One of the most important aspects of good cello playing is good intonation – and playing in tune requires your strings to be perfectly in tune with each other.
Nowadays, we have electric tuners to help us, but what happens when we cannot access one, like mid-concert on stage?
Luckily, we can use harmonics to help us tune our cello strings, and to check that our strings are in tune.
What Are Harmonics?
Harmonics are a series of higher-pitched notes on the cello strings that are produced by very lightly touching the string at a specific place.
They have a clear, almost flute-like sound and do not sound as dense as the regular stopped notes on the cello.
There are two basic types of harmonics: natural harmonics and artificial harmonics. Natural harmonics are played by touching the string lightly with one finger at one specific point.
The natural harmonics on each string outline the overtones of that string, which are a collection of pitches that ring along with the main pitch of the string to produce a rich, resonant sound.
Artificial harmonics are generated by completely stopping the string with one finger (usually the thumb or first finger) while simultaneously touching the string lightly with another finger (usually the third or fourth fingers) at a higher point on the same string.
Natural harmonics are fixed and can only be played at specific places on the cello. Artificial harmonics can be played at any point on any string, to generate any pitch.
For purposes of our exploration of using harmonics for tuning, we will focus on natural harmonics because they are the most helpful with tuning!
Where Can I Find the Natural Harmonics?
The most useful natural harmonics to us for the purposes of tuning are the ones that split the string into halves and into thirds.
The harmonic produced when we split the string exactly in half and touch lightly at only that point on the string (we’ll call it the “first harmonic”) sounds exactly one octave higher than the main pitch of the string.
So, for example, the pitch of our open A string is the A below middle C, and therefore the first harmonic on the A string is the A above middle C.
The easiest way to find this harmonic on the cello is to place your thumb loosely in the crook of the cello where the neck meets the body, and gently straighten your fingers diagonally downward.
Your third finger should reach the first harmonic. Try touching the string very lightly there and playing with the bow.
If you don’t hear a clear and ringing pitch, try moving the bow closer to the bridge and/or moving the finger up or down the string slightly until you find the harmonic.
Try this on all four strings, as each one will feel slightly different in the left hand. You can play this harmonic with any finger, of course, but the third is the most natural.
The harmonic produced when we split the string into thirds sounds an octave plus a fifth above the string’s main pitch. Let’s call this the “second harmonic.”
So, for our A string, this means that the second harmonic’s sounding pitch is the E two octaves above middle C. This harmonic exists at two places on the string.
The easier of the two to find is by placing the first finger on the note E in fourth position on the A string, and touching lightly.
As with finding the first harmonic, you will get the clearest sound by playing close to the bridge and making sure your finger is placed in the direct center of the pitch.
Using Natural Harmonics to Tune the Cello
On a perfectly in tune cello, the first harmonic of any string should match the second harmonic of the string below it exactly, and we can use this fact to help us tune the cello strings to each other.
If possible, you should first tune your A string with a fine tuner, piano or other instrument.
Over time, as your ear develops, it will become easier to find this A on your own without the help of an outside pitch source or tuner.
Once your A string is tuned, play the first harmonic on the A string followed by the second harmonic on the D string.
If they match, that means your A and D strings are in tune with each other! If not, adjust the D string up or down until the pitches match exactly.
You can play the two notes in quick succession, going back and forth, or play them at the same time as a double stop using your first and fourth fingers.
Repeat this process with all of your strings. Once you have tuned all the strings, you may need to go back and adjust slightly in case any of them slipped while you were tuning another string.
Because the harmonics can be played softly and gently, this method is a great way to discreetly check your tuning during a concert, or in any other situation in which you can’t access a fine tuner.
And there you have it, tuning your cello with harmonics is pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it.
If this post helped you in any way, let us know!
Shoot us a dm on instagram @tonebasecello, we’d love to hear from you.