Tuning a violin….

This is from a piece I have written for internetviolin.com hopefully it will be of use to some people as I know it is a cause of much difficulty and frustration. Also any feedback from those more experienced violinists out there would be great!

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Tuning

Tuning your violin is one of the most important things to get right as if the instrument is not in tune it makes getting a good sound a lot harder than it already is. So here are a few hints and ideas for those of you starting out.

STAY SAFE! Don’t over tighten your strings as this can cause them to snap. Keep your face, and especially eyes, out of the range of a potentially snapping string.

Look after your violin! Only try to tune one string at a time and always maintain some tension on at least one string. The bridge of your violin, and to a lesser extent the sound post (inside the violin roughly under the E side foot of the bridge) are largely held in place by the pressure of the strings. If you slacken everything off they can fall down!

Tuning a stringed instrument relies on some basic physics, in that the tighter a string is pulled the higher pitch it will give you, think of it like a very espensive rubber band.

Two possible ways to tune

First there are the main tuning pegs, which are very useful especially if your instrument is a long way out of tune.

Secondly your violin may have one or more fine adjusters attached, or built into, the tail-piece. These are arguably easier to use in that the control is a lot more precise and have the additional bonus of being less likely to cause string breakages because they can only tension so far before you run out of thread.

From this point the rest is simple in theory; if the string is too low in pitch (flat) you tighten it, if it is too high (sharp) you loosen it. However, putting this into practise can sometimes require a few practical skills.

Reference Pitches

In order to get your violin in tune it helps to know what you are aiming at. The four strings of the violin are G D A & E.

Here are the four notes that the violin is tuned to. G is the lowest sounding note and usually has the thickest string; with the violin placed on your shoulder it is the string furthest to the left. The strings are then arranged G D A E from left to right.

You can check these against anything that you know to be in tune, such as a piano, tuning fork or for that matter an electronic tuner.

Click the letter to hear each pitch and check that the sound coming out of your violin matches that of the clip. I have included two different types of sounds, one being a piano, given that is what is often tuned to in the ‘real world’ and the other being a sine tone which is theoretically the purest pitch reference.

Sine Tones:

G D A E

Piano:

G D A E

Click the letter to hear the audio.

Assuming that your violin gives notes that sound like those above then your don’t really need to read on right now, get on and play!

Tuning with adjusters

Assuming that your violin is only slightly out it is probably easiest to tune it with the fine adjusters at the tail-piece. Pluck or bow the string to determine if the string needs to be made higher or lower and tighten or loosen the screw head of adjuster connected to that string. It is probably better to only move it by small increments between re-checking the note to prevent over tightening. When you are happy with the note proceed to the next string.

Tuning with the pegs

Often tuning with the pegs will be the only option as before it is imperative to only move it by small increments between re-checking the note to prevent over tightening and snapping the string. It is best to check the pitch by plucking, or bowing the string whilst turning the peg to the right position. Pegs are a very old method of controlling the tension on a string and rely on friction and the fact that they are tapered to make them work, so the trick to making them stick is to twist and push, like you would when using a screwdriver or cork screw.

Bowing vs. Plucking

In order to see if your violin is in tune you need to hear it, often as you are tuning it. There are two ways to do this; plucking the string or bowing it. Plucking is far easier in that you can rest the instrument on your knee or on your lap and turn the peg/adjuster with one hand whilst plucking with the other. Bowing requires that you hold the violin under your chin and turn the peg/adjuster whilst bowing with your remaining free hand! This is not for the inexperienced or faint hearted and should be tried out either with assistance or over a very soft landing as if it slips from under your chin it is almost impossible to catch by yourself.

The reason why so many people bother with learning how to bow and tune at once it that it is far more reliable. Not only can a bowed sound give a more sustained volume, but it the plucked tone is harmonically less stable and tends to get noticeably lower in pitch as the sound decays.

However until you need the level of performance that bowing whilst tuning provides it is probably not worth the risk of dropping your violin!

Problem Solving/Other Considerations

Once you have got your strings in tune it is best to check each in turn. As the strings are all tensioned on the same instruments the pull acts over the entire instrument, so big changes to one string, can result in smaller changes to others.

If a peg does not stick it could be for three key reasons:

  1. The string is pulling the peg out. This is by far the most common! Look at where the string meets the end of the nut. If the string meets the peg significantly further towards the narrow end of the taper of the peg, it will effectively be pulling the peg out of the peg box. To remedy this simply slacken the string off by a couple of turns and then tension back up, whilst winding on a fatter part of the taper closer to the wood of the peg box.
  2. You may not be pushing the peg far enough in, please be delicate, but it does need enough force for friction to do its thing.
  3. The peg does not fit the peg box properly, in which case ask a reputable specialist to look at it.

If your run out of thread on your adjuster simply loosen the main peg, twist the adjuster back so that the screw thread is to about 50% depth, then take up the main slack on the tuning peg. You may have to fine tune with the adjuster a little to complete the process.

Make sure the bridge stays vertical. Its feet should be approximately between the cross bars of the f-holes, and the top of it should be in line too. Repeated tuning and especially changing of strings tends to drag the top of the bridge up the instrument. This can be detrimental to the sound and playing and in extreme cases can lead to the bridge falling over. If your bridge does start to lean, then simply slide it back into place, loosening the strings slightly if required.

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