Tuning with electronic tuner

Edited: June 22, 2020, 4:19 PM · If I tune all four strings with an electronic tuner, my fiddle is not in tune with itself. I only use the tuner for the A string, but I was wondering why it doesn't get the entire fiddle in tune. Does anyone know?

Replies (14)

Edited: June 22, 2020, 5:31 PM · The short of it is: a mathematically pure fifth is a little bit wider than the equal-temperament fifth on the keyboard.
June 22, 2020, 6:17 PM · What do you mean by "doesn't get the entire fiddle in tune?" Are you asking about notes further up the neck? Or do your open strings not sound in tune with each other after you've tuned it with your electronic tuner? Do you get the same bad results with every tuner you try?
June 22, 2020, 6:38 PM · "an electronic tuner"

Which one? Some tuners have custom temperaments which allow you to change the tuning so that each string can be tuned to perfect fifths, but most by default will be tuned to equal temperament, which won't.

See here for some more information and opinions on the subject:
Tuning manually vs. Using a tuner

June 22, 2020, 6:44 PM · The short answer is because your tuner uses equal temperament, like you’d use on a piano. In this case, true fifth require a slightly (about 2 cents) lower D and G, and higher E.
Edited: June 22, 2020, 7:01 PM · I use the Peterson iStroboSoft app in my iPhone, which can be set to yield perfect fifths on my violins. I recommend it. I can tune my violin well without it, but it’s simply a fact that these devices are more accurate than my ears are, and I can tune better with them, so I use them. I guess the next question is how accurate does it need to be, but a lack of compromise is par for the course for violinists, isn’t it?
June 22, 2020, 7:28 PM · Please don't use a tuner to tune anything except the A string. Tune the A string to the tuner, then use your ears to tune the other strings in fifths.

This is a very important learned skill.

June 22, 2020, 7:50 PM · Don't waste your money on electronic tuners, tunning forks can last a life time.
June 22, 2020, 8:06 PM · There are serviceable tuner apps that can be downloaded free to a smartphone.
Edited: June 22, 2020, 8:39 PM · This question doesn't really follow, unless you answer how you are determining in the end whether your violin is in tune or not.

If your violin is not in tune with itself, I take that to mean that you have not tuned to "pure fifths", meaning there is some beating when you play two strings as a double stop. If you tune each string electronically, which, as Mary Ellen mentions, you shouldn't do, then your violin CAN be in tune with yourself so long as the frequencies you are tuning to are a ratio of 3:2 from the higher to lower string. That would effectively do the same thing as just tuning your violin.

The likely problem with this method is that because the strings have matching timbres when you play one against the other, your ear picks up the beating much better, and you have a direct point of comparison, whereas matching the pitch of your violin string against the electronic tone probably is a more difficult task for your ear, and you are likelier to err on one side or the other. Basically, not only are you missing out on the very important skill of being able to hear a pure fifth in tune, which you will often need as a violinist, but you are making the process of tuning unnecessarily difficult.

There must be something about the violin that causes people to always be trying to reinvent the wheel. It's like the grand unified theory of physics of the musical world.

Edited: June 22, 2020, 9:22 PM · "There must be something about the violin that causes people to always be trying to reinvent the wheel."

It's arguably in the opposite direction, as some would seem to have us wearing powdered wigs, etc., as violin, violin playing, and much of the associated tend to be very conservative.

"whereas matching the pitch of your violin string against the electronic tone probably is a more difficult task for your ear"

This argument would be more applicable to the recommendation of a tuning fork than a typical electronic tuner wouldn't it? Of course some might and do use electronic tone generation when available, but as most devices and apps don't do that, I'd think most just match the needle or whatever visual indicator when tuning. And that really isn't "more difficult" than using the ear - to the contrary, it's easier, so you do less and thereby learn less.

Edit: Unfortunately they're called tuning forks, not pitchforks.

Edited: June 22, 2020, 9:47 PM · Thank you for your replies everybody. I have always tuned to fifths. I was just wondering why this tuner doesn't do it, being that it's advertised as a violin tuner. It's a D'addario micro violin tuner. I tried tuning all four strings some time ago with another brand of tuner that I can't remember the name of. It was a chromatic tuner so I wasn't surprised when it didn't work. I just thought a tuner dedicated to violin only would have had a different result.
Edited: June 22, 2020, 11:26 PM · Leon, I guess I'm not sure why the tuner would tell you something weird. Perhaps it's miscalibrated. I guess I misunderstood the nature of the device you were using - I thought your tuner was providing different tones that you were matching up with, rather than that it was telling you what frequency you were playing. Who knows? We should be judicious in our use of technological "aids", even if, as J Ray mentions, it makes us tend toward the conservative.

J, I'm agnostic on tuning fork vs electronic tuner. I find the electronic tuner in my metronome to be easy to use and wholely sufficient for tuning. If someone wants to wear a pompadour and use a tuning fork, more power to them. I try and get close to what I perceive my fundamental to be to match the tone the metronome gives me, and then am much more concerned with my strings being in-tune with each other, even if my A string happens to be at 440.3 or something.

June 23, 2020, 8:35 AM · I recently encountered a professional player who confidently tuned the violin to 5ths by ear. An accurate electronic tuner demonstrated he was no closer to perfect 5th tuning than equal temperament on a couple of the strings.

Basically, there is enough variation in pitch from light bowing double stops used in ear tuning that one could easily miss a "perfect fifth". But for an experienced player it does not matter since they have a well developed sense of relative pitch and play "in tune" to the key of the music.

Science has buried many myths about the violin, but the spirits keep rising from the dead to haunt new players. So here is what science can teach one about using an electronic tuner.

If your tuner has a "Pythagorean A" setting, use that to tune the individual strings. Otherwise, make sure it is set to Equal Temperament, sometimes called a chromatic scale. Some tuners can have a wide variety of temperament settings that can throw you off.

If you have a Pythagorean A setting, try to get each string tuned to within +/-2 cents of the target frequency. If your tuner does not have a cent reading, chuck it and get a better tuner.

If you only have Equal Temperament (chromatic tuner), then you want to tune the E string to +2cents (sharp), the A string as close to 0 cents, the D string to -2cents (flat) and the G string to -4cents (flat).

Even using this, you will be lucky to get a string to vibrate consistently within 2 cents of the target frequency. And after a little play, the string tunings will drift a couple of cents off from the target frequencies.

If you are a little high on the E and a little low on the A, the difference can approach 4 cents which is at the limit of what a majority of people can detect. But the beating will be obvious on a double stop to a practiced ear.

The main advantage to the tuner is getting each string within +/-2 cents of the perfect 5th frequencies of all the other strings.

Tuning by ear can be developed to the point where ADJACENT strings are within +/-2 cents of perfect fifth frequencies, but can be noticeably off from strings 2 positions away (E/D, A/G) and 3 positions away (E/G). One would not notice this unless one was gifted with perfect pitch, or was playing extended arpeggios or scales and landed on an open string that may be "in tune with an adjacent string, but not a string 2 or 3 positions away were the melody began.

Edited: June 23, 2020, 9:32 AM · I have some of those D'addario micro tuners "rigged" for violin, viola (a bit thicker) and cello (with a different clip-on). I have found them useful when a string is slipping and the orchestra continues to play.

Also If you tune to perfect fifths by ear and play with a piano (sonatas, for example) your open G string will always be a bit off (maybe not noticed by some audiences) - and if you happen to be a violist or cellist, your C string will always be off and others will notice too. So these (equal temperament) electronic tuners have some use for those us who are unable to count beats to perfectly de-tune our lower strings.

You also must realize that if you play with bow pressure any different than that with which you tuned, the string's vibration frequency will be different.

Books about "TEMPERAMENT" will be educational for all string players who wonder about these things (and those others who should). Trying to "tune" harmonies (vs. melodies) in a string quartet provides a great basis for beginning an understanding of the different tuning systems.


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