How to Tune a Musical Instrument

Unless you are completely tone deaf, it is often not difficult to tell when a musical instrument is out of tune. This is because the pitch sounds wrong — it’s either too high or too low. To the trained ear, the instrument will sound a bit flat or sharp. For this reason, musical instruments need to be tuned before they are played, particularly if several instruments are being played together. If you are just beginning to learn how to play an instrument, this might seem like a complicated task, but it is really quite easy once you know how.

Making Music Together

When musicians play together, their instruments need to be in tune. If they are not, the end result will be deeply unpleasant. When two or more instruments are out of pitch, there is a noticeable ‘interference beat’. The more out of tune two instruments are, the greater the number of ‘beats’. Amateur musicians might find it hard to detect interference beats, but once you know what you are listening for, it will soon be painfully apparent when somebody’s instrument is out of tune.

Instruments go out of tune for many reasons. It can happen over time, often as a result of old age. Humidity and temperature can also affect some instruments, so it is always a good idea to ensure your instrument is stored correctly if you are not using it regularly. String instruments need ‘breaking in’ from new and will have to be tuned more frequently to begin with. Guitars often need tuning in regularly because the tuning pegs are susceptible to being knocked during use.


Tuning an Instrument

In order to tune an instrument, you need to adjust the pitch of each note. Some instruments, for example a piano and an organ, can only be tuned by a professional. Most others, however, can be tuned by their players.

.   String instruments can be tuned by adjusting the pegs to change the tension in the strings.

.   Wind instruments are tuned by moving the joints in and out slightly.

  1. Timpanists turn the taps on the top of the drum to change the drum tension.


To tune an instrument, you need a reference pitch. A piano is ideal as it is usually correctly tuned, although some musicians do it the old-fashioned way with a tuning fork. If you don’t have a piano available, you can buy electronic tuners or use online tuners to help you match the frequency of your instrument to the right pitch. Simply adjust your instrument until the interference beating slows down to the point where you can no longer hear them.

In an orchestra, it is customary to tune instruments to the principal oboist or violinist if a piano is not available.


Finding the Correct Pitch

You should try and get into the habit of tuning your instrument before you play. This will help train your ear to the correct notes and over time you will be able to tell when your instrument is slightly out of tune.

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