How to Tune the Violin

When one of my student’s mothers called me on a late Saturday evening to tune her daughter’s violin I was happy to help out, thinking to myself, “What a dedicated parent she is, doing a great job with her child’s violin studies.” She drove about 10 kilometres to my house through busy traffic, knocking softly on my door in the dark, grateful to me for the minute or so of getting the 1/4 size violin nicely back in tune. On a couple of occasions I’d actually tuned violins on the phone, an entirely unsatisfactory undertaking, but it took this time for me to realize the problem I had made, for my students, their parents – and myself. For all of my fussiness about intonation and keeping violins precisely in tune, I’d failed to adequately train parents and students how to do it themselves.

fine tuning

Photo by Mitch Huang

A week’s practice on a poorly tuned violin starts to erode a student’s sense of good intonation. They usually know something is wrong, try to compensate, adjusting finger positions in the attempt, but it’s a losing battle. After a while they become accustomed to the out of tune strings, much in the same way as people who live near a busy road get used to the sound of constant traffic. They gradually stop hearing it.

Experienced violinists keep their violin in tune as a matter of course and are acutely aware if it drifts out of tune. Modern strings, made of wound metals and synthetic materials, hold their pitch much better than in those of the past, which were made of more natural stuff (sheep intestines). Nonetheless tuning takes practice and skill, even when the violin is set up correctly, a crucial prerequisite that is sometimes overlooked. Read about correct violin setup in my post: How to Choose a Good Student Violin.

How to Tune the Violin

What’s best to tune from? For parents and students I recommend starting with an electronic tuner. You’ll also need to be able to tune to the piano – I’ll talk about this later.

Electronic tuners that clip on to the pegs or scroll read directly from the vibrations in the violin itself are the easiest to use. This is a good one made by Intelli.clip on tuner

I use a tuning fork and eventually you may want to acquire one as well, since the advantages outweigh the convenience of an electronic tuner. You’ll learn to listen more precisely, tune strings from each other, and the result will be more accurate and violin friendly. For a start, tuning forks don’t require batteries. You’ll learn how to tune with pure perfect fifths, make slight adjustments to suit different circumstances such as playing with a piano or ensemble, or even tune to favour a particular key.

TIP: New strings can take up to a day to stabilize and stop stretching, so it’s a good idea to keep an older string in the case, for that rare but unsettling occasion when a string breaks just before a concert.

Tune the A String

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