Tuning a violin by harmonics

Edited: May 17, 2019, 12:23 PM · I still have difficulty tuning the open strings, and I find it more convenient to tune by harmonics - i.e. play the D harmonic on the G string and compare it with the first harmonic on the D string, and so on up to the E string. I realise this will only work at home and not in an orchestra, where I probably wouldn't be able to hear myself. Is this a stupid habit, or does it have support among better violinists?

Replies (13)

May 17, 2019, 12:22 PM · What went wrong there?
Edited: May 17, 2019, 1:18 PM · I suspect Paul was responding to something else. I noticed that if you reply to a thread that is deleted before you click the "reply" button, the reply gets posted in the next new thread that anyone starts.
May 17, 2019, 1:20 PM · My teacher tunes by open strings first, and then checks the harmonics as a "fine tuning" step. Before she showed me, it never occurred to me to use harmonics for tuning.
Edited: May 17, 2019, 4:11 PM · The harmonics can be a little bit off, although cellists often tune that way - or at least check their tuning that way - probably because cello pegs can be hard to turn and (even though most cellos today have fine tuners) you can't tune fifths continuously with fine tuners (too many arms in the way).

I keep a digital tuner* (that senses pitch by vibrations in the instrument and does not "hear" external sounds) on my violas so I can tune in orchestra - especially my C string that tended to detune when I was using a gut=core string.

* I use a D'Addario micro tuner. It fits one of my violas just fine but did not open wide enough for the other until I trimmed its rubber feet about one mm top and bottom - still snug.

May 17, 2019, 1:26 PM · Stephane Grappelli was fond of tuning with harmonics.
May 17, 2019, 3:51 PM · Harmonics make pure tuning to an actual 5th. Equal temperament however, does not.
May 17, 2019, 6:13 PM · Tuning by harmonics is fine. Bass players do it all the time.
It just breaks down when doing the high harmonics on the E string. They sound flat, but they are not. Our brains are not calibrated exactly correct at the upper octaves (~5,000-- 20,000 HZ.)
Edited: May 17, 2019, 6:37 PM · Gordon, I was responding to the "sheet music" thread that got posted twice. But, I responded to it *before* it got taken down, so I don't know what went wrong.

Anyway, I agree with Andrew. Cellist tune this way frequently. Just make sure your harmonics are in tune! How can they be out of tune? Well they can ... just ask anyone who has applied vibrato to them.

May 17, 2019, 7:47 PM · We had a conductor with one of my orchestras who barked at me when I was checking my tuning using harmonics, "Don't let me see you tuning like that again!" - he was a former school music teacher, so his reaction may have been unthinking. I ignored him and continued checking.

He wasn't with the orchestra for very long.

May 17, 2019, 10:59 PM · FYI: when tuning two strings as perfect 5ths, we are not tuning the fundamentals. We are trying to match the 3rd partial of the lower string to the 2nd partial of the upper strings.

Example: Your'e tuning the D and A strings. You are not actually tuning the D4 to the A4. You are tuning the 3rd partial of D, which is A5, to the second partial of the A, which is....also A5. When you hear beating telling you the strings aren't tuned, what you are actually hearing is the matching of the two A5s.

Harmonics can be out of tune, depending on the age and condition of the string. They have to be at mathematically perfect points, and strings are sometimes imperfect. The can sound flat, even if they are sounding a mathematically perfect ratio to the open string. That's more about our ear though, and why we naturally tend to want our octaves a little expanded.

May 18, 2019, 2:06 AM · @Scott: "FYI: when tuning two strings as perfect 5ths, we are not tuning the fundamentals. We are trying to match the 3rd partial of the lower string to the 2nd partial of the upper strings."

Yes, I already knew that, it's just that I'm not good at it yet.

May 18, 2019, 4:31 AM · I agree. If you tune by harmonics you are maybe less than totally perfect but more reliably good enough than tuning the fifths that you have not yet the routine or confidence to hear correctly. If you have time I recommend to tune by fifths anyway and check on it afterwards using the harmonics. Doing that will give you the confidence (after some time) to trust in your fifths and solve the problem with hearing the harmonics in an orchestra.

That said I hate it when people tune loudly in an orchestra or even keep playing after they are done tuning. Tune, then be quiet please, to allow everybody else to tune also!

May 21, 2019, 4:15 PM · If you have trouble tuning fifths, try turning one of the fine tuners while bowing two adjacent strings. With practice you'll hear the beating of the partials change from almost zero through a few Hz and back as you turn the fine tuner back and forth. Once you hear the (admittedly subtle) beat you can tune it down to zero. Repeat on the other strings. One tuning fork, no batteries, perfect fifths.

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