Tuning by Ear vs. Electronic Tuner

Posted In: How To Play

  • Participant
    rebekah-atkinson on #206921

    I have recently been wondering if tuning by ear produces a more mellow
    sound as opposed to tuning with an electronic tuner? Anyone have any information to share as to whether that is likely or not? Also, any favorite tips/methods for tuning by ear?

    charles-nix on #206922

    I would say mellow is in the “ear of the beholder” Ideally, both ways would produce the exact same result–the frequency of each ascending semitone is (approx) 1.059 times what the note below is, assuming equal temperament. Both ways can produce really poor results. They each have different strengths and limitations. Tuning by ear, to really get it nailed, takes practice. A lot of practice. And a lot of music instrument theory to learn if you want to be able to understand and correct what you are hearing with the different intervals. But remember, less than 50 years ago everything was tuned by ear–that is all there has been for centuries–though with very mixed results, as old recordings often witness to.

    Electronic tuners have limitations of display resolution. How can you read fractions of a cent on most tuners? Electronic tuners have microphones that don’t pick up well for low and high notes. Electronic does not supply nearly as much accuracy in pitch comparison as a good ear, with the exception of the full-strobe Peterson tuners. An additional problem is any string attacks sharp when plucked, and decays flat. So, how long after plucking should the pitch cross “0”? Is that time the same in bass and treble? Those questions are generally resolved naturally when tuning by ear.

    I think electronic tuner problems are worst from roughly 3rd octave C and up. It is difficult to get the notes really nailed on the pitch: one will be a cent or two flat, and the next a cent or two sharp. The octaves end up out with each other, and the temperament is a mess.

    In answer to your last question, here is how I tune: I set the temperament with the electronic from 4th A up to about 3rd C or D. All the time, I am cross-checking ear with the electronic by listening to fourths, fifths, thirds, and sixths. I am speaking of pedal harp, in equal temperament; lever harp can be different. You have to learn what to listen for: some intervals need slow beats, some need fast, some need to be dead in. Then I go down by ear, stretching very slightly flat with each octave, and cross-checking with fourths, fifths, and thirds, and also double-checking with the electronic. Then re-check the temperament section, and go up, stretching with each octave a bit more. Stretching the octaves keeps the upper fifths a bit more reasonable, without hurting the octave. Then check everything playing three or four parallel octaves.

    For all this to make any difference at all, your regulation needs to be perfect, or it won’t matter–unless you’re playing in Cb major.

    So that’s a complex tuning routine–if it takes you an hour or two to do, its pointless–the harp will change. I think anyone with normal hearing and enough patience to learn to play the harp could learn to tune by ear well–but maybe, for you, the time would be better spent practicing. My day job includes tuning for a living. I probably had 5 or 6 thousand hours actually spent tuning pipe organs before I took up the harp. It takes me about 8 minutes to do the tuning above if I’m starting off pretty close. Our staff tuners probably get at least 600-800 hours before we turn them loose on their own. I recognize that is a lot of time–but one can work toward it gradually–we all have to tune harps frequently, so we can begin gradually incorporating some tuning listening by ear into the regular routine.

    So what might be practical? 1) At least learn to listen to the octaves played two, and then three or four at a time, picking up and correcting the notes that “beat”. 2) Invest in a really good electronic tuner–so you can really tell when your ears are right. The true strobes are big, have to plug into the wall, usually need an external mic, and they are expensive–but there is a reason people still use them. 3) If the harp pitch on any string has to move much, don’t plan on getting the harp stable in one time through. Do a rough tuning, then a fine tuning.

    If you want experience with a really good electronic tuner, find a nearby pipe organ or piano technician. They are ubiquitous in our industry, particularly Peterson 450s, 490s and 590s. Piano tuners tend to have models specific to the needs of their industry, but they will work on a harp. I would think most technicians would be willing to let you borrow the use of their tuner in their shop so you can get a feel for whether it will work for you before you make the investment.

    Even if you choose not to tune fully by ear, you can learn to hear and correct the upper octaves as a starting point–that would eliminate the most objectionable sounds–and might be good enough to solve your problem.

    Charles Nix

    Tacye on #206924

    I think one of the most significant things was rather skipped over right at the start of Charles’ post: ‘assuming equal temperament’. Much of the time I want equal temperament, but sometimes I want to tweak things a bit, or go for a mean tone temperament. The advantage of playing an instrument which needs tuning often is you can tweak it a trifle for different occasions and aren’t stuck with it for whatever you do for the next month or six.

    It depends what music I am playing, and whom with. An orchestra or modern chromatic music gets straight equal temperament off the electronic tuner. Solo pieces, especially if I am only performing or practicing one, may get adjustment and tweaks by ear until I really like the sound of chords or intervals in the piece.

    charles-nix on #206925

    Absolutely, Tacye. My lever harp is always in an unequal temperament. Who cares if it sounds awful in B major–I can’t play it in B major anyway.

    For pedal, I leave it in equal. Most of the literature was written after equal was expected. Unequal would also rule out an enharmonic substitution, if you needed to. I’m not really sure a pedal could be regulated unequal, with the natural to sharp distance being fixed. It would be a lot of work and disc changes, and you wouldn’t ever be changing back and forth. Of course, you could tune for the predominant key of each piece the way you wanted to.

    Not being a music major, I would be interested in whether the whole temperament concept and theory is really widely understood. I’ve talked to many, many musicians who assume that F# and Gb are always the same pitch and always have been and must be by definition. Most of my musician friends are organ or piano, so there may be some sample error there. Perhaps violinists usually do understand the difference, since they can actually do something with the information.


    billooms on #206943

    I noticed on the Peterson web site that they offer a software strobe tuner called iStroboSoft for use on phones/tablets (for $9.99). Does anyone have experience with this product?

    charles-nix on #206945

    Bill: Yes, a couple of our techs use it. I use the standalone predecessor (the VS-1), and use the new standalone StroboPlusHD on a daily basis. It is what I set pitches and start tuning with.

    It is a virtual strobe, not a true strobe effect. Essentially, it is a set of bars on the display that looks like a strobe. Sensitivity depends on how good the mic in your device is.

    It is not a replacement for the true strobes. It is a very good standard electronic tuner with a “needle” that looks like a strobe effect. That being said, I use mine regularly for setting up a tuning. Our techs use theirs for setting up tunings and checking pitches. Everything is finished in by ear, though, to get it really right.

    We also use the Cleartune app. It is easier to use than the Peterson, but has many fewer options, (I don’t think Cleartune can do unequal temperaments, for instance) and the display has less usable resolution than the Peterson virtual strobes. Neither compares with a true strobe for precision work. Both work better than many of the Korgs, et al. that are out there.

    The guitarist friend I play with regularly uses Cleartune. Then he works through a set of chords, with and without a capo, and finishes things off for the best compromise on the intervals in the keys we will be playing in.

    Charles Nix

    charles-nix on #206946

    I need to add one thing about all the Peterson products: their customer support is excellent beyond all expectation. We have tuners over thirty years old that are still supported. They are US based, a relatively small company, and when you call for support, you are talking to the people who design the products and run the company, not a CSR reading stock answers off a screen.

    Charles Nix

    Elettaria on #206948

    I have Cleartune, and it does have a variety of temperaments available, but I have no idea which one I should be using if not equal temperament. I have a lever harp tuned in Eb and a wire harp tuned in C. Due to disability, I’m mostly getting someone else to do the tuning for me, so while they are both musicians, they’re not harpists and I can’t give them complicated instructions.

    charles-nix on #206950

    Good to know about Cleartune.

    If equal works for you, use it. My Eb lever harp is fully levered and used in most of the keys possible for it. I have it regulated in Brad Lehman’s Bach temperament. It leaves keys around F and C the most consonant, with increasing dissonance in more distant keys. It is a “well” temperament, with no wolf intervals in any key.

    If the harp were only levered for say three keys, or I only played in three keys, I would make a different choice — unless — you play with other instruments, especially modern keyboard instruments. Then you must use something matching what the keyboard is tuned in.

    Temperament changes absolutely require that the instrument be regulated in that temperament. Tuning a levered instrument in a different temperament is only correct until you move the first lever. Western temperaments have 12 (usually) pitches in each octave. You are only setting seven strings. The other five are set in the regulation of the levers. It is not something one can casually change unless you tune to the temperament while levered for the key you are playing in and change no levers afterward–meaning you can test out a temperament in a key on an instrument and that’s about it until you regulate.

    Temperament choice requires knowing the capabilities of the instrument, and which keys it would be used in, and what period of literature it is to be used for. If in doubt, use equal.

    Charles Nix

    Gretchen Cover on #206958

    I have tried a number of tuning apps, including Cleartune,and by far the Peterson is the best. However, to really make it effective, you should buy the add-on that picks up the bottom notes on a pedal harp. It is not inexpensive…I made a just-released recording with a classical guitarist and every note had to be perfectly tuned at all times and with each other during our recording sessions. I tend to hear notes on the sharp side so as much as I also try to tune by ear, too, I need to rely on a tuner.

    PS I have had the Peterson tuner simply go wild on me in which the strobe and notes are all over the place so I also have an inexpensive Seiko handheld tuner in my gig bag.

    Elettaria on #207046

    Charles – thanks,that’s helpful. I tried reading up on it and gathered that it’s complicated and you can’t just try a different one. I also couldn’t work out why you’d want anything other than equal temperament if you were playing in a variety of keys on a lever harp, so good to have that confirmed and I’ll go back to equal.

    What about the wire harp? No levers, tuned in C major (and using the associated modes), playing fairly traditional wire harp stuff. My teacher has me working on the traditional first pieces taught to wire harpers, Fair Molly and the Burns March so far (I’ve not been having lessons long), and I’ve also been using Ann Heymann’s Coupled Hands for Harpers, which is folk music from various traditions. I sometimes retune the drone string but I’m staying in C major so far.

    Plus I am getting a little lyre built for me, 12 wound phosphor bronze strings, tuned in D major from tenor B up to F sharp. I might tune the Cs to naturals sometimes, it’ll have guitar tuning heads which will make that easier, but I don’t anticipate much retuning apart from that. I’m going to be treating it as a very small harp that I can play in bed more than a traditional lyre, and it’s a more modern build. What would work for that?

    Tacye on #207047

    Andrew Lawrence King has an article on temperaments for historic wire harps – he suggests quarter comma mean tone and you have little to use but some faff in trying out some pure 5ths and 3rds.

    Biagio on #207063

    A few years ago Marta Cook described (in more accessible language) the tuning method first taught by Robert Nicholas Bochsa, which is used by many professional harpists today. You could say that it is for all intents and purposes “by ear”. Unfortunately Marta’s blog has disappeared but I copied her article and will see if I can post it.

    Thanks Tacye, that article is very interesting! There are also a few quirks that are unique to the wire harp, most especially the replicas.

    -Willow (or aspen) will absorb some of the vibrations, giving a mellower tone than European sycamore ( a maple, not to be confused with American “sycamore”). The wood will have a more drastic effect with wire than gut or nylon, particularly when one considers narrowly spaced strings.

    -We have very little knowledge about the string compositions other than that they were a copper alloy. So we have to go with what is available today.

    -There have been various tuning schemes for those replicas, some with the doubled notes at middle C, others at the G below. To the modern ear, none of them are entirely satisfactory with the shortened bass strings if yellow or red brass. Sterling silver or even 14K and 8K gold solve that issue, especially if combined with bronze in the mid and, possibly, treble.

    (Side note: I just re-strung by 26 with 4 silver and 4 red brass in the bass – that range was just to funky to my ears, even though the vibrating lengths are longer than, say, the Lamont. Hope it works!).

    -With the narrow spacing and long sustain we essentially have to relative tune and adjust a la Bochsa- judging consonance or dissonance over fifths and octaves, which is probably the way the ancient harpers did (they did not have Korgs ha ha).

    -Most of us believe that the originals were tuned to G but we also have evidence that the Bs were flatted. This introduces another wrinkle to relative tuning.

    It seems to me therefore that we wire guys may be well served by different tuning strategies but absent an expensive professional tuner we pretty much have to rely on our ears!


    • This reply was modified 4 years, 2 months ago by Biagio.
    • This reply was modified 4 years, 2 months ago by Biagio.
    Gretchen Cover on #207066


    I will add one little trick for tuning by ear. You can pick up a telephone (if anyone has a landline anymore) and hear a 440A. Those of a certain age will remember when it was just the A but the other tone was added – (this may be urban rumor, but it is what I was told eons ago) – when the blueboxes came into use to hack the phone line to make free long-distance phone calls. Anyhow, with the university renaissance ensemble I belonged to, we used the phone A so we at least agreed upon one note.

    Biagio on #207067

    Interesting Gretchen, pretty cool!

    Incidentally but maybe not in the US AC power lines emit a hum around 50-60 HZ – pretty much a low A. Hmmmm (pun intended).

    Off topic a bit but as regards ear training – there are on-line tutorials but for my money the best method (aside from assiduous practice) is 1,2,3 Play! by Ray Pool. That booklet requires tuning to Eb if any are interested.

    Best to all!

    • This reply was modified 4 years, 2 months ago by Biagio.
Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 23 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.