I have always used a tuner to tune my violin, but have noticed that the strings are not in perfect fifths (I'm a complete beginner, and I understand perfect fifths to mean that if I play E using my 4th finger on the A string, it will be the same pitch as an open E string). I have always assumed that this is just because of my wonky hearing (I used to be unable to tell the difference between a flat and a sharp), until I came across this post, where in the last paragraph the poster said "but it will probably not tune your instrument with perfect fifths".

Is the poster claim true?

  • 4
    There's a discrepancy of 2 cents between the twelve-tone equal tempered fifth and a just perfect fifth. This is a very small difference, even for most educated ears. I'd say that your fingering position is most likely the problem, i.e. you're placing your fourth finger on the wrong spot of the keyboard.
    – cyco130
    Commented May 27, 2014 at 9:29
  • 3
    If you're going to try to tune to a perfect fifth, best to do so with the upper string open or on second harmonic and the lower string playing the 3rd harmonic (finger on the string but not pressed down). Commented May 27, 2014 at 12:17

4 Answers 4


Using your tuner, get an open string spot-on in tune. Then finger where you think the fifth is on that string. Chances are, your finger is going to be slightly out, as will be shown on the tuner, if it's a chromatic one. Even an open string tuner should show exactly what note you're fingering.Tuning the open strings to each other is the best way, listening to the 'hard' sounding 5th interval.

  • What's a "hard" sounding 5th interval? Commented May 28, 2014 at 14:43
  • 1
    Maybe it's just a personal thing, but I find the sound of a perfect fifth is hard, unharmonious, and lacking anything that I hear in a third or sixth, for example.There's already the same note sounding as a harmonic of the 'root' note, so a p5 doesn't seem to add much in the way of pleasant harmony: thus, hard/harsh - to me.
    – Tim
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 14:59

The answers here are mostly wrong, confusing "perfect fifth" with "tuner fifth". Special string tuners may or may not tune in perfect fifths: no idea. However, a "straightforward" tuner will display correct pitches according to an equal tempered scale. And equal tempered fifth is 2 cent short of a perfect fifth. In order to be able to play double stops without beatings, a violin is tuned to concert pitch on A, and then to perfect fifths from there. That means that its E string is 2 cents sharp over an equally tempered E, its D string is 2 cents flat, and its G string is 4 cents flat as compared with instruments like a piano.

Fingering with a precision of 2 cents is not realistic: violin players tend to autocorrect their play as well as using vibrato which breaks up the regularity of any beatings, rendering them inobtrusive.

Things to take away from this are: when you are using an equally-tempered tuner, you might want to have your tuning errors lean very slightly to be "too wide" in order to err in the direction of perfect fifths, and when you are tuning by listening for perfect fifths, it is better to stop when the fifths are slightly too small rather than slightly too large, as you will then match with equally tempered instruments better.

With fingering, you won't be able to check for 2 cents of difference: if your fingers can find any sort of grooves or dents they recognize, the fingerboard is due for honing. Any such irregularities will interfere with proper intonation, vibrato, position shifting and so on.


If the open string is the first note in the scale, the fifth is the note played by the fourth finger, which is the same note as the next open string up. A perfect fifth is where the ratio of the frequency of the sound waves of the notes is 3:2, and is something you can learn to hear. To hear what the fifth sounds like, play first the A string, then immediately play the E. If you are skilled enough, play both at once.

Inexpensive electric tuners do not have the precision to tune a violin to the exact 3:2 ratio, so players who need that much precision learn to tune by ear. If you've only recently learned to tell the difference between sharps and flats, you may not yet be skilled enough at listening to do that yet. Get a teacher or an very good player to show you what it sounds like. If you can't tell the difference between close and perfect yet, don't worry about it, and keep tuning to the tuner. Listening is just as much of a skill as playing. Tuning by ear took me about a year to learn to do as well as a cheap tuner, and I still can't beat a high quality tuner.

If you are a beginner, just tune to the electronic tuner. It is definitely close enough for everyday use, especially once you learn to hear what a fifth on the violin should sound like and can finish off your tuning by ear.

The problem with checking your tuning by playing a fingered note is that it is impossible to place your finger precisely enough. You can tune the instrument with the most precise tuner in the world, and it won't solve the problem of misplaced fingers. When things sound off when you play the open E + the fourth finger on the A string, then your finger is probably off by some fraction of a millimeter (or more). What makes it so noticeable is that you are playing the same note on two strings, so any tiny discrepancy is obvious. This is why tuning is always done to open strings on the violin.

  • 1
    You say that inexpensive tuners don't have the precision to tune a violin to exact 3:2 ratio, but you leave out that the real issue is that tuners usually tune to the equal tempered scale (which most chromatic instruments do employ). On this scale, the 5ths are slightly altered from the 3:2 ratio! Commented May 5, 2019 at 9:41

For years I have used the Korg LCA-120 which customizes the notes so you can adjust for harmonic tuning of the E, A, D, & G. (E adjusted 2 cents higher, A at 440 Hz, D adjusted 2 cents lower, and G adjusted 4 cents lower.) It also has a focus tune which, if turned on, focuses the total range of +-50 cents to a total range of +-10 cents once you get within 10 cents of the correct note. (BTW the way, the difference between a chromatic and harmonic perfect fifth is 1.95 cents).

THE PROBLEM IS THAT THE LCA-120 is now obsolete, but you can still find them on the market. I have not been able to find a substitute brand that does as good a job.

Having tuned with the LCA-120 for years, I can not say enough about how it has improved my playing. When I buckled down to superior intonation it was a God send.

The reason is the modern strings are very stable, especially the D'dario Zyex strings which once broken in will stay in tune within a cent, sometimes for days. (ironically it is then the steel E string that is the least stable.)

The main benefit is that if you tune this carefully every time you practice, your fingers can be trained more consistently because you can depend on the same placement on the strings for a particular note over the years.

Those that are willing to listen carefully to one's playing will find a way into really excellent intonation. The more careful you listen for the nuances the better your intonation will become habituated to precision. I have been taught by a student of Itzhak Perlman to know every half step and whole step of every piece and strictly apply the knowledge to calculate how to get to every finger placement and every shift, and then vigilantly and consciously focus and refine the correctness and relaxation of each all of the time during practice, and move this into mind/body connection (which is the exact opposite of stage fright which is a blockage between mind and body) by using the trick of being "all ears" to the notes you are about to play. When you do this right, you will find your body will quickly learn to place your fingers correctly before the next note is played.

BTW really good intonation will not be heard as really good intonation, it will be heard as a beautiful sound.

5/2023 I've moved on, the best solution for tuning in perfect fifths is the StroboClip HD and the StroboPlus HD from Peterson tuners. Both have many "sweeteners" that cover 60 to 200 different scale adjustments and also you can customize your own which can be downloaded by USB. Of course, these include non-tempered perfect fifths in the violin and other stringed instrument timings if you want.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.