Violins are sensitive instruments which rely on the tension of their strings to stay in tune. It does not take much for this tension to slacken or tighten, such as temperature conditions, or simply through regular, day to day usage. Tuning the violin is a delicate operation and can be a daunting process if you are unfamiliar with it. If the open strings (G, D, A & E) are out of tune this can affect the tuning of the whole instrument and subtly shift the placement of notes. However, there are lots of different tips and tricks you can use to ensure your violin is perfectly in tune and will blend seamlessly with other instruments.
In this article we will discuss the different tools you can use to tune your violin, including the pros and cons of each, and provide a step by step guide to tuning your instrument.
Step One: Choose a Tuning Method
There are lots of different approaches to tuning a violin.
Here are some of the methods you can use, and a review of the useability of each:
Using A Digital Tuner
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You can purchase a digital tuner (like the one above) from a music shop or from the internet.
Buying a violin specific tuner is not essential, any digital tuner will work, although a violin specific product may function more reliably for your instrument as opposed to a guitar tuner for example.
Digital tuners are very useful if you don’t feel confident tuning your violin, as it will let you know when each note hits the perfect frequency to be in tune.
A violin tuner speeds up the process of tuning each string and will indicate whether each string is too sharp (too high in pitch) or too flat (too low in pitch).
Sometimes tuners have flashing lights that will go from red to green to communicate when you have found the right frequency for ease of access.
Digital tuners are straightforward and easy to use, and small enough to fit in your case.
You can also get a digital tuner in the form of an app, and these are often free to download on to your phone or tablet.
It functions the same as a handheld digital tuning device, with the added feature of a larger screen.
Digital tuners are battery operated which will mean that its batteries will need replacing at some point.
If you are using a tuning app this will not be the case, although you will have to ensure your phone or tablet has sufficient battery life.
On the occasion that you wish to tune your violin to another instrument that is tuned to a different frequency, such as a piano, organ, or an oboe within an orchestra context, a digital tuner will not help you as it only functions to tune the notes to one, specific frequency.
In this circumstance you may be required to tune by ear, so it is worth not relying solely on digital tuners.
If there are other instruments tuning at the same time a digital tuner will become confused and will not serve your instrument alone, making it difficult to use.
A Tuning Fork
A tuning fork is a small, metal device that sounds the perfect frequency of the note ‘A’ when it is hit upon another surface.
The A string is the string violinists tune first, as its tension can affect the tuning of the other strings.
This is why the tuning fork sounds an A and not another note.
It is best to strike the tuning fork against a surface to make it ring and then raise it up to the ear to hear the note clearly.
A tuning fork is small and can be kept in a violin case easily. It is inexpensive and could be a good back up if you rely on digital tuners.
Using a tuning fork can be good training for the ear, as you will have to match the pitch of your string to the pitch of the tuning fork.
If you are unsure about whether you have matched the pitch correctly you could always double check this with a digital tuner.
It is possible to use a tuning fork while other instruments around you are tuning because you can keep it close to your ear and it will consistently sound the same ‘A’ when hit.
A tuning fork will only ring the note ‘A’ for a limited amount of time before you will need to strike it again.
You can stop it from ringing by simply touching it on either side with two fingers.
It can be difficult to both hold the tuning fork up to the ear, and adjust the pegs/fine tuners at the same time, whilst sounding the string to check the adjusted pitch.
This can require multiple goes and therefore be more time consuming than other methods.
Tuning with a Piano
Tuning to a piano is a common method of tuning because of the pianos wide range of pitch and its ability to easily sound multiple notes at once to guide the tuning process.
You can of course tune to other instruments with these capabilities, such as a guitar, but the volume of the piano, and its ability to sustain notes without special equipment can make it more practical.
A piano can sound the notes of each open string at their exact pitch, and also provide chords for each string to tune to.
For example, it may be easier on the ear to tune to the ‘A’ string to a D minor chord on the piano, as the ‘A’ will be heard against multiple notes, and make the clash of an out of tune string more obvious.
You can tune multiple instruments at once to a piano and use the pedal to sustain the notes while tuning takes place. Holding the pedal down with your foot will free up your hands for tuning.
When using an electric piano, you can be sure that this will be tuned to the same frequency as a digital tuner, which means these two methods of tuning can be used in conjunction with one another.
If a grand or upright piano is out of tune in terms of correct tuning frequency your violin will then need to be tuned to match it and be out of tune the next time you come to play.
Some knowledge of the notes of the piano is required for this method which might make it inaccessible for those who are unfamiliar with this instrument.
If you do not have regular access to a piano or keyboard this method is not possible.
Step Two: Tuning Your Strings
Once you have chosen your tuning method you can start to tune your strings.
Violinists often employ a variety of tuning methods, depending on the context they are in, so it helps to have experience of each.
It is advisable to start with the ‘A’ string, as it affects the tension of the other strings, and so if you tuned the other strings first they could slip out of tune again after you have tuned your ‘A’ string.
If you are tuning to another instrument you will want them to sound an ‘A’ first, so that you can compare it to your ‘A’ and hear how much adjustment needs to be made.
If you are tuning with a digital tuner, turn it on and play your strings to see how in or out of tune they are on the device’s display.
There are two ways you can adjust the pitch of your strings: using the tuning pegs and/or using the fine tuners.
Using the Fine Tuners
The fine tuners, located at the base of each string, will be sufficient to tune your violin if the strings are fractionally out of tune.
They work by tightening or loosening the strings slightly to adjust its tension and therefore its pitch.
To sharpen a string, turn the tuner slowly clockwise, and if you pluck or play at the same time you will hear it sharpen its pitch.
Strings can be flattened in pitch by slowly twisting the tuner anti-clockwise and repeating the same process.
Fine tuners can only sharpen or flatten a note so much, which means that adjustments of more than a semitone should be made with the tuning pegs.
Twisting the tuner too fast or too far may risk snapping a string and so it is important to do this slowly and gently.
Using the Tuning Pegs
Adjusting a violin’s tuning with the pegs is a delicate process which should be carried out with care.
You are more likely to snap a string by twisting the tuning pegs than the fine tuners, but this can be avoided if you turn them very gently.
Similarly to the fine tuners, you sharpen a string by turning the corresponding peg clockwise and flatten a string by going anti-clockwise.
Tuning pegs can sometimes be difficult to move and are also susceptible to slipping, which loosens a string more than desired.
The key is to move gently, and also to try this in the presence of a teacher, as they will be able to guide you if you get stuck.
If you have managed to move the tuning peg so that the string is almost in tune, this is where your fine tuners will be very helpful, as they can easily make small adjustments in pitch and could finish off the process.
Summing up the Violin’s Tuning Process
Hopefully now your violin is tuned and ready to go!
This article has provided a step by step guide to tuning and an overview of the different methods you can employ to aid you.
It is important to remember that tuning is a tricky process and it can take time to train your ears to detect whether a note needs sharpening or flattening.
Allow yourself time to try different methods and with repetition your ears will become better trained to carry out this subtle process more independently.
Violin teachers will have plenty of experience in this area and so they are always a good person to ask if you are unsure.