Different tuning different sound?

April 23, 2012 at 05:41 PM · I discovered today how much better my violin sounds if i tune it to 440 hz instead of 443 as i usually do.

I want to ask you, how do you tune your violin. Do you make a difference when playing solo or with piano?

I will from now on tune on 440 when playing without piano I think. Even if it is somehow oldschool and todays pianos are often tuned to 445 hz, wich one has to adept to.

What is in your experience the effect that different tunings have to the sound of a violin?

Replies (39)

April 23, 2012 at 06:48 PM · 445 Hz is really an extreme. I always try to keep the range of 440 - 442 Hz if possible.

April 23, 2012 at 06:52 PM · I wasn't aware that 440, at least in the US, is "old school," and haven't found that 445 is the new standard for pianos.

Anyway, I'd be surprised if the average fiddle is improved at a higher pitch, due to the higher tension.

April 23, 2012 at 06:54 PM · 438 because it's cheaper than tuning my piano.

April 23, 2012 at 09:27 PM · yes, pianos in germany are very high. of course it depends, but in Music conservatory they are never under 444. Mostly 445 or even 446 wich is just stupid. Ok I am talking about hanover music school right now. Maybe the piano tuner is deaf. But also at opera houses the pianos are higher tuned to give the singers an comfort zone when playing with orchestra, wich is usually as far as I know around 442 or 443 in germany because of the winds are build for that pitch.

I think that this 5 hz difference can make a huge difference in how the instrument reacts and sounds. I was wondering why you actually tune to this or that pitch not just wich you chose. ;) Of course 438 is very low and sounds like a g sharp to me. I have no absolute pitch but I am easily disturbed by a different pitch, especially with sidereading. Between 440 and 446 everything is "ok" besides the sound difference, but lower i dont like too much. Also with "old historical informed" performances I like more 440 hz.

I can imagine that a higher A will give you an edge for solistic playing. I also like to tune slightly sharp d and g to get somehow tempered fifths, especially with piano. Anyone has experience with this? For example tuning slightly sharp at a solo concert. I seem to hear in some performances of Old players like Menuhin, Oistrakh and Milstein, that they also don't take the a of the oboe "clean" but slightly sharp. I also remember having read about tuning sharp and not with the oboe in some book of the violin literature, I think it was in flesch "art of violin playing" i will look that up now.

I only started this topic, because it was an earopener to me last saturday. I always tuned at 443 for maybe 5 years from now besides some concerts where the piano, organum or similar instruments was lower. Also one teacher of mine told me that a violin sounds best when its tuned to the same excact pitch every time. I believe that is true, because if you change all strings slightly the sound will be horrible in the beginning. Thats Why soloists who have to play in one concert two different pitches or scordatura will most likely use 2 violins. I always thought it is very practical to play an 443 a its in the middle between the most occasions. But Now I am thinking to settle more down, because of sound and the relaxed playability of the 440 tuned violin. Especially for solo bach.

April 23, 2012 at 09:49 PM · On one here in the UK as far as I know tunes to anything other than 440 and the pianos are tuned to 440 as well.

As for tuning the fiddle strings to anything but perfect fifths - I know on one that does this. Sounds crazy to me, unles you want to sound out of tune like a piano.

I also play sometimes with a German cellist and he always tunes to my A which is at 440.

April 23, 2012 at 10:07 PM · In string orchestra, I tune to 442, but in full orchestra it is almost always 440. I remember when I first began violin, we would tune to the piano's A, which was at 435. It took a while to adjust to 442 after that year...

April 23, 2012 at 10:26 PM · yes Peter, i agree with that perfect fifth to a certain degree.

Sometimes it is just necessary to tune tempered. For example as a viola player in a quartet, when the c string has to match the violin e string. If tuned in perfect fifths the sound is awful when you come to the open c string. What do you think about tuning the a slightly high and from there perfect fifths until you get an perfect in tune c? ;) just an idea. That may also be a reason, why soloists like to take the a slightly sharp, so that the open g string is in tune without tuning other than perfect fifths.

I don't know if you play guitar, but on the guitar I have learned that tuning is one big big compromise. not because of out of tune frets, just because of temperature. I don't know why you deny the problem of temperature on the violin?

Of course no violinist wants to sound like a piano, but the open strings have to be in tune whith what other instruments do, not just the violin alone. The rest is adjustable anyways, isn't it?

For solo playing I agree of course with perfect fifths... and also with an 440 a since recently.

But also here one could be picky and ask about the tonality of the piece before tuning EADG in perfect fifths, especially when it comes to chords with one or more open strings. But this is speculative because noone will play in tune to that degree that it would matter, especially not me :D

April 23, 2012 at 11:01 PM · 440 here. I can tolerate up to 442; so if the piano is tuned to 442, I can live with it.

Those who oppose creeping pitch inflation can thank the singers for taking a stand against it. See what the late Renata Tebaldi had to say here on the subject. Just search for "440" on the page -- you'll find the part I'm referring to.

April 23, 2012 at 11:03 PM · We use 440 at my school...I've honestly always used 440 and have never been in a situation where I needed to tune differently

April 23, 2012 at 11:22 PM · A piano tuned to an A in the low 430s may in fact have been tuned to a source in the region of C=256Hz. Specifically, a pitch tuner of exactly 256Hz (the old physics lab "scientific" C) would imply A=430.5Hz in piano ET tuning. A440 would imply C=261.6 (again in ET tuning).

My piano, of Dutch origin, is tuned to C=256. I have no intention of going to the expense, and possible future unreliability, of having it retuned to A440.

On a separate "note", the bass player in one of my chamber ensembles proudly demonstrated to us today his new 5th string addition to his bass. This low 5th string is tuned to A=26Hz (the bottom A on the piano). The sound is magificent, and our conductor, who arranges or composes most of the music we play, and is himself a bassist, is so taken by it that he intends to incorporate the sound in some of his future arrangements.

Apparently, a specialist string maker made the string to order.

April 24, 2012 at 12:53 AM · "Sometimes it is just necessary to tune tempered. For example as a viola player in a quartet, when the c string has to match the violin e string. If tuned in perfect fifths the sound is awful when you come to the open c string."

Violas and cellos often check their C strings. But as a viola player in a past prison camp (i.e. orchestra) I did not often do that, but in chamber musak it is useful. If the open C was slightly flat I would play it with my finger on the nut to sharpen a bit.

"What do you think about tuning the a slightly high and from there perfect fifths until you get an perfect in tune c? ;) just an idea."

Never bothered with that.

"I don't know why you deny the problem of temperature on the violin?" Mine has temperature control as an extra.

"Of course no violinist wants to sound like a piano, but the open strings have to be in tune whith what other instruments do, not just the violin alone. The rest is adjustable anyways, isn't it?"

Don't play open strings is the answer if it causes a problem! (wink) Seriously though!

April 24, 2012 at 01:12 AM · äähm yes, I am sorry, its not my mother tongue.

April 24, 2012 at 02:24 PM · Well, I used to work with Bonyng and Sutherland and I heard that he used to play arias and scales on the piano up a semitone or even a whole tone without Joan knowing, so she was singing higher than she realised. A bit of phsycology? Good training too.

(Joan used to knit on sessions and the comments flowing back and forth were hillarious. When the leader once thanked Joan for her singing at the end of some sessions Richard B said "oh for God's sake, don't encourage her!")

April 24, 2012 at 02:38 PM · As Peter mentioned in the UK 440 is the standard. However when playing in a church the orchestra will tune to the organ if it is being used. I have met A's a semitone flat before now. The violin does sound sad!

If your violin sounds better at a lower pitch put strings with less tension on it, or if better at a higher pitch put higher tension strings on it. Then you can play at the "usual" pitch with best sound.

Cheers Carlo

April 26, 2012 at 11:49 AM · That's why I hate church organs and all that associated eclesiastical stuff!! And most conductors in church concerts lose all sense of rhythm. (I prefer the lightening conductor on the roof ...)

April 26, 2012 at 12:01 PM · Peter - we have something in common, if a little obscure: I was told by a neighbour who lived a few doors down that Joan Sutherland stayed in my house when she performed Tosca in Toronto (1963) :)

At the time I would have been in Leicestershire...

April 26, 2012 at 01:27 PM · thanks carlo, that obvious Idea somehow didn't come to my mind. And yes I play very high tension strings at the moment, wich is Evah Pirazzi. But the only good low tension string I know is the larsen tzigane and that didn't work on my new violin. I would love to use Eudoxa or oliv strings, but its so unpractical, that I am afraid that I will take them off after one week (of tuning), wich isnt worth the money. Any other low tension string suggestions? what about the vision series?

in fact my violin sounds good tuned at 443 too, but with 440 everything sounds more relaxed and somehow free. I think I have to record myself to really know if the difference is sound or just playability, but it really has a huge effect.

Still when I practice romantic music or other than bach solo I would prefer the 443 A, maybe because I am so used to it, and maybe because it gives a little more bite.

April 26, 2012 at 01:28 PM · The reason most violins sound best tuned to 440 is because string manufacturer's design their strings to sound best when they're tuned to 440.

Luthiers also design their instruments to have certain standard lengths and to have the most responsiveness tuned to 440.

April 26, 2012 at 01:41 PM · "Peter - we have something in common, if a little obscure: I was told by a neighbour who lived a few doors down that Joan Sutherland stayed in my house when she performed Tosca in Toronto (1963) :)

At the time I would have been in Leicestershire..."

Does that mean you are English?

But you couldn't have been around in 1963 surely? You must have meant 1993?

April 26, 2012 at 06:03 PM · Yes, Terry, I heard about that too (luthiers tuning their instrument to certain notes) but I wondered if they tune to 440 or something higher. And yes, to me it seems they are doing this today also. Always when I ask for an A at a luthier to tune a violin he/she gives me an old tuning fork with an 440 A.

I wonder why they don't take an 442-444 A, since it is the range of german oboes, who will give the A in the orchestra. In fact oboes in vienna are tuned to 443-446 hz today... sais wikipedia.

Intersting is the fact, that old instruments like stradivari and co., if tuned, were tuned to a lower pitch considering, that the concert pitch at that time was quite low and flexible.

April 27, 2012 at 03:34 AM · But I think it's more than just the instruments, Simon. The string companies also design their strings to sound best when they're used at 440. Even strings that are low tension are designed to sound best at 440.

April 27, 2012 at 09:12 AM · I ask myself why they do that. All the major orchestras in europe are much higher than 440.

Taylor: is it right that you say that tempered fifths are bigger than perfect? Maybe I misunderstood, but if not, I doubt that. I often check my tuning with a tuning device and if I tune clean the fifths are too wide. So I thought the tempered fifths must be smaller!?

April 27, 2012 at 01:07 PM · Simon,

Almost all, if not all, the orchestras in the US tune to 440. It seems fair to say that most people tune to 440, which is generally understood to be the most broadly agreed upon number for an A. As you mentioned, tuning forks are also dialed in at 440 Hz. So I figure that string companies are going with the average.

Perhaps there is an expectation of a certain sound that one wants if one tunes to 442 - 445. If the strings were designed to 442 - 445 perhaps they'd lose that "edge" to them.

I see in an earlier post that Bohdan Warchal mentioned that he goes for a 440-442. It just clicked with me now, he is the owner/designer of Warchal strings. (which by the way Bohdan, I love on my instrument!!)


April 27, 2012 at 01:48 PM · I use Warchal Ametyst strings, which are low-tension. My violin sounds a little raw with some of the more popular strings (i.e. Dominants).

I've always thought my violin sounded better when tuned low. I had never made the connection between lower pitch and low-tension strings! I wanted low-tension strings largely because they are easier to press with my thin fingertips. I was really happy when they also made my violin sound good.

April 27, 2012 at 02:29 PM · I tune my violins harmonically after tuning the A string to the oboe (or piano), but when I play cello with piano, I tune the C string to the piano's C.

Sometimes, at home - when I'm lazy, I tune all the strings to the electronic tuner on my stand - although I can hear the slight difference when playing open-string double stops, I find no difference for the rest of my playing

The cellist David Finckel (recently of the Emerson Quartet, and a well known soloist) recommends always tuning to an electronic tuner, since it eliminates all doubt, arguments, and questions. Since so much ensemble playing is a matter of matching pitches (either exactly or harmonically), neither tempered tuning nor harmonic tuning offers a unique advantage - only the ears can offer the final precise adjustments required. Notes that are in tune melodically may not be in tune in "chords."


April 27, 2012 at 02:52 PM · When I play with our piano it's 435, because that is what our very old piano is tuned to. At home, on my own, it's 440 (tuning fork), and in the orchestra, a few Hz higher because of the wind instruments.

April 27, 2012 at 07:59 PM · Thank you for your competent replies. I am happy that at least some understand, that tuning is a relative thing.

Regarding orchestra A's. Yes in England the orchestras seem to be still on 440 wich is a good thing in my opinion, but that is definetely not the reality in germany and austria, where also many world class orchestras are located.

Yes the oboe may change its pitch due to humidity and temperature, but they are build for a certain pitch and that is why the oboist always gives the A with an electric tuner to their eyes. Not only the environment changes an oboe also the mouthpiece is very fragile to intonation. It is just, that they are optimized to a certain pitch and that pitch is differnt in every country and higher in germany and even higher in austria as I said.

I can understand the argument, that if a string would be optimized for 443 or something it wouldnt sound like a string that is optimized for 440 and tuned up to 443.

I just wonder, because 3 hz make such a difference, why strings and violins are optimized for 440 even today and as it seems. It would be interesting to hear a luthiers opinion about the "tuning" of a violin to a certain pitch.

Regarding tuning in an quartet, I also heard of that cellist who only tunes with electric device. And I can totally understand that. Not only the C string is out of tune but already the d and g string will differ to the e string very noticeable. if you play alone it makes no difference but if you play quartet there is a need of tuning tempered, because you don't only play in one tonality but in different ones and you have to make decisions and compromises with intonation regarding leading notes and melodic lines. Sometimes, through a harmonic change, a note changes its function and melodically must therefore be pitched differntly, but it would not be the sence to change the note due to its tonal funktion. therefore you have to play it tempered and in relation to both (!) harmonies. And waht do you do if this note is the bottom string, wich is slightly too low if tuned perfect anyways? I can just tell you from experience, that perfect tuning in a quartet doesn't work for all literature.

But back to the concert pitch. I am very ambivalent about tuning higher and lower. I love the sound of many orchestras who play in higher pitch but i also heard very good english orchestras! especially the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the old orchestra of simon rattle as far as i know was amazing!! I dont know at what pitch they tune but I am sure it has a very strong impact on how they sound.

April 27, 2012 at 10:17 PM · If you give me an A on every instrument I can most certainly tell you if its an 440 or 443. The difference is so obvious to me. Maybe its because I tune around 50 violins a week. But also back in my life I always heard if an A was higher or lower than 443 without checking on my own violin. People tend to think its a small differnce, but check it with a tuner, wich makes a noise.

I find the idea more ridiculous that strings are made for a certain tension, because they are not to hold something but to sound. At least the truth is in the middle, they are made for a certain pitch at a specific tension. Depending on the instruments mensure or bridge position +-5% or whatever.

at least I got the ridiculous fact out of your post that violins have different lengths, even if its slightly. Wich again brings me back to the more interesting fact to me if luthiers "tune" their violins to a certain pitch. And in fact i know that some tune the backs of their violins to certain notes.

April 27, 2012 at 11:28 PM · I've never noticed that my instrument sounds better at 440 vs 443 or what have you, but I have noticed that on certain days my *ears* do have a preference. I rarely use a tuner, but if I go back and check after I've tuned I find I've generally tuned to around 442. *Except* when it's before 9 am or I'm sick/hung over...then things start going down...440...439...438...437...and back to bed.

April 28, 2012 at 10:46 AM · I only disliked the word ridiculous in an factual discussion and repeated it over and over (maybe in wrong places) so that you see what a nice word it is to say.

But if you think the only purpose of a string is to press the bridge on the violin? :D

I just wanted to conclude above, that a string has the purpose to sound at a different note (maybe I misused the word pitch in my previous posting) best, plus minus 5 or 8 hz maybe, at a certain tension. So if a string is optimized to a certain note/tension, why is it so unlikely, that string companies use an specific A to test and optimize the sound? (wich is 440-442 with warchal, thanks for the information there!) I know I am splitting hair right now, but i like to go into detail.

To me as a violinist it is important to get out my instrument the best sound possible. And strings are a major factor in optimizing a violins sound. May it be because of their tension or structure/material. What I like to know is how certain pitches change the sound and what (good) violin makers and string companies optimize their goods to. And i don't believe they don't care about that. I am sure in this competitive business every detail counts. If it isn't interesting for you Taylor, it's okay for me. But to me ignorance is the most rediculous thing existing.

Ok I try to be off raging now: I used to know an violin dealer who had a faible to test the strings tension with his thumb in order to feel the tension relations. He also told me, that most E strings in sets just have the wrong tension relation to the rest of the set and must therefore be replaced by other brands. Especially for the E-string I think that 5 hz can make a huge differnece in tension and the relation to other strings change also. So maybe an different pitch can give you an better tension relation regarding the too high tension of the e-string

April 28, 2012 at 01:05 PM · I tune to A440. That is, except in orchestral playing when, following the custom here in England, everyone tunes to the pitch of the 1st oboe. If I were to resume baroque playing, I would of course tune to the harpsichord, but baroque pitch is a minefield in itself; some years ago it used to be A422, I think, but at present people have other ideas and it seems to vary.

April 28, 2012 at 09:00 PM · Simon said:

"What I like to know is how certain pitches change the sound and what (good) violin makers and string companies optimize their goods to."

Simon, I can't explain why, but a certain string tension or tuning pitch will sound best on a particular violin. A good "sound adjuster" can move this around, bringing it to the pitch where you normally play.

If you play different performances at different tuning pitches, a good adjuster can optimize it for one or the other, or compromise by making it semi-OK (less than ideal) for both. That's about the best we have to offer.

Ideally, instruments are adjusted for specific strings tuned to a specific pitch, with a specific bow at a certain tension, a given chinrest clamped at a specific pressure, and other things like a shoulder rest (if used) attached in the exact position that the player uses it.

That may sound a bit far-fetched, but these are just a few of the many factors which the best adjusters need to take into consideration. An accumulation of small improvements can add up to night and day differences, if a luthier really knows what they are doing. I'll guess that the people who can pull that off are fewer than 5% of those who call themselves "luthiers".

By the way, most of the best sounding Srads and Guarneris have had some amazing restorers and adjusters working on them for 200 years.

If one wanted to spend half-a-million on dinking with one or another of the cheapest instruments to make them sound better, I suspect that a good portion of them could be made into pretty good solo instruments.

But really good professionally validated contemporary instruments can be purchased for between 15 and 75K, and some of them have trounced Strads in blind listening tests. So why gamble with that 500K?

April 29, 2012 at 11:31 AM · Lindon, my definition would be different:

A situation in which some contemporary was considered to be much better than some Strad, by a high percentage of the listeners or players present. This occurs with some regularity, involving a variety of moderns and Strads.

April 29, 2012 at 03:36 PM · Lyndon, I'm afraid you are misinformed. These types of tests take place rather regularly. The vast majority are not published, or publicly disseminated.

Increasingly, that's a condition of having Strads involved in the first place. Owners are getting wise to how these things can turn out.

April 29, 2012 at 03:37 PM · Trounce or tweak - to me the important point is that it is even possible for a modern to sound better than a classic. It means that if there is magic there its not ultimate magic.

To me also the fact that a modern can sound better is surely not surprising - thats how development works in every other field. Einstein took us a quantal leap forward (pun intended) but had no delusions that others would be unable add to his discoveries. The greatness in development and discovery is in the size of the leap, not its absolute level. Einstein made such a leap and so (from my limited knowledge) did Steiner, Amati, Stradivarious, del Jesu, etc etc. The questions I think we should address much more than going backwards like this are: who will be the next giant leap person and what might be the discovery?

Funny how that is so automatic and accepted in, say, composition and performance but so out of the picture in lutherie. Turn around guys, there's a future out there too...

April 29, 2012 at 03:57 PM · @Simon, commenting on your original post, on violin tuning, was there any reason for initially choosing A443 as your tuning pitch instead of A440? (I suppose it was most likely your piano's pitch.) I know that most quartets reputedly tune sharp for brightness in performance and that it's useful to tune sharp if playing in public on gut strings on a hot day to offset the strings progressively flattening in pitch.

April 29, 2012 at 10:26 PM · It really depends on what I'm playing, whether I'm a soloist, e.t.c. If I am playing in an orchestra, I tend to tweak it so I'm about a hertz lower than the oboe; I have trouble blending into the general tone of the orchestra so a lower pitch dulls my sound a little.

As a soloist, I tune a hertz higher. I have 40+ people to contend with, and my instrument's small. I want every note to be audible (or maybe not, but that's cheating).

Solo repertoire - depends. Paganini I tune at 442, Bach at 440.

Quartet - I just tune to the cello (and sometimes piano, depending). I think when my buddies and I did Faure the piano was 440; Schumann was tuned at 442. Mozart was 440, Smetana was 441.

April 30, 2012 at 01:07 AM · Momoko: Thanks! Thats very interesting and shows me, taht I am not the only one sensible for pitches and thinking about their use! I will play Bach from now on 440 too but For romantic repertoire stay around my 443 hz depending on the piano I play with of course.

Nicky: The reason why I chose 443 was because it was in between what I was used to (I was used to 440 before I started studying) and what was the common piano tuning at my university (445-446 plus minus and out of tune...). So i decided 443 to be a good pitch from where I can go up a little if necessary and down a little if necessary. And I am not the only one with that thought I guess. An Accordeonist with who I play, has his Accordean tuned to 442, not 440. And in mot ensembles here a 443 A is something very comfortable and for what some of the players will have to tune down.

David: Thank you for your thoughts on this, this is exactly what I was looking for! Indeed you bring up some additional factors wich are important to sound aswell. Regarding the chinrest I can just tell that I discovered it as an major factor! Where it is applied and with how much surface it touches the violin.

In fact when I play open A string, the sound is a little more open when I lift my head from my chinrest and a resonance goes away, like with a mute if I press my head too much on it. I already thought of changing it but there are not many alternatives wich fit me and the violin. The extreme of this happened with a heavy wooden shoulder rest of a friend of mine. The violin sounded muted to death! I first didn't know what was going on until I changed to my shoulder rest back.

The problem that only 5% of violin makers are really good in adjusting is an sad truth that I discovered. I hardly let luthiers touch my bridge! I have one who I trust, but only for the mechanical work like peg adjusting, some minor fixings and bow rehair. But when it comes to soundpost and bridge adjusting, I hardly trust anyone. I heard of one good adress here at my place, but was never there for soundpost adjusting because that guy has a tight schedule (funny thing if you get a date, he talks with you around unimportant stuff until you stop him :).

The only one who adjusted my violin wasn't a luthier, and that guy was like a magician and someone with real knowledge about violins (I would go so far to call him fanatic). And he said he was never accepted to a luthier school. But he spent hours with me adjusting my violin, in return I played other violins for him, wich he wanted to be adjusted. It was really something, to see such an sound engeneer at work and play the results. He also had bad hits, but he corrected them immediately. A good ear for sound is indeed also not what luthiers get with their title necessarily.

So the question is finally answered. But new questions arise, such as: If I change strings, do I have to change soundpost postion too to get optimal sound? But yes, thats indeed hair splitting... and I have to sleep.

Again much thanks for the discussion! It surpassed my expectations! Keep working on good sound! :)

May 1, 2012 at 05:12 AM · I tune to A 440 unless playing with a piano and then tune to the piano's G, D, A and E and work around the fingered notes.

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