How bad is studying with a tuner?

February 17, 2014 at 12:03 AM · I have already submited a thread here and everyone said I should get a teacher, I never thought otherwise,but currently I cant afford lessons, and I dont want to see my violin inside its case , and when I practice my scales( I have seen that there are lots of scales do you recommend any that I should search? I am trying to focus on the major notes, not the sharp ones) I was first using a tuner ,since I am not familiar with their sound yet and because I dont have a teacher to say if it is right or wrong.But some people think it is a bad idea.

So my question is why is it a bad idea, and what should I do now, should I stop practicing until I find a teacher, or should I continue using the tuner

Ps: when my violin is out of tune I use the tuner to tune it, is that also bad?

Replies (26)

February 17, 2014 at 01:41 AM · Avoiding sharps is not going to get you very far. There is a goood scale book by Hrimaly that is a time honored classic. Get that one, it starts very simple but it's got enough to keep you challenged for a few years too. The most comfortable major keys on the violin have 1, 2, or 3 sharps. When you are half way thru Hrimaly you can get Fischer.

Tuners are not evil, but they are slower than your brain and less accurate. You need to learn how to hear ringing pitches on your violin and how to play the intervals of the scale correctly. The latter is best described by Fischer.

February 17, 2014 at 02:57 AM · At the very least...listen to some can buy CDs...

Then you will have a better idea of what you are listening for.

A tuner is fine for tuning your instrument..and fine for periodic checks to make sure you are on track. But it is not a substitute teacher and you shouldn't rely on it as such. Most beginners actually start with the scales of G (one sharp) or D (2 sharps) because the finger placement is easier. The scale of C (no sharps or flats) is actually a little harder.

February 17, 2014 at 03:08 AM · Tuners have their place, but like any tool they have to be used correctly. When you first start it is a good idea to at least tune the instrument with a tuner. To help train my ear, I used to tune the violin and then play two strings together and listen to how the notes interacted together.

Another technique that I found very helpful was to tune the notes to an open string. For instant if playing an A on the G-string, listen to how it compares with the open A-string, or a G on the D-string, compared with the open G-string. If you are able to compare the notes on the violin with those from a keyboard (even having a phone app that plays different pitches) that forces you to listen to the sound rather than relying so much on the tuner.

Also when playing, if you feel a note could be out of tune, stop and see if you can correct it: though that can be quite hard at first. Try and teach the fingers where to land and be definite. It's best to avoid letting the fingers slide around until the right pitch is reached, rather just put the finger down and test. Is it too high, or low? They try again. I trust I've made myself clear.

These are some tips that worked for me. I hope they help. Most importantly, have fun with it!

February 17, 2014 at 07:25 PM · If you're not used to a string instrument, tuning the strings is actually quite challenging. Young students usually rely on their teacher for this for the first few years, but you'll have to learn to do it yourself.

I've tried tuners for tuning the strings, but the problem is the affordable tuners are in equal temperament, which doesn't work well for the violin.

So I'm back to the classic approach of using a tuning fork (you can pick one up cheaply and they don't break or need batteries!) to tune the A, and then tuning the other strings in relation to the A by playing them together.

So after A is in tune, you tune A/E as a chord, then A/D, then D/G.

You can feel when the tuning's right when you get a kind of rich, resonating "beat" between the two notes.

If you find it's hard to even get close, you could use a tuner to get things roughly right, then fine-tune using the three chords above.

As for tuning when you're playing, there is good advice above. Personally, I find listening for the characteristic overtones of each note the most helpful technique. For the common keys the notes often feel a little "dead" when they are out of tune, and the instrument sings when the tuning is right.

Something else that's very helpful is to sing the tune out loud, then play it. Provided you can sing reasonably well, this is great for getting a sense of the tuning and for getting some life into your playing. I've seen a video where the great violinist Isaac Stern taught like this in a masterclass, and the student's playing was transformed.

Also, you can play along to a recording, or create your own accompaniment with software like Band in a Box. Provided you listen to the relationship between what you are playing and the recording, this is a great way to stay in tune. There are recordings of pretty much everything online these days, including Suzuki book 1 and other beginner material.

February 17, 2014 at 09:12 PM · As a beginner I use my tuner to tune my A string, then I tune the rest by humming up an down till I get the fifth, then double check my tuning with the tuner before I begin.

That is about all you really need a tuner for. I think you should be listening to the music you are playing (I second the Suzuki CDs, very helpful)and trying to get your tones to match the songs. Also, pick out some simple songs you like on the violin. Your ear will tell you if your note is out since it will sound wrong.

There are tons of great music books that come with CDs now. I would suggest making sure that the CDs have actual recordings of a violinist though. Some just have a midi track which is kind of horrible to listen to.

Have you ever heard of Fiddleworks books? They have put together 3 volumes of fiddle tunes and the CDs that come with them are absolutely great to listen to just as a music CD.

Sorry, I think I wandered off topic a little there.

February 21, 2014 at 04:31 PM · Thanks for answering,

Your tips and counsels have been really helpful and I will work all of them as best I can, I will work to rely less on the tuners and more on my ears, I find it easier to identify if I am or not in tune when I am playing a song, I can see if my fingers are higher or lower ( I think this is something good? Right).

Well thank you again.

February 21, 2014 at 10:19 PM · its a very good idea to work with an good electric tuner. They are also very cheap. I wouldn't say, that they are less accurate, than a average players ear. In fact they are very accurate and one can correct bad intonation habits with it, wich are difficult to correct without an "neutral" device. The fact that most tuners are in equal temperament will not harm you too much, since the difference is quite small, so that you will still get a better intonation, when you play in equal temperament, than you would get by just using your not yet developed ears. No offense! I see in my young students, that they develope an good ear, when they practice with a tuner from time to time. When you work on music, a tuner and an metronome are 2 very good and cheap teachers. But obviously they cannot teach you much about violin technique and musicality. But still they will help you a lot!

edit: A good way to practice with a tuner is to play a note without looking at the tuner and try to play it perfectly in tune by ear.... then check what the tuner sais, often if we try to listen, we are actually correct, the biggest mistake whith playing an instrument is to think about the fingers too much and developing a tolerance in the ears. Always actively use your ears as much as you can! Good luck!

February 22, 2014 at 03:08 PM · I use a chromatic tuner, probably more than anyone here would approve of. It has not adversely affected me in my lessons, and my ear has profited from the back-up support. I do what Simon here mentions:

>A good way to practice with a tuner is to play a note without looking at the tuner and try to play it perfectly in tune by ear.... then check what the tuner says.

To me it's part of the "...a good servant but a bad master" philosophy. Don't rely on it; use it as support to back up what your ear and fingers are telling you. But I will always support the use of them in that capacity.

February 22, 2014 at 05:18 PM · "I've tried tuners for tuning the strings, but the problem is the affordable tuners are in equal temperament, which doesn't work well for the violin."

The most affordable tuners are now available on your smartphone for a couple of bucks. I like the TonalEnergy app for iphone, which will allow equal temperament, just intonation,Pythagorean, Meantone, Werckmeister, and many others. Plus one called "violin family". Often I'll use the pitch generator as a drone.

February 23, 2014 at 12:40 AM · true. But don't download them in a restaurant with Wifi since apple has just come clean about this being where your bank details get hacked....

now if only we could download patches for technique.



February 25, 2014 at 12:24 AM ·

February 25, 2014 at 02:50 PM · As a beginner violinist myself, I'll throw my uninformed opinion into the ring as well.

Studying with a tuner can be of great benefit. I know for myself, I don't know what a C# should sound like without some guidance along the way.

However, studying with a tuner can be BAD if you become dependent on it. The violin itself will tell you if you are in tune on the notes that resonate with other open strings (D on the A string for example). Once you begin to be able to self-regulate with the resonant notes, the other notes also become more recognizable and easier to find.

It's like anything else: it's not harmful in and of itself, but don't become overly reliant on it, just use it as a reference. Like finger tapes (Oh, NO, he said it!!!!!), they can have their place, but after a while you have to learn to take off the training wheels and stand on your own two feet (OK, that's a mixed metaphor....sorry)

February 25, 2014 at 05:57 PM · I recently started using the app Intonia as a part of my practise routine. I start each session with a series of notes (generally in G) up and down each string. My goal is to do 5 reps on each string with each note in tune. This warms up my fingers and also "warms up" my ear. With intonia, I've found that I've significantly improved my intonation. After the warm up I'll turn off Intonia and concentrate on the lesson.

February 25, 2014 at 09:31 PM · @ David: You can gain even more if you do not stop it, just minimize it and let it run in the background and record your practice session (one hour mono is about 400MB). After finishing your practice you can save the wav file and reopen when you have time. If you practise some sections repeatedly, you can easily find systematic errors (like a tone is a hair's width sharp or flat). Analysis is best done with Tuning On. Sometimes when played the excerpts may sound acceptable (especially faster tempo); concentrating on the places that are only negligibly off may bring more ringing.

February 26, 2014 at 08:06 AM ·

February 26, 2014 at 08:32 PM · Cristopher, you'll as many opinions as there are users on the website. I'm an absolute beginner and I have a teacher and I also use a chromatic tuner (Korg something) on a daily basis. all road lead to rome so you'll have to do what makes you feel comfortable.

February 27, 2014 at 04:17 AM ·

February 28, 2014 at 01:55 AM · Just to clarify my position: I'm an adult learner who used to not be able to tell semitones apart alot of the time as a teen. This is my third time trying to learn violin. Part of why this time is successful is that I've spent alot of year developping my ear through community choirs and playing recorders for medieval dancers. Part of it is that electronic tuners have become cheap enough for me to buy.

For the first year or so I used it pretty much constantly (I also kept stripes on my fingerboard right up to my grade 5 exam), much to the consternation of my teacher. Why? Because I could hear notes being off but couldn't hear which direction they were off and it was incredibly frustrating playing over and over wrongly. My theory is this: For people who are visual learners and have not built up auditory learning skills the link between that little moving line and the shape of sounds is very important. You won't find many teachers who think this because it's very rare for people with no ear at all to stick very long with an instrument like violin what has no stops/frets to tell you where the notes are. To be a string professional (performer or teacher) you need an incredibly good ear - or to be as stubborn as me about creating one!

By the second year of learning I had it on all the time but I only looked at it if I couldn't fix the off notes myself. This got less and less, but I am still using it this way starting on grade 7. This is partly 'cause I've just started viola and my fingers have no idea where the notes are any more on either instrument - I really look forward to my brain sorting that one out!

The downsides of the tuner:

1. It says nothing about whether you're picking up the correct timing (more important than getting the notes right if you ever want to play with others).

2.It's going to respond much more slowly than you want to play, so it will hold you back

3. It's nowhere near as reliable as a good ear!

About teachers:

You need a teacher - skip the coffees or some other treat and save up the money for a once a month lesson. If you talk to some good teachers I'm sure you'll find someone with enough understanding of your circumstances to allow this, especially if you're tacked on at the end of their teaching session.

About teachign yourself:

You don't say what level or what kind of music you're wanting to play. If you're looking at fiddle reather than violin, the usual way of learning is by ear at sessions. Most folk sessions are very open to beginners - provided you don't play loudly, mistakes are fine. Sit at the back of the circle and go for it. Invest in an orchestral mute (a little rubber circle that sits on the strings below the bridge when not in use, and clips onto the bridge to make it softer) which shouldn't cost more than a cup of coffee. Practice mutes are quieter but cost more.

Meanwhile, look for books with CD discs. Playing along with the cds will keep you in tune way better than a tuner (I do this almost every practice just to get my ears warmed up)and you'll subcionsciiously aim for the same beautifyul sound as the performers.

Best books ever: Huws Jones "Playalong" series. there are two books that are a comilation of his other books. They'll give you a wonderful sample of different folk violin traditions, with an easy line for very beginners a fiddle line for intermediate and an advanced "accompaniment" part full of double stops for more advanced players. Importantly the recordings are professional bands, so you're not playing along with a synthesizer like many of the books you'll find on Amazon.

February 28, 2014 at 10:16 AM · Christopher. Sorry to be outspoken, but there is a pongy heap of pompous nonsense written about the use of tuners for learning the violin. As I see it, the main 'problem' is that people who have been playing all their lives have no idea what its like to learn from scratch and develop a note 'ear'. They can not comprehend that a beginner (or returner in my case) can easily be half a note or more out - and don't realize how absurd it is to pontificate about nuances of intonation when playing a particular note in two different scales. Its as absurd as teaching a non-swimmer the details of the butterfly-stroke.

I agree with Mircea above: the electronic tuner is a boon and a wonder. It allows you correct notes instantly and has been for me perhaps the one most useful device to recover my playing over the last 6 years. I use it all the time and my teacher (classically trained Galamian student) is very pleased with my intonation progress.

For me the key is to use it to learn the note intevals and 'sounds' by repetition. For difficult passages I memorize the note sequence and then play it slowly while watching the tuner. With this method I hear the precise note sequence so that when I go back to playing the piece it happens naturally. And you know I bet a lot of people here do exactly the same thing but are scared to admit it because of the tuning fork-gestapo that will make them feel insufficient.

Of course that is not the end of tuning; far from it. Its also important to relate the notes to each other - to play harmonies between your note and open strings or other notes. This puts the note into context of the instrument, your head and into the piece - I've found playing broken thirds and third double stops very useful too

Eventually you learn that the tone is actually a variable and can (or must) be subtly skewed according to context - one reason the Great Violinists soundn so expressive is that they recognize that tone is a powerful musical pallet allowing expression. The simplest example is vibrato which is in essence deliberately playing 'out of tune' continually and rhythmically - but even there if you listen carefully most notes start in tune and are then embellished there after. Thus, such nuances can only be achieved effectively once you have an intrinsic sense of intonation and that starts from precision. Beware the trap of using vibrato to hide your intonation limitations - a good ear can tell.

OK, its only the opinion of another student - but since I started from the same point you did, that is learning later in life, I may be more an authority than some of our superstars.

March 1, 2014 at 03:43 AM · I played the violin as a child John. But 40+ years later while the mechanics remained the intonation did not. Whats even more interesting is that while I could not play in tune at all, if I recorded myself it was more than (painfuly) obvious that I was out. Thus, the playing and the listening seem to be separable intonation traits. My loss was not as extreme as intonation is for someone starting the instrument for the first time as an adult (and for all we know as a child - excepting of course the obvious) but I certainly had my semi-tone moments. Note here also that relative intonation might remain reasonably intact but the absolute goes to heck. Thus, you play in near perfect tones from any beginning note.

March 1, 2014 at 07:22 PM · There are so many things that can be said on this subject that if we put in all the if's and's or but's we'd have no room for anything else. As a general statement: Using a tuner is a good idea, but one has to take it seriously and really home in on matching it. And it should be used logically.

First, use it to home in on it, but then play first and only then check to see how close you are. A large part of good intonation is memory. Memory for the pitch, but also memory for where to put the fingers. (You may not be able to hear the note before you play it but you need to develop the ability to know immediately if it is wrong the minute you sound it.) If after using it for a while you don't see improvement, then you are using it wrongly or doing something wrong.

Of course the final arbiter of one's pitch has to become his own ear. Some have better pitch than others. So, forget about that because we can't do anything about talent for various areas of playing.

The next problem players face is they have certain tendencies. Some tendencies are universal with all players, while others are individual. The physique of the hand and fingers cause us to naturally play certain notes sharp and other notes flat, particularly if we don't listen CONTINUALLY. Another classic problem is that in high positions a violinist has to get the fingers much closer to make the intervals correct than in first position; guys with fat fingers have more trouble, for example.

Using an outside source to learn what our tendencies are is a very good idea, whether it's a piano or a tuner. And—after all— isn't that what a teacher is when he's telling you you are out of tune. A teacher is an outside source, but the difference is he can explain as you go along. A tuner—or a metronome, for that matter—is a rather cold taskmaster; not a word of encouragement or bit of advice there!

Then there is the problem of understanding "natural pitch" as opposed to "tempered pitch." Tuners and pianos give tempered pitch and that works in some instances on a violin but not always. So I recommend using the tuner ONLY TO GET AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE IN TEMPERED PITCH. After that, one has to develop a sense of what notes to raise and lower.

The basics of natural pitch are that the 3rd is EDGED a little high in major keys and a little low in minor keys, and the 6th and 7th (leading tone) are edged sharp as they lead into the octave. In effect we are looking to enhance the major-ness or minor-ness of the key.

I don't know how anyone learns all this without the help of teachers, unfortunately. And, BTW, not all teachers have a clue. Plenty of teachers don't have very good pitch. But, I guess picking the violin as an instrument to master is a brave deed in the first place.


March 2, 2014 at 11:24 AM · Will - that was really good, thanks. Couple of comments.

Seems to me he hardest intonation problems to fix of all are ones where you learned the piece wrong! I'm back working on Bach Aminor (every teachers whetstone it seems)and struggling most with fixing the near-hits I learned last time. The difficulty is that I can't hear that they are out of tune and have to literally play through the piece watching the tuner to find the lurking evil notes!

"Another classic problem is that in high positions a violinist has to get the fingers much closer to make the intervals correct than in first position; guys with fat fingers have more trouble, for example." Yup, fat finger problem here - this means you have to use different techniques to nail close notes - on this watch Perlman its astonishing how he can be so in-tune with those gigantic sausages... On the other hand, the larger pad means its easier to adjust pitch and also vibrato your way out of trouble!

March 2, 2014 at 11:35 AM · Does not matter which size your fingers are.....if you can hear it, you can play it tune, anywhere on the fingerboard, down or up.....That is how intonation works...through the ears...

March 2, 2014 at 09:48 PM · Poor Christopher. This thread is so long I cannot resist to put more food for thought for you.

To answer your question, it is not bad to use tuner during practice - with reservations.

First, violin is normally tuned in perfect fifths so forget about common chromatic tuner such as cheap Korg. The difference between Pythagorean interval and chromatic (Equal Temperament) interval is too big. Equal Temperament is by its own definition out of tune on every step of the scale. You will be in tune when the needle of the chromatic tuner is off. That is why, if needed, recommend Intonia on the computer, it is a tuner with recording function and can be set to Pythagorean tuning. So if you use tuner, use one that us up to the task - one that has Pythagorean tuning.

Second, learn the physical finger patterns first. There are twelve finger patterns, for the very beginning 3 are sufficient:

1 23 4 - A - B - C# - D - E

(German notation: A - H - C# - D - E) (high 2)

12 3 4 - A - B - C - D - E

(German notation: A - H - C - D - E) (low 2)

1 2 34 - A - B - C# - D# - E

(German notation: A - H - C# - D# - E) (high 3)

Practice each pattern separately first, that is your physical memory. You might not be perfectly ringing but you will not be awfully out of tune. That is your first step to perfect intonation. At this stage you work

on your intonation to achieve maximum ringing and Intonia and ear training is handy.

Third, ear training and music theory, especially the intervals and scale will help your intonation. Cleland, Grindahl: Developing Musicianship through Aural Skills is quite expensive but very thorough. Articles on Wikipedia on music theory, intervals are pretty good too.

The whole point of good intonation is to play in tune in every context you meet, start with the small step: the scales - A Major, D Major, G Major - starting on open strings and most ringing - you can check them with Pythagorean tuner (Intonia) afterwards. Train your ear on the ringing scales, use the Pythagorean tuner if needed to reassure yourself.

Once you train you ear sufficiently you will not need the tuner any more.

March 3, 2014 at 05:06 PM · John, for somebody struggling with intonation I would recommend to narrow his efforts to one scale only - for example A Major starting on open A is ringing and has only one finger pattern.

I have had a chromatic tuner Korg CA-30 for a long time and I would never even try to use it during play, it is too rough and good only for tuning A. That is why I recommend Intonia - a picture is worth a thousand words.

I do not care much about frequency of the tone (even the note name is not important) played, if A is precisely tuned and the correct scale set, I just need to recognize colours - white is good, red blue bad :-). There is also nice function Show deviations which shows how far away the tone is from ideal.

Intonia has its drawbacks, limited choice of scales, impossible to recognize double stops but it has recording function and as an analytic and monitoring tool it serves me well.

March 20, 2014 at 06:20 PM · Thanks for everyone out there, I have been following your replies through the month but haven't found the time to submmit a comment here.

I just use the tuner now if I don't know if the notes are or are not in tune ( I start by playing them and try to see if they are right) I feel like my listening skills are improving a bit, I am also training the sharp notes and it also helped a lot.

I will give Intonia a try ( I have been using g strings on my android)

And I started training Hrimaly scales studies (I am practicing only the C major).

Thanks again for everyone !

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