What does it mean to be in tune?Part 2: All about tuners

musicianship practicing Mar 13, 2013

How tuners work and the two different kinds of tuners

Your tuner’s most important function is to assess the pitch you play and provide feedback about how that pitch relates to a standard, as in whether the pitch is sharp, flat or in tune. The standard your tuner uses is one you can set yourself on most tuners: the exact frequency of the A. As I mentioned in the last post, the international standard for A is 440 Hz, but there may be reasons you would want to adjust that.

It is critical that you learn how your tuner makes that adjustment. It is usually referred to as “calibration,” and many tuners offer a wide calibration range, as wide as from 410-480 Hz. If you unknowingly adjust the calibration on your tuner, you could actually be tuning your A to a B-flat! Don’t laugh – it’s happened to many an unwitting harpist.

After you calibrate the A, your tuner uses equal temperament to assess the frequency of each note. Some tuners allow you to change the temperament to a more exotic tuning, such as “Pythagorean tuning” or “just intonation.” Unless you have the extremely specialized knowledge to use these tunings appropriately, you are best served by sticking with equal temperament. Almost everyone does.

Up to this point, all tuners function pretty much identically. But the two types of tuners, electronic quartz tuners and strobe tuners, assess your pitch in different ways and give you different feedback. Let’s look at each type and you can see which is right for you.

Electronic tuners

Electronic tuners are small, inexpensive, fairly accurate and easy to use. They have a microprocessor that “hears” the note you play, takes an average of the sound waves and gives you a readout based on that average. These tuners usually have one of two types of displays that show you when the note is in tune, either a needle or a colored light readout. The tuners with the needle are more accurate than the others, with an accuracy of +/- 3 cents (one cent is 1/100th of a semitone). Tuners with only a light display readout are accurate to +/- 9 cents. Harpists need a chromatic tuner (as opposed to a guitar tuner) that hears all 12 notes in the scale.

Strobe tuners

Mechanical strobe tuners have rotating discs and give detailed information about all the different sounds within the pitch (partials). When the rotating discs are “caged,” meaning that they appear lined up and motionless, then the note is in tune. Because of their accuracy (+/- one tenth of a cent), strobe tuners are the preferred choice of professional tuners and regulators.

Mechanical strobes can be extremely expensive. More often you will see “virtual” strobe tuners. These don’t have rotating discs, but their readouts have segments that will line up when the note is in tune. These tuners are as accurate as their mechanical counterparts  but they are much less expensive. They are even available as apps for your computer, tablet or smartphone.

And if you will be tuning in a noisy environment, don’t forget a pickup!

Next week’s blog post: How to tune! 


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