Tuning your violin is a crucial step in learning your instrument and developing your ear. It is also absolutely necessary to play in any ensemble in the best conditions possible. That’s why I offer you a few tips to help you tune your violin, viola, or cello.
What is tuning a violin?
An instrument’s open strings are made to be tuned at precise intervals. This way, the musician can play the right notes at the right places on the fingerboard. This accuracy is all the more necessary in an orchestra, when you play in harmony. Proper tuning thus avoids dissonances.
As musicians, we use the tuning pegs to adjust the distance between the notes. For the violin family, tuning relies on pegs and fine tuners, located on both ends of the instrument.
All the strings of the violin family instruments are tuned at 5th intervals. This means there are five notes between each string. Take the G string, the lowest on a violin: to reach the D string, just above, you can play the G major scale (G, A, B, C, D – five notes, also known as a fifth.)
Tuning pitch and frequencies
Here are the notes used to tune the violin family instruments. You have the name of the note and their “standard” pitch based on A 440 Hz.
In this table, the notes are ordered from lowest to highest. However, in practice, strings are ordered by calibre, with the first one being the thinnest. Hence pay attention: by first string we mean the highest, and by fourth string, the lowest.
|Tuning pitch for your violin, viola, or cello|
|Violin||G – 196Hz||D – 294Hz||A– 440Hz||E – 660Hz|
|Viola||C – 131Hz||G – 196Hz||D – 294Hz||A – 440Hz|
|Cello||C – 65Hz||G – 98Hz||D – 147Hz||A – 220Hz|
How to tune your violin
Tuning can seem a bit difficult on bow string instruments. Turning pegs, hearing cracks, and feeling the strong tension of the string can be worrisome – when there is really nothing to worry about. With good practice, it is really satisfying to fit good strings on an instrument that has been well setup.
Although pegs are an outdated system, they ensure a quick and accurate tuning. Thanks to them, a restring takes no time at all. Such a simplicity of use is no longer offered by modern mechanics. While they may be accurate, these new techniques require turning the pegs way too much when setting up the strings.
Devices to tune your violin
Unless you possess absolute pitch, you need a reference pitch to tune your instrument. Here are tools that can help you:
- Tuning forks: hit one of these objects and you will hear a pure sound – this is your reference pitch. However only an experienced ear can tune the whole instrument based on just one note.
- Pitch pipes: the whistle of these tools is a reference pitch. However, their tone is a bit weird and can vary depending on how you whistle in, so they are not very handy.
- Electronic tuners: there are different models, more or less expensive depending on their options. The devices can be specialised by instruments, but can also offer chromatic tuning or allow you to tune several strings at the same time.
- Clip-on tuners: they work the same way as the other tuners, but as their name suggests, they clip onto an instrument and sense its vibrations directly.
- Smartphones: every cell phone or tablet has apps (free or not) to tune your violin. Since these devices are always next to us, these apps can come in quite handy. As far as I’m concerned, I use gStrings on Android very often. It’s free and fairly comprehensive.
Less easily movable devices
- Another instrument: tune your instrument by using another one as reference pitch, generally the instrument you can tune the less easily (organ, piano, etc…)
- The tone of your grandma’s landline phone: its A is perfectly accurate.
All in all, every device is good to take – but in the end, only your ear can decide what sounds best according to your environment.
Tuners in the store
The art of tuning
The pitch of a string depends on three criteria: the length, the gauge, and the tension.
- Vibrating string length: how long the part of the string that vibrates when you play is. The greater the distance, the lower the note. This length doesn’t change: it is set by the top nut and the bridge. With our fingers, we shorten this distance to make higher sounds.
- String gauge: the diameter of the strings, set by the strings. The greater the string’s diameter, the lower the note. For instance, we can easily see that a G string is thicker than an E string.
- String tension: there are several ways to determine the tension of the strings. Here, we’re going to focus on mechanical stress. The greater the stress on the string, the higher the note.
To sum up, tuning your violon, viola, or cello is adjusting the tension of the strings. That’s what pegs are here for. Basically, pegs are cones made of densified wood wedged into the pegbox. Because the friction is very high, perfectly adjusted pegs are no use. Hence they are lubricated to find a balance between grip and smoothness.
Moreover you can set fine tuners (or string adjusters) on your tailpiece. These tuners possess a screw that allows the player to be more precise in their tuning. Student outfits have a set of four fine tuners, but advanced musicians would rather use one on the E string only.
Here’s how a tuning session goes. Once the string fits well around the peg:
- Put the instrument upright on your lap (or between them if you’re a cello player).
- Take a tuning device if you have one.
Change the pitch
- To loosen the peg, turn it until it is out of the pegbox.
- Turn the peg to apply pressure on the string and reach the pitch you want. The string must always come over the peg, not under it. Facing your violin, this means you should turn counter-clockwise. Depending on the quality of your pegs, this task is more or less easy:
- Usually, you always go higher on pitch to tune your instrument. If you go too high, loosen the string and tighten it one more time.
- If the peg is difficult to turn or slips, you need to go to a violin maker’s (or you can also use soap or chalk at home to hinder or help grip – if you do so, please be cautious and apply only very little of these compounds.)
Stop on the desired pitch and adjust
- To stop the string, gently push the peg back into the pegbox. Fitting the string against the inside of the pegbox seizes it even more and prevents the peg from slipping. However be careful with this method – it can be too strong on the pegbox, and break it.
- If you have one on your tailpiece, you can use the fine-tuners to obtain an even more precise pitch. Keep them for the last adjustments only – it is better to tune your instrument with the pegs.
A few tips to tune your violin
Beginners often experience a lot of difficulties when tuning their instruments. Here are a few advice to help you overcome the most common issues yourself, and to tune your instrument at best.
- Do not overtighten the strings: it affects their lifespan and makes them more likely to break – especially if you go over a tone and a half.
- If you try restringing the complete set of your instrument at the same time, you will notice that your violin won’t stay in tune, and it will take you several tries to get accurate notes. That’s because the neck, the table and the whole of the instrument are weighed down with the pressure. Since you want to avoid that, you need to change the strings one at a time.
- It takes some time for the new strings to stay in tune. Their sound is often harsh and constantly out of pitch. Depending on the models and how much you practice, it can last from a few hours to a few days.
- Fine tuners or string adjusters can be turned so far that they can no longer be tightened. When this happens, the screw must be loosened. Then you have to tune with the peg, and finally adjust the string with the fine tuner.
- Metallic pegs also exist. They are very precise and require no particular maintenance. If you’re interested, you can find some at Pegheds, Wittner or Planetary Pegs. Such devices may revolutionise your musician’s life.
Problems when tuning your violin – FAQ
Why does my string break when I tune it?
Very high tensions are exerted at anytime on the strings of a tuned violin. The whole set supports around 25kg – the E only supports 10kg on its own. As such, damaged, worn away, or low quality strings are more likely to break. The problem doesn’t happen with the best models thanks to very meticulous making and quality control process.
However some pieces can also threaten the lifespan of the string:
- When a top nut is protruding or badly planed, the notches can be too narrow or not lubricated enough.
- Same thing if the peg holes are not chamfered.
- And if the bridge is not chamfered.
- When the grip of the fine tuners or tailpieces are too tight. You can read about it here (The weakness of synthetic strings).
These pieces can display sharp angles that are likely to bend or weaken the strings. This often happens when they are not not set up and looked after properly. Most bottom-of-the-range instruments, or those ordered on the Internet, are in this case. To avoid these incidents, strings must fit on planed and polished surfaces.
Furthermore, you must not overtighten the strings when tuning your instrument. Indeed, if you go above one tone and a half, you’re most likely to break your violin.
Why won’t my violin stay in tune?
First of all, a string under pressure constantly goes out of tune during its life. This is due to its material slowly loosening. However, it is impossible to perceive, and barely affects the playability of the instrument.
New strings are also very sensitive. Hence they will often be out of tune once they’ve been fitted, at least for the first hours.
Depending on the type of strings, changes in temperature or humidity may more or less affect the tuning. For instance, gut strings are very sensitive, whereas it makes no difference for metallic strings. Finally, these changes affect how the wood “breathes”, hence changing the tuning.
Why won’t my string fit when I tune it?
Here are a list of reasons why your instrument may be impossible to tune:
- Ill-fitted or slippery pegs.
- You may need to replace your bass barr.
- Perhaps the table is too thin or damaged.
- The soundpost may not be settled correctly.
- The bridge is warped or broken.
- Or the tailgut is too loose.
- A button doesn’t fit.
In any case, you must go to a violin maker’s.
There are two main causes of problems: pegs that slip too much or wood that have retracted due to a lack of humidity. Applying a bit of chalk to the surfaces that are against the pegbox will strengthen the grip. However, if the pegs are sticky and make a recognisable squeak, you will need some soap or wax to lubricate them. That’s how traditional violin makers do the adjustments.
Pay attention to how you turn the pegs when you tune your instrument. First pull the peg toward you to let it out (loosen the string). Then turn it until you reach the desired tension, and finally gently push it back.
Why did my bridge fall when I was tuning my violin?
When you tune your violin, the strings may pull the bridge forward, and even make it slip against the instrument. This can be really scary. Besides, unlike what a lot of people think, the bridge isn’t stuck to the violin. It remains here only thanks to the strings’ pressure. Hence, a bridge won’t move if its feet stand firmly on the table. So in most cases, you just have to pull the bridge back up while you’re tuning your instrument, as I explain in “How to put your bridge back up safely”. You can also ask your teacher or violin maker to show you. I’m sure they will gladly oblige.
Finally, if a bridge doesn’t fit anymore or keeps falling everytime you tune your instrument, it means its feet or its balance are damaged. When that happens, you must go to a violin maker’s. They will carve a new bridge for your violin.
Have your violin tuned at my workshop
Don’t be ashamed if you’re still reluctant to tune your violin yourself. It requires practice and time before being fully mastered. That’s why, if you encounter any difficulty, don’t hesitate to get in touch with a professional, be it a teacher or a violin maker. After all, showing can be much more telling than words.
You can also contact me or stop by my workshop. I will gladly help you or show you how to tune your violin.
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