How to Tune Your Violin or Viola

Learning how to tune your violin or viola is essential in getting the most from your instrument, and it makes it immeasurably more enjoyable to play! In this short article I am going to walk you through the steps to getting your violin or viola in tune and sounding sweet.

Tuning with a Tuner

What you will need: a chromatic tuner. This will guide you in deciding if the string needs to be tightened or loosened. You can either search “violin tuner” or “chromatic tuner” in your app store, where you will find lots of free and cheap tuning apps, or you can purchase a tuner for between £5 to £25. They all work slightly differently but serve the same purpose.

Alternatively you can use an online tuner; just make sure your microphone is allowed access so that the site can ‘hear’ you play! Try get-tuned.com

The violin has four strings which are tuned, from low to high: G-D-A-E.
Remember the mnemonic Greedy Dogs Always Eat!

The viola has four strings which are tuned, from low to high: C-G-D-A.
Remember the mnemonic Cats Give Dogs Advice!

Order to tune violin strings

Always start by tuning the A string, then work down to the D, the G and finally the E on top. This is because orchestras tune first to A given by the oboe, usually at 440hz, and the E is the most sensitive to changes in the instrument and should therefore be tuned last. 

Order to tune viola strings

As with a violin, the A is tuned first, as this would be the given pitch in an orchestra. Once that is in tune, work downwards to your D, then G and finally C. Finally, go back to the A again and check that it is still in tune. 

 “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey”

For large adjustments, use the tuning pegs at the top of the violin. For small adjustments use the fine tuners at the bottom, on the tailpiece. If you have not tuned a violin before, I’d suggest avoiding using the pegs and asking for help from a teacher, unless your strings are really out of tune! If you need to use the pegs, start by turning them towards you to loosen the string and unstick the peg, then slowly turn it away from you to bring the string up to the correct pitch.

To raise the pitch, tighten the string by carefully turning the tuning peg away from you, or by turning the fine tuner to the right.

To lower the pitch, loosen the string by turning the peg towards you, or by turning the fine tuner to the left.

A chromatic tuner will display the note that is being played. If the needle leans to the left, the note is flat and needs to come up in pitch; if it leans to the right, it is sharp and needs to come down in pitch. When the needle is right in the centre, it is in tune!

Tuning by Ear

Violin strings are tuned in perfect fifths. That means the distance between two strings is five notes or eight semitones (including the first and last note), and a confident musician will be able to hear that interval between those two pitches and adjust accordingly. To help recognise the interval of a fifth, try singing the jump between the first few notes in Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

After a lot of practice and some careful listening, a string player can play two strings together (i.e. D and A) and adjust the out-of-tune string until they hear a perfect resonance and the two notes ‘click’ into tune. This takes a lot of patience and is usually taught when a musician reaches Grade 4 or 5. 

Recommended Tuning Apps

As a general rule, all the apps are basically the same, but you can pay to remove adverts and for advanced features like custom tunings.

ClearTune Chromatic Tuner
Cost: £3.49
This app has everything a professional musician could need, including selectable notations, support for transposing instruments and automatic or manual note selection.

Pitched Tuner 
Cost: Free
This app has a simple and clear user interface, and a useful pitch pipe function, useful for practising your tuning-by-ear and intonation. This is currently my app of choice, though that changes each term!

Tuner-gStrings
Cost: Free
This app is perfect for those using a tuner for the first time. It features: instrument selection, adjustment for tuning pitch (i.e. A=443) and support for custom tunings (paid).

Recommended Tuning Devices

There are three types of tuner available to buy:

Compact Metronomes
Generally, compact metronomes are phone-sized and can incorporate all sorts of features, such as a metronome, pitch pipes, external microphone input and even changing colours! Anything by Korg will do the job perfectly.

Clip-on Tuners
Much smaller than a compact tuner, and designed to clip onto your instrument. This is where I recommend some caution, as a lot of clip on tuners are designed for guitars and basses that have flat areas for you to attach the tuner. Fortunately there are violin/viola specific tuners, for example the Planet Waves Micro Violin Tuner.

Pedal Tuners
For the electric violinist, there is a wide selection of pedal tuners available. These are tuners which have an input and output socket for you to play in between your violin and amp, and allows you to mute your signal whilst tuning. They range from the smaller Korg Pitchblack, the budget Behringer TU300, the industry standard Boss TU-3 and my current pedal of choice, the Peterson Strobostomp HD.