Improving tone and tuning

In today’s workshop we worked on tone and tuning. We started off by looking at our instruments.

Aspects of the fiddle which can affect tone/tuning

    • Old strings
    • Quality of the instrument
    • Set-up of the instrument, esp soundpost
    • Damage to the instrument

What might cause a fiddle to go out of tune

    • Passage of time
    • Change of humidity
    • Change of temperature
    • New strings
    • Fiddle being knocked/dropped
    • Damaged instrument

If you want to be able to play in tune with more confidence, it’s important to tune your fiddle every time before you play, and to check the tuning regularly while you’re playing as well.
Find out how to tune your fiddle.

People who can play confidently in tune have learnt a number of skills:

  • Hearing what the in tune notes should sound like
  • The ability to have the hand in the same place on the neck of the fiddle each time they play
  • Familiarity with different hand ‘shapes’ that will place the fingers in the correct position to play the notes in tune
  • Familiarity with the sound of the open strings when they are in tune, so they can quickly identify when any string needs to be tuned

Learning to hear what in-tune notes sound like

The first step to being able to play in tune is to learn to hear what an in tune note sounds like. If you’re not sure what the pitch of an individual note should be, it will be impossible to tell if your tuning is OK while you’re playing.

There are several things you can do to start to train your ear to hear pitch more accurately:

  • Learning to listen while you’re playing. We tried playing a ;long open note, then playing it focusing on listening, then playing it with our eyes closed and focusing on listening. The less distractions you have from listening to your own playing, the more detail you will be able to hear.
  • Recording and listening back, paying attention to the tuning.
  • Playing chords with (in tune) open strings to aid hearing in/out of tune notes.
  • Using a tuner to find the pitch, then playing the note and listening until we have the sound of the note. lift the finger, then try to find the note in tune, using the note you hear in your head. Check with the tuner if you have it in tune. Repeat as often as needed to get the in tune note into your head.

We tried playing up the first few notes of the D scale. When we played the G (3rd finger) we also played the open G string below it, forming and octave chord. It’s fairly easy to hear when a note is out of tune with the note an octave below. What tends to happen when we’re learning is that as the fingers go down, if we play notes slightly out of tune we are unable to hear that they’re not in tune. So imagine someone who is learning to play the fiddle, playing the first 4 notes of the scale of D. They hear the open D, which is in tune (assuming the fiddle is in tune!). The first finger goes down to play the E. If this note is slightly out of tune, they don’t notice it. So their ear hears the E as being¬† in tune, and as the second finger goes down, they’re hearing the F# note relative to the previous note. If this pattern continues, by the time they play the G it can be significantly out of tune, without it sounding out of tune to an inexperienced ear. Plying the chord with the 3rd finger G and the octave-down open G string will help reveal if this is an issue in your own playing.

Learning hand shapes and relative positions

A fiddler's left hand
Photo ©Ros Gasson

It’s important to get into the habit of having your left hand in the same place on the neck of the fiddle each time you pick it up. If the hand is slightly further up the neck than usual, you will need to put your hand into slightly different shapes to play the notes in tune. Learning the relative hand shapes needed to get each finger in the correct position to play the notes in tune takes time, but can be learnt through repetition.

We learnt the mazurka ‘Capitaine’ in the workshop.

More tips on learning to play in tune