Tuning manually vs. Using a tuner

Edited: August 24, 2018, 12:47 AM · Good day all:
This is how I tune my violin, I use a tuner to tune the A string and then I tune the rest of the strings by ear, using double stop bowing. It works fine for me. However, when I check the ear-tuned strings with the tuner, they are a couple of cents flat. Is this normal or should they be dead on? Should manual tuning and using the tuner to tune the strings produce the same exact results?

Replies (31)

Edited: August 24, 2018, 12:43 AM · Pure fifths are 2 cents larger than equal-temperament fifths, so that makes sense for the D and G strings.

I'd be interested in opinions on whether it's beneficial in other ways to tune in double stops rather than by using a tuner. For me it's way faster to use the tuner than to tune by ear on double stops, and usually more accurate as well. I'd rather practice intonation and double stops in actual music.

Edited: August 24, 2018, 1:06 AM · Better to tune by ear, because the pure fifth is the most important interval on a violin (and one of the most important to be in tune for music in general).
Edited: August 24, 2018, 1:10 AM · I used to tune all of my strings to a tuner. But then I got a violin with only one fine tuner and tuning with adjacent open strings made tuning a lot easier. I'm still getting used to it. When I go to check it with the tuner, they are usually flat.

I've also been working on correct intonation with double stops, specifically thirds. Those are never going to be perfectly in tune with a tuner. You just follow your ears and your heart with that one. And of course your open strings.

Edited: August 24, 2018, 1:19 AM · I agree but for me anyway it is also faster to tune the fifths by ear than by tuner (maybe a question of doing it often enough). Also it establishes the habit of listening to oneself. Though of course however you do it the strings will go out of tune fairly quickly as you play/practice unless maybe you have steel strings and a perfectly constant climate.

But: Tune your fiddle the way it works best for you. This is not a question of success or failure, just one of preferences. Or do as Wesley says: Tune with your heart!

August 24, 2018, 2:21 AM · Tune by fifths once you have checked your A.
August 24, 2018, 3:13 AM · Thanks for all your answers. So it is normal for a tuner to show a few cents flat if the violin is tuned by the fifth using the ear.
August 24, 2018, 4:04 AM · How is your new Carlisle doing Ted?

If you are using 440 for A your E will be be a few cents sharper and G and D strings a few cents lower.

August 24, 2018, 5:54 AM · Tuning by fifths requires a close start, or multiple cycles, in order to be accurate. Actually, all tuning methods do, because changing the tension in one string affects others as it's not an entirely independent system.

In other words, starting with an instrument significantly out of tune, if you tune the A perfectly, and then tune the other strings relatively to it, it's very likely that the A won't be perfect once you're done. But after the first round, they'll be closer, so after doing another round the impact of re-tuning would be less, so the A would go less out of tune when the other strings are re-tuned to it, and so on.

" So it is normal for a tuner to show a few cents flat if the violin is tuned by the fifth using the ear."

No. The typical tuner is calibrated to equal temperament. Perfect fifths are different from equal temperament in the following amounts, in cents: D -1.955, E: 1.955, and G: -3.910 (in other words: -2 cents, +2 cents, and -4 cents).

August 24, 2018, 6:57 AM · Electronic tuners usually default to piano tuning, also called Equal Temperament.

When tuning two adjacent strings together by ear until a beat-less tone is heard, you are using a form of Just Temperament.

When A is tuned to 440, a Just tuned E string will register slightly sharp on a tuner, and the D and G strings slightly flat.

See if your tuner has a setting for Just or Pythagorean scales to check the open string tuning. There is a technical difference among such scales but they all give the same perfect 5th open string tuning when using A=440hz as the reference.

Or use J Ray's cent adjustment mentioned in the previous post.

The difference occasionally causes a problem when playing open strings, but is otherwise meaningless when playing fingered notes because one (theoretically) uses one's ear to find the "correct" finger position regardless of what tuning method is used.

The difference in tuning methods can cause issues in the following situations:

- When accompanied by another instrument and both need to play a sustained note. If your note is an open string, the harmony of the two instruments can sound off.

It is less noticeable when playing with an Equal Temperament piano, but other stringed instruments tuned with Just Temperament, like a cello, can sound dramatically off. For example, some string quartets will all tune using Equal Temperament if the music makes frequent use of open string harmonies.

- When double stopping open strings. Just tuning gives a rich resonate harmony while Equal Temperament will give a slight beating, almost vibrato sound.

August 24, 2018, 7:06 AM · I tune A to the leader's A,or piano's A or tuner or not at all, and tune rest of the strings in fifths. Do you fine tune using harmonics?
Edited: August 24, 2018, 8:31 AM · I was taught to bow softly when tuning and indeed, heavier bowing does change the pitch of the open strings - you can easily check this with some of the very sensitive tuner apps.

The difference between equal and just temperaments tuned to the 440 A is not very different for violins, but for violas and cellos it does make a real difference if the music to be played calls for an open C string. I find that when I tune all my strings to a tuner and play in a string ensemble my C strings will be noticeably out of tune with those who tuned to just 5ths.

When I play sonatas with a piano I always (double) check my lowest string with the piano.

August 24, 2018, 9:07 AM · "The typical tuner is calibrated to equal temperament."

I don't know why everyone is making this assumption. He hasn't said what kind of tuner it is.
One with a needle? One that makes a pitch? Harmonic?

Bowing double-stops lightly is what I recommend, although at the end of the stroke, lift the bow so that both strings can be heard ringing together. THAT"S when you listen the deepest. Eliminate the wa-wa-wa or slow it the best you can and you should have perfect 5ths.

August 24, 2018, 10:16 AM · For the last months I've been tuning only using a tuner.

It's great to tune in perfect fifths, but the piano fifths are not perfect and I have to play with one often.

August 24, 2018, 10:27 AM · Another assumption:
"i can't play with this piano because the 5ths are equal temperament."

The likely issue: the piano is not in tune. Pianos can drift quite a bit, and except for concert instruments, they aren't tuned frequently enough. The descrepancy between a violin's perfect 5ths and a well-tuned piano's equal temperament should not be so different as to offend the typical listener (or even professional). After all, soloists give recitals the world over on a daily basis and people don't complain about the discrepancies.

Edited: August 24, 2018, 9:22 PM · Sometime I feel that 2 cents is probably close to the accuracy of my tuner, and arguably of my own personal ability to fine tune any string without a fine tuner and/or that of the effect of bow pressure on pitch. What usually happens when I use a tuner goes like this... oops I am too high... oh, now it is too low, oops now it's too high again... darn now too low again... back and forth about 20 times before I give up! For some reason, in tune is always between too high and too low, and I can never hit the spot right on! When I tune by perfect fifth, some how the "in tune" spot feels much wider and easier to get, but I doubt that I am consistently spot on, I am just more tolerant I think.
August 26, 2018, 4:16 PM · You may want to have your pegs looked at.
August 26, 2018, 8:17 PM · One thing to remember concerning tuning. If you are playing a piece with piano accompaniment, you need to tune to the piano. Otherwise, ....
Edited: August 26, 2018, 8:40 PM · If experienced violinists play on strings tuned on an equal temperament basis, wouldn't they be able to adjust the position of their fingers so as to produce perfect fifths (except if it's on more than one open string)?
Edited: August 26, 2018, 11:52 PM · Violinists DON'T play in equal temperament. Equal temperament means a whole set of tempered intervals:
Wide 4ths, expanded major 3rds and major 6ths, contracted minor 3rds and minor 6ths. We play so as to achieve either the maximum resonance or the appropriate amount of resonance. Major 6ths played wide on the violin are a very ugly sound in a way that they are not on the piano. While it's true that 5ths are generally narrow on the piano (unless they happen to be perfect or narrow), it's a barely noticeable amount, especially in the higher ranges. I doubt that the average trained violinist could detect the difference between a perfect and very slightly narrowed 5th on the piano.

And as I've pointed out, most pianos are out of tune anyway, with the high end falling the most. In the spring, the bass can be sharp.

I think too many string players have a cartoonish, or at least not-entirely-complete idea, of what exactly equal temperament is, or how their violins interact in a realistic sense while performing with the piano.
Simply tuning open strings to the piano doesn't guarantee anything--except those 4 strings. Equal temperament refers to all 12 pitches, not just a few. You can't play here and there in equal temperament. It's like obeying some traffic lights and disregarding others...it just doesn't work.

Orchestras most definitely do not play in equal temperament, and yet no one complains about discrepancies with the piano during a concerto. The orchestra does its thing, and the piano does its thing.

Edited: September 1, 2018, 12:18 PM · Scott, I think you misunderstood the question. Suppose that a good violinist gets a violin tuned in ET fifths, would it make a practical difference in playing music that does not involve double open strings? Because the good violinist would play just (or pythagoreic or whatever) intervals anyway.

"...expanded major 3rds and major 6ths, contracted minor 3rds and minor 6ths."

? thirds and sixths are 300, 400, 800, and 900 cents in ET. With just tuning, they are 316, 386, 814, and 884 cents (6/5, 5/4, 8/5, 5/3 ratios). That would be expanded major thirds, *minor* sixths; contracted minor thirds, *major* sixths). Or am I missing something here?

Edited: August 27, 2018, 6:18 AM · Yes that is what I meant too Han as a question . Whether experienced violinist would find the means to play with resonance, as Scott says, but having tuned their strings on ET basis. Scott, for my part, I'm not saying that violinists play in ET.

I also read that even if you tune all your strings to perfect fifths you end up with a G and an E that are not in tune to each other and so some people fiddle with their open string fifths . I think that's somewhere in one of Simon Fischer books.

Edited: August 27, 2018, 9:58 AM · Han,
In equal temperament tuning, all 1/2 steps are equally spaced. In order to achieve this,
yes, M3, 4ths, and M6s are wide, and m3, 5ths, and m6s are narrow.

Go to a recently-tuned piano and play F3-A3. You'll hear it beating wide about 7 beats per second. Play F3-D4. It will be about 8 beats per second.

I don't disagree with the practice of E and G strings tuned together, or the violin E tuned to the Cello's C.

My point is simply that people often comment about equal temperament without a true understanding of what it means, especially on real-world pianos.

The phrase "tuning a violin in equal temperament 5ths" doesn't really mean anything because they aren't tuned to a whole matrix of other pitches. You can tune them very slightly narrow, which is fine. Just say you like your 5ths tuned a little narrow.

August 27, 2018, 11:30 AM · There's an informative book on this topic called "How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (And Why You Should Care)" by Ross Duffin. It's a good read, too. Don't take the opinion expressed in the title too literally.
August 27, 2018, 12:16 PM · "Go to a recently-tuned piano and play F3-A3. You'll hear it beating wide about 7 beats per second. Play F3-D4. It will be about 8 beats per second."

I just tried this (digital piano app, seems to be not exactly ET, though). I can hear it beating, but I can't tell by ear whether it's beating wide or narrow.

"yes, M3, 4ths, and M6s are wide, and m3, 5ths, and m6s are narrow."

I'm still missing something. A just M3 is a frequency ratio 5:4, which is 386 cents: 14 cents narrower that an ET M3 (400 cents). When I do double-stop exercises and check against an ET tuner, the 3M indeed seems to sound best if the upper note is off by about -15 cents (according to the tuner) or the lower one by +15 cents.

Maybe you mean something different by the terms "narrow" and "wide" than what I would assume?

August 27, 2018, 2:52 PM · Han,
Not sure how a digital piano app would sound. Yes, it can be difficult to judge whether an interval is beating flat or sharp. "Wide" to me means either the lower note is flat or the upper note is sharp. Do you know if your app is "harmonic?" That is, producing some overtones? It's the overtones that we hear beating against each other, not the fundamentals themselves. I assume that that is the case with the violin as well: when you tune an octave, say D on the A string agains the open D, what you are tuning is really the first overtone and other partials that theoretically match between both strings (there are a bunchl) of the lower D against the higher D. In other words, you're actually tuning unisons...

Here's an interesting phenomena that illustrates why M3s are wide:

Let's say you tune an octave, say F3-F4, a common octave to start with. You tune F-A a pure-sounding M3. Then you tune A-C#, another pure-sounding interval. Finally, you tune the last third C#-F a pure third (yes, I'm calling diminished fourths major thirds here).
Then you try those Fs at either end....and the interval is way contracted. The upper F is too flat.

Sorry everyone, I don't mean to go on and on about tuning theory. I just want to make the point that there is some subtlety amongst our different ways of tuning that few are really taught at conservatory. I know I wasn't.

I haven't yet read the book John recommends but I plan to. There are other books on the nitty-gritty of tuning theory for those interested. Not easy reading though...

Edited: August 28, 2018, 12:52 AM · The digital piano app is "perfect piano" for Android. I'm assuming that it's using samples from a tuned grand piano. It sounds like a piano, not like sine waves. Two different tuning apps (running on a different device) tell me that the tuning is a few cents sharp or flat depending on the octave. I don't have access to an actual physical piano at the moment.

Your example F-A-C#-F with pure M3 steps would end up as 3*386.3=1159 cents, which is flat/narrow relative to a pure octave of 1200 cents. So I think you're saying that an ET M3 (400 cents) is beating wide, in which case we would agree.

P.S. I just bought Duffin's book as ebook. Maybe I'll start a new thread to discuss/review it.

September 1, 2018, 12:05 PM · As J Ray noted, tuning each string changes the tension and thus the pitch of the others, so multiple iterations of tuning are required.

Recently, I've been experimenting with measuring intonation precisely using an interfering pure sine wave and measuring the duration of beats precisely in Audacity. I find that tuning the A by ear is less accurate (off by +3 to -1 cents) than using a digital tuner (accurate to within 1 cent). Tuning in perfect fifths by ear (D to A using a fine tuning knob on the Wittner tailpiece) starting with the D on the flat side, repeated 8 times, gives an average frequency 1.33 cents flat with a standard deviation of 0.46 cents. (By the way, the calculated beat rate between the D and the A was consistently slower than 1 per second, which confirms again that the ear beats the classical uncertainty principle). Starting with the D sharp, repeated 9 times, gives an average frequency 1.62 cents sharp with a standard deviation of 1.32 cents. So it would be understandable to think you could get close to equal tempered open string tuning by starting with your strings tuned narrow, and widening just until it sounds right. But the problem again is that tuning any string affects the others.

So, if I'm feeling really compulsive, I tune each string with a digital tuner and check to see if the fifths sound OK by ear. Usually, they don't, because tuning the most recent string has affected the others. So I repeat the cycle until both the tuner and my ear agree. At the end of this process, the G and D sound perfect, and the other fifths sound good enough.

Edited: September 1, 2018, 12:45 PM · "the calculated beat rate between the D and the A was consistently slower than 1 per second, which confirms again that the ear beats the classical uncertainty principle"

What classical uncertainty principle? The closest concept that I know of is the minimum value of a time-bandwidth product: Δt Δf > 1/(2π), but that doesn't really apply here. For a signal known to be periodic you only need one period (without noise) to measure the frequency.

Interesting experiment nevertheless. What kind of tuner did you use and how do you deal with frequency modulation due to nonconstant bow weight and velocity?

Edited: September 1, 2018, 3:12 PM · Han, I used Sound Corset, a free app for Android, as my tuner. I drew a steady bow without too much pressure, and measured a stroke-to-stroke variation of less than +/- 0.5 cents in Audacity.

The classical uncertainty principle I referenced is what you called the minimum value of a time-bandwidth product. I brought it up because if the beats are slower than one per second, we're probably judging intonation in some beat-independent fashion when we listen, although I don't know what the mechanism is. Do you know?

Edited: September 1, 2018, 11:28 PM · While tuning the D4/A4 pair, you are sensitive to beats in the A5, A6, E7, A7, E8 harmonics; maybe even higher ones. At E7 (2640 Hz), 1 Hz difference is 0.65 cents; half of that at E8.

On top of that, there are difference frequencies generated in the ear (Tartini tones) (probably to some extent in a microphone as well if it is close to the violin). While tuning a fifth, I hear high-pitched whistle sounds that jump around in pitch as I tweak the fine tuner. Unfortunately, I don't have the skill to use Tartini tones to get the fifths in tune, but I'd imagine that other people do.

September 2, 2018, 1:33 AM · Thanks, Han, you've taught me a lot. I will listen more closely and see if I can hear what you describe.

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