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Tuning for Fussy People, mostly by ear
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DanielB
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October 21, 2012 - 5:47 am
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Yes, this is a long post, because I am trying to give a step by step explanation of how to do something and why someone might want to try it.  So you might want to refill the coffee before reading it or just skip it altogether.  On the bright side, I edited out the math, physics and etc, so it could have been longer.

A lot of folks seem to put quite a bit of reliance on digital/electronic tuners. While those definitely can be useful for some things, they aren't the best for all things, and they have some limitations. They are not 100% accurate, or at least I have never seen one that was. Most people can tune even more accurately with their own ears, if they tune the violin by harmonics.

Not to say anyone should throw away their digital/electronic tuner. They are useful little devices, and handy for a quick rough tuning and many of them can work in fairly noisy environments, while using your ears does require a place that is at least fairly quiet. You can also use it to get the first note to tune from by harmonics, although if you want a “no batteries required” option for tuning that is maybe a little classier then you could just buy a tuning fork and not really need an electronic tuner any more at all.

How accurate are we talking? Well, that depends on how fussy you are, but it is very easy to get closer than three to four cents, and not much harder (with a little experience) to get it closer than one cent. I personally usually tune to within about ¼ of a cycle per second or “hertz” (hz), which is less than one cent. I could get it a bit closer still, but I don't see the point. A beginner might want to settle for about half of a cycle per second, which is around 3 cents, depending on which string we are talking about.

Does it take long? Well, I have been doing it almost since I started playing violin several months ago. For me, it takes a little longer to use the electronic/digital tuner, since I have to get it out, turn it on, put it on the violin, then take it off and put it away. A beginner at tuning by harmonics might play them a little clumsy at first, so it might take a little longer than using the digital/electronic tuner. But I'd say it takes about as long, depending on how perfect you are willing to fuss with it to get.

Is it hard to do? Not really. Like I said, I have been doing it almost since I started playing violin. But it does take playing harmonics. That is a technique you probably have to learn eventually anyway, but if you haven't already learned how to play those, Fiddlerman has a video tutorial on it that is pretty good, if my memory serves me. It only takes being able to find two of the easiest harmonics to play, so it is good practice.

Any other good things about it? Well, it is a bit more accurate than tuning by open 5ths, like the more experienced folks do, but is just about as quick. Like open 5ths, you can check your tuning considerably faster than having to get out the digital/electronic tuner any time you think your tuning might be a bit off.

 

Ok, so how to actually do it. Get one string in tune by using a meter, tuning fork, or a note from your teacher or from your computer. I usually start with the open A string at 400 hz, but it also works if you need to tune to A 443 or to A 432, or whatever your preference is, or whatever you need for the people you will be playing with. I use the A out of habit, since I used to tune everything from a nice A 440 tuning fork I have around here somewhere from when I used to help the head of a local music department tune the pianos, and that I used to tune up the instruments for some bands I was in.

For the sake of discussion, we'll assume you are tuning the open A string first. Now we can use harmonics to tune the D string.

First you need to find the octave harmonic in the middle of the A string. It is right in the center of the length of the string between the nut and bridge. The other harmonic you will need is on the D string, right about where you would put your 4th finger down to play the A on the D string in first position. It may be slightly off from the exact spot, depending on things like how high your action is. If the violin is close to in tune to start with, then those two harmonics should sound at least very close the same in pitch.

When you get them quite close, but can still tell just barely which is higher than the other, start playing the harmonics on both strings at once. If you hear a “wobble” or “beat”, then you need to adjust until you can't hear that anymore and the two notes sound like a single steady note. The technique is called “zero beating”, because ideally, there should be no “beat”. That would be in a perfect world. Realistically, we are more likely going to just tune until the beat is so slow we can't hear it “throb” more than once in a reasonable length of time for bow-strokes, say two seconds. If you can get it to one beat every two seconds or less, congratulations! You are now tuning with a greater degree of accuracy than most digital/electronic tuners can manage. One beat every two seconds equals half a beat per second that those two pitches are out of tune, which is darned close. But even better, because we tuned with harmonics, which are twice as high as the open strings, that means that the tuning on the open strings is less than ¼ of a single cycle per second apart. That is close enough to perfect for most occasions, though as you get better at playing harmonics with long slow steady bow strokes, it is not harder to get it even closer if you like.

 

Use the same technique to tune all the rest of the strings. I usually go A, D, E, G. But I am not sure if there is any particular advantage to it when fine tuning. When you get them all done, check the first ones again and make sure they didn't get pulled out of tune a little as the other strings got tuned up, same as with any tuning method.

 

And if you manage to get a “zero beat” with tuning by harmonics, and your digital/electronic tuner doesn't agree that the notes are perfectly in tune? Then you can recheck the harmonics, but the tuner is mostly likely off on that particular note. It is actually not unusual for those things to be off by a bit here and there, but with some practice and learning how to tune, your ear can do a better job of it anyway.

 

Oh, and I shouldn't need to say this but remember to only change tuning on the string you are tuning, not the one you already tuned. Yeah, it sounds silly, but I have seen people doing that and then wondering why they are still out of tune. LOL

 

Okay, somebody may complain that I said this was easy and “It is playing a double-stop with harmonics, for cripe's sake!!” Yeah, but they are easy harmonics, and you didn't have to play it “at tempo” with anything. Still, if a violin teacher ever hands you a piece of music that requires playing double-stop harmonics, just shoot them. Right on the spot. They never liked you anyway, you know.

 devil-violin

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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Fiddlestix
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I just filled my coffe cup and I'm ready.

Just exactly how many electronic tuner's have you actually seen or used in your short violin career ?

I wouldn't concider a symphony orchestra's string section, tuning at the same time exactly quiet.

To be totally and completely accurate in finding the exact center of the A string, I would have to use my metric tape measure.

This may work perfectly but if a person has a "tin ear", being in tune won't matter one bit, they still play out of tune and we've all heard that before.

I find it much easier and faster if I just open up Fiddlerman's online tuner. Even at that if one has a tin ear it doesn't matter anyway.

That's just MO.smile

Do you think you could do a demo vid showing this technique ?

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Fiddlerman
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October 21, 2012 - 7:53 am
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Fiddlestix, it's actually not hard to find the center of the string because when you touch the string lightly it's the only note that will sound resonate. Give it a shot and you'll be surprised smile
Tuning with harmonics works well and I think I mentioned it on one of my tuning videos but in an orchestra it wouldn't work as well because of all the noise. By the same token we wouldn't be able to tune with a tuner either. LOL
We encourage everyone in an orchestra to tune quietly but you can imagine how often that happens.

"The richest person is not the one who has the most,
but the one who needs the least."

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DanielB
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Well, in my (as you pointed out) brief violin time, exactly one. 

However, in my 30+ yrs of playing guitar, quite a few.  I'm new to violin, but not new to music or stringed instruments.  I've owned some, and checked out as many as I ran into in bands and college.  They have gotten better over the years (early ones in the late 70s and early 80s were about useless), but I still hold that most of them can't do as well as using your ears.

My experience with symphony orchestras is limited to having seen some on television and youtube.  Probably not much quieter than bars where they are still running music over the house PA and the patrons are drinking and raising heck while you set up and tune up.  Of course, with electric guitar, you can use a headphone amp.  No idea how the folks in orchestras manage.

So far as finding the center of the string, if you are even close the harmonic will still ring true, it will just be clearer at the exact spot.  I eyeball it and then adjust a little to get the clearest and loudest note ringing, if necessary.  If one had trouble finding it, any piece of string or thread can find it as well.  Break or cut a piece as long as the space between the nut and bridge, then fold it in half and use it to measure down from the nut or up from the bridge.

In case anyone new might be unfamiliar with harmonics, one of their useful properties is that unlike fingered notes, they only ring in the specific places (called nodes) where you touch to get them while bowing.  If you are off by a couple mm, it doesn't throw off the harmonic, which makes them useful for things like tuning.

So far as the "tin ear" I assume from context that you mean people who are tone deaf more than suffering from tinnitus.  Yeah, it won't help with that.  Ever play with any of the ones who carry a plastic pitch pipe  that they probably got free with a guitar or set of strings in their back pocket?  Even if half the notes don't work anymore, they won't consider that the pitches on it might be a bit dubious as a "frequency standard". LOL

So far as the online tuner, or other computer generated pitches, those are usually good.  If you are near a computer.  Or a cell phone these days, I guess.  I'm one of those old curmudgeons who still refuse to get a cell phone, so I forget that some of them apparently can visit internet pages or have tuning apps. 

All good points, Fiddlestix.  My view that harmonic tuning is better than using a digital/electronic tuner is also opinion.  People are going to use what they are going to use.  I just have a distaste for actually relying on gadgets when there is a way that uses ears and hands. 

Maybe the new tuners are good enough.  Can't prove it by my Snark SN-2 though.  It is ok for some things, but it reads a notch (whatever a notch on it's display means, the manual didn't explain it so far as I recall) low on C# for example.  That note doesn't matter for violin, but I definitely can hear it when I use it to tune my autoharp, and so I checked it against tones generated off the computer.  Maybe I just got a bad one.  But how many people check them before they just assume the tuner must be right?  Also it takes a change of at least a couple hz before it goes up or down a notch.  That's a bit more variance/error than sounds good to me when playing.  Ok for rough tuning but I personally like to get things a bit more tight.  That way, if it ends up sounding sucky?  I know it's me.  LOL

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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Picklefish
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a properly trained ear can tune quicker and easier than any other method. It also aids in playing with note accuracy and such. Your overall playing will sound better if you can listen with a trained ear. Unfortunately the public school system has abandoned this method long ago for the much more "educated" music theory system of note reading. I guess some hillbillys kid long ago went to college music school, probably on scholarship for his playing excellence. Thats where he learned that learning by ear was uneducated and wrong, even though its how he got there. Them lefty pinko commie liberal arts "educators" convinced him to abandon ear training. Once he graduated he took their brainwashing to the local school board and the rest is history. I, however, have seen behind the veil and realized that I lacked ear training and realize its value. thumbs-up

"Please play some wrong notes, so that we know that you are human" - said to Jascha Heifetz.

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Fiddlerman
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October 21, 2012 - 10:48 am
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This reminds me.

In my position at the last two full time professional orchestras I was in I was required (with pay) to sit on a jury on most violin auditions. You have no idea how thrown off we could get if a violinist came in and spent much time tuning. That in itself could drive us crazy. We could just imagine how that would work in the orchestra when everyone is tuning and the audience is waiting and this one guy can't get his instrument in tune.
These guys were auditioning behind a screen so you could imagine the faces we made at times when they tuned for a LONG time.

"The richest person is not the one who has the most,
but the one who needs the least."

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Fiddlestix
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@ picklefish... I assume you are refering to "commie" as being communist ?

 

@ Fiddlerman.. If I was in a orchestra and couldn't tune in a timely manor, I would grab my spare bow without rosin and fake it.  rofl

 

IMO... an instrument only need's to be in exact tune if you are playing with someone else, so everyone is in tune or on the same page, so to speak.

The other day I was playing some song's, I hadn't tuned yet that day, went to the online tuner and found I was way out of tune according to my A string, but all the note's were spot on while playing the song's. I don't think there are but a few people who have "perfect pitch".dunno

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I've seen some different methods for tuning the fiddle.

 

1 - Use a Korg tuner, or something similar, on each string, and when the green light comes on, it's "bang in tune", as in the correct Hz frequency has been reached for E, A, D, G.

 

2 - Use a Korg, pitch pipe or tuning fork to tune the A string, then (by ear) tune the D so that it sounds a perfect 5th along with the A. Tune the G (by ear) to sound a perfect 5th with your D. Finally, re-check the A against the tuner.

 

3 - Stop an E+B (2nd+3rd strings, 1st finger), to sound a perfect fifth, and adjust if necessary. Tune the E and G strings by ear.

 

Methods 1 and 3 don't work for me.

 

Method 2 does. I think it's what most people would use - in other words, most don't have perfect pitch, so using a tuner for the A is a starting point. Most have a good ear for relative pitch (more important than perfect pitch), so tuning 5ths by ears usually works fine.

 

One's mileage may vary :)

 

Mr Jim dancing

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DanielB
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@Picklefish:  I would agree that it is not a good trend to not have ear training taught much even at the college level.  I only went to the local community college, but I can say that one could have gotten a music degree and actually been deaf.  Neither theory classes nor composition classes tested the ability to actually recognize intervals, chords, or scales by sound.  So long as you could recognize them on paper, you were fine.  Don't know about "commies", but no picking on the hillbillies, man.  Too many of my relatives would resemble such remarks.  LOL

@Fiddlestix; I haven't travelled much or anything, but from what I have ever seen, actual "perfect pitch" is very rare.  I don't have it.  I have known a total of two people over about 35 yrs of playing who did have it.  However, I have run into a lot of people that *thought* they had it.  Oy vey!  Nothing like working with someone who is so sure they have perfect pitch that they won't consider checking a tuning reference of any sort, and still play out of tune!  LOL

I'll see if I can manage to do a quick video of it, but it really isn't anything all that difficult or that interesting to see.  If it would clarify my (probably not so great) explanation, though, I guess I could.

@fiddlerguy: Well, if a person tunes up when they practice, and they practice at least once a day, one would think it wouldn't take them too long to tune up at least under normal conditions?  Maybe they had some nervousness going?

@Worldfiddler: Tuning by 5ths is also a good method.  I use it sometimes when it is too noisy to use harmonics, but I still want to get it tighter than I feel the digital/electronic tuner can.  I don't have perfect pitch, but my relative pitch has usually been good enough to be useful. 

I don't know as I would say perfect pitch is less important though.  I knew a girl in high school that had perfect pitch and she was very very good at picking up melodies and harmonies fast.  Always knew what notes she was hearing, even in complicated passages of music.  On the other hand, she didn't know how to fix the switches that had quit working on her electric guitar or how to adjust the bridge to get it's intonation exactly in, and other similar things.  From what I understand, it is more like a photographic memory than just a really good memory, and some folks (like that girl) are born with it.  She didn't need to practice it, and had been able to tell notes apart and rattle them off by name shortly after getting even a little education about scales.  Which is nice, I'm sure.. But such folks still need to practice to play well, and still need to practice a song enough times to memorize it and etc.  I consider perfect pitch to be uncanny.  But I have seen where it can be very useful if one is lucky enough to have it.  A good relative pitch can manage many of the same things in practical playing circumstances though. 

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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cdennyb
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excellent post Daniel, as usual.

I find my practice really improves if I 'touch up' the tune up each time. It seems my fingers are getting the muscle memory thing going good and they go to the right spot for a note but if it aint in tune right, it sucks.facepalm

"If you practice with your hands you must practice all day. Practice with your mind and you can accomplish the same amount in minutes." Nathan Milstein

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DanielB
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Thanks Denny!  I get so much out of these forums sometimes that I feel I have to kick something back in once in a while.

I am fussy about tuning too, obviously.  I figure if I know for sure that the instrument is well in tune, then if it doesn't sound good, I know which one of us "needs a bit of work".  LOL 

But really, if an instrument is kept in tune, it tends more to stay in tune, too.  So a few seconds of touch-up are usually all that are needed, unless one has changed strings very recently, adjusted the bridge, etc.  Then it will take a day or few to settle.  Once the set-up is reasonably ok and strings have time to settle, though, even cheap instruments usually hold tune pretty well, allowing for temperature and humidity changes.

The Mendini MV300, "Punkin", I've seen about once a week since I gave it to a buddy.  And I know from seeing things he's figured out on it and from talking with his mom that he plays it a fair bit.  His mom says he puts in about an hour a night on it, plus taking it off to the woods now and then for "stress reduction playing" (I told him that one thing I found helpful when I was just starting was to play as loud as you can for at least several minutes at a go sometimes).  He says he hasn't needed to tune it at all, and every time I have seen it, it needed only very minor touch-ups on the fine tuning.  I found it surprising for it to hold tune that well, with a newbie playing the heck out of her.  I won't use the word "cheap" in that case, because a lot of learning curve and TLC went into it, but I don't know of many brand new violins one can get that are less expensive than an MV300.

When FM mentioned how long it took some people to get tuned up when they show up for symphony orchestra auditions, I kind of had to wonder if maybe some of them had just put on new strings the day before or something.  That is the sort of "judgement call" (deciding to change strings right before an important gig) I wouldn't want to see being made by someone I'm going to be playing with in front of an audience.  Or maybe their instrument was not actually in good repair.  But those are the sort of the reasons you have auditions in the first place.

I agree, though, that checking the tuning and touching up if necessary definitely helps and should be a part of anyone's practice.  I check it any time I pick up an instrument, so they are usually right in tune or only need a minor touch-up.  For me it is part of the "ritual" of beginning a practice/play session.

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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Mad_Wed
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That's a great post! Thank You kindly, Daniel!

DanielB said

A lot of folks seem to put quite a bit of reliance on digital/electronic tuners. While those definitely can be useful for some things, they aren't the best for all things, and they have some limitations. They are not 100% accurate, or at least I have never seen one that was. Most people can tune even more accurately with their own ears, if they tune the violin by harmonics.

Well i don't have any electronic tuners... But i find it very fascinating and thinking about getting one. Off top stupid question: Does any of them able to produce needed tone? Beeping i mean or something?

... although if you want a “no batteries required” option for tuning that is maybe a little classier then you could just buy a tuning fork and not really need an electronic tuner any more at all.

I use tuning fork =) But started it just out of curiosity... It's not very convenient..

It has attenuation... makes me mad... If only i had pitch memory - it could be so much easier! But i don't have - so i can compare sounds only ... during the sounding (?) frownembarassed When i use tuning fork - it sounds OK first second or so... and then it goes off... but no beats i can detect either...dunno

When you get them quite close, but can still tell just barely which is higher than the other, start playing the harmonics on both strings at once. If you hear a “wobble” or “beat”, then you need to adjust until you can't hear that anymore and the two notes sound like a single steady note. The technique is called “zero beating”, because ideally, there should be no “beat”. 

About beats... When i tune by open strings i've noticed that even when i get  that "zero bit" one of strings could be obveously out of tune, i checked it with one of on-line tuners and it says that it's perfect, but i hear it doesn't. dunno In that case tuning with harmonics could be more accurate i believe.. But one thing i find quite hard - is to place my 4th finger accurate parallel to both of strings... it always goes with the angle red_cursing so can't get both harmonics to sound equal dazed But i'll practice that =)

Fiddlestix said
..I find it much easier and faster if I just open up Fiddlerman's online tuner. Even at that if one has a tin ear it doesn't matter anyway.

I guess i have ...ummm.. tin ears (LOLOL!!! funny word ).. Find out lately that it's hard for me to use FM's tuner somehow. It has vibrato duncecap It didn't bother me before rofl Can the ear become worse with the time? I worry about it..... 

 

I use my synthesizer lately to tune... argh! want a tuner!red_cursing Don't trust my ears. 

Well anyway i play far off the tune, but i've noticed that if the violin tuned nicely, it comes out better dunno

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Mad_Wed said 
Well i don't have any electronic tuners... But i find it very fascinating and thinking about getting one. Off top stupid question: Does any of them able to produce needed tone? Beeping i mean or something?

 

I think most of them will produce tones.  Mine produces any tone on the chromatic scale, through a little speaker.

But I am looking into tuning the way Daniel describes here.

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Mad_Wed
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Thanks, Fiddlestx! But it has vibrations too, looks like a filter effect.. I have no idea why do they do it that way dunno It's important for me because my brain getting hard times to compare so much different sounds at once!

 

@ FiddlerMan!!!! Please make a pitch memory developing game!!!

begbegbegbegbegbeg

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Mad_Wed
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RosinedUp said

Mad_Wed said 
Well i don't have any electronic tuners... But i find it very fascinating and thinking about getting one. Off top stupid question: Does any of them able to produce needed tone? Beeping i mean or something?

 

I think most of them will produce tones.  Mine produces any tone on the chromatic scale, through a little speaker.

But I am looking into tuning the way Daniel describes here.

What Tuner do You use, may i ask?

hats_off

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If you have a smartphone of some kind, you can probably find an app for it. I have one for my iPhone called n-Track Tuner. It's great; accurate and plays any note you like.

~ Once you've ruled out the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true. ~

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Almandin said
If you have a smartphone of some kind, you can probably find an app for it. I have one for my iPhone called n-Track Tuner. It's great; accurate and plays any note you like.

eeeeee cry Don't have the smartphone.. I'm kinda old-school. Use phone only like a phone =) But thanks for the tip. I'll think about getting one.. Though tuner, that can "whistle" a note must be cheaper...

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Mad_Wed said 
What Tuner do You use, may i ask?

 

It is called the MeIdeal MT560W.

Ha ha, now that I look it up on the web, I find that it is made especially for wind instruments!  Maybe that just means that it has modes for use with transposing instruments:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T.....instrument .  I have been thinking about getting a second tuner of a different model, to use one in metronome mode and one in tuning mode, and to be able to check them against each other for accuracy.

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ratvn
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Thank you for such great post, DanielB. Thank you for taking your time and I enjoy and have learned a lot reading your posts. I was sure that I made a new pot of coffee before reading yours...haha.

"A lot of folks seem to put quite a bit of reliance on digital/electronic tuners. While those definitely can be useful for some things, they aren't the best for all things, and they have some limitations. They are not 100% accurate, or at least I have never seen one that was."

Totally agree with you there (I am one of those...haha), not only that, some of the relatively inexpensive ones reacts/tracks very slowly and as soon as the notes played, not even too fast though, then they went crazy searching for pitches.

I've always wanted to learn harmonics and tuning by ears so your method there will definitely be a great lesson. Will be looking forward to it as right now I'm fighting with FM'm vibrato lessons....sry, not his lessons, my fingers though.

Thanks again for the great post.

Best wishes,

Robert

violin

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