Possibility of Tone-Deafness
Since I started taking lessons at university level (around age 9), my biggest bane has been intonation. I don't think I'm so off-key that I am a quarter of a tone off or something, but it appears that at times I am a few Hz off.
As a busy graduate student in the sciences, I had not touched my violin for a while (read: years), and today I went to a professor at my university to be recommended some instructors. First criticism I got was that my playing was uncoordinated and that I am out of tune, and that my vibrato's wrist is tucked in (which no one had ever pointed out before). I generally get very tense when I am playing in front of someone, and this time was no exception.
So here are my questions.
1. Can intonation deteriorate along with lack of practice? I've heard people say "once you got it, it never goes away!" but I always felt that I was more in tune when I'd been playing for an extended period of time.
2. Can being tense mess intonation up?
3. Is there a possibility that I am tone-deaf and that I just cannot hear the difference of a few Hz?
I am very frustrated with this. If it's tenseness, there are techniques to address it, and if it's lack of practice, practising will remedy that, but if I am simply tone-deaf that's a bit beyond any repair.
Thanks in advance!
Retraining will help, and try to, but you may very well be tone-deaf, I have to say.
Thats an interesting question. I have to assume that playing with good intonation is a perishable skill.
Fine-grained pitch discrimination turns out to be a perishable skill. Each time I've taken a long break from the violin (a decade or so), my pitch discrimination deteriorated significantly (testable with one of those online tests) and took about a year to recover to normal.
Of course being tense and other things like technical problems can mess intonation up. Excess vibrato will also mess up intonation as well as other things such as bow control.
Thanks to everyone who's replied. Incidentally I am in a department that studies such things, but there's a stark difference of definition of "tone-deafness" between us musicians and general researchers.
There are free smart phone apps that will hear the notes you play and show you the deviation for a specific pitch. You can set the standard A pitch where you wish and the screen will show you deviation of the note you play to the nearest note within 0.1 cent (one cent=one hundredth of a semitone). The app I use is DaTuner Pro. Of course one cannot hold ones finger on the string that steadily and not likely keep the bow pressure constant enough to avoid some wiggle in that resolution.
The topic of intonation comes up frequently. There are three aspects of the subject; hearing, theory, and mechanical. Pitch discernment is measured in "cents", 1/100 part of the equal-tempered half-step, Not in hertz (Hz). I have read that the limit of pitch discernment is about 5 cents, 1/20 of the half-step. The musicians with the best intonation are; full-time professional quartets, some early music ensembles, acapella choirs, harpists, piano tuners, traditional musicians from cultures like Turkey, Persia, Egypt, India, which use smaller intervals and a much longer list of modes. Theoretical intonation means learning the intervals and chords and understanding the difference between equal-tempered, just (chordal), and Pythagorian (melodic) tuning. Mechanical tuning is learning how all of those intervals in all fingering combinations feel in your left hand, and correctly measuring shifting distances.
When I restarted, after a 25 or so year break, I couldn't play two notes in a row in tune similarly to Lydia's experience. However slowly after a while intonation improved. My first position intonation was spot on first and it took a bit longer to improve intonation in the higher positions. I believe timber in the upper positions took a little longer to decipher. But now I probably have better intonation then when I played 25 years ago. I believe this is from being more driven and more serious practice.
I'm not sure "tone deaf" is a really good description. For anything. Everyone can hear tones, or they wouldn't be able to understand music or speech in general. And I have a feeling that Momoko-san could readily pick out piano notes with out-of-tune unisons.
Thinking back on it I've never had a student that I can recall who had major intonation issues. I don't even know exactly what I do to promote such consistently good intonation.
You are definitely not tone deaf. That would mean you have amusia. Those with amusia can’t distinguish any pitch whatsoever, even several octaves apart. They can’t even tell one highly distinct tune from the next, and some report that music to them sounds like a bunch of pots and pans smashing together.
If we have Perfect Pitch (though I prefer Absolute Pitch, to avoid confusion with perfect intonation) we can easily lose (or not acquire) the habit of intensive listening to intervals.
No matter who you are, you need to practice to have that sense of "always playing in tune". Indeed, one can have theoretical "perfect pitch" without playing the violin for some time, and feel totally lost when you come back (some will regain it faster than others, but that doesn't mean the slower players are "tone-deaf" at all.) Some teachers lack manners and/or patience-if they stopped playing for a while they would also have intonation problems!
Lieschen is totally correct about tone deafness. It is not a question of missing a note by a few Hz. I had a colleague at work who was tone deaf, and I sang a 5th for her once and she could basically hear that there was some sort of difference between the notes, but she could not really hear what it was.
Tom, that's very interesting. I wonder, though, if like how a normal person improves their pitch acuity through regular practice, how far someone with such a low baseline could get with training. I bet they could probably still get pretty far, but it would require research to be sure.
Absolutely, the ability to play in tune comes from practice. Hours and hours and hours. Nobody's born knowing what 440 sounds like or where exactly to place the 7th on an ascending major scale. We learn that from practice.