StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘tuning a violin’

Tartini, Tones and the Beat

Friday, July 30th, 2010

The celebrated Italian Violinist and composer Guiseppe Tartini (1692-1770) has been credited in discovering the phenomenon of an audible ‘third voice’ when playing double stops (two simultaneous notes) on stringed instruments. These have been called ‘combination tones’, ‘sum tones’, ‘difference tones’ as well as ‘Tartini tones’.

As an example, if one were to play an open ‘A’ string on the violin simultaneously with a C# on an ‘E’ string (an interval of a major 10th) in a loud and projected manner, a third ‘voice’ would be clearly discernible (that note being an ‘A’ an octave below the ‘A’ string). As the violinist adjusts the tuning of this major 10th, so the ‘third voice’ also changes pitch. There are numerous other double stops that produce a similar effect. The reason behind this acoustic phenomenon is tied up with the harmonic series and some pretty complicated physics which means that the mix of harmonics from the lower and upper note have many matching components and therefore a missing fundamental is heard. It is like the effect of a shadow and is sometimes called a ‘ghost note’.

This all ties in with a second phenomenon known as ‘binaural beats’ but referred to by string players as either ‘the beat’ or ‘sympathetic vibrations’. Where a string player tunes up their instrument, it can be observed that they play two strings simultaneously and then adjust one of them until they are completely happy that the two strings are resonating in tune. What we are actually doing is using the pure interval of a 5th (which all violins, violas and cello’s are tuned to) to pick up any subtle differences in tuning. This is done by listening out for the ‘beat’ which is an audible vibration (again taking the form of a third voice) which is rapid when the perfect fifths are impure, slowing down as the interval becomes gradually more in tune before finally stopping altogether when the notes become perfectly in tune. Although string players tune in perfect 5ths, this is the interval (when considering the whole history of different temperaments or tuning systems) which doesn’t tally with a perfect octave and therefore can cause tuning issues within the string section or orchestra.

Fine adjustments

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

On my violin, I’ve got a very useful addition which makes life easy for me and speeds up work recording strings in the studio. This addition is a tailpiece with four built in ‘fine adjusters’. These are small screws which violins traditionally have only on the E string (the viola on the A string) and change the pitch of the string by small amounts. By moving them clockwise, the string becomes sharper in pitch and to tune ‘down’, the screw is rotated anticlockwise. Of course, bigger adjustments on stringed instruments are usually done with the pegs, but when it’s only a small distance required, fine adjusters are perfect!

I find that when the weather is slightly muggy making the strings go out of tune regularly by small amounts, or if humidity builds up in the studio I can rectify the tuning in a matter of seconds – this is also useful in concerts where a player doesn’t want to interrupt the flow of the work by tuning extensively between movements and in pretty much every situation they are time saving and beneficial – I am a big fan!

So why is it that when I mention the subject of ‘fine adjuster tailpieces’ to fellow string players, I often get a snigger, a sneer or they think I’m joking? I have even heard a player say that he has been taught that the fine adjusters affect the tone or sound of his viola detrimentally. This is simply not the case in my opinion as the tone comes from the individual player and their musicianship. I believe the prejudice comes from the fact that beginners violins often come equipped with a tailpiece and four fine adjusters so they are associated with children. There is the feeling that having them means that somehow you are deficient in your ability to tune your own instrument – strange isn’t it? I am looking at a photograph of a very great violinist called Alfredo Campoli and I can clearly see four fine adjustments proudly adorning his violin and I can also confirm that he was no beginner and had one of the most distinctive, beautiful tones of all.

Hot and Humid….

Monday, June 7th, 2010

One of the challenges involved in playing a stringed instrument is the ability to cope with different climates and the corresponding changes that these can bring about in the instrument. As violins, violas, cellos and double basses are all made from what were once living, breathing pieces of wood, they are all subject to slight expansions and contractions. From a player’s point of view, this can make an instrument seem ‘tight’ or the strings feel harsh as well as creating a few whistles or making them go quickly out of tune.

In such conditions, performers across the world are still able to give of their best and as this article is written in temperate England, it has to be said that we have very little to complain about! We don’t have to contend with excessive humidity that players may experience in say Florida or Bangkok, nor the dryness of a high altitude I experienced when playing in Aspen, Colorado. Perhaps we all need to develop the versatility to play well, even when our strings are out of tune – in fact it is good to occasionally practice on an instrument slightly detuned as we’ll certainly have to cope with that when it happens in the middle of a concert.

We also need to be able to respond to different climates (hot, cold, dry or damp) and rapidly adjust our playing if a string somehow feels different, or our left hand fingers seem ‘sticky’ on the strings, making gliding between positions less easy. In such circumstances, the player has to try even harder to connect with the music in every moment, hopefully transcending moisture and heat.

When it comes to recording strings in the studio, especially in the summer when hard work and a closed room can cause players to perspire more, humidity can become a real issue. A couple of years ago I remember recording 3 days of demanding music in a very enclosed room without the benefit of air conditioning. As the hours wore on, strings became increasingly difficult to play on and the bow seemed to slip across the string a little. In this circumstance, we just had to try harder and put even more of ourselves into the music, with regular breaks to go outside with our instruments and take in some much needed fresh air!