‘Tuning’ the violin (or any musical instrument) means to make sure the instrument is playing the right sounds for the right notes. For example plucking the G string on the violin can sound like anything but you need it to sound the G note (technically and commonly, a 196 Hz sound).
What frequency the string vibrates in, or in other words, what note the string sounds like, is determined by two things, one is the length of the string and another is the tension in the string (means how tight the string is). We control both these things to play the violin. What we actually do was we place the fingers on the fingerboard, is quickly change the vibrating length of the string. As you move your finger upwards along the fingerboard, you’re actually restricting the vibrating part of the string shorter and shorter – making the sound higher and higher. But before we are able to do that, we should fix the correct tension (or tightness) in the string. Fixing the tension in the string is what we call ‘tuning’ a violin.
How is Tuning Done?
All violins have tuning pegs and many have fine-tuners. As a beginner, you will be using the tuning pegs to tune approximately, and then use the fine-tuners to accurately match the tone you need. As you advance with time, your ears will improve and so will your ability to use only the tuning pegs to tune your violin – at which point you might include violins without any fine tuners to your choice of violins. The basic tuning action is this – tighten or loosen the string using the tuning peg a little bit and then pluck the string or play with the bow to check the sound. Adjust the peg and check the sound again and again until it’s almost the note you wish to hear (G, D, A or E) based on which string you’re tuning. Then do the same adjust-check-repeat using the fine tuners until the sound is accurately the note for that string.
You can turn the pegs and fine tuners, but how do you check? How do you know the string is tuned to whatever note it should be playing ? There are 3 ways to do this as listed below. You can start with the first option (electronic devices), then advance to the second one (using your ears). The third option is just a luxury – you can learn it if you want or you might simply acquire it automatically as you become an advanced player.
1. Using Electronic Devices
This is the simplest way for beginners to tune. Use an electronic tuner or one of the several mobile apps available for your smart phone. How this works is you turn on the tuner (or your app) and then play sounds on your violin, and the device checks and shows you how close you are to the actual note. These tools are designed to ‘hear’ the incoming frequency and compare it to reference frequency of the note you are trying to tune to.
2. Using Your Ears
Use another instrument – a little keyboard, a mobile app / website that can play note sounds or simply record a clear sample sound on your smartphone for reference. Play the note, and tune your violin by checking if the sound from your device and your violin sound the same. It’s not that difficult as some beginning students feel. It is not easy to miss the resonance when the two sounds match. You’ll know it clearly when the sounds are same. Set aside time to do this in your daily practice exercise. Not only will you be able to tune without electronic help, you will also improve your hearing abilities by doing this regularly. Tuning your instrument is like ear training 101.
3. From Sensing the Note
You will need perfect pitch for this – the ability to simply hear a sound and judge what frequency/note it is. Instead of using your ears for a reference note, you simply know by heart which note you’re hearing – by practice or memorization or simply having heard the notes so many times. Don’t worry much about this third option – if you can do this, you’re probably at an advanced level and won’t be reading this article anyway.
- If you’re tuning your violin for the first time, or the strings are too loose and out of tune, you might want to adjust the 4 strings evenly. Because if you tune one string, when the others are lax, by the time you finish tuning other strings, the tension in the first string would have changed. So bring all the strings to approximately the same tension (and corresponding note) and then finish tuning one by one.
- Be patient and very careful. Tuning the violin is when most people break their strings. Don’t try to hurry up and turn the tuning pegs too hard. Make tiny adjustments, listen and repeat.
- There’s nothing wrong with having fine tuners. You can become a virtuoso in future and still use a violin with all 4 fine tuners. Don’t worry about people arguing whether it’s good or bad to have fine tuners. The difference is only indirect and not even noticeable for most audience. On the other hand, fine tuners make the tuning process much quicker and easier. I find violins with fine tuners more encouraging for practice.
- Do not ignore tuning. For a lot of students, their teacher just tunes the violin every time they are in class and the students usually don’t even think about tuning the instrument themselves till they are more advanced. I suggest you don’t do this. Treat tuning as a fundamental requirement to start learning your violin.