So you have started taking music lessons, congratulations! You have likely had a lesson or two by now, and have learned a lot about set up and basic technique, but a common question that pops up at this point from adult students, and parents of young children, is how do we tune the instrument at home? With technology today, you can download tuning apps right to your phone for free! There are digital tuners that you can purchase at music stores, but you no longer have to do this in order to work on tuning in between lessons. Many people would rather add an app to their phone then carry yet another device around with them.
I have spent the start of my summer searching through the Apple and Google Play stores to bring you 4 free tuners that you may find helpful at home. While the apps have the option for in-app purchases, many of these upgrade options are unnecessary for a beginner or intermediate player. Before we delve into the tuners themselves, there are a few terms listed below that you may be unfamiliar with:
Chromatic: A chromatic tuner is a very commonplace item today. Chromatic means that the tuner has the ability to recognize every pitch you play. This includes the natural notes, and the sharp or flat versions of them.
Sharp (#): No, in this case it is not a hash tag. A sharp added in front of the note raises the pitch higher and creates a new note (ex: C goes up to C#). We also use this term when tuning to decide if we need to raise or lower a pitch to match the pitch on the tuner.
Flat (b): A flat does the opposite of a sharp. It takes the natural note and lowers it down to a new note (ex: B sinks down to Bb). We also use this term when tuning to decide if we need to raise or lower the pitch to match the pitch on the tuner.
Equal Temperament: The most common temperament to tune to today because pianos are tuned using this approach. Since pianos often require a specialist to tune them, and it takes time and money to do it each time, most instruments will tune to match the piano instead when playing with them.
Equal temperament itself means that the spacing between notes have been equaled out as much as possible, so that when you change the key you are playing in, it does not sound drastically different.
Just Temperament (In app purchase upgrade): Is not often used, but can be. The spacing between notes may be wider or narrower than equal temperament causing some scales and keys to sound incorrect. This is because the ratios figured between the notes for one key may be quite different for the next. You need to be prepared to retune depending on what key you are playing in.
Hertz (Hz): Most tuners will show you a number like 440.00Hz. Hertz is how many cycles per second a frequency needs to make in order for us to hear it as a particular pitch. So in order to hear your basic A for tuning the violin, that A needs to cycle 440 times in a second. Same idea applies whether it be a 442 A, or a 436 A.
Solfege: A couple tuners have the option to view Solfege (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do) instead of the note name. If you have seen the Sound of Music, or have had some singing lessons you will likely be familiar with this system.
Transposition/transpose: Is something that string players do not have to deal with. Transposing is generally for woodwind or brass instruments where the note that sounds from their instrument is actually a different pitch than written on their music.
- Pano Tuner by Jung-gun Lim/Soundlim (iOS and Android)
It is a great simple tuner that you can hang on to for a long time.
This tuner has a very simplistic layout that closely resembles an old radio (the ones where you turn the dial and follow the pin to try to line up a station). On this app, the red pin remains stationary in the middle of the tuner while the note names move and line up behind it. I like that you also have a strip of color on top of the notes that turns from red to green as another indicator that you are getting close. You can adjust how big of a color strip you want under settings >Tolerance. Under settings you can also adjust your base 440 A to higher or lower. Other settings include changing whether you want to see sharps or flats, switching to Solfege, and the upgrade removes banner ads and opens the option for Just temperament.
- Master Violin Tuner by Netigen Music Tuners (Android)
This is an odd tuner, but will help you get the job done in a pinch.
The display screen is much busier than the Pano Tuner that we just took a look at. It opens with a partial picture of a violin, with interactive buttons on the strings that will sound the pitch of that particular open string when you push it. It may be helpful to start training your ear on hearing the initial pitch, but for tuning it can be difficult to tune to a pitch that has heavy vibrato on it. Vibrato is where you wiggle in between the pitch and a slightly flatter version of it to create the effect you hear from opera singers. This wiggle however, makes the tuning pitch unstable, therefore are you tuning to the higher or lower part of the pitch?
At the very bottom of the app you can push the “Start tuning” button to unlock the little white arrow on top. You can then try to line your note up in the middle white section. This tuner has Hz, but also has another number next to the note name. The 2,3,4,5 and so on that you are seeing is a way to identify the location of that particular A, or D. D6 for example is going to be higher pitched than D3.
Under settings you can again adjust the Hz, and there is a large selections of alternative tunings that you will likely never use. I do not even know 90% of them, and cannot seem to see a noticeable difference when selecting different options.
If you have an Android I recommend Pano over this one.
- Tuner Lite by plusadd (iOS)
A very helpful tuner with no ads, and no real need to purchase the paid version.
This app is both a chromatic tuner and drone. This means that on top of providing you with the note names, numbers, Hz, and lights to help you tune the pitch, it will also generate a pitch for you to try to match using your ear. This is generally the next step you will start working towards once you are comfortable using the lights and dial, and are starting to recognize the pitches of your open strings.
You tap the tuning fork symbol on the left to unlock the main screen for tuning. When this is unlocked the -/+ calibration buttons will raise or lower you 440. When the speaker is selected you can use the same buttons to raise or lower the sounding pitch to the one you wish to match. They do not work together. This app only allows one or the other at a time. The only two settings you can change without upgrading to the full version are the wallpaper color and the sensitivity. Raising the sensitivity will cause the tuner to be more selective about what is and is not in tune. Lowering it will give you a wider, but easier to find range.
- insTuner by EUMLab of Xanin Tech. (iOS)
A personal favorite of mine that my students initially brought to my attention.
If you like what Tuner Lite has to offer, but want the option of being able to have the visual and audio help at the same time, then this is the tuner for you. However, it is important to note that unlike Tuner Lite, this chromatic tuner definitely has pop up ads.
I like the layout of this tuner very much, finding that the only place I need to look is the top of the screen. In the corners of the display there are little b and # symbols to help you know where the pitch is, and very bright display colors to help guide you. The entire top box will light up green when you have found it, no Hz display needed. The bottom half of the app responds to the note you are playing, but is largely for the Tone Generator.
Tap the Tone Generator tab to highlight, which means you have switched over, and pick the pitch you want to hear. Tapping the center blue circle starts and stops the tone. If you play with the tone you will find the top chromatic tuner will still help you match the sounding pitch. You can upgrade this app for even more tuning options, but I find that your general string player does not have much use for the upgraded features.
I would recommend three out of the four tuners, with my favorite being insTuner. Try to avoid Master Violin Tuner if you can, but it will certainly get the job done if you need it to. All of these tuners are free, with the option to purchase in app upgrades, but you may want to consider an option that also includes a metronome for an upgrade. From a brief search just now, it does look like there are at least two free options for tuner/metronome in the Google Play store for Android.
My tuner of choice, that may be a little overkill for beginning and intermediate students, is called Tonal Energy. It is $2-4 dollar depending on what operating system you have.
I hope this helps you navigate some of your tuning choices at home! Feel free to leave comments and questions below, or ask your own teacher for more helpful suggestions.