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V.com weekend vote: Is good intonation inborn, or teachable?

The Weekend Vote

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Published: May 16, 2014 at 5:16 PM [UTC]

Ah, if only there were a pill for good intonation!

But there isn't. Still, the idea of a Pitch Pill brings up one of those age-old nature-nurture questions: Is one simply born with good intonation, or can it be taught?

Recently a fellow teacher actually exclaimed that it's just inborn. You've just got it, or you don't. I'm not sure if I agree; but I really go back and forth on the issue. Certainly some people seem to have less trouble with it; some don't seem to need "teaching" in this area at all! But I've also witnessed students who developed in-tune playing by doing things like listening, tuning in to "ringing notes," using intervals, etc. And many will remember the guy who advertises that he can teach you perfect pitch, there's another matter altogether! (Has anyone done this?)

Still, when someone just persistently plays that way-out-of-tune note, without registering any sensitivity to it, I wonder! What do you think?


From Karen Collins
Posted on May 16, 2014 at 5:32 PM
What do you consider "intonation" - the ability to hear if a note is in tune, or the ability to play notes consistently in tune?
From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 16, 2014 at 5:35 PM
Playing consistently in tune.
From 63.227.146.5
Posted on May 16, 2014 at 5:56 PM
The answer is neither. :)
From Leyla Garcia
Posted on May 16, 2014 at 6:05 PM
I have to say: Is teachable. I am learning for real the intonation... have a great teacher who has told me HOW TO LISTEN and IDENTIFY the pitch and HOW TO find it when is out of tune... After almost 2 years, now I know you can develop it.

Greetings to everyone!

From 94.173.27.227
Posted on May 16, 2014 at 6:29 PM
If you can hear there is a problem with intonation then you should have the chance to solve it. Developing the skill to hear, is a different topic closely connected to sublime though :)
From Kevin Keating
Posted on May 16, 2014 at 6:39 PM
I think it can be taught to anyone who has an ear for music. My ear immediately knows when I'm not in tune. My fingers on the other hand, don't always land in the in-tune spot of perfect intonation, but my ear hears it and immediately adjusts to fix it. So my ear isn't the problem. My muscle memory just needs more work and practice.

However, there are those unfortunate souls who are what is called tone deaf who have no idea that they are even out of tune let alone what to do to fix it. We must pray for them...

From Paul Deck
Posted on May 16, 2014 at 6:56 PM
I've watched my daughters develop their intonation, and it has been interesting. One seems to have a natural-born "ear" (she has always sung everything in tune, since she was a baby) not so for the other. But they're both developing the ability to play their instruments in tune. It helps to have a teacher who is simultaneously gentle but uncompromising, and who knows how to teach both how to listen to one's violin and how to practice getting it right on the fingerboard.

By the way I just heard Gil Shaham play something called "Butterfly Lovers," it was on the local radio station. Wow, there is a piece that calls for great intonation. I think Shaham nailed it.

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on May 16, 2014 at 7:10 PM
Question 2 as it stands has an ambiguity in that it consists of two mutually exclusive statements which cannot be voted on by a simple tick or non-tick. Perhaps Q.2 should be expressed as two separate statements for the purposes of voting, viz:
2. One is born with good intonation.
3. One is not born with good intonation.

Note that these two statements are not precise opposites. If someone is born with good intonation then remedial action is not required. On the other hand, someone who is not born with good intonation can often, but not necessarily, be taught good intonation, provided there is no limiting physical disability which prevents the identification of fine pitch intervals (i.e. tone deafness).

From Anne Horvath
Posted on May 16, 2014 at 7:21 PM
Good intonation is teachable, "but some animals are more equal than others."
From 69.143.223.206
Posted on May 16, 2014 at 8:15 PM
The two choices are rather two related but separate questions. I think (1) good intonation can be taught to the majority of people with effort, and (2) people are born with a varying degree of auditory skills. So, as for most everything else, the condition in (2) affects the amount of effort to achieve the desired result in (1).

Having said that, one thing I have noticed over the years from watching several dozens of student violin recitals is that the tuning time in front of the audience is a very good indicator of the player's skill and intonation, in particular.

To have a reasonably tuned violin at all times is important, especially when the student is developing intonation. At the same time, it should be easy to tune at home when the teacher is not readily accessible. Use of digital tuners (or apps like cleartune), geared/well-maintained pegs, a tailpiece with built-in adjuster should be encouraged.

These are my 2 cents.

From David Burgess
Posted on May 16, 2014 at 11:52 PM
"Still, the idea of a Pitch Pill brings up one of those age-old nature-nurture questions:"
_______________________

A "Pitch Pill" can be made by forming pitch (pine resin) into pea-sized balls. ;-)


From marjory lange
Posted on May 17, 2014 at 12:38 AM
"Teachable," yes. "...to everyone?" Maybe not.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 17, 2014 at 2:41 AM
I think it can generally be taught, but that some people are easier to teach than others. I say this because I don't have a naturally good ear, but I've been working on it and improving. It has taken me a long time: I can hear the improvement gradually over the course of months and years, in recordings, and it's confirmed by my teacher. My 10-year-old son (a cellist) in contrast, probably has better intonation than I do already. His teacher works with him, but he hasn't been working at it much at all, outside of lessons.

I wouldn't necessarily say it can be taught to "anyone." I think some people may really lack the interest/time/motivation/skill to improve. If you don't have a naturally good ear, it's a lot of work and can be pretty frustrating.

From 144.132.219.151
Posted on May 17, 2014 at 2:48 AM
Good article. Very informative indeed. Btw I don't know if anyone can teach you perfect pitch.
From 75.173.65.146
Posted on May 17, 2014 at 12:39 PM
I am very sensitive to intonation when listening to others or even recordings of myself, but I do not hear it in my own playing while I am playing. Is there some magic cure for this?
From Jim Hastings
Posted on May 17, 2014 at 1:52 PM
I believe most people can learn good intonation if they have the desire and motivation to excel at playing the instrument -- and develop critical listening skills. On the other hand, if a parent forces violin lessons on a child, and yet the child shows no interest in learning the instrument, then the odds are against it.
From 71.33.128.165
Posted on May 17, 2014 at 2:12 PM
THis concept should be called "Matching Pitch"
If you have hearing, you can be taught
From 68.49.20.223
Posted on May 17, 2014 at 4:41 PM
Discerning pitch is something anyone can learn so long as they do not have physical damage.

One way I encourage that in even my most beginning students is to ask questions like "is your note higher or lower" when tuning, checking harmonics between strings and so forth. Even the youngest kids usually get the hang of the "higher/lower game".

From Dale Forguson
Posted on May 18, 2014 at 2:23 PM
I have heard several people make comments that they lacked some basic form of perception. For instance, no sense of smell or inability to taste food. While certain forms of perception disability do exist such as color blindness, I suspect that more often than not a claim of perception disability reveals either a lack of effort or a lack of interest, particularly when the inability would be somewhat difficult to disprove. While some people are deprived of exposure to music training as children and as a result may be somewhat unskilled in perception that does not preclude them from improving if they have sufficient interest and motivation. I suspect that actual severe hearing impairment (which only affects pitch discernment) or mental inability to discern pitch is comparatively rare. Making the effort to play in tune assuming that there is no impairment is a matter of refining a skill, practice with purpose.
From 86.146.117.172
Posted on May 18, 2014 at 4:21 PM
Intonation can be taught through exercises and listening , however, as you mention, the biggest stumbling block is whether student can actually hear they are playing out of tune or not. If a student is not sensitive to this then they won’t improve. My feeling is listening to the pieces you are practising will help sensitivity to intonation, and also recording yourself and listening to yourself. Sometimes if you’re concentrating on fingering/ bowing you may miss the intonation, but hearing a recording can very easily re-orientate you to tuning. Another factor that can hinder a students progress in this area is laziness, what do you do if they can hear it but are too lazy to change it!?
funkyviolins.

From Matthew Grogan
Posted on May 18, 2014 at 4:23 PM
Intonation can be taught through exercises and listening , however, as you mention, the biggest stumbling block is weather student can actually hear they are playing out of tune or not. If a student is not sensitive to this then they won’t improve. My feeling is listening to the pieces you are practising will help sensitivity to intonation, and also recording yourself and listening to yourself. Sometimes if you’re concentrating on fingering/ bowing you may miss the intonation, but hearing a recording can very easily re-orientate you to tuning. Another factor that can hinder a students progress in this area is laziness, what do you do if they can hear it but are too lazy to change it!?
funkyviolins.

From 71.230.240.237
Posted on May 18, 2014 at 6:04 PM
As a parent that has listened to 15 years of violin recitals and lessons, I can definitely say intonation is LEARNED. Many of the 3-8 year old beginners that were out of tune in early recitals now play with good to great intonation as high school students.
From 117.208.190.42
Posted on May 19, 2014 at 4:17 AM
I feel the better way to put it is "Good intonation can be LEARNT by anyone"
From 86.143.15.23
Posted on May 19, 2014 at 10:12 AM
I agree with Kevin Keating, Anne Horvath and Matthew Grogan. Good intonation is not innate in that it can be taught to those who are not actually tone-deaf, but IMO good intonation cannot be taught to the tone-deaf.
From Sacha Standen
Posted on May 20, 2014 at 3:56 PM
I think that perception of intonation and being able consistently to play in tune are two very different issues. Perhaps people who are supposedly 'tone-deaf' cannot tell if someone is playing in tune or not, but I think the majority of people can, which is one of the main reasons why the violin is notorious for being horrible to listen to if it's being badly played: it's probably less the squeaks and squeals that count as the intonation. The piano or guitar are rarely painful to listen to.

Whether or not those people who can tell when others are playing out of tune are able to play in tune themselves is another question. The worst part of all this is when you're playing out of tune and you can hear you're playing out of tune, but because your technique is just not polished enough, you simply can't hit all the notes bang on, particularly when shifting positions in fast passages. In this situation your musical ear is simply more advanced than your technique. Personally I find this endlessly frustrating.

Perfect pitch is an entirely different matter. Learning perfect pitch is definitely possible; I know, because I did it. When I was 15 I spent a few weeks regularly training myself by imagining an oboe giving an A to an orchestra and then verifying this on the piano. It worked. The problems associated with this, however, are when doing aural dictation exercises (with the first note given) with an old record player that turns too slowly (as happened to me once at music college, completely disorienting me), or when playing early music on authentic instruments. Even pianos before the 2nd world war were tuned to A=438 Hz, which makes for an entirely different sonority, but can be somewhat disorientating to someone with perfect pitch. Actually my perfect pitch seems now to have adapted to my piano, which is tuned to 438, and I now find it weird when I play with a piano at 440.

It has to be remembered that perfect pitch is unarguably 'learned', whether consciously or unconsciously, and you could equally argue that being 'in tune' is all relative also, depending on the temperament being used; an instrument like a natural horn is 'in tune' with the natural harmonic spectrum, but will sound 'out of tune' when playing with an instrument like a piano.

Taking account of all these things, this is actually probably quite a complicated subject!

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