Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

How to Tune the Cello

Learn the right way to tune your cello

In this video, Prof. Mendoes teaches you how to tune your cello correctly.

Released on March 7, 2018

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello everyone. This is Joseph Mendoes with another video for So, today I'd like to talk a little bit about tuning. Now, there's a little bit of confusion, I think. Well, maybe it's not confusion, but there's different opinions about what's the best way to tune your cello. Now, if you are a beginner or you've only been playing for maybe six months to a year or something like that. You know, one of the easiest ways to tune your cello if you don't trust your ear yet is to just use a tuner. Now, there's various apps that you can download, you know, to tune your cello. And basically, you know, they just play an A and then you match that with your A, they play a D then you match that with your D, and then a G, and the C, and everything. And so, tuning can be pretty simple that way. However, that does give you a very particular kind of tuning. Now, I say kind of tuning. If an instrument's in tune, then it's in tune, right? Well, not really. There's different ways to tune the instrument that are going to get you slightly different results. And it really depends on... Well, which one you use really depends on your situation.

Now, the old-fashioned way to tune the instrument that really was the, probably the most popular for the longest amount of time, was just, and it's still maybe the most popular today, is just to tune... Learning how to listen to the fifths. So, the first thing you would do is to either use a tuner, or a piano, or something, even a tuning fork. I actually use a tuning fork myself to tune the A first. So, you would tune the A and get it to match whatever source you're using. In an orchestra, it would be an oboe or something like that. And then, you basically learn how the D string needs to sound when it's played together with the open A. Now, I can't... It's hard to describe that sound and learning what that sound is. But the fifth interval has a very kind of special open consonant kind of sound, where the two strings ring together in a very nice, harmonious kind of way. And you can only really develop this really fine hearing for the fifth tuning only after a certain amount of time of playing the cello and understanding what that fifth really sounds like. And then, so, once you've tuned the D to the A, then you tune the G string by comparing it to the D string which is now in tune. And then the last one, of course, you tune the C string with the G string using that fifth relationship.

Now, another method to tuning is using harmonics, which I believe is called, I think it's called the Pythagorean method because Pythagoras invented, or didn't invent, but discovered these harmonic relationships of dividing the strings. Now, if you don't know what a harmonic is already, I'll just tell you real quick. When you divide the string in half, for example, and you just touch the spot, this is actually the halfway spot between here and here, and you just touch the spot, without putting the finger down, you just kind of barely touch it, and then you play, you get a sound that is one octave higher than the open string. Now, if you touch another spot on another string, you can make that same sound. So, you can divide the string into halves. You can also divide it into thirds. And so, the thirdway distance from here to here, there's two spots, there's one here and there's one here. And you'll notice that it makes the same sound by touching the two spots. Again, that's because you're dividing it by a third, right? So, now what you can do is, is you can take that half point harmonic on the A string and then tune that to the third point, the one-third distant point there on the D string. So, you can take those two and match them up. And then you could take these two and then take the dividing point, the midway dividing point on the D string, and then match it with the third on the G string. And notice it's the same sound roughly. And then, that way.

So, now this harmonic tuning can be really helpful actually when you're sitting in an orchestra and there's a lot of noise going around you and you want to just kind of check quickly to make sure your instrument is not wildly out of tune. It can be very helpful for that. But as a tuning method, it's going to give you a different result, slightly different results, not a huge difference, but a slightly different result than tuning with the fifths. So, it's important, for example, not to mix the two. Like, if you're tuning like this and trying to get the harmonics to sound and also at the same time, trying to get the fifths to work, then I wish you luck because you're not really going to get things to work that way. It's always...the fifth will be kind of in tune, but the harmonics will be slightly out of tune, or vice versa. The harmonics will be in tune and then the fifths will be slightly out of tune. So, it's better to kind of either pick one or maybe use different tuning methods in different situations. I, myself, greatly prefer... I don't like using a tuner to tune, just personally, because this gives us what is called the equal-tempered intonation. And this basically will make our C string a little bit, or our A string, the extremes of the instrument, a little bit out of tune. So, compared to the fifths. And I think the instrument itself, since it's based on fifths, resonates better. The whole instrument just resonates and sounds better when you've tuned it according to the, you know, to the fifths principle there. Just making sure that the distance between the A and the D is right, the D and G is right, and then the G and the C is right.

Now, so, that means I don't really like to use harmonics to tune. However, I will teach that to students because it is the easiest way, actually. Because, again, you get the same sound. So, at least you can get things very close to being in tune with the harmonics, but not as good and not as resonant as when you're using the actual fifths. Just something I usually teach a little bit later with most beginners. Now, there are some situations where I'm going to do something slightly different. And this is one of these exceptions. In a piece where, for example, there is either a, it's a strings-only piece, like, it's only the string section or it's a string quartet, I'm going to tune in a particular way. I'm going to tune actually with what is called tight fifths. Now, this is a very different style of tuning and what you do with tight fifths is, instead of tuning the fifth like that, you cut the fifth in half and then you end up actually tuning in fourths. Now, what this does is, is it raises up the bottom fifth just a touch, just the tiniest bit. And as you do this, as you tune, you'll notice that it sounds a little flat if you'd taken that up. But this sounds a little flat compared to the open A, but when I play the fifths together, it sounds much more harmonious. It's much more in tune. That sounds a little flat. Now, as I tune then, what's going to happen is, by the time I get to the C string, the C string's going to be just a tiny bit high. And this is valuable because it's going to then match well with notes on the violin. Because if you just tune in fifths, you're going to end up with an instrument that really sounds good by itself, but with other higher string instruments, it won't necessarily, the C string won't necessarily match with their E string. Now, certainly, we should require the violinist to then tune their E strings a little bit lower, but good luck getting them to do that. So, it's more our responsibility then to kind of take our lower end and try to just bump it up just a little bit.

And again, just as a review, you want to make sure that you're touching then the midpoint harmonic on the D string as you play the open A string. And then tuning that and get those sounding really nice and clear and in tune with those fourths. What you'll notice is, is that, especially when you're playing in a string quartet or a string trio, you'll notice a big benefit. I played in a string quartet quite actively for about five years. This was in my college years and then a little a bit after I was out of college as well. And I always tuned with tight fifths and it helps the intonation of the ensemble so much to tune that way. So, even though my instrument wasn't perfectly in tune according to its own perfection, meaning, you know, the instrument wasn't resonating so well with itself, it was resonating so well with all the other instruments that were there.

So, I think that covers it. So, yeah, we talked about tuning with a tuner, right? Which is, if you're, you know, in that first six months or so and you're really scared about tuning, definitely use a tuner. You'll get things close enough so that you can kind of go from there. You'll have the equal-tempered tuning, but... So, it won't be really the best tuning for the cello. It won't really sound the best, but it will give you something, at least, so that you can kind of tune your cello. What's maybe a little bit better is the harmonic tuning. Just tuning with those midpoint harmonic on the upper string and then the third point, one-third distance harmonic on the other string, on the lower string, and then keep going down like that. But really the best way is tuning with just the regular fifths. Your instrument will sound the best that way, just individually. So for, you know, for example, for [inaudible 00:10:15] playing, whenever I play with piano, I never do equal-tempered tuning. It's not worth it with the piano because pianos are, even when they're in tune because they're equal-tempered, they're still a little bit out of tune. So, instead of fussing with that, I prefer to just have the instrument sound really nice and make whatever adjustments I may need to make with my left hand. And then with string quartets and with other larger string ensembles, I always tune with the tight fifths, which is touching the fourth on the lower string as I play just the open string above and getting the instrument in tune that way.

So, as you can see, tuning is a fairly complicated issue. So, it's something definitely worth thinking about and worth practicing. But if you're a beginner, don't sweat it, use the tuner, totally fine. But as you progress, you'll notice that a desire for a little bit more resonance in your instrument can be met by really learning what these fifths sound like. And again, I can't describe it to you, unfortunately. It's one of those things. It's very intuitive for most cellos once they reach a certain point in their development.

So, I hope that was helpful. If you have any questions, please leave them down below, not on YouTube, but on the website. There, I will have a chance to reply to them. Also, I teach online lessons. So, if you're interested in that, I might be able to fit you in somewhere. So, go ahead and contact me for that through my website And, yeah, I think I touched on everything I wanted to touch on. So, once again, this has been Joseph Mendoes for
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Kathryn A Bowman * VSM MEMBER * on March 28, 2018 @8:27 am PST
Thank you! That was helpful!
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