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The mandolin is tuned from high (the smallest string) to low (the thickest): EE - AA - DD - GG. There are of course some alternate tunings used in various styles of music that aren't covered here. How do you know you have the right octave? If you are an octave too low the strings will literally be flapping. If you try to tune an octave too high the strings will almost certainly break first.
A brief article on tuning.
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