What effect would cause to violin playing if you suddenly go deaf? (violin challenge)

Edited: November 6, 2017, 4:53 PM · This is a very interesting question, that I've personally been asking myself since I started playing the violin.

First, when you make the violin sound out loud, that is when you start moving the bow, the note is already set, you can't change it, it's too late. So, playing violin is always kind of "guessing" where's the note, and hope that when you move the bow, you're pressing the right spot.

This makes me think that if you suddenly go deaf, or simply manage to don't listen to your own violin, things wouldn't change, in theory. What I mean is that we don't use our ears BEFORE playing the notes, but after, so it's already too late to make any changes to correct a wrong note.

My first question is...

1. Why is such an important thing to be able to know when we're playing in tune or not, if all of that is handy only after we have already played the note?

In other words... how is that helping us, if we can only use those skills once we are already playing the note?
So, at the end is all muscular memory and 0% hearing skills?
Or may be hearing skills help us in practice time to tell us when we are playing in tune, but in the end all of that translates again to muscular memory?

2. What would happen if you play a short piece or a part of a piece, like 1 minute, and then somehow manage to play the same piece but without listening at all to your violin?

Can you do the experiment, record it and tell me, or even post the video, with the results?

One way to "totally mute" your violin could be wearing in-ear headphones, put the piece you want to play at a volume high enough so you can't listen to your violin, and simply play along.

Do you think you would miss a lot of notes, or that you would be alright the first few notes but as soon as you start changing position you would loose it and start missing everything, or that nothing would change?
Comment about these things before and after doing the test.

What I believe is that, in theory, as all those hearing skills come into play too late, when the spot is already selected and you are already moving the bow, there shouldn't be any major differences. But something is telling me that a deaf violinist can't play in tune. That would surprise me since I've already said that the ears come into play once we are already playing the note.

Thank you!

Replies (21)

Edited: November 6, 2017, 5:10 PM · I have to run but I have to say that, before going into your questions, I have to point out that your assumptions seem to me problematic.

“First, when you make the violin sound out loud, that is when you start moving the bow, the note is already set, you can't change it, it's too late. So, playing violin is always kind of "guessing" where's the note, and hope that when you move the bow, you're pressing the right spot.”

Experienced violin playing is no more a guesswork than walking a straight line. You don’t guess or hope to walk from a point A to a point B without falling or going off track because you have practiced so much that your body will do it right without interference of your thoughts, although we consciously monitor where we are going though and correct if necessary.

“What I mean is that we don't use our ears BEFORE playing the notes, but after, so it's already too late to make any changes to correct a wrong note.”

We do use our inner sense of pitch to hear the note before playing it and use our ear to quickly adjust the pitch if necessary. To use my above walking analogy again, we let out legs take us to where we want to go without telling them how to move one step at a time, but we monitor the movement and if we notice that we are not walking properly, something has to be done about it.

November 6, 2017, 5:22 PM · Although you can totally question my assumptions, I don't see how the analogy of walking is like playing the violin.

Let's say walking is playing the violin and seeing is hearing the notes. When you walk, you can see where you're going to put your foot before you move your foot, so you're using your "hearing" before playing the note. So, the walking analogy is exactly the opposite of playing the violin, in my honest opinion.

"We do use our inner sense of pitch to hear the note before playing it and use our ear to quickly adjust the pitch if necessary"

Yeah, we use our inner sense of pitch, or, in other words, we KNOW how the note should sound, we can "think" about how the right note should sound BEFORE playing it, but this does not change anything. One thing is that we know how it should sound, and another thing very, very different is how it will sound when we dare to move the bow. As I've said, you can't know how the note will exactly sound unless you move the bow, in which case it's already too late to use your hearing skills to correct an already wrong sounding note.

About using our ears to quickly adjust the pitch... well, the wrong note already sounded out loud, so the scene stays the same. I'm talking about playing without going out of tune, which is when we use our ear to correct the finger position.

November 6, 2017, 5:41 PM · But everyone is quickly adjusting pitches all the time. I agree with Yixi, your assumptions are flawed.
November 6, 2017, 6:48 PM · I think without doing your experiment (sorry) that I would start out okay but then as there is more shifting the pitch will become errant. Am I allowed to look at the fingerboard because that will help with my intonation? Intonation will become even more erroneous as I get into positions I'm not familiar with. Keep in mind I judge myself as intermediate to advancing student violinist and I am now curious what advanced, college, and professionals will say to your question. Eventually I suspect all violinists would start sounding out of tune - even Heifetz!

Not sure if this is what you are asking but I can say with certainty that all violinists adjust their pitch after the initial sound is started. Muscle memory helps get us within ball park with beginners having a wider latitude for error and pros needing a smaller adjustment and with less frequency.

Edited: November 6, 2017, 8:55 PM · Here's why the assumption is incorrect or at best incomplete. As you use your eyes to tell your brain to tell your feet where to go, you use your inner hearing to tell your brain to tell your fingers where to go. For a beginner, sure, it's guesswork, trial and error, etc. But as you listen and learn, your sense of place/muscle memory on the violin and your sense of pitch/inner hearing begin to synthesize: to the point that you can hear, or audiate , a pitch in your head and your fingers KNOW where to place. Of course there's a continuum where some have further mastery than others :) but very definitely it is not guesswork, it's an understanding, that can become more or less innate, of what motion/placement will produce the desired result.

To put it another way, using yixi's walking analogy-- If you don't have a clear idea where you're going you may walk anywhere and get nowhere, or you may adjust as you go, but if you know where you want to go you almost don't have to think about where to put your feet. Similarly, on violin, if I'm not pre-hearing my note my fingers are going to land by guesswork, approximation, rote memory, or randomness :) and will need to be adjusted to create any logical musical path. But when I'm audiating ahead, assuming I'm playing something my fingers have enough context for, I can play with effortless intonation--at least to the accuracy I've trained my fingers and ears. (Hence, scales and arpeggios :) )

Re: the deaf violinist--i think this would scale with the mastery level one has reached connecting physical motion and inner hearing. However i do think it would be hard to maintain any level of accuracy, bc as others have mentioned, we are continually giving ourselves a feedback loop to learn from, maintain that connection, and adjust as needed, which would be lost if one went deaf! So a semblance of accuracy might be maintained at some level but i think it would be hard to really connect to a musical path...that's just my guess...

It would be interesting to try! Not sure how to execute though, maybe on an electric? If i were to guess, i think I'd be ok wth something simple enough to go with my ear and not overthink. The minute i started analyzing I'd probably lose confidence and get off.

An interesting parallel might be the movie "Scent of a Woman" with Al Pacino--especially the tango scene. Can't speak to how realistic that is though!

November 6, 2017, 9:11 PM · I'm sorry,but what do you guys mean by "adjusting the pitch"?

If that's saying that most of the time we don't press the exact spot and we have to move a little bit our fingers, then this is what I think:
If that's true, in slow pieces we would be hearing a constant tiny glissando before almost every note, which is not true. In fast pieces, there's no time to adjust pitch so either you hit the right spot or you're lost.

How do you play fast pieces in tune then, if you say you need to constantly adjust the notes, and there's no time because of the speed of the notes?

November 6, 2017, 10:11 PM · vibrato... just kidding.

I've worked in aircraft maintenance for eight years. Everything that is held together with a bolt is torqued to a specific measure. After a few years, my friends told me I had a calibrated elbow since I could usually hit torque without a torque wrench.

Moral of the story, if you've studied and practiced for the most part anything, then what ever it is becomes nearly a part of you. The violin is no exception. Call it muscle memory, call it anything you like, but after a while, you will know what 80 beats per minute is like under quarter notes. You'll know where every note falls on the fingerboard. Even a guitar player, who has frets, doesn't count the frets before playing the next cord. Your mind and body can do amazing things if you just let it.

November 7, 2017, 12:04 AM · Tim, in a fast piece, if you're noticing that a note is slightly off, you get feedback that your hand position along the fingerboard needs to be adjusted to get the next note in tune or the next time you hit that note. Without that feedback, the tuning would drift more and more, up to the point where you can tell from watching the fingers or feeling either end of the neck. I find it hard to believe that a skilled violinist can get better than 5 cents accurate intonation from long-term muscle memory alone, regardless of warming-up and fatigue. Five cents is 1 mm for 1st finger in first position and less in higher positions.

If I (novice) play a long sequence of fingered notes, the first open-string note following it tends to be a rather painful confrontation with my drifted pitch. That is what I get from only listening to intervals of successive notes without enough of long-term pitch memory.

Edited: November 7, 2017, 1:17 AM · Tim, good violinists are making corrections all the time. If you can't hear it, that's simply an indication of how good and fast they are at it. A good player is doing lots of things which are beyond the ability of the average listener to perceive.

As you become a more experienced and skilled listener (or player), you'll start to become more aware of these corrections and adjustments taking place.

Edited: November 7, 2017, 4:20 AM · It's various kinds of fully attentive slow practice that teaches the fingers to "drop" on the right spots when playing fast. The corrections are quick and minute.

Vibrato? On a bad day it can hide the problem; normally it keeps the arm and hand and fingers alive, ready to adapt.

But I do find that a 3-hour orchestral rehearsal where I can't hear myself properly will partly "undo" my careful preparation.

November 7, 2017, 4:49 AM · I think your assumptions about deafness are wrong, as well.

It would be relatively unusual for an adult who loses their hearing to be completely unable to hear a violin on their own shoulder. It would inevitably sound quieter/different, but between bone-conducted sound (chinrest-jaw-ear) and the wide frequency range and many resonances of the violin (most inner ear problems are at least somewhat frequency selective) you would likely be able to hear your own intonation and articulation even with serious deterioration of your hearing.

And then of course you would be offered hearing aids and/or cochlear implants....

November 7, 2017, 5:40 AM · Even with your own speech your brain makes constant adjustments according to what it is hearing. Not only the strength but also the intonation and accents, the roundness and fricatives. All goes too fast to register it consciously. See what happens to people who become deaf: Speech deteriorates very fast and they have to do a lot of exercises to try to keep the muscle memory of speaking alive. And even then, it becomes a deaf-person speaking sound.
The violin is another voice and music another language. It would follow the same pattern. What you are asking is similar to propose to reproduce a singer's song just by reading the lips without actually hearing it.
November 7, 2017, 9:08 AM · OP: "One way to "totally mute" your violin could be wearing in-ear headphones, put the piece you want to play at a volume high enough so you can't listen to your violin, and simply play along."

I just remembered that this guy kind of done that:


November 7, 2017, 9:42 AM · Oh wow, that is even harder than I was thinking, the headphones are not even playing the tune you're playing, but a different one. Nonetheless I still don't know if he was able to listen to his violin.

It's been said here that we constantly use and need our ears to hear and correct/adjust our playing. Well, that video proves we don't.

November 7, 2017, 11:09 AM · This video tells us again that we can walk with eyes closed for as long as it's safe. It's not safe as we all know that. Tim, I think if you read about the science behind motor learning and "muscle memory" (procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition), you may find good answers to your questions.
Edited: November 7, 2017, 1:26 PM · By the time adults have finished analyzing everything, children are already playing the Tchaikovsky concerto : )
November 7, 2017, 1:55 PM · As I often rant to my students, even the highest-level professionals don't hit every note correctly; they simply fix the note faster than you can perceive it as being wrong, combined with the fact that their note landed very closely to its intended position in the first place.

In the instance of a very fast passage that can rely on muscle memory, I think one could do pretty well without the ability to hear. This is especially true because you're less likely to notice that a 32nd note is out of tune. It's more "percussion" than "note." And you can feel the percussion even without the use of hearing.

However, in the instance of something slow and beautiful, I think it would quickly become apparent that the player was unable to hear.

On the other hand, given enough vibration-feedback from the instrument linked into our jawbone, we might be able to re-learn the violin's intonation and vibrato response through detecting vibrations based on feel, rather than through our hearing-sense.

Edited: November 7, 2017, 3:45 PM · 1. go nuts
2. write your fifth symphony

... ' i thought there is no discussion worse than rosin, string choice or SR wars!

November 7, 2017, 5:48 PM · Can any of you guys do the experiment and tell me how good in tune you were?

I mean to play a short piece while wearing (in-ear) headphones playing something so you can't listen to your violin.

Just record it with your mobile and listen to it, and then post here how it was.

November 9, 2017, 3:58 AM · Your approach is wrong. Its not less violin volume, but more "compressed" background music(noise) and not having compression on the violin or voice, this will affect your intonation when wearing headphones.
scroll down to section 3 "If it's too loud, Turn it down"


Your concept of muscle memory is wrong also. Muscle Memory is an archaic term that is being attached to new neurological terms,like Procedural Memory. Our muscles are not control by 'muscle memory' when we play in tune ,or intonation is not automatic in that way that we don't need to HEAR anymore. We are constantly making unconscious adjustments to the 'NEXT' note to give us the appearance of in tune. For example, put one string out of tune on your violin or a teachers by 10-15 cents, now play a scale; you should notice that every note was in tune except the one open out of tune string. If the concept of muscle memory existed, than every note on the out of tune string would be off by 10-15 cents, but that doesn't happen.

In a recording environment we need to put the a back up instrument down first before we record the violin or vocals. If we don't do this we will hear a lot of notes slightly out of tune in the playback.

We do have the open strings to help us get back in tune, but if we didn't have the open strings than we would be like singers and overtime we will keep bending notes ever so slightly until we are into a new key.

When teaching I try to stay away from metaphors and be as literal as possible; Muscle Memory is an awful metaphor.

Edited: November 9, 2017, 11:41 PM · Have you ever heard a person singing or whistling with headphones on, totally out of tune, thats where your player will be before long.

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