Violin tuning

Edited: November 11, 2021, 4:54 AM · Hello all,

It has been over 5 months since I started to tune my violin using double strings. I use a mobile tuner app set to perfect 5ths and after I tune my A, I mostly rely on how the bow tip sounds on A-D, D-G and A-E and cross check with the tuner (it is not as responsive as I like it to be). I frequently have to draw the bow out to get a better sense of how tuned the pair are. And it's the fine tuners I use until they have no more turns in them.

All this takes anywhere between 5 to 10 minutes. My best was 20 seconds and the worst 20 minutes (on particularly hot and humid days). Despite trying this method of tuning for months, I'm no way nearer to tune my violin in seconds like violinists usually do. Do you have any feedback or suggestions on how to get there?

Thanks,
Paree

Replies (29)

November 11, 2021, 6:05 AM · How old are your strings?
November 11, 2021, 6:11 AM · Once you are close, try using natural harmonics. For example, play the A (one octave up from the open string) along with the open E. That gives you a perfect 4th to listen to, which might be a better source of information than the perfect 5th.
Edited: November 11, 2021, 8:14 AM · Becoming sensitive to a "perfect fifth" can take some time.

FIRST, I'd like to ask you what kind of tuner you are using?

For the practical purpose of simply tuning, I have found nothing better than the D'ADDARIO MICEO TUNER. It clips on the instrument and and senses the vibration by contact rather than "sound in the air" thus it can even be used in an orchestra while everyone else is playing a full volume and you can leave it on the instrument while you play and turn it back on if you need to retune. It has both color (red/green indicators of out-of-tune as well as position indicators. Because it is based on "equal temperament" tuning if the A string is perfectly in tune the E and D strings will be low by about 2 cents and the G by 4 cents when they register as in tune. The D'ADDARIO device can alter the pitch of the basic note (A) over a wide range. (I always set mine at 440 Hz because that is teh pitch used in all ensembles I play with.)

"Perfect" tuning for string instrument fifths is the "just" intonation system of "perfect" (or "natural" based on frequency ratios) octaves (2:1), fifths (3:2) and major thirds (5:4). Very few people can detect a pitch discrepancy of 2 cents (such as a D'ADDARIO micro tuner gives for E and D) but 4 cents (G string ( is easily sensed, which is why I always tune my G string to an accompanying piano when I play with one (it is the only note on a piano you cannot correct with your left hand). For cellists and violists, the C string needs even more serious compensation.

Several of useful books about "tuning" are:
"Temperament" by Stuart Isacoff
"How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony" by Ross W. Duffin
"Tuning and Temperament" by J. Murray Barbour

November 11, 2021, 8:45 AM · George, my strings are 11 months old except the E which is 5 months old. It's probably a good time to change to them I suppose.

Stephen, thank you for that suggestion. I'll try it.

Andrew, I've been using "gstring" tuner app. I'll check out d'addario tuner. I find tuning D-G easier and faster than A-D and A-E. My tuner app doesn't recognize E and notes on it easily. I had read somewhere that light bowing with the tip is better than any other part of the bow for tuning. Is that true? I find that the tuner frequency changes depending on the part of the bow that's in contact with the string. Should I aim at getting a 440 Hz on the A when I draw the bow tip lightly to about say, 1/6th the length? Just a touch over 440 Hz sounds better to me.
Thank you for the recommendations for the books!


Edited: November 11, 2021, 9:01 AM · My teacher says my intonation is perfect, but tuning open strings is still difficult for me after 3 years.

Partly it's the quality of your pegs and how well you understand how to combine the graphite and the french chalk. I tend to jam my pegs in very tight, which makes it harder to use them.

I am grateful for my fine tuners. Every now and then I unscrew them until they are about 1/3 of the way in, then I tune using the pegs and a Snark. Then after that I only tune using the fine tuners.

The morning of orchestra practice I tune using a Snark at home, then in the rehearsal room I only tune my E string.

Edited: November 11, 2021, 9:12 AM · I have never concerned myself with bow placement on tuning. I usually start near the bottom 1/4 of the bow. I want a strong response. I would not tune using just the tip of the bow.

As Andrew says, the D'ADDARIO MICRO TUNER is great. But ONLY use it to tune the A string, and then tune the rest by ear. Listen closely for the "ring" of a perfect fifth as you raise and lower the pitch. (I am assuming that your violin is good enough so you can hear the ring.) If you have the ring on all 4 strings, don't worry if the tuner says that the D, G, or E string are slightly off, because the violin will be in tune. Trust your ear.

November 11, 2021, 9:22 AM · The new internally geared pegs sold by Wittner, Knilling and PEGHEDS are really a "heavenly" gift to string players - smooth tuning always.
They obviate the need for fine tuners - although those can still be helpful if they are built into the tailpiece AND very light in weight.

One is advised to use light bow force [pressure?) when tuning because bow pressure changes the frequency of the string vibration (increased pressure on the string increases the tension raising the pitch but also stretches the string a bit - mixed effects!). Just bow lightly when tuning.

November 11, 2021, 9:56 AM · If your strings are under one year old then I really doubt your strings are at fault. I've rarely had strings go false. I think that's one of those things that people talk about, but that always seems to actually happen to someone else.

If your tuner app on your phone is set for perfect fifths or "violin family" then you can tune your instrument to that, and if you're a beginning to intermediate violinist or violin student, then it's good enough.

Fine-tuners are great but if you run them to the end then you need to work the peg a little so you can get back into the range of the fine tuner. If you want to learn to tune with pegs alone, I agree with Andrew Victor that you might as well take the plunge and install gear pegs -- if you can afford them. I know violinists who play in an orchestra with me who will be using four fine-tuners for the rest of their lives and they're perfectly happy.

November 11, 2021, 10:27 AM · D'Addario micro tuners are pleasant but twice the price of a Snark, and all you get for the 100% extra cash is the plastic clamp which is barely big enough for all violins, and should really have been designed for violas too.
November 11, 2021, 11:58 AM · Try tuning your instrument before putting it back into the case. I’ve found that usually the strings stay closer in tune that way.

November 11, 2021, 4:13 PM · I had a tail-piece with four integrated fine-tuners. At first, I thought this to be an advantage. But eventually, at least on the particular violin, I determined that using a fine tuner on the G, D, and A strings could more greatly alter the intonation of the remaining strings, versus using pegs to tune.

Are you using gut strings, or wound gut strings? I had Pirastro Olive (or stiff-olive) strings on my previous violin. After purchasing a "new" violin that had non-gut core strings, I was really surprised the longevity of a tuning on these Perter Infeld Pi strings.

But, a recent breakthrough for intonation occurred when I purchased an Android app called SoundCorset. My intonation, and my ability to tune strings in fifths, has always been decent. But, both improved when I downloaded and began to work with this app. It's excellent and can provide the needed "guidance" to improve intonation.

November 11, 2021, 5:44 PM · Focused practice of 'intonation' will improve your ear eventually. Tuning the open strings employs the same principles as playing in-tune with your fingers. All fingers are tuned to the open strings with various intervals; the third finger plays the octave above the open string and thus is tuned. The first and second fingers are better tuned to intervals below the open strings, and thus also tuned. The fourth finger plays in unison with the higher string, and this is the best point to begin 'focused listening practice', because the clashing of the pitch frequencies are most obvious with the 'unison'. Even if the strings are tuned from the 'tuner', 'unison tuning' can commence. The perfect fifth can be found by following the notes of the major scale; Do, Ra, Me, Fah, then you arrive at Soh with the fourth finger. Tuning a guitar will also help develop the ability to recognize the 'beating' (clashing pitches), because the standard tuning method for the guitar is to tune in unison.
November 11, 2021, 7:03 PM · Andrew beat me to what I was going to say. When you’re tuning, bow lightly. Greater bow pressure raises the pitch. You can prove this to yourself by tuning any string to some particular pitch with your tuner, then vary the bowing pressure while you play that string. You’ll see the pitch rise on your tuning device as the bowing pressure increases, significantly.

And I still wonder why the Peterson iStrobosoft tuning app get so little mention around here. It’s so much better than any hardware tuners I’ve ever used. If you’re tuning in a noisy environment there’s a pickup that plugs into your phone and clips to your instrument (I clip it to my bridge) that isolates your tuning process from the background noise. You have to pay a smal fee for the iStrobosoft app, but it’s so worth it in my opinion.

Edited: November 12, 2021, 6:55 AM · As already mentioned above, Wittner geared pegs are the answer to many tuning problems. Once you have tried them you will wonder why anybody would bother with friction pegs ever again.

But I am sure some have their reasons :)

November 12, 2021, 7:59 AM · Geared pegs probably make strings last longer too - I've seen photos of wear at the nut and at the bridge (from fine tuners), and the wear at the nut with friction pegs seems to be the worst.
November 12, 2021, 10:29 AM · It is curious to me why it is recommended that one tune with light bowing, the reason being offered is that heavier bowing raises the pitch.

If this is true (and I have never tested it), then it makes more sense to me to tune at your normal playing bow pressure (neither light nor heavy).

I have always tuned in the center of my bow with normal bow pressure, and I have not heard strings tuned thusly going flat with a lighter bow stroke.

Edited: November 12, 2021, 1:21 PM · Gordon, my violin is a rental. I'll look into pegs, even geared ones once I get my own violin. I rely on fine tuners because they are smoother and I find the big pegs far from wieldy partly because I've rarely used them.

George, I don't know if my violin is a good one. :) I've only ever used rentals and this is my second one, meant for intermediate and advanced players. It does sound better than my first one. I think I may have heard the "ring" occasionally but it almost always coincided with the temperature and humidity in my room. When the conditions are right and I get my tuning right, it feels wonderful to hear that sound when playing two open strings. I found summers a hard time to tune. And now it's cold and with the heater on and no humidifier, my strings sound almost dead. I reduce the temperature setting about 10 minutes before I tune and open the windows for that duration. That also probably contributes to my long tuning time. After about 30 minutes, the strings sound dull again.

I did find that while bowing from the tip to the middle, the pitch rises a tad which is why I assumed they recommended light bowing with the tip.

Andrew, I do use light bow pressure at the tip but I find that it doesn't always tell me they are in tune and when I draw the bow further, I can sense the pulses/overtones when they are not in tune. The closer I get them to being tuned, the harder it is to hear those pulses in a short bow stroke. It makes sense because of the physics.

Paul, yes, my tuner is set to perfect 5th for the violin. I may need to change the D string.

Raymond, thank you. I'll try that. It is strange that when I miss my practice on one day, the next time I try to tune the strings, they sound more in tune than on other days. I can't think why.

Neil, my rental came with the strings. They are not gut strings. I don't know what sort they are. But I changed the E to pirastro gold label medium steel 5 months ago. Thanks for suggesting Soundcorset. I found it free on android and tried it yesterday. It is way better than the tuner I've been using. It's more responsive.

Henry, thank you. I will try that more often.

Mark, yes, I found that to be the case when I was trying to figure out this method of tuning and tuning in general. Thanks for recommending iStrobosoft.

Brian, geared pegs will have to wait their turn. I will need to shortly commence my search for a good violin that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.

Thank you all for your helpful comments and suggestions. It is always a pleasure to see how giving musicians can be. :)

November 12, 2021, 1:33 PM · I may be remembering improperly, but I think the problem with loud volume is that it affects your impression of pitch. If the string is too loud, you tend to tune it too sharp to compensate.
November 12, 2021, 1:33 PM · I may be remembering improperly, but I think the problem with loud volume is that it affects your impression of pitch. If the string is too loud, you tend to tune it too sharp to compensate.
Edited: November 12, 2021, 1:45 PM · I think the way to look at it is, how do you achieve a norm with minimised variation? Clearly, if all the strings play open strings quietly, then they will basically be normalised. Whereas if variation were permitted in tuning the open strings, it would be harder for everyone to gel together when playing.
Edited: November 12, 2021, 2:55 PM · I have only one fine tuner on my fiddle on the a string i then tune all the other strings from this which at first was difficult but the more you do it the better your ears become.

Tuning with pegs I find easier to use if I tune down very slightly before tuning up,and slightly push the peg in as I turn, dont know if this is the correct way to do it as I havent played fiddle for very long, but it works for me, and if I check the tuning afterwards with an Electronic tuner they are always bang on. When I used to teach guitar the first thing I used to do was show how to tune by ear, then get my student to try to do it at each session.

November 13, 2021, 11:52 AM · I am one of the B.C. musicians (Before Computers). I learned to hear the beats/ interference sound of out of tune fifths rather early. Sometimes I tune Pizzicato. Guitarists do that all the time. The two best pro. non-classical ensembles that I worked with did Not do a formal tuning session. Everyone was expected to know how to play in tune. I read somewhere that at the Paris Conservatory one of the tests at a jury audition was that the teacher would intentionally de-tune the violin a little, and the student was expected to play the next solo in tune.
November 13, 2021, 11:57 AM · Heifetz used to do that. One of his students recounted one of those 'holy sh!t' moments when he was lecturing about the importance of dealing with random misfortune on stage, and mis-tuned a student's violin, demanding that he then play a Paganini caprice. Just then, the Dean walked in the back of the room with an important guest. So Heifetz held on to the violin and played it himself.
November 13, 2021, 12:36 PM · Joel this is one of your better quotes: guitarists tune pizzicato all the time :-)
November 13, 2021, 12:52 PM · I want to commend Niel's recommendation of the SoundCorset tuner/metronome. On his "say so" I purchased it from Apple (didn't realize I had paid - until I checked my PayPal acct). But anyhow it is terrific! I used it to CALIBRATE my d'Addario microtuner and they agree to a precision of one cent, which is a close as they can be read. The SoundCorset actually has a cent-deviation output (in 1 cent steps).

I've had a number of different tuners (since my first 65 or so years of tuning fork) and subsequently little elex boxes and more recently on my android phones, which all vanished when something wiped one's memory, so it was time to replenish. This is surely the best ever! of course I can't use it when others are tuning around me - (that's what the microtuner is for!). I think I can use my ears to calibrate the SoundCorset for just intonation and thence the microtuner.

November 13, 2021, 10:33 PM · I like the Tunable app much better than gString for tuning. I'm pretty sure it's $5. It displays your pitch as a thin line on a moving graph instead of the common needle meter you see on many tuners/apps. Helps with precision. I like the tone of the drone pitches it produces as well.
November 17, 2021, 7:21 PM · I'm writing in the middle of my practice hour because I am unable to get the strings to stay tuned. I've been tuning them for over 30 minutes. This is an all time low. So frustrating. This is a rental violin. Would you suggest some chalk powder or anything to hold the pegs in place?

Thanks.

Edited: November 17, 2021, 7:36 PM · I know that can be very frustrating.

If the pegs are out-of-round, they will be very difficult to tune, and not much will help except seeing a luthier to get them shaved round. Otherwise, I'd recommend some "peg compound" (google it). Chalk is abrasive, and will wear the peg holes like fine sandpaper, so I don't recommend it.

If you are taking lesson, it would be well worth your time to spend a lesson on tuning, and listen to your teacher tune his/her violin so you can hear the fifths go sharp and flat. He/she should also tune your violin to see if there is a diagnosable problem.

November 17, 2021, 8:08 PM · Thanks, George. I'll look it up. This has been the worst tuning session ever. I spent an hour over it. I managed to get it close and then put it back in the case. This has never happened before, not even with hot and humid weather and cold weather with the heater on.

This morning and afternoon, there were at least 5 leaf cleaners with heavy, noisy and vibrating machinery right outside my apartment and were clearing on all sides at once. I can't help wondering if that could have anything to do with the strings losing their character all of a sudden. I read somewhere ages ago that things influence each other that way. That is also why we play double strings to see if they resonate heartily.


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