By Anita Graef
Making sure your cello’s strings are in tune is a crucial component of being able to play your instrument. Making sure your strings are in tune is the first step toward being able to play everything else in tune, as well. Tuning should be the first activity you complete with your cello every day, or every time you get the instrument out. The easiest way to get started tuning your cello is to use an external tuner of some kind—either an electronic tool or a tuning fork.
When tuning a cello, we always work from the highest pitched string, and work our way downward. For example, we tune the A string first, then D, G and finally C. It is typical to tune to the pitch “A” at 440 Hz. Hz stands for “Hertz;” the unit of measurement by which we determine pitch frequency. Some tuners emit a tone, while others “listen” to the sound of your instrument and display whether your note is flat or sharp (below the pitch center or above it).
3 Affordable Tuners & Tuner Apps To Try
- KORG tuners
- Snark clip on tuners (these attach to the bridge of your cello)
- “TE Tuner” App
How to Tune Your Cello with Fine Tuners & Pegs
The level to which your cello is out of tune will determine whether you should start the tuning process with your pegs or your fine tuners. If your cello is fairly out of tune—anything a half-step or more off of the pitch center—then you want to start tuning with the pegs. To illustrate the manner in which pegs function, if you turn them toward the front of the cello, the pitch of the string will descend-become “flatter” as the string loosens.
Likewise, if you turn the pegs toward the back side of the cello, or toward the top of the scroll, this will raise the pitch, making it “sharper,” as the string tightens. Be careful and go slowly as you do this! If you tighten the string too much, it can break. If you loosen the string too much too quickly, it can unwind entirely. Safety tip: Always adjust your pegs facing away from your face. You wouldn’t want a string to snap and hurt you.
Depending on how tightly your pegs are fitted to your cello and depending on the level of humidity in your space, you may encounter difficulty with your pegs slipping out of place. There are a few solutions. One product that really helps is called “peg compound” or “peg dope.” These are commercially available at most string shops, as well as online. Usually, it is sold in stick form or as liquid drops. Personally, I would opt for the stick form peg compound, when possible.
How to Apply Peg Compound
Undo your pegs one at a time. Never take off all your strings at once, as your bridge will fall down and lose its place on your instrument! Apply the peg compound to the areas on the peg where it comes into contact with the peg box. Restring your pegs one at a time. The added benefit of using peg compound is that it should help remedy pegs that are stuck as well.
Once you have your pegs tuned within the ballpark of the correct pitches, it is time to use your fine tuners. These are best used when there are small adjustments that need to be made. Turning a fine tuner counterclockwise will lower/flatten the pitch, while turning the fine tuner clockwise will raise/sharpen the pitch. This is where it is very helpful to watch your tuner as you adjust the pitch—it will tell you how close you are to the pitch center.
As you become more advanced, there are ways to check your tuning that don’t require you to rely solely on an external tuner. One method is to play your open strings in pairs: A and D together, D and G, G and C. The strings of a cello are all tuned apart from one another by an interval of a fifth. When played together, the strings should produce a distinctive “ringing” sound.
How to Tune Your Cello with Harmonics
Another method of checking your strings’ tuning is to use harmonics. Harmonics are notes on a string that emit a tone when light finger pressure is applied, using the natural overtones of the instrument. The harmonics we will be using are about midway up each string, and elicit the same pitch as that of the string. For example, an “A” harmonic sounds on the A string. You can check this harmonic pitch against the equivalent harmonic on the next string over. We find this one by placing our hand in the 4th position and applying light pressure with your first finger. For example, this note on the D string will sound as a harmonic “A”—the same one that we found on the midpoint of the A string. If these harmonics aren’t sounding like the same pitch, then you know your strings need adjustment. Once you match the two harmonic pitches, go back and check your open strings again—they should be in tune now!
The tuning process will become much faster as you hone your close listening skills. Be patient, and your persistence will pay off! Wishing everyone the best of luck on your exciting cello journeys.