An often daunting task for any beginning and intermediate student is tuning the violin in preparation for practice. It can be all too easy to rely on your teacher (or your child’s teacher) as a crutch for tuning the violin and then cringe in agony as you try to practice a few days later knowing fully well that the violin has slipped out of tune.
It may feel like you have no choice but to wait till the next lesson to have it tuned again, but – do you really have no choice but to wait for your teacher’s help? As daunting as it may seem to tune a violin – fear not! It’s actually not as bad as you think. Let’s explore the different techniques and tips on How to Tune a Violin.
My violin is out of tune…did I do something wrong?
It’s important to understand that a violin being out of tune has nothing to do with the player; it doesn’t mean you made a mistake or that it’s broken. All instruments will always fall out of tune – so don’t stress. It’s not your fault!
Why doesn’t the violin stay in tune?
Because the violin is wooden, it expands and contracts just like all wooden doors and furniture do in response to changes in temperature and humidity. This, combined with the relaxing tension of the wound strings, causes the strings to loosen, becoming too “low” or flat.
Strings can also fall out of tune if the violin is bumped around or dropped – even when in its case. Even if you don’t bump the violin into anything or drop the violin, the strings will eventually fall flat because the tension of the strings will begin to weaken.
Frequent playing will also cause the violin to fall out of tune. You will often see musicians re-tuning multiple times during a performance because their instrument fell out of tune in just a short time of active playing.
How to tune a violin?
The violin is built with two mechanisms for tuning the strings: fine tuners and tuning pegs. Both are useful for different reasons:
Most beginner and intermediate violins will have four fine tuners that look almost like tiny screws where the strings attach to the tailpiece. These are used for literally “fine-tuning” the strings. This is reserved for when the instrument is almost in tune, but you just need to make a slight adjustment to bring it in tune.
Turning the screw to the right, or clockwise, will raise the pitch. This makes the note higher, or more sharp.
Turning the screw to the left, or counterclockwise, will lower the pitch. This makes the note lower, or more flat.
If you have to turn the fine tuner more than one or two full turns, it’s probably too far out of tune to use the fine tuners. It’s time to switch to the tuning pegs.
The tuning pegs are usually what cause the most stress to students and parents when learning to tune a violin. It’s easy to feel like you may break the violin or break a string. Not to scare you – but yes, it is possible to break a string while using the tuning pegs.
But don’t worry! We’ll cover some tips on how to avoid this in the steps below:
- Hold the violin with your left hand on your knee so the strings are facing you.
- Before using the pegs, loosen the fine tuner for the string you are tuning. This will help avoid the string from snapping from too much tension. You’ll notice the string is too flat now, which is just fine for now!
- Grasp the tuning peg for the string you wish to tune. Using the opposite hand, pluck the same string a few times. Determine if the string is too flat or sharp – do you need to bring the note higher or lower?
- If the note is too flat, turn the peg away from you, which will tighten the string and raise the pitch.
- If the note is too sharp, turn the peg towards you, which will loosen the string and lower the pitch.
Tuning by ear vs Tuners and Tuning Apps
The thing about tuning a violin is that it’s not only about learning how to physically tune the violin, it’s also about training your ear to hear if something is or is not in tune.
Tuning by ear
Tuning by ear (as in using no electronic guides) can take a lifetime to master. Even professionals continue to refine their ears when tuning throughout their careers. This is best learned with the guidance of a teacher.
Luckily, there are some excellent tools, such as tuners and tuning apps, to help as you train your ear to hear the nuances of tuning a violin. These will be your best friend as you train your ear to hear these nuances.
Tuners and Tuning Apps
A tuner is an electronic device that will show you if a note is too “high” or “low” when you play it.
A tuning app is literally an app on your phone that will do the same thing! This is very convenient and highly recommended to any beginners or parents of beginning students.
How to use the tune using the tuner or tuning app
Simply turn on the tuner or tuning app when it’s time to tune. Pluck the string and watch the needle oscillate up or down.
- If the needle goes left of center, it means the note is too low.
- If the needle goes right of center, it means the note is too high.
The goal is to adjust the string so that when you pluck it, the needle is dead-center. It will often flash a green light to indicate that it’s “in tune.”
Here are a few “pro” tips of things to look out for when tuning the instrument:
- Pro-tip #1: As you turn the tuning peg, gently push the peg into the pegbox. This will help keep the peg in place, rather than it slipping and falling out completely.
- Pro-tip #2: Continue plucking the string with your opposite thumb while you turn the fine tuner or tuning peg. This will help you hear the note as it changes pitch, and it will help you to know when you are close to the right spot.
- Pro-tip #3: Avoid tuning the string too high, or sharp, above the desired pitch. This will create extra tension that could break the string.
- Pro-tip #4: Mind the bridge! As you tune the strings, it can gradually pull the bridge and cause warping or leaning. If it leans too much, it could fall or even break. Ask your teacher how to maintain the bridge’s angle while tuning.
- Pro-tip #5: Look out for fraying strings: if you start to see a string unraveling at any point – it’s time to change the string. It will break!
Don’t give up!
It may seem scary the first few times you tune a violin, but you will easily get the hang of it! Don’t be afraid of making mistakes; mistakes are an opportunity for learning and growth. Tuning is an important part of improving as a violinist, so don’t give up! If you are the violinist, learning to tune the violin will give you a sense of accomplishment and confidence! If you are the parent of a beginning violinist, learning to tune the violin will help your child practice in tune and therefore progress more quickly.