One of the basic things about learning to play the cello is learning how the instrument is tuned.
Playing an instrument that is out of tune can make the learning process more difficult and less enjoyable.
It’s best to learn the basics of tuning in the beginning, regardless of whether you have someone who can tune your instrument, or not.
As you probably know, the cello has four strings and they are tuned in the interval of perfect fifths (every two adjacent strings).
The thickness of these four strings is different, and in such a way that the lower frequencies are on the thicker strings – so that the arrangement of the strings is A D G C (from the thinnest to the thickest).
Tuning pegs and fine tuners
The point of tuning is to bring the pitch to the correct frequency. That is done using tuning pegs and fine tuners.
Pegs are four wooden elements at the very top of the cello and strings are wound on them. Which string is on which peg you will easily determine by following the path of that string.
We use tuning over pegs when the instrument is out of tune and we use them by turning them to one side or the other, depending on whether we need a higher or lower tone.
It is important to rotate the pegs slowly and gradually, to avoid potentially breaking the string, which can happen if we tune the string to a much higher frequency than we need.
Another key thing is that the peg needs to be pushed slightly towards the box as we turn it because that way we will avoid unwinding the string, which can happen if the pin is not pushed enough into the box. Again, all these movements should be gradual.
Finding the right measure and feeling takes time and you will most likely tune it several times because having unwinding strings is a completely normal process when learning.
In addition to pegs, we also use fine tuners on the tailpiece for tuning. They are used daily for minor tunings. We use them by turning them clockwise if we want a higher tone and counterclockwise if we want a lower tone.
If the instrument needs tuning over pegs, it is always good to release the fine tuners beforehand, so that we have room for additional tuning afterward.
Here are some general rules related to tuning
If we perform minor tuning we will start from the string with the highest frequency and we will tune all lower strings after it, but if the instrument is significantly out of tune, we will start from the lowest C string.
If all of the strings are out of tune, it is good to start tuning gradually, which means that you will only get close to the desired tone and then continue tuning the next string – this way we will stabilize all the pegs, and in the second round we can further tune the strings and finish the whole process with fine turners.
The important thing is not to release all the strings at once if you need to tune or replace some strings as this can easily lead to moving the bridge.
If you let the bridge move, you will need the help of someone more experienced.
Tuning with piano
The first technique for tuning with a piano is more difficult, but it will also significantly speed up the process of learning to listen.
Listening is especially important when playing the cello because the intonation is based on listening carefully and reacting to what we hear.
You can apply this technique if you have a piano nearby, but it is also possible to find virtual keyboards on the Internet.
The frequency that is the standard for tuning modern classical instruments is 440 Hz. Most pianos will be tuned to that frequency and you first need to find the tones you need on the piano (most applications will tell you which tone you are pressing on the keyboard).
For example, if we start by tuning the A string, we will first find the A key on the piano. If we look at the keyboard, we will notice a pattern that repeats itself when it comes to black keys – two black keys, a small space, and then three black keys.
“A” will always be the white key between the second and third black key in the group of three black keys.
Once we have found A, it is necessary to determine at what pitch the string is currently. By plucking the string and pressing different keys on the piano we will try to find the current frequency of the string, and when we find it we will understand whether the string needs to be tuned up or down to reach the desired pitch A.
Practical tasks like this are not always the easiest to master while reading text, so a warm recommendation is a video on our channel where you can see this process in practice:
Tuning with a chromatic tuner
It takes time to master the tuning process by relying solely on hearing, so it is perfectly normal to start with a simpler process.
In that case, we recommend a device or application that will detect the pitch we produce on the instrument and, concerning that, tell us how we should tune the string.
This process is pretty straightforward and the only thing we need to know is that frequency A should be 440 Hz, which is probably already set.
If we use a turner that has more options, it is good to know that the cello is tuned according to the C key and that it is not necessary to include sharps and flats.
The advantage of chromatic turners over free applications on the phone is that they come with the addition of a clip that we attach to the bridge and thus we get a more precise pitch of our instrument. It can also be useful if we tune the instrument in a slightly noisier environment.
The working principle of turners and applications is the same, and it consists of a scale on which a needle will appear on the left or right side, depending on whether the sound we produce is higher or lower than it should be.
Following the position of the needle, we can quickly and easily prepare the instrument for playing.
More advanced tuning options
Harmonics on the cello are achieved when in certain places we just lightly touch the string and, in that way, we produce a tone of higher frequency than the one we would get by pressing the string in the same place.
If we play harmonic A on the A string, we will touch the position of the third finger in the extended 4th position with the third finger. We will get the same pitch if we touch string D with the first finger in the 4th position.
By comparing these two tones we can tune the D string in relation to the A string.
Listening to perfect fifths
Probably the most common way to tune in among more experienced players is to listen to perfect fifths.
Proper listening of perfect fifths comes with time, and the goal is to get equalized frequencies of two strings that are played simultaneously.
If the strings are not well-tuned, when played at the same time there will be many more oscillations in the frequencies, and the better tuned the oscillations will be less prominent and the sound will be more uniform.
Instruments made of wood are quite susceptible to change if factors such as temperature and humidity change. Also, stronger physical contact or a drop of the instrument may require re-tuning.
If you are still unsure of your tuning skills, you can always seek the help of a tutor or local luthier, and with gradual and constant practice you will surely be able to fully master the tuning of your instrument.