How to Tune a Violin
A basic summary of the standard techniques for tuning a violin, in chronological steps, including the necessary pitches and intervals.
Learning how to tune a violin is made easy with a Snark SN-5 electronic tuner that clips directly onto your instrument. There are also traditional tuners that are also metronomes. However, this article deals with the standard – non-electronic method – for tuning a violin.
The violin is a four-stringed instrument and, like others in the string family, is tuned to intervals of a perfect fifth. For the practical purposes of the layman, a fifth is the distance between the lower note and five lines and spaces above it. (A fifth may be diminished or augmented, as well as perfect, but that does not concern us here.) Therefore, as on the violin, the lowest string is G (Concert G), the next (up a perfect fifth) D (Concert D), the next (again up a perfect fifth) A (Concert A), and the last (once again up a perfect fifth) E (Concert E). Relative to the pitches on a piano, the G is that just below middle C, but it is actually with the A just above middle C that you should begin with when learning how to tune a violin.
To understand how to tune a violin, you will need a starting pitch, or a pitch with which to match your A string. Generally speaking, the standard pitch is what is called the A 440, or the A which vibrates 440 times per second. This is, in fact, the A just above middle C on a properly tuned piano, but those without a piano may wish to use a tuning fork, metronome with a tuning feature, or some other device. If using the A on a piano, it is advised that you play the D and F just below the A, resulting in a D minor chord. This will enhance the ear’s ability to hear the pitch properly and to match it correctly.
So with this in mind, you begin tuning the violin by playing the example A on your piano (along with the chord if desired), tuning fork, or metronome. Then pluck (strum gently with your finger) or play with the bow the A string on the violin. The A string is the third string from the left as you are looking at the violin. If the pitches sound identical, which is unlikely, you need do nothing, but if the pitches are not identical, you must adjust the tension of the string with the proper peg.
The A peg can easily be traced by visually following the length of the A string up into the pegbox just under the scroll of the violin. To confirm, the A peg is the upper peg on the right side of the pegbox. (There are four pegs in all, of course, and they are usually black and made of ebony, though you will sometimes see them in wood closely matching the wood of the instrument in question.)
Learning how to tune a violin is made easier if you first loosen the tension of the string by slightly turning the peg toward you before attempting to match the pitch of the example A. If, however, the string is very loose and much lower than the desired pitch, you would first want to tighten the string a bit. It is important to note that tightening the string too far above its designated pitch may be damaging not only to the string, but more importantly to the instrument itself. Tremendous amounts of pressure are placed on the bridge and, thus, on the soundpost and soundbox, and even a little too much may have lasting effects on the integrity of the violin.
In order to match the pitches when learning how to tune a violin, you will need to continue to pluck or play the string, all the while keeping the Concert A in your ear. (Ideally, you will actually still be able to hear the example pitch from the piano or other device, but if not simply play it again.) Then after loosening the string slightly as above, you should slightly tighten it, or turn the peg slightly away from you. It will take some practice going back and forth before you can quickly tune a string, but in time, you will master the slight adjustments needed instinctually and be able to tune the instrument without thinking it through step by step.
After you are satisfied that the A string has been tuned properly, you will want to tune the Concert D, or the second string from the left. The distance from D to A is a perfect fifth, as explained initially, and what you will be listening for is the “perfection” of the fifth. As an example of this, play the D and A together on the piano: you will hear no dissonance, just two notes that sound as if they belong together, for want of a better phrase. Following the example of the A, you then repeat the tuning process with the D string and the D peg. Finding the D peg is as simple as finding the A peg: follow the D string up into the peg box to find that the D peg is the top peg on the left. The adjustment process is the same as that with the A string, only you will be creating a perfect fifth with the A, rather than matching pitch for pitch. (For those beginners with access to a piano, it may be easier to match the D just above middle C to the D string.)
Following the tuning of the D string, you will want to tune the Concert G, or the lowest string on the instrument, that string on the far left as you are facing the violin. Again, the procedure is repeated, creating a perfect fifth with the G and D, or matching the G below middle C on the piano. The G peg is the lower peg on the left.
After tuning the G string, all that is left is the Concert E, or that on the farthest right. Because the E string is higher and tighter than the others, it usually has a tuner at the top of the stringholder (the slightly V-shaped piece of wood, often made of ebony, at the base of the instrument next to the chin rest). The tuner is made of metal and has a small screw device that will allow you to adjust the string’s pitch without resorting to turning the peg. If the E string is very much out of tune, you may need to adjust the peg (the lower peg on the right), but do so with care, as even the slightest turn will result in a dramatic change in pitch. The tuner allows for very fine precision in tuning this highest string on the violin.
Once you have completed the tuning of each string, be sure to double-check the accuracy of the intonation by playing each consecutive pair of strings together, D-A, G-D, A-E. Make any adjustments that may be necessary, and you are finished.
Depending on the weather (temperature and humidity level), as well as the amount and type of playing, you may need to retune the instrument frequently (for example, every 15 minutes to a half an hour). In ideal conditions, this will not be necessary, but do check periodically to see that your violin is still.