Many beginners who are just starting out in the world of playing violin believe that tuning their four stringed friend is a daunting task. For this reason, some beginners do not tune their violin as often as they should, and as a result anything they go on to play inevitably sounds bad.
The truth is that tuning a violin, like most other stringed instruments, is actually a very simple process once the user knows what they are doing. Let us start by briefly discussing stringed instruments and what tuning is.
When a string on any stringed instrument is plucked, bowed, strummed or otherwise struck by the player, a note is heard. The note/pitch you hear varies based on a few factors, including the length, tension, and thickness of the string. Once a set of strings of varying thicknesses has been correctly fitted to the instrument, the tension of these strings must then be adjusted, such that when you strike a string, you hear the specific note that you’re supposed to.
On a standard violin, the strings should be tuned (in order from the thickest to the thinnest string) to the notes G, D, A and E. The tension on these strings is adjusted using the violin’s tuning pegs. Turning these pegs will tighten or loosen the respective strings.
Some violins, especially ones for beginners, also have fine tuners at the top of the tailpiece. Once the wooden pegs have been used to tune each string to approximately the right note, the fine tuners can then be used to tune each string more precisely. These work in a similar way to the wooden pegs – by slightly altering the tension of the strings. Some violins use a fine tuner on every string, some violins just use one fine tuner on the E string, and some violins have none at all.
Whichever setup you have will be most suited to your particular violin. The tuning pegs and fine tuners are used to alter the pitch of each string until they are all tuned to G, D, A and E respectively. In order to know whether you have found the correct pitch, you will also need to use an electronic tuner, a violin pitch pipe, or another correctly tuned instrument such as a keyboard.
Using a Tuner or Reference Tone
When tuning with a pitch pipe or a keyboard, you can actually hear the notes you are trying to tune to. In other words, when you play an “E” on the pitch pipe or keyboard, you can then increase/decrease the tension of the “E” string on your violin until it sounds the same to your ears. This is basically tuning by ear, and is something you will be able to do quicker and more accurately over time with practice. Once you’ve done this, you can use an electronic tuner as well to make sure your tuning is accurate. The alternative method would be to just use an electronic tuner. These usually clip on to the violin, and detect which note sounds when a string is struck (although on some tuners you may need to select which note you want to tune to first). Often the tuner will display the letter of the note you are playing. For example, if you pluck the “E” string in your violin, and it is a bit out of tune, the tuner will display the letter “E”, whilst also showing you how out of tune you are in either direction. While there are different kinds of tuner with different kinds of display, a common example of this display would be some kind of bar that moves left or right/up or down depending on whether you are ‘sharp’ or ‘flat’ (too high or too low). All that one needs to do is to alter the tuning until the marker on the tuner display stops moving or stays central.
Assuming that your violin is in good health, with the bridge correctly set up, and all strings fitted in the correct order, you are ready to start tuning. - Lay the violin horizontally on a flat surface in front of you, on your shoulder in playing position, or hold it vertically with the bottom edge rested on your knee. - Start with the thickest (G) string. Locate the tuning peg that corresponds with that string. - Listening to your reference note, or with your electronic tuner in place, slowly adjust the corresponding tuning peg, whilst plucking or bowing the string. Turning the peg clockwise will raise the pitch of the string, and turning the peg anti-clockwise will lower the pitch of the string. - The idea is to listen carefully to the pitch of the string you are playing, determine whether the pitch is too high or too low, and then to make slight adjustments with the peg until the string is in tune. - You will not need to do large 360 degree turns of the peg. The pegs usually only need to be moved in tiny increments. - When the string is close to being in tune, you can move on to using the fine tuner for more precise tuning of that string. In the same way, these turn clockwise to raise the pitch and anti-clockwise to lower the pitch. If you are struggling to fine tune and the pitch seems to be way out, reset/unwind the fine tuner, go back to using the wooden pegs to find the pitch, and then move back to fine tuning if necessary. - Once the string is in tune, repeat the above steps for the other strings in descending order of thickness. An alternative order for tuning the strings, which is common amongst orchestral violinists, is A, D, G and finally E.
A Few Extra Tips
An important thing to remember is to always tune upwards. What this means is that you should always begin with the string tuned too low, and then gently use the tuning pegs to raise the pitch of the string until you are in tune. If you then find that you have gone too high, you should ‘reset’ by going below the intended pitch and slowly tuning upwards again. This applies to other stringed instruments as well, and helps to prevent the strings from snapping. - Sometimes pegs slip out of place. While tuning, you can apply a little inward pressure to the peg you are turning, which often helps the peg stay tightly ‘wedged’ in position. However if this does not help and the pegs regularly start to slip, you might want to let a professional take a look at the violin, as the pegs may need to be fixed or replaced. - If your violin or strings are new, you may find they go out of tune quickly and they need to be retuned regularly. This is normal. One solution is to tune a string, and then gently pull the string upwards/away from the violin, to stretch it. Don’t pull this so far that it snaps – a centimetre or so upwards is fine. It will immediately sound out of tune, and you will need to tune it again. Doing this a few times helps to stretch the string and prevent it from going out of tune so quickly. This also applies to other stringed instruments such as the guitar. - Try not to over-tighten the fine tuners, as this can cause damage to the finish if the fine tuner comes in contact with the violin surface.
While it may appear like there are a lot of steps here to follow, once you have done this once or twice you will realise that it is quite a straight forward process, and you will most likely start to notice yourself doing it very quickly. Tuning a violin or any other instrument can actually be a fun process, and training your ears to distinguish between two differing pitches is definitely a good thing. For more information or advice on tuning your violin, you can give the Normans team a call, who are more than happy to help.