Nyckelharpa Tuning

There are two main sections here. The first part deals with what notes the strings are tuned to and why. The second part deals with actually how to tune your instrument.

The two common tunings:

The standard modern 3-rowed chromatic nyckelharpa has two common tuning methods for the main strings, they are Swedish (C-tuning) and D-tuning (in 5ths).

C-tuning, Swedish:
The main playing strings are tuned: CGCA, largest to smallest.

It appears that this tuning may have been adopted in Sweden due to its predecessor instrument, the silverbasharpa, which was only tuned in the key of C. This resulted in a large body of traditional music in the Uppland region of Sweden being in the key of C. The Swedish traditionalists believe that this tuning gives the best sound for tunes being played on the nyckelharpa.

There is some thought in Sweden that with this tuning, they believe that a solid A string gives the appropriate Swedish sound.

This tuning has the main playing strings in 5ths, CGDA, just like a viola. Sometimes, on 3-rowed instruments, the low C is re-tuned to a D for improved chording with the adjacent G-string.

If you have a background in violin or guitar and are used to the string steps in 5ths, the D-tuning will be easier to learn. This also allows for your music theory and adjacent string step knowledge to be directly applicable to the nyckelharpa. It is very easy to shift musical keys with this tuning.

As near as we can determine, all of the standard Swedish traditional tunes can be played with a tuning in 5ths.  (If we are incorrect about this, could someone please provide us with information so we can revise this section appropriately?)

Our recommendation is that if you have no instrument background and are serious about playing in the Swedish tradition, the C-tuning should be considered. If you have musical training with instruments tuned in 5ths, or anticipate playing mostly non-Swedish music, our recommendation would be to use the D-tuning. Which tuning to use should be the decision of the player. We tune our instruments to the desires of the player / purchaser.

We understand that for more than a dozen years, all of the regular nyckelharpa workshops done throughout the rest of Europe have been open to instruments of both tunings with no problems.  Many of the European workshops have been led by Swedish players.  It appears that the nyckelharpas in Europe outside of Sweden may be about ½ C-tuned and ½ D-tuned.

We have heard that many of the workshops done in the United States by Swedish teachers have been using only the Swedish C-tuning. Some of the teachers have required this tuning for their workshops.

Emilia Ampere, from Sweden, wrote an article for CADENCE about why she uses the D-tuning. Click here to get to the CADENCE publication (her article starts on page 99). There have been a few other Swedish players that originally learned using the Swedish tuning and have recently switched to the D-tuning.

Recently we heard that the Eric Sahlström Institute is now allowing students to play with the D-tuning (in 5ths).

The D-tuning is now being considered as acceptable by many nyckelharpa players in Sweden.

We also had a discussion with Emilia about the traditionalists. Apparently, there are only 2 or 3 Swedish Nyckelharpa workshop leaders that are insisting on the C-tuning. The traditionalists that are insisting on C-tuning are apparently a small, but very strongly opiniated and vocal group. They are of the opinion that the only proper way to tune a nyckelharpa is the “Swedish” way. We believe that the musician should make an informed decision that is appropriate for them, and this should be respected by everyone else.

With a 4-rowed nyckelharpa, the C-tuning is the same with CGCA. The D-tuning is CGDA.

A soprano nyckelharpa is usually tuned in 5ths just like a violin, GDAE. The tenor nyckelharpa is also usually tuned in 5ths, 1-octave below the soprano. The cello or octave nyckelharpa is 1-octave below the standard nyckelharpa and can be either Swedish or D tuned.

Sympathetic resonation strings:
There are twelve resonation strings, one for each ½-step note in the standard chromatic scale. For ease of tuning we start with a G on the low string and increase by ½-step on each string as we go up the scale.

There are players who think that it is important to group certain notes for improved resonation. The ANA web site has some discussion about this. The Sören Åhker book on building nyckelharpas also shows several common arrangements for tuning sympathetic strings. We consider this to be an advanced player issue.

Tempered tuning:
Tempered tuning is to slightly adjust some of the specific notes a little sharp or flat by just a few cents. This is done to improve the resonation and thus the “sound” of the instrument.

This will make it harder to play with other types of instruments. If playing with other nyckelharpa players, they should all agree on whether you are using tempered tuning or straight-up tuning.

If the strings are tuned straight-up it makes the nyckelharpa easier to play with other instruments.

Accuracy of tuning:
The more accurate and precise the tuning is, the better your nyckelharpa will sound.

If you have a very good ear, you can tune a nyckelharpa without an electronic tuner, or with just a tuning fork, if you are in a quiet place. In a noisy environment, you will not be able to properly tune a nyckelharpa. We recommend that a digital electric tuner be used for tuning a nyckelharpa. Please see the write up under accessories about what type of tuner you should use.

How to Tune a Nyckelharpa:

16-strings? Now what? A nyckelharpa can be a little intimidating to get tuned. It gets easier with practice.

We will start with ergonomics. Earl has had back surgery. To get through tuning a nyckelharpa without back pain, he has found that it works to set it on a table top and sit in a chair. The peg head should protrude slightly over the edge of the table so you can easily reach under it to get at the tuning pegs. This allows him to work in a position that is OK for his back.

It is common to tune with the nyckelharpa on your lap (with or without a strap).

We use a digital tuner with a clip on microphone. We attach the clip to the bridge under the A-string and set the tuner either on the table next to the instrument or on a convenient surface where you can see it.

We typically start by tuning the 4 main playing strings starting with the A. Then we do the sympathetic strings starting at the low end. After we get through the sympathetic strings, we go back and check the main strings again.

The more precise the tuning, the better your nyckelharpa will sound.

Tuning tangents:

On a nyckelharpa, the little post that sticks out of the top of the key and touches the string is called a tangent. The bottom of the tangent is a round post in a tight fitting hole. The fit should be tight enough to make the tangent difficult to turn with your fingertips. The tangent can be rotated to adjust the pitch of each key individually. A new nyckelharpa should come with the keys tuned correctly by the builder. If the keys need to be adjusted, here is how to do it.

You will need a good tuner, or a very quiet place if you have perfect pitch. You will need some small pieces of dense foam to deaden the sympathetic strings (disposable ear plugs, cut in half, work). You will need a small pair of pliers with the tips padded (several wraps of tape works) to prevent damage to the tangents.

Check the bridge position to make sure it is exactly 400 mm (for a standard nyckelharpa). You should be able to check with the builder to find out if your's is a different measurement. If the measurement is off, adjust the bridge to get it correct. You can call Earl if you need help in how to adjust a bridge.

Use the dense foam to deaden the vibrations on every string but the one you will be working on.

For the string you are working on, check the tuning of this string as an open string. Then go to the key you are starting with and check its tuning. Checking the key is done with 3 different methods, by bowing, plucking, or by tapping the key to bounce the tangent against the string. You will find that you may need to use each of these methods at different times with different keys. Rotate the tangent post using the pliers to get the intonation you want on each key. This takes a while to go through an entire set of keys.

Recheck the open string before & after tuning each key.

Other issues:
New strings will stretch a lot for the first week or so.

Changes in temperature and humidity will affect the tuning. This is a wooden acoustic instrument.

Over time, strings continue to stretch. The re-tuning will eventually tilt the bridge towards the nut. You will eventually need to re-set the bridge.

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(Page last updated 11/29/2018)