Harmonic out of tune

November 13, 2013 at 07:57 PM · The harmonic on the E string, normally reached with a stretch of the fourth finger from 3rd position, is sounding flat. If a play an arpeggio from 1st finger E on the D sting, the harmonic is a half step flat. I've put on a new string but no change. Does my bridge need moving?

The harmonic on the A is perfect.


Replies (28)

November 13, 2013 at 08:41 PM · It varies from person to person, but once we get "off the staff" the tone can seem flat (and very low notes can seem sharp), but not necessarily in an even progression.

Also, the harmonic in question is in a very sensitive part of our hearing range, and the strength of a tone has a noticeable effect on our perception of its pitch.

We humans are not perfect!!

November 13, 2013 at 09:06 PM · Greetings,

there are a number of solutions to this problem but the one I have found to be most efficacious over ther years which I always teach my students is to shout 'woof!' as loud as possible as you are playing the note.

not only does this cover up the offending sound but it clears the room of any stray cats that may not belong to you, thus protecting you from a slew of law suits ranging from cat napping to 'nefarious acts with animals while crossing a bar line,'

Hope this helps,


November 13, 2013 at 10:28 PM · Do you mean the first harmonic on the E string, which you get by touching a finger half way up on the unstopped E string, which is an octave above the open E? It's impossible for that to be a half step flat relative to E4 which is the low E on the D string. If anything, the inharmonicity of strings would make that E harmonic a few cents sharp. I suggest that you compare that harmonic against a recorded E6 that you can find online. Something is wrong...

November 14, 2013 at 02:06 AM · Electronic tuner.

Report back :)

I've had that sensation too, that notes high on the E string sound flat - so that I over compensate and play them all sharp.

November 14, 2013 at 03:39 PM · Use a wider vibrato

November 14, 2013 at 03:52 PM · Check your finger placement. A harmonic is a division of the string, and should be the octave above the open string. If the open string is in tune with a tuner, but the harmonic is not it is most likely a finger placement issue.

November 14, 2013 at 04:01 PM · Well, it's worse than I thought. My cheapo electronic tuner says my E string is spot on and my harmonic is perfect but it still sounds flat to my ear. If I put my finger down and just roll it ever so slightly up, it sounds fine. I also suck at woofing.


November 14, 2013 at 04:50 PM · Didn't I read somewhere that one of the penicillin derivatives can cause a hearing problem in the region of the frequency of that harmonic "E" ?

And @Elise, I once heard a recording by a VERY distinguished player of the Beethoven Romance in F - the player went VERY sharp when ascending the "E" string near the end - by this time this player was "getting on a bit" (whereas I was still a youngster) and I thought at the time that this confirmed that perception of the pitch of high notes can change as a player ages.

Eric, If the electronic tuner reports that the harmonic is OK then I think you have to just grin and bear it.

November 14, 2013 at 05:07 PM · I think Adrian has the right answer; it's a psycho-acoustic effect. I know a concert master who says that pitch of his violin sounds flat to him when he puts a mute on, although he knows full well that the pitch isn't actually changed. What is probably happening is that the muting out of the high frequencies is telling his brain that the instrument has gone flat.

A harmonic is a much purer tone than an equivalent non-harmonic note, and has very few, if any, higher harmonics of its own. It is the absence of these higher harmonics that probably tricks the brain into "hearing" the note as flat. I suspect this is the underlying reason why some people say you should never tune using harmonics, although I must say I don't agree with that blanket dictat. I usually tune the traditional way by listening for the beatless perfect fifth between two strings. However, I am not averse to doing a quick check and adjustment using harmonics, which I used to do regularly when I was an active cellist because it felt more efficient on that larger instrument.

November 15, 2013 at 02:32 PM · Sadly, I think Trevor is correct. I no longer hear the higher harmonics included in a note and my brain tricks me into hearing this note as flat. My career has caught up with my hobby and years of running large, noisy machines has taken its toll.

November 16, 2013 at 04:13 AM · I think what is happening here is that you have found a means of calibrating your perception of pitch in the upper register of your instrument, and this is compelling you to reconsider your sense for what is in tune. In other words you have made the invaluable discovery that your sense of pitch is flawed. Before I learned to check resonances, all of my upper register passage work drifted sharp. Took me a few months to tame that beast.

November 19, 2013 at 12:31 PM · A BBC broadcast told us that in his later life, one composer heard notes in the lower register a semitone sharper than he should have, and that made life difficult. The composer was not named in the broadcast, but my guess would be Fauré. Others may know different.

These problems aren't confined to musicians. One of the earliest useful pieces of software in pioneer linguistics was a program called CECIL, written to assist the language learner/researcher to distinguish between stress and tone.

November 19, 2013 at 10:52 PM · No one has yet mentioned another possibility: that the second string installed happened to also be false.

It's happened to me before--I install a string that just sounds "flat" yet in tune. Another new string solves the problem.

November 19, 2013 at 11:33 PM · Eric,

Try plugging your left ear and see if that helps. If it does, the harmonic may be overdriving your left ear leading to a perceived higher pitch - it is a known phenomenon.


November 23, 2013 at 04:21 AM · I'm greatly intrigued by the "false string" idea. How is a harmonic even possible if the pitch that you hear is not some common fraction of the fundamental frequency? If the E string is in tune, then so is the harmonic, almost by definition.

November 23, 2013 at 08:39 AM · Yes, the word "harmonic" implies exact multiples of the fundamental frequency - but this implies that real strings behave just as they do in a book on physics. Their different thicknesses and stiffnesses put paid to that!

The word "overtones" covers any "partial" vibration, even of a gong or drum. And one can't make usable chords with timpani or carillons (Berlioz tried this in his Requiem).

Fauré's condition was a very rare progressive deterioration, but carefully conducted studies show that no two people agree entirely on intonation. For example, in live concerts, I have found the very high notes sharp with Menuhin, flat with Zukerman. My wife agrees, which is rather important!

Another frequent phenomenon is that Absolute Pitch (innate, not acquired) goes flat with age ,right across the scale.

So, we need:-

- a spouse with similar ears;

- earplugs;

- a bright-toned fiddle where the very high overtones keep our ears on track in medium-high tones;

- colleagues who don't "know" everything!

November 23, 2013 at 10:40 AM · Adrian, you give the false impression that physics can't treat more realistic string models than a thin inextensible string vibrating transversely in 1-D.

November 24, 2013 at 05:52 PM · Thanks all for your help. I've tried another string. All three play the same. that is, they don't sound right. I tried the ear plug thing and that kinda helped.

I'm at the point now where I just avoid that harmonic and just finger it.


November 24, 2013 at 06:54 PM · Could you record it and upload on soundcloud or someplace? I think we are intrigued to hear...

Either that or send your violin round to everyone by fedex and we can try for ourselves :D

November 24, 2013 at 10:19 PM · its a woof note.....

November 25, 2013 at 02:22 AM · Doggone it, Buri. LOL

November 25, 2013 at 02:42 AM · Are you using "E" string sleeves, the ones provided with most strings ? Sometimes they seem to alter

the pitch or after length vibrations if they protrude to far towards the fingerboard. You might try to keep the sleeve as close to the edge of bridge as possible and see if that helps.

November 25, 2013 at 06:12 AM · Eric (Rowe), I was refering to the kind of physics books that I can understand!

In the '60's I remember paying more for gut strings producing "true fifths"..

Even in first position, we often have to advance the fingertip a little on the E-string.

November 25, 2013 at 11:14 PM · The first thing I do now when I buy an E-string (or a metal-cored A) is to remove its plastic sleeve, because I don't think it does anything for the tone, in particular both natural and stopped harmonics. The current Es on my violins are Goldbrokat (stark) - no problems with tone, or cutting into the bridge.

I agree with Jeff that if you use a sleeve then don't let it project beyond the bridge.

November 26, 2013 at 04:18 AM · Adrian whats that about advancing the finger tip on the e string?

November 26, 2013 at 08:36 AM · Paul, I have noticed that on violins where the previous teacher has put scotch tapes (I use a small number of round stickers - by the time they fall off they are no longer useful..) the tapes do not give perfect fifths: we have to advance th fingers a little on the E-string. It's a question of different string diameter and stiffness. We usually do this intuitively.

I checked a guitar: the bridge is slightly crooked, to compensate for this effect. We could do this too!

The smaller the instrument, the more noticeable the problem.

November 26, 2013 at 02:38 PM · Any music string at tension coming off a bridge or nut will have a short section that is "dead" - too short and stiff to vibrate - effectively making the vibrating and pitch generating portion of the string shorter. My understanding is that the length of the dead section depends on the thickness (diameter) of the string, its density, stiffness and tension - btw, I haven't seen a strict mathematical or dimensional analysis of this effect (if someone knows of one ...?). Try bowing ponticello in extremis on the E and then on the G to appreciate what's going on. This explains why fretted instruments such as guitars frequently have bridges at a slight angle across the table to compensate, because the player's fingering and intonation is constrained by the frets, unlike the non-fretted instruments. The gut- or nylon-strung classical guitar , which I used to play, generally doesn't require an angled bridge.

November 26, 2013 at 04:12 PM · Well, I removed the little tube on the E and no change.

According to two different electronic tuners I have, the problem is me, not the fiddle. I don't see a mechanical problem. I've got a rehearsal on Saturday for a Christmas pageant and I'll ask some of the other violinists if they think that harmonic sounds flat.


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