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How to Use a Tuning Fork to Tune a String Instrument

Updated on May 9, 2015

While you may be enchanted with the idea of an electronic tuner that will play each string pitch of your instrument for you, and tell you whether your string is in or out of tune, since the eighteenth century professional musicians of the highest caliber have relied on one cheap, simple solution: the tuning fork. While not glamorous, and certainly not a technological marvel, this humble device will work without batteries, without a large investment, and will even help to improve your ear and pitch accuracy. So without further ado, here is how you use a tuning fork properly.

A viola
A viola | Source
  1. Have your instrument (and bow if needed) ready. Find the string on your instrument that is tuned to "A".
  2. Hold the tuning fork by the handle. Bang the tuning fork (don't be afraid, you won't hurt it) on your knee, case, hand, or somewhere else convenient. The surface you choose should be not too soft, but don't hit your fork against metal, stone, or wood, to prevent damage. Although many people will place their forks against the surface of some part of their instrument, long-term this can lead to significant damage. Instead, place the tip of the handle between your teeth (don't touch it with your tongue or it will stop vibrating) and hold it there. This allows you to have your hands free, and the fork will vibrate for a long time. In addition, the resonance through the bones of your head will make it easier to hear whether your instrument is in perfect tune.
  3. Bow or pluck the string while the tuning fork is vibrating and listen to the sound. If the pitch of the string is lower, tighten the tuning peg; if the string is higher, loosen the tuning peg. Keep at it until you are satisfied with the sound. If necessary, start the tuning fork again as described in step 2. When the sound is correct, you can literally feel the string go into tune. For guitars and some other instruments, the string will need to be tuned an octave below the tuning fork.
  4. Violins, violas, violoncellos and string basses are tuned in fifths. Once the "A" string is correct, then to find the fifth above, start on the "A" string and think "Twinkle, Twinkle" and adjust the "E" string until it sounds correct. Bow the two strings together to see if the fifth is perfectly in tune, and adjust the "E" string until it comes into tune.
  5. For tuning strings lower than "A" to a fifth, think "Twinkle, Twinkle" with the top pitch being the "A" string. Adjust the "D" string until you have a perfect fifth; bow together for correct intonation. Repeat with the "G" and "C" strings, etc.
  6. For instruments tuned in fourths, such as the guitar, once the "A" string is in tune, follow the directions above but think "Here Comes the Bride" instead of "Twinkle, Twinkle."

Metal Tuning Fork A-440 with Plastic Case
Metal Tuning Fork A-440 with Plastic Case

This tuning fork is sold by a reputable company that also sells professional instruments and accessories, and has an excellent reputation.

 

Tuning forks are cheap, sturdy and practically indestructible. However, it makes sense to keep it clean since you're going to be holding it in your teeth, so wipe after each use with a cotton ball moistened with a product like Listerine to sanitize it. It may take a while to get the hang of using a tuning fork, but it will be worth the effort and it will also really improve your ear for tuning. Don't be discouraged if it takes a while; you'll get much better with practice.

Best of all, tuning forks are cheap, while electronic tuners are expensive. If you misplace a tuning fork, you won't be kicking yourself for your carelessness.

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