How to Tune Your Violin

Tuning your violin is an essential skill. Usually, beginners and students rely on external means such as a piano, a pitch pipe or a tuning app. While the first two are acceptable, using apps will not help you to develop your ear. In order to progress on the violin, you have to train your ear to discern pitch and make adjustments accordingly. In this post we will clarify some key concepts and provide a practical demonstration of violin tuning. The principles are applicable to the viola and cello, too.

Physics!

The physics of stringed instruments deserves a post of its own. You can read here about how the modern violin owes its design, in part, to achievements in physics and allied disciplines. For our purposes, the most important principles are these:

  • thin/small = high pitch
  • thick/large = low pitch
  • increase tension = higher pitch (the musical term is to “sharpen”)
  • decrease tension = lower pitch (the musical term is to “flatten”)

You can verify all of these empirically in your everyday life. Consider the very visible difference between a man’s voice box and that of a woman. Or compare the soaring (sometimes shrill) sound of a violin to the deep resonance of a cello. To understand what it means to increase tension, think about how you might imitate the sound of a mosquito. You will tighten your throat, probably pushing the head forward and pulling the lower jaw upwards. The effect of all of these movements will be to limit and constrict the space for the sound coming from your throat. This will create a high pitch.

On the violin, viola or cello, or any other stringed instrument, the strings begin thick on one side and get thinner as you move to the other side. Obviously, the thicker string will have a deeper sound. This is because they vibrate more slowly and emit a lower frequency. Interestingly, we encode this fact in the very languages we speak. Comparisons of different languages have shown that some languages use spatial words like “high” and “low” to refer to pitch, while others use physical terms like “thin” and “thick”.

Increasing and Decreasing Tension with Pegs

We control tension on the strings with the four large pegs in the scroll, and the smaller fine tuners at the other end of the string. It’s important that each string connects to the correct peg. In this diagram we can see the proper string setup. The outer strings (G and E) must be wound into the outer pegs. The inner strings (D and A) belong with the two inner pegs. Sometimes, violins, especially lower quality retail models, come with an incorrect setup. If this is the case, you should fix that first before proceeding.

The pegs should move without too much effort on your part. They should neither be too tight nor too loose. You need them to hold position once you have turned them to the necessary tension. Take the peg between thumb and forefinger and push “upwards” to make the string tighter (sharper). To make the string looser (flatter), release tension on the peg and allow it turn “downwards”. Once you hear the right pitch, give the peg a gentle push into the peg box to secure it.

The Musical Fifth, Nursery Rhymes and your Violin

The strings of the violin are tuned at very specific intervals. You can think of the word “interval” as the musical term for distance. We measure the distance between two pitches and come up with a number. That number is the interval between these two pitches. The violin, viola and cello are all tuned to a special interval, the perfect fifth. This interval is one of the easiest intervals to sing, which is probably why it appears to be a musical universal across almost all human cultures. The diagram below depicts a perfect fifth using D, A, and the steps in between:

Demonstration of a perfect fifth, the interval between D and A

You will notice that we arrive at the number 5 by counting the first and the last step. There are three steps in between these two. So, if we play a D, and then each intervening step until we end at A, we have taken five steps. If we play the D and the A together, we will hear a perfect fifth. In the video at the top of this article you can hear perfect fifths on the violin, viola and cello.

The fifth is an intriguing artifact of human cognition. There are tight connections between features of language and music, and they show up in interesting place. Some languages even incorporate a pleasant-sounding lilt as part of their pronunciation. Very often, this lilt is a perfect fifth. Pythagoras (yes, the same one), came up with an entire system of tuning based on the fifth, due to its ease of replication and psychological salience. It might surprise you to learn that it shows up in one of your child’s favorite nursery rhymes: “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

When you sing the opening two words of this little song, you are producing a perfect fifth. As we’ve now seen, there is something very special and memorable about this interval. This is precisely why it appears in children’s songs. This is also why the perfect fifth regulates the tuning of the violin. In the video, you will see me demonstrate the perfect fifth by playing the strings in pairs. To check if your violin is in tune, pluck the G twice (thickest string) and then the D twice (the next string). You should hear the opening four syllables of Twinkle, Twinkle. Repeat this process between D and A, and then A and E. If it doesn’t sound like Twinkle, Twinkle, then it’s probably out of tune. In the video I demonstrate the actual tuning of the violin using the pegs and the fine tuners.

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