Tuning the fiddle can be just that, a fiddle, for the novice. I initially purchased a small guitar whistle tuner. I figured that I could just use the “A”, tune the “A” string and tune the rest of the strings. Unfortunately for my novice ear, this proved too frustrating. Firstly, the wind sound A had a slightly different quality than the string sound A. And second and more importantly, tuning the rest of the strings was difficult and time consuming. With experience and practice, this is the best way the tune, but I would not recommend this for the beginner
After my first violin lesson I followed my teacher’s advice and bought an electronic chromatic tuner. This was used in two ways. I could accurately tune the instrument and I could check my finger placing to see if the note was accurate. I do not do this now, but for the novice I think it is invaluable. There are great tuners available now that simply clip on the fiddle and they pick up the vibration. Using this the fiddle is not affected by ambient noise.
The notes of the strings from lowest string to highest string are GDAE. There are alternate tunings, such as ADAD, GDGD, AEAC#. These are used to make fingering easier for certain tunes and to drone and chord easier. Droning is playing a note with the adjacent open string. However the GDAE tuning is by far the most used
The strings are tuned a fifth apart. Without getting into too much theory, this means the number of tone intervals between one string and the next is 5. In practice, this means that playing a string together with its immediate neighbor give a nice sound, a chord in fact. A lot of fiddle players use this “perfect fifth” sound to tune the fiddle, but this comes with practice and experience
Most fiddles with metal strings are tuned with the pegs and then the fine tuners. I tune all the strings to be fairly close using the pegs. Then I use the fine tuners on the tailpiece to get the tuning more accurate. I usually tune the A, then the E and then the G and D. Once that is done you may have to re-do the A and E, as tensioning the G and D can change the tension on the others.
I normally use the electric tuner, as I usually want to get on with my playing. This is fine, but I think it is a good idea to wean yourself off the electric tuner after a while. I tune the A with the tuner, and then tune the other strings. Then I check my tuning with the electric tuner. No matter how you tune you always need a reference point to start and this is usually with the A string. Tune the A string to 440 hertz, or with an A note on another instrument.
Tuning the other strings can be done in a number of ways.
1: Fifths. Once the A is in tune play the A string and the E string together and listen for the correct “perfect fifth” sound. This of course takes practice.
2: Same Note. I play the notes of the scale on the A string up to E. I then play this E and compare it to the open E string and tune. Using this method you can also listen for beats in the sound. If there is a beat then the strings are not producing the same note
3: Octave. Play the notes on the E string up to A. Then play this A with the open A string. These notes are an octave apart and should sound the same. Likewise if you detect a beat with the sound then the E is out of tune
The rest of the strings can be tuned in the same way
Another reason to learn to tune without the electronic tuner is if you play with another instrument that cannot be tuned like a piano, accordion or a flute, then you will have to tune to them.
As you develop it should become easier to tune and also to get the right intonation when “stopping”. I don’t think you should worry too much about tuning by ear at first. The electric tuner can easily take care of tuning. Ultimately, the best way to tune is by ear, but that will only come with experience.