How to Tune Your Instrument “Perfectly” and The Beauty of a Stupid Question

I love to ask stupid questions. I started asking stupid questions when I was a child and I haven’t stopped. My all time favorite stupid question is “How do you tune a violin?” There are many answers to this question. You tune the fifths until there’s no wobble. You tune them until the fifths are “pure” (same thing). You tune it until it sounds “warm.” Make your fifths “tight.” Yikes! I could go on and on but the fact of the matter is that none of these bromides have changed one of the basic impediments to learner success – instruments being out of tune. There is truth and danger in all of these methods, but their main problems are their lack of specificity and the difficulty beginners have hearing pure fifths. Besides, one person’s pure fifth is not the same as another’s. We don’t even perceive octaves the same way. It’s true! It’s due to a thing called psychoacoustics. When my friend Fan Tao, chief string engineer at D’Addario, told this to me my mind was blown. How the heck are we going to agree on anything??? I wondered. The answer is that we compromise.

Some stupid questions are easy to answer and some require a little unpacking. I’m not saying that there isn’t more than one way to tune your instrument. I’m not even saying that these are the best ways. These “solutions” are compromises. They are here to balance expediency with artistic goals. And they are relatively simple to implement. I once played in a group with a violist who insisted on tuning to a “D.” I thought he was nuts. After learning more about temperaments and about the compromises we have to make as we go further away from the tuning string, I wonder if I shouldn’t have been a little more open minded. I have two solutions for us. They are both rife with compromises but they also have their benefits. I think the benefits far outweigh the negatives in both cases. The first solution is admittedly a little difficult at first and requires a very keen ear and checking with a tuner until you get the hang of it.

Solution 1: Tune every string 702 cents (not the be confused with hertz!) away from the tuning string. On a violin this means the D string will be 702 cents below the A, the G string 1404 cents below the A and the E 702 cents above the A. There are 100 cents in a half step and seven half steps in a perfect fifth.

Advantages:

  • It’s very specific and it helps us to avoid the trap of tuning each successive string very flat. We tend towards this as most instruments sound warmer if the fifths are on the wide or “open” side.
  • It prevents the lowest string from being extremely flat vs. the top string, only 6 cents flatter than “perfect” 700 cent fifths. With the warm tuning that we tend to gravitate towards we can often end up being 15-30 cents flat relative to the top string. By the time you get that far away the open bottom string is basically useless.
  • This minimizes the distance the between an in-tune perfect 4th against the string above and an in-tune major 6th on the string below. This means, for instance, that a “B” on the A string can stay relatively stable against both an open “E” and an open “D.” A little lean back or forth will get you in tune with either.
  • It makes the instrument sound brilliant without losing warmth (Opinion alert!)
  • Once you learn how to do this it becomes fairly automatic

Disadvantages:

  • It’s difficult to learn at first
  • You still might need a tuner to see that everyone’s on the same page in large groups.

Comments and Suggestions

This method was taught to me by my friend and colleague Sharan Levanthal, Professor of Violin at the Boston Conservatory. She spent a decade recording the string quartets of Ben Johnston, whose musical language uses just intonation and microtones. She knows as much about infinitesimal differences in pitch as anyone this side of an Indian sitar virtuoso. I figured she was the person to ask my stupid question to and I was right. She took me into a quiet corner of the Pittsburgh Convention Center during an ASTA conference and excitedly taught me how to tune my violin. It was a huge relief. Finally, something specific. These fifths are very “tight” but not so tight that they sound harsh. She told me that most people don’t want to tune this tight and she kept encouraging me to get my fifths tighter. She told me to tune until the instrument sounded “bright.” I’m still amazed by how wide my fifths tend to be if I’m not really paying attention. I still check my tuning with a tuner once in a while to see if I’m slouching towards wide fifths. A tuner is a huge help in learning and maintaining this skill. A good rule of thumb when tuning your violin is after tuning your “A” to be right on center, the “D” is in between center and the first tiny pinpoint to the left, and the “G” right on the tiny pinpoint. The “E” lies halfway to the tiny pinpoint to the right. Each pinpoint and dot and funny looking triangle marks off five cents. This means we’re technically tuning 2.5 cents off of equal temperament, but really, what’s a half cent among friends?

Here are two pictures with arrows. Hopefully your tuner looks like one of these:

It’s much easier to see on this one. And the batteries last twice as long!

Solution 2: Tune every open string dead center to a tuner

Advantages

  • Consistent, both for the individual and across an ensemble
  • Fast
  • Even fairly young learners can do this with relative ease
  • Parents can tune instruments for their children even if they aren’t musicians
  • Very easy to do if you have good fine tuners, which are easier for little fingers to manipulate than pegs
  • You can ask your students to do this as “bell work”, minimizing the amount of time you take away from rehearsal to tune
  • Erases “tuning fright”

Disadvantages

  • A student might become dependent upon the tuner, learning how to tune with their eyes rather than training their ears.
  • There might not be a tuner available
  • The microphones on cell phones are not designed to decipher pitches at the extremes well, so bass and violin E strings might not be perfectly in tune when using a tuning app on a cell phone.
  • Some people find the fifths to be too tight, making the instrument sound “nervous” or too bright.

Comments and Suggestions

Of the two solutions I prefer the second in real world usage. It’s not that far away from the “best” solution at only 2 cents per string different (ok, 2.5). At UCF, I have my students tune to a tuner before rehearsal starts. It’s sped up the tuning process tremendously. We can now also play open strings without trepidation. One unexpected benefit is that I’ve observed students becoming less tolerant of out of tune strings even without a tuner in front of them. If we play a unison open string and someone’s out of tune, I’ve seen students immediately go to their fine tuners and fix the issue. I strongly suggest that you use a dedicated tuner or two-in-one tuner metronome as their microphones, hardware and software are built to decipher pitches across all octaves. Some people even suggest that everyone have the same exact tuner so that they’re all calibrated the same way. This is just a hunch, but I think cell phones are designed only to capture the very narrow range of the human voice with real accuracy. This means it’s not designed to hear the very lowest and highest strings on our instruments well. If you need an endorsement to simply use a tuner from someone who’s a much better musician than I’ll ever be, here’s one from David Finckl. He admits that there are more “artistic” ways to tune. This is the reason I resisted this method for so long. I’m an artist, darn it! The truth is, I was just being obstinate. This past year, I decided to give it a go with our orchestra and the results were excellent. Much better than avoiding open strings and much, much better than listening to out of tune strings. I would argue that it’s less artistic to use a terrible fingering to avoid an out of tune open string than it is to use a tuner to tune your instrument. Try it with your ensemble. I think you’ll like the results. Just make sure that your learners are really doing it carefully!

I hope you find this post helpful! Next time: Stacking seconds and finger angles,  The Four Things/Transitions

Copyright Rising Tide String Project 2018 (Erik Bryan and Chung Park)

Please contact me at chung@chungpark.com if you’d like me to come and lead a workshop. I’m available for student workshops and teacher professional development sessions.