, 2011 at 02:36 PM ·

You may have apoint about the pitch because occasionally we may have to deal with an out of pitch organ or something as wierd.

But in my experience an oboe A that was not spot on would get lots of loud calls from the other orchestral members as to what the hell was going on.


September 24, 2011 at 03:55 PM ·

Caroline, your teacher probably tuned your violin in tempered fifths rather than perfect fifths to start with.  Consciously or not, that's most likely what she did.

September 24, 2011 at 05:01 PM ·

@ Marjory, I always play perfectly cleanly, thanks to the pianists. Sure there are badly tuned pianos and you should only rehearse on tuned pianos, but if somebody tells you piano is a false instrument, his ears are degenerated.

September 24, 2011 at 10:47 PM ·

One can learn how to tune tempered fifths instead of perfect. Its good for quartet piano playing etc. you don't really need your strings tunes in perfect fifths most of the time. If you play melodically you will have a benefit from tempered strings because with a piano for example the open strings are in tune (if the piano is). If you play bach solo or something similar where you often need the quints with open strings it would definetely be better to tune perfect fifths so you get a clean harmonical foundation for g-minor, d-minor or something like that.

Tuning the violin is quite important. I remember Igor Ozim wrotes that he can judge a violinist when he hears him tune his instrument... I am not sure about that, but I think that a professional violinist has to consider some more facts in tuning his instrument then just an good A and perfect fifths. Btw. who plays a 440 nowadays?  Most Orchestras are on 443 or even higher. Most Pianos in germany are at 445 or higher (!). I like a 440 A but after playing at 445 or something 440 sounds really low and 443 Is quite moderate though. I would never recommend someone who wants to play sooner or later with other people to get a 440 tuning fork! Tune on 443! Its a solid A and sometimes you need to tune even higher and if you are coming from a 440 a its not easy to adjust your ear and also the violin will sound totally different then.

Tuning Machines are quite good. At least my Korg CA is very sensitive. When I tune perfect fifths I am way to low on G string. tempered fifths can sound quite awful, especcially A and E string together! But something between tempered and perfect works quite good for me. I tune DGA tempered and AE perfect.

September 25, 2011 at 03:15 PM ·

"I always play perfectly cleanly, thanks to the pianists. Sure there are badly tuned pianos and you should only rehearse on tuned pianos, but if somebody tells you piano is a false instrument, his ears are degenerated."

This often said by people who have less than perfectly trained ears.

Do remember that even when a pianist is playing the correct notes on a well tuned piano that as soon as the sustaining pedal is used all sorts of wierd out of tune sonorities are introduced, by sympathetic vibration.

No piano can make you play cleanly, if by that you mean with good intonation.

September 25, 2011 at 04:59 PM ·

All just word, words, words.

Put something up on youtube. Then we can hear whether that piano works for your intonation.

September 25, 2011 at 05:35 PM ·


I've got better things to do old boy. What's your brief? You put something up yourself and we can have a good larf.

September 25, 2011 at 06:03 PM ·

Hey PEter I wasn't directed to you...

September 25, 2011 at 06:22 PM ·

 @ Peter and Bill:

I am just sharing my invaluable experience and unlimited wisdom on the forum. Aye, what can I do if the information gets reflected rather than absorbed? 

September 25, 2011 at 06:58 PM ·

Sorry Bill, I thought that was out of character, entirely my mistake, and I apologise.

I realise now who it might have been meant for, and I can see your logic!! (wink).

It's so easy on these forums to get the wrong end of the stick, and I'm truly sorry!!

September 25, 2011 at 08:51 PM ·

I like to use a tuner to make sure everyone's instruments work together. Most people I know don't have perfect pitch without a reference point. Sometimes I notice though that the tuner might show a perfect A but to me it still sounds a little off. I tune it to what the tuner says and then I'll adjust it slightly in either direction till I hear that good reverberating "ring" in the violin. Then it really starts sounding sweet. It is amazing how trained our ears get. I just put on new strings and they are still stretching. I could tell every time I hit an open string if it had gone flat or not, even if it was just a little out.

September 27, 2011 at 06:30 PM ·

The reason I'm attached to the 440Hz A is because I have it in my brain. I can sing it out of the blue, always spot on (as far as my tuner's precision stands).  I tune to other frequencies when I need (to play with accompaniment). But I like the 440 Hz. 

When I'm reading music on a full, noisy bus, it is this A I bring up to start to *sing* the music in my mind (solfège). If this A is taken away from me, I'll be *singing* false. For the music instrument in my brain, this A is king, and all the other notes just fit in, adjust to it.

Anyway, I won't discuss the subject with my teacher. I don't wanna start our teacher/student relationship with what could be misunderstood as a complain.

Thank you all for your thoughts.

September 28, 2011 at 12:38 PM ·


some time ago, I've realized when I thought I was singing a C, for instance, it was actually something close to a F#! I was so down. Am I pitch blind, or something?

After struggling with it a lot, playing note after note, interval after interval on my digital piano, I realized the only frequency I get right is the 440Hz. It is the only one that, when I sing, it matches. So, I sing it, then I fit a A major scale to it, then minor scales, and so on. All sorts of intervals... then I'm ready. It is like tuning myself.

I'm sure this is difficult to understand for people lucky enough to have good ear, or people who have been playing since childhood. I've started at 39. My ear is terrible. I have to work on it, because nothing comes naturally. To give you an idea of how challenged I am, I've practiced in front of a mirror for a year till I finally could bow straight.

That's why I sing (in my mind) in the bus. It is an exercise. I also try to recognize that A when talking to people, for instance. It is another exercise. I take easy pieces and I don't look at it written, then I try to write down the notes, see if I get the music right. It is easy for many, but very difficult for me. 

I'm not hopeless: I see progress every week... but in tiny dosis.

All these things about temperament, etc, etc, aren't natural to me. I need to understand the mathematics, see waves, etc, to try to *understand*. Then I enter a long battle with the other side of my brain to try to convince it to do it, just do it. I'm busy with it for several hours/week. I don't mind, for I love it. But it isn't a walk in the park.


What did you mean with freefall? Is it an exercise? Unfortunately, I can't whistle (I've tried to learn, believe me). I sing... quite beautifully (!!!), though I've got a small voice. I've got a bossa-nova kind of voice.


September 28, 2011 at 01:43 PM ·



I think what John is trying to do is to encourage you to learn to be capable of recognizing and working with good *relative* pitch rather than *absolute* frequency.  It is far, far, far more useful and desirable to be able to play/sing/hear intervals, melody and harmony, starting from any arbitrary frequency.

You really do *not* want to have "perfect pitch" meaning being tied to a specific frequency!

If you are scientifically minded, just read my stuff about just intonation, temperament etc and then learn to recognize those intervals and harmonies--starting from any arbitrary frequency.

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