3 Easy Ways to Tune Your Violin

Sep 9, 2015

While it is true that most of the subjects we discuss here on this blog are more mental in nature, this week we’re going to continue the more practical theme we started last week: tuning your instrument. Last week we kicked things off with “6 Simple Steps to Tune Your Guitar” and this week we’re going to take a look at another stringed instrument, albeit one rather different than the guitar: the violin. Specifically, we’re going to go over three different ways you can tune your own violin.

The violin is tuned in perfect fifths, which means that each string is tuned to an exact interval of a perfect fifth from the strings on either side of it. Like the guitar, the strings of the violin are tightened or loosened to produce the proper pitch using the pegs and fine tuners. Fine tuners are sometimes found only on the E string, while some other violins have them on all four; this is something to watch for on your own. If it turns out that your violin is one that was produced with only a single fine tuner, you have the ability to have the other three installed into the tailpiece by a luthier, which is someone who makes stringed instruments like violins. As you can probably guess from their name, fine tuners are convenient little devices used to tune strings that are only slightly off pitch, usually by no more than a half tone or so. If the string is more than half a tone off pitch then the pegs are used to bring it close, and the fine tuners are used to, well, fine tune the string until it is the exact correct pitch. If you are a beginner at tuning your own violin it is usually recommended that you do not use the pegs to tune unless it is absolutely required so you can avoid unnecessary strings breaks. Remember to only move the pegs a few millimeters at a time! When it comes to tuning violin strings, you’ll be surprised how far just a little turn can go!

Now, before we really get started, there are a few things to go over. First, just like with the guitar, it is best to tune from below the desired pitch, and bring it up to correct. This is a good practice to get into because it helps prevent string breaks and creates a system for you to follow and build good habits. Tuning from below, up, will help you to become more familiar with the sound of a perfectly in tune string. Secondly, when you are tuning your violin you should try to rely most heavily on the fine tuners if you have them. If any of your fine tuners gets wound down to the end of the screw, simply loosen the fine tuner all the way to the end of the screw before very carefully tightening the corresponding peg. This will keep the string from becoming too tight. Next, as you tune you should play the note continuously with your bow. Listen carefully to the sound of the string as it tightens towards the correct pitch. Keep in mind that you might have to stop to tune in the middle of practicing, especially if your strings are new. Sometimes new strings can stretch while you play, and need to be tightened from the peg a few times per practice for the first few days.

Okay, let’s get to the different ways you can tune your violin at home.

1. Using a Piano

The easiest way to tune your violin by ear is to use a piano or keyboard. The notes each of your violin strings should produce are A, D, G, and E, in that order. Find the corresponding keys on the piano, using “Middle C” as a reference point, and match each string to the correct note. Try to remember to use the fine tuners when you get each pitch to within half a tone. An added trick is to use the pedals on the piano so the note is able to sound freely, this frees up both of your hands to tune your violin.

2. Relative Tuning

Relative tuning is very similar to the technique we discussed last week to tune your guitar. Just like the guitar, relative tuning for the violin is a method used to tune the violin strings to each other, and like with the guitar it is a skill that takes a lot of time and effort to master. As always, you begin with the first string, in the case of a violin, the A string. If you have ever had the opportunity to see an orchestra perform, you may have seen them “pass around the A.” The concertmaster (or lead violinist) plays the A string to ensure that all the members of his or her section are tuned properly. As a violinist you would begin to tune your own instrument by making sure your A string is in tune with the concertmaster’s. Once you have this “passed A” in tune, you will use it to tune the rest of your strings. First, play the A and D strings together and listen for the perfect fifth interval to ring in tune. Once you have it, play the D and G strings together, following the same procedure. And the lastly, play the A and E strings together, still listening for that perfect fifth interval.

In order to be successful with this kind of tuning you must have a solid knowledge of what the strings sound like, and what a perfect fifth sounds like. Perfect fifths have a strong resonance sound and you may be able to tune this way if you listen carefully for the ringing. Some people find it easier to hear the true pitch if they close their eyes and tilt their ear towards the violin’s F holes.

3. Electronic Violin Tuners

The final, and easiest of all the ways to tune your violin, is with an electronic violin tuner. These handy little devices come in all shapes, sizes, and costs, but when you break it all down there are only two basic types. One kind of electronic tuner produces each tone for each string, and you simply match your string to the sound. The other kind has a microphone and utilizes a small screen to show you what pitch each of your strings are producing, allowing you to see when you tune to the correct pitch.

You might be tempted to go out and buy an electric violin tuner and use that exclusively, but I suggest you learn one or both of the other ways to tune your own violin as well. Learning to tune by ear, without the aid of technology, will give you a stronger familiarity with your instrument, not to mention the pride of being able to do something that musicians have been doing by ear for centuries!