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Are there any musical pieces that call for the musician to detune/retune the instrument, not in advance like a scordatura, but mid-performance?

I think it would be a neat avant-garde concept—for example, temporarily adjusting the peg of a violin's G string to play F#3 then adjusting it back, etc. I'd imagine it would be challenging but not impossible, and I'm curious to know if such pieces exist.

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    Please clarify whether you're asking about instruments in general (as the title suggests) or the violin specifically (as the tags suggest).
    – Aaron
    Feb 25 at 2:57
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    There's a lot in banjo repertoire that uses Keith tuners, which have tuned stops that allow the quick switch between tunings. "Flint Hill Special" is one particular piece that uses this technique. Feb 25 at 5:15
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    It's not that uncommon. Richard Strauss frequently demands notes below the lowest open string, which strictly speaking would require re-tuning in performances (Salome, Elektra, Alpensinfonie...) In practice, however, these are often just omitted. Feb 25 at 8:16
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    In the 1980s the guitarist Alex de Grassi was invited to perform at Virginia Tech, and I saw him in live performance in an intimate space. At one point in one of his pieces, he abruptly stopped and explained, "sorry, at this point I need to switch guitars; the rest requires a different tuning." Don't recall which piece. Feb 25 at 19:34
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    My born-to-nitpick mind read this question and immediately jumped: "define retuning!" If you squint at it a little, every time a harpist presses a pedal they retune their strings (to a different key) :P Feb 26 at 4:11

11 Answers 11

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In relation to the violin (or other string instrument) the specific technique described — using the tuning peg to detune and retune a pitch — is called peg scordatura (also peg glissando and glissando scordatura).

A very clear example of this occurs in Alfred Schnittke's Stille Nacht (1978) for violin and piano. At the end of the piece, the violin detunes and retunes the open G string down to D and back to G again, creating an eerie glissando. Note also the very end of the piece, in which the tuning peg is used to create a vibrato/trill effect. The below recording is timed to the peg scordatura.

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    It's maybe worth adding that you're only going to see this on the very last note of a piece. Without geared tuners or tuning levers like a harp has, it's impossible to change tuning accurately - friction pegs simply don't allow it, and the fine-tuners on a violin bridge can't be changed fast enough. Even with geared tuners on a guitar, it's hard to do. Violins do exist with geared tuners, but they're rare and are usually custom-made.
    – Graham
    Feb 25 at 14:29
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    @Graham I think that's over-broad. For example, in "Evolution and Notation of Glissando in String Music", John L. Snyder points to an example in Ligeti's Apparitions that is mid-piece. (Listening to a recording, it's clearly not at the end, but I can't find for certain where it does occur.)
    – Aaron
    Feb 25 at 17:23
  • Everyone's examples were great but this is closest to what I was thinking of. Using peg scordatura as an eerie vibrato was just too cool. It would have been better if it happened mid-piece but oh well. Mar 12 at 23:22
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Lots of classical music require retuning of timpani (or purchasing a larger drum set). Von Biber's Rosary Sonatas require retuning a violin between each section.

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    more modern timpani repertoire may require so many retunings that a larger drum set would be impractical
    – Esther
    Feb 25 at 3:15
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    @PeterSmith for example, Appalachian Spring has a nearly complete diatonic scale if I recall correctly. It's not practical to have six or seven drums within reach.
    – phoog
    Feb 25 at 5:47
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    @phoog - I thought the third most common number of timpani in an ensemble after 0 and 4 was 8.
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 25 at 13:42
  • @Dekkadeci played by two players, I expect. Appalachian Spring calls for one player.
    – phoog
    Feb 25 at 16:10
  • @phoog A single player could have multiple positions on-stage (with different sets of drums at each) from which they can play any song for which re-tuning a single drum (or several) would be called for. If it requires playing an a full octave in the same section, that's a different matter. Even re-arranging the various drums sounds at least as doable as re-tuning.
    – jpaugh
    Feb 25 at 17:15
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In "The Rite of Spring" Stravinsky requires the celli to detune their A-strings to G-sharp for the final chord of the piece (and asks them to play a four-note chord "non arpeggiato"!): enter image description here

Similarly at the end of Jörg Widmann's Viola Concerto the soloist has to detune the C-string over several measures: enter image description here

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    I wonder what fraction of performances actually obey that instruction, instead of simply omitting one of the D's and playing the G♯ on the D string. Possibly divisi-split, so some play only the high D, some the low one. (Which would also enable actually playing “non arpeggiato”!) Feb 25 at 14:57
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    @leftaroundabout I just looked at a couple of videos on YouTube (LA Phil, LSO). None of the cellists touched their tuning pegs :)
    – PiedPiper
    Feb 25 at 16:03
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    This excerpt is one of my favorite bits of musical trivia! Think about what's happening dramatically at the very end of this piece, and then spell out the bass notes from bottom to top.
    – Richard
    Feb 25 at 17:35
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    You can't reliably down tune a string instrument like that. In string instruments, you always tune lower then tune back up to release any hidden tension caught in the groves. The last thing you want is for the tension to release while playing and then you're just screwed.
    – Nelson
    Feb 27 at 4:30
  • @Nelson That's why the cellists don't seem to follow Stravinsky's instructions (see the previous comments)
    – PiedPiper
    Feb 27 at 9:38
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The existing answers are all good - to add something else to the mix though:

For a particularly extreme example, Michael Manring the experimental bass guitarist enjoyed the expressive possibilities of retuning mid performance so much that he had an instrument purpose built to allow him to retune quickly on the fly.

This eventually has extended to whole pieces built around dynamic retuning while using natural harmonics, as heard here:

Arguably at this point that barely even counts as "retuning", it's just become another expressive capacity of the instrument. Still, I thought it would be relevant to the discussion for an example of pushing this idea of dynamic retuning to the limit.

He talks a bit about the progression to arriving at this point here

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  • Oh, I see that the question was tagged "violin", sorry, I only read the title and text not the tags. If question was intended to refer only to violin pieces then my apologies.
    – Some_Guy
    Feb 25 at 16:15
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    See also g-bender modification of a guitar: youtube.com/watch?v=4OKZQSAIiyc Feb 25 at 19:04
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Banjo is commonly played in several different tunings.

Some banjos are fitted with cam tuners (known as D tuners, Scruggs tuners or Keith tuners) which facilitate fast, accurate retuning between two fixed notes, and which are also used to good effect during playing.

Here's an except from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beacon_Banjo_Company explaining the history of their invention.

  • Their inspiration for going into the banjo business was Earl Scruggs' creation of homemade cam tuners, which he developed after recording "Earl's Breakdown" in 1951. Scruggs had sought to refine the way he played this tune by finding a way to re-tune more accurately during the piece. Keith was inspired by the four banjo tunes ("Earl's Breakdown", "Foggy Mountain Chimes", "Flint Hill Special", and "Randy Lynn Rag") on the 1957 Flatt and Scruggs album Foggy Mountain Jamboree, which all used Scruggs's cam tuning machines

A couple of examples of other songs where players use this technique.

Perhaps a banjo player can weigh in on this. I'm no expert (I'm a guitarist) but I note that the sound is similar to slide guitar, and both instruments are fretted, picked and played in American (country, bluegrass) folk music.

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  • They also make D-tuners for guitar, to allow a guitarist to quickly switch between E standard and drop D tuning. Feb 26 at 17:40
  • @dissemin8or they do make them for guitar (usually fitted on the 6th string for low E/D as you say) but they're not common and I'm not aware of them being used while playing. With banjo they're usually on the 2nd and 3rd strings and it's a common thing to use them to bend notes while playing as in the videos I linked. I played a banjo once, tried to bend it in the way I would a guitar (by pushing the string sideways across the fretboard) and it didn't work out that well. Maybe that's why they bend with the tuners. Feb 27 at 2:20
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Unless I am mistaken, no one has mentioned the Schumann Piano Quartet where the cellist is asked to tune the C string down to a Bb at the end of the slow movement, in order to hold a long pedal point.

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There's a song in the musical Batboy that does this. I'm forgetting a lot of the details (esp. the name of the song), but I think it was done to shift the range of the vocal melody and/or as a phrase modulation for musical interest. It just coincidentally inconvenienced the guitar player. Most of the song could be played in standard tuning except for the middle section that needed a low Eb from the guitar.

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Somewhere there's Haydn symphony where the violins are asked to retune the G string to (I think) F and then play the open string while tuning it back up to G. But I can't remember which one and I don't have the scores or time to search IMSLP.

Walton in 'Facade' asks the cello to retune the C string to B, and then notates it as a transposing instrument. I once heard a performance where the player didn't realise that and played all the C string notes a semitone sharp - not a success. That's not exactly during a piece as it's for one of the movements only so it's more like scordatura.

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    This is Haydn's Symphony 60 in C ("Il distratto"), and the tuning-business happens near the start of the finale, which is the 6th (!) movement.
    – Rosie F
    Feb 26 at 11:45
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Not exactly "retuning," but lots of orchestral music has the clarinets swap between the Bb and A axe.

If one is playing all the Bach unaccompanied cello suites, one must detune for the 5th suite (A-string tuned down to G). That doesn't really count as "mid-piece."

Now, do you count using a capo on the guitar family? Or changing settings on an autoharp?

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  • The Bach Cello Suite #5 is the one you're thinking of.
    – Aaron
    Feb 25 at 16:04
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    @Aaron I plead guilty to being a cellist and not thinking there's any other set of suites by Bach :-( Feb 25 at 18:38
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    I forgive you. :-)
    – Aaron
    Feb 25 at 19:49
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I'm surprised no one has mentioned Nigel Tufnel's performance where he retuned the violin he was using to play his guitar with.

It's quite clear from the video that the solo really wouldn't have been the same without the retune.

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  • Could you post a video link, or maybe an article describing the performance? Speaking for myself at least, I'm not familiar with Nigel Tufnel or his retuning bit.
    – Aaron
    Feb 26 at 2:00
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    @Aaron Nigel Tufnel is the guitarist in the mockumentary "This is Spinal Tap" about the (fictional) metal band of the same name. Nigel is perhaps best known for being proud of his amplifier's volume control, which goes all the way up to 11 (which makes it really loud, apparently.) Feb 26 at 2:16
  • Duh! Of course I know Nigel Tufnel. Oy. Anyway, I suggest you fill out your answer a bit; otherwise, i reads more like a comment. (And who wouldn't enjoy watching that scene again?)
    – Aaron
    Feb 26 at 2:18
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    What amuses me to this day is that Marshall amps since that movie do actually have an 11 on the dial, in tribute.
    – Tetsujin
    Feb 26 at 13:44
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I'm not aware of classical music pieces that require some occasional retuning, but if they exist I suspect they are written specifically for a particular virtuoso performer who can pull it off reliably every time.

On the other hand, some virtuoso performers do exist, who among other things take advantage of the possibilities offered by the instrument's tuning machines. One example is this:

A similarly gifted guitarist, Luca Stricagnoli, occasionally does something like that, but I couldn't promptly find an example.

And while this isn't strictly an answer to your question, but to give an idea of what some people can do, I once saw Vishwa Mohan Bhatt change a broken string in the middle of a long improvisation and then tune it up as needed, and throughout this process not a single bad note was heard... in fact, if I had not been watching him, just by listening I could have thought that the improvisation just changed to a slow mood for a minute before going back to normal.

Bottom line, retuning while playing can be a thing, but only for the top of the top of players.

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  • I recommend reading some of the other answers, which are explicit in naming pieces/composers who use detuning/retuning in their pieces, many of which are considered standard repertoire.
    – Aaron
    Mar 1 at 18:56

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