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I'm new to violin (and music in general). I am learning through the Suzuki method, but after I get down the fundamentals I hope to learn Irish and American fiddle tunes. I recently discovered an IPad app, called Sing inTuna that I thought would help me develop my intonation. With the app, the IPad displays the pitch of what it receives through its microphone and marks it as out of tune or in tune.

The setting allow for a just or equal temperament scale. Which is more appropriate my instrument and musical interests?

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Neither. Forget about apps like that. If you take what's "correct pitch" from any kind of display it'll greatly obstruct you in getting a proper feel of what pitch is right in a given musical context. And what's correct does depend on context: there's no such thing as a single "just scale". Just intonation always needs a particular key and harmonic relationship to be well-defined. OTOH, equal temperament is always well-defined (it's a sort of one-size-fits-all approximation to just intonation), but apart from being not ideal it doesn't really help you in understanding intervals etc.. –  leftaroundabout May 25 at 22:48
@leftaroundabout - it may not be ideal (to whom?), but it solves the problems that just intonation make. It's been around long enough to justify its existence and it works for millions of tunes, in any key.Any particular interval in any key is now the same as that same interval in a different key, unlike in just tuning, so that's an improvement, surely? So, it would help more in defining and understanding intervals than the alternative. –  Tim May 26 at 6:54
@Tim: "Any particular interval in any key is now the same as that same interval in a different key" that absolutely holds for just intonation as well. Which is my point: there is not one single just-intonation pitch for a given note name, each key requires different fine tunings (hence that app can't possibly work for just intonation). Hardly any musician knows exactly how to do that, but they can feel it while playing. There is no problem here that equal temperament would fix (though it does fix problems which can arise from comma pumps etc.). –  leftaroundabout May 26 at 9:18

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

If you are planning to play with piano in future, I would definitely use equal temperament. To be honest, to learn to play in tune with the widest range of other musicians, equal temperament would be most useful too. And initially, as a beginner, you are unlikely to notice the difference much, so this would be another reason to choose equal temperament.

EDIT: It is just worth noting a couple of things though. Violinists usually tune their open strings in just fifths (which have an exact 2:3 ratio). Although I have suggested using equal temperament for learning to play in tune with your app, the most important thing is that you try to play exactly in tune, whichever setting you use. As a beginner violinist, the initial difficulties of playing in tune at all far outweigh the slight differences between just and equal temperament.

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To put Bob's comment into perspective, the difference between an equal-tempered fifth and a just fifth is two cents, or 2/100 of a semitone. When you find that you can consistently make, say, an E on your A string with a two-cent distinction, one way or the other at will, then this might become a practical consideration. On the other hand, if you are accompanying a piano, you might want to tune to the piano –  BobRodes May 25 at 21:08
@BobRodes a just major third is 386 cents, that's 14 cents below an equal tempered major third. The minor third is even worse at 316 cents, 16 cents above an equal tempered minor third. Even a beginner should be able to hear the differences between these quite clearly. –  steve verrill May 25 at 21:35
I would think anyone with a good ear could hear a difference of 14 cents (or two, for that matter), but it's not clear to me why this is relevant to my comment. Can you explain? –  BobRodes May 26 at 5:51
I guess I'm still not seeing the point. There aren't any thirds on open strings in stringed instruments, are there? I'm not a string player, but isn't the rest all a matter of where you put your finger on the string? I wouldn't think that someone would attempt to differentiate between equal temperament and just intonation with one's finger positions. –  BobRodes May 28 at 3:46
@BobRodes: actually, there is a third (plus two octaves) between the viola's C-string and the violin's E. The outer strings of each instrument make up a twelfth. That already does make for a notable difference between Pythagorean tuning (what you get from tuning all neighbouring strings in perfect fifths) and just or 12-edo tuning. — But apart from that: I was under the impression that the OP indeed asked about fingered notes. It is most certainly possible to differentiate between equal temperament and just intonation here, and good players will in fact do that (even if not consciously). –  leftaroundabout Jun 1 at 18:25

I recommend equal temperament, in particular with Suszki:

  • When you learn to play in more and more keys it will be easier because they will sound and "feel" more similar to the keys you are playing in as a beginner. If you use just temperament you will get overly attached to Keys like G, D, and A major because the violin will be more resonant due to sympathetic vibrations.
  • It will be harder to play in tune with a piano and/or ensemble.

Use the Tuner to Train you Ear to Equal Temperament

Every day, try tune your strings by hear from the an A440 generated by the app. Then see if you got the A to match. If you didn't correct it. Then tune the other strings by ear by listening for relative fifths (Tune E from A, tune D from A, tune G from D). Then use the tuner to see if you were off (using equal temperament).

When in an ensemble (or orchestra) you will generally tune your as a group to A440, which corresponding to violin's second highest string, the A string. From that, by ear, you then proceed to tune your other strings relative to that A (unless you happen to have absolute pitch, which I will choose to mostly ignore for this post).

Understanding the difference

If you use tempered fifths (equal temperament), you end up with the following tuning:

G3=196Hz, D4=293.7Hz, A4=440Hz, E5=659.3Hz

If you use perfect fifths, you will end up with the following tuning:

G3=195.55Hz, D4=293.33Hz, A4=440Hz, E5=660Hz

Your G and D string will be flat and your E string will be sharp in just tuning (from a equal temperament perspective). This will be more noticeable in certain keys (when you are start to learn stuff with more sharps and flats).

What about fiddle music?

Ya will use a lot of double stops, open strings, and harmonics. You will also often play in those keys that the violin likes (G, D, A for example). So just tuning is probably right for this, in particular when playing alone. However, I'm sticking to my guns and recommending equal temperament for the reasons mentioned. When you are ready for a lot of real fiddle playing, you can tune those nice open fifths, but learn Suziki with the equal temperament.

Whatever you do, understand the difference, tune by ear and verify with the tuner (not the other way around), and have fun!

Fingered Tuning

When working on your intonation while playing (not tuning the instrument), I would focus less on the tuning system and instead focus on consistency. This means that regardless of what tuning system your note actually is, make sure that the note stays the same throughout a section or passage. When the same note changes in pitch and isn't consistent, this usually what most makes something sound out of tune. There can be subtitles to this with different keys when not using equal temperament, so when learning using equal temperament will help you with the most important aspect of good intonation - consistency.

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Is it actually common practice to tune fiddles to just intonation for trad folk? I was of the impression that Western traditional fiddle musics are all played in equal temperament. I mean, pianos, accordions and harmonicas are all in equal temperament unless told otherwise, right? –  Codeswitcher May 26 at 6:34
Your answer is quite right, but that's not what the OP is asking for. Tuning the open strings in 12-edo is certainly fine because 12-edo fifths are extremely close to perfect (3:2) fifths. This question is about whether you should tune the fingered notes in 12-edo or just intonation. — @Codeswitcher: western fiddle music is generally played in a hard-to-define "dynamic intonation", where each note is tuned individually as the player sees fit. That's a big part of the expressiveness in these styles. Indeed the pitches will normally be closer to 12-edo or Pythagorean than just intonation. –  leftaroundabout May 26 at 9:36
@leftaroundabout: Updated my answer with thoughts on that aspect. –  Kyle Brandt May 26 at 15:39

The standard tuning is tuning A to a reference, and tuning perfect fifths from there. That's what you need for double stops, and it's pretty standard when playing with others to avoid empty strings in slow playing, also because long notes are usually played with vibrato (actually, you can even play an empty string "with vibrato" by doing the vibrato on a related note, like playing G on the D string one octave above the actually played G string).

Tuning perfect fifths from A means that your G string will be four cents too low when compared to equal-tempered tuning. Four cents on a G3 string is a beating at less than 0.5Hz and pretty harmless, and everything else can be played fingered when playing long notes, short of double stops. The E string, when tuned as a perfect fifth to A, is two cents too high compared to equal temperament which is a beating of about 0.75Hz. Still mostly harmless at that pitch.

So in general the additional trouble of going to equal temperament is not worth the trouble, and professional orchestras don't do it either.

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