Close, But Not in Tune: Creating the Habit of 100 Percent Accurate Intonation

August 27, 2018, 11:01 AM · "About what percentage of notes would you say is acceptable, to play out of tune on the violin?"

I asked in the most earnest tone I have in my repertoire as an actor, though I suspect that my student knew I was kind of joking. And yet, he wasn't quite sure about the answer. The percentage of "close but not-quite-in-tune" notes I'd just heard him play was very, very high; despite the fact that this student has shown me over time that he actually has a fine-tuned ear for pitch.

"Maybe...five percent?"


"Mmmmm," I said. "I'm afraid it's lower." I made an "0" with my hand, "It's actually zero. It's a tough percentage to achieve but that's how it's got to be."

Unfortunately for us string players, there is one way to play a note in tune, and countless ways to play it out of tune. Fingers easily fall in the wrong place or at the wrong angle; to land with complete precision 100 percent of the time requires very precise physical training and an ever-attentive ear.

Is that really necessary? It is, and it's also do-able if you accept a few things about the way you need to practice:

If you can create the right habits, you can make accurate intonation your norm, rather than tolerating a percentage of "close-but-not-quite-in-tune" notes.

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August 27, 2018 at 04:45 PM · I hate to say it like this but out of tune is out of tune. Heifetz used to tell his students "no compromises" and he was right. There is no middle of the road when it comes to intonation. The note is either in tune or not which is why when you practice you must challenge each note you play when learning a piece and learn to train your ear not to accept any note that is out of tune. Of course this also includes double and triple stops. Thirds, sixths, octaves tenths, fifths and fourths, major and minor seconds etc. No matter how well you use your bow your sound will suffer if the notes are out of tune. I'm not a big proponent of these digital tuners. I never learned to play in tune using these modern contraptions so I really can't speak for their use good or bad. Although there is no substitute for a well trained ear. Your hearing should be so acute that it should be like putting your finger on hot coals when you play a wrong note. Heifetz was asked about his intonation and he said slyly "it's not that I don't play a wrong note every now and then, I just fix it faster."

August 27, 2018 at 04:52 PM · My problem with this has always been that I don't hear it in the moment, especially when it's high, like on the E-string in 7th position. I genuinely think it sounds fine and then other people tell me that there's a problem. Or I listen to a recording later and find out that there's a problem. Or the electronic tuner tells me there's a problem. I've finally learned to identify what I used to think was a tone problem (whiny, nasal, piercing) as a pitch problem (sharp). But I don't actually *hear* it any differently. I still hear it primarily as a whiny, nasal, and piercing tembre, rather than as a little too high in pitch.

People have tended to get self-righteously disapproving, and/or vehemently disagree with me when I say that I don't have that great of an ear for pitch, or that I can't hear myself when I'm slightly out of tune, especially on certain notes. I find this very frustrating, and I've been so lucky as an adult to find teachers who believe me and are willing to meet me where I'm at and work with me on it, rather than just saying things like "listen carefullyā€¯ and "use your ears."

Like the post above: "your hearing *should* be so acute . . . " Well, maybe it "should". But what if it isn't? Sorry, you can't just make it so by effort of will.

August 27, 2018 at 05:21 PM · Two problems:

1) We practice alone most of the time.

2) What is in tune, anyway?

August 27, 2018 at 06:10 PM · Excellent article! I especially like the point you made about slowing down until every note is perfectly in tune. One thing I'd like to add, is to be extra critical of others' intonation. In your head mind you, not to their face :) This is something I try to do, and it should pain you physically every time to hear an out of tune note. That way we subconsciously raise our personal standards and reach a point where even on a bad day, our intonation is somewhat reliable.

August 27, 2018 at 07:34 PM · There are other resonating notes that you can use when your strings are tuned in perfect fifths. One (actually, two) that immediately comes to mind is the B on the E-string. If you're playing in the key of G, for example, that B will resonate with a particular harmonic of the open G string. If, on the other hand you're playing in the key of A, that B will be the wrong one; you have to play a B that is a perfect 5th above the open E and is very slightly sharper than the first B and will hardly resonate, if at all.

Here's another one: the open E is a shade too sharp for the key of C, so use a fingered E on the A string instead. The open E, however, is fine for the keys of D and A, and E obviously.

There are many others that need thoughtful attention, like the first F# on the E string for example - are you playing in the key of D (which has an F# harmonic), is it an emphasised leading note to the tonic in the key of G, or is it the fifth in the key of B? You've got to listen very carefully to decide.

August 27, 2018 at 09:29 PM · I like Trevor Jennings' answer. I am thinking in similar terms.

It gets even more complicated when you play with others like in a string quartet. You can practice your own part with great resonating tones, but then when you meet the others it might not resonate with the chords so you need to listen and make your intonation accordingly.

Yes you should practice hitting the notes without sliding, but you must also be able to adjust the intonation in a very small fraction of a second.

If you play dodecaphonic music (twelve-tone music) you can not actually play it in tune if your violin is tuned in perfect fifths, so you need to tune the violin with a piano or an accordion. The good news is that you can still play the octaves above or under the open strings so they resonate with the open strings.

If you play music that is a mixture of twelve-tone music and "major/minor" music it can be hard to know how to intonate. Use your ear I would say.

Regarding Trevor Jennings' mentioning different intonation on the same note. Here is a very easy drill that demonstrates the point with ease: Tune the violin in perfect fifths, play this double stop: open G string and first finger on D string, the note E, so you get a nice sixth. Keep the first finger on that exact spot and play it together with the open A string. It is now out of tune, you need to intonate the E slightly higher.

With all that said, I would say that with my pupils I start having them listening to the open strings and practicing tones which resonates with those strings. I think that is a good start, especially for the third finger on D, A and E.

August 27, 2018 at 09:53 PM · My teacher told me early on "Practice itself doesn't make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect." Posture, position, hand attitude pitch and tone all have to be learned.

Over time I learned that my instrument would, and does, tell me when I am in or out of tune. Rings and resonances provide the checks. Of course, feedback loops and tools also help.

August 28, 2018 at 12:04 AM · Orchestra playing can also be a culprit when it comes to forming habits of slightly inaccurate intonation, as it can be harder to listen for that pinpoint accuracy while playing in the group.

August 28, 2018 at 09:20 AM · Each activity of the mind writes new roadways / paths in the mind - all of this converts to memory. So if we do it "wrong" we program our minds incorrectly [but perfectly so] therefore we can only 'fetch' perfectly wrong data from the memory banks so to speak ......And to correct that involves 'over-writing' and renewing those neural pathways....So Do It Right First Time ...imho

August 29, 2018 at 09:50 AM · From a purely physical point of view when placing an angled finger tip across adjacent strings how can a perfect fifth be played without taking into account it is not accurately and exactly horizontally adjacent ?

Obviously a minutely different part of the finger tip flesh needs to be on the adjacent string. By the way a very good article on the different tuning systems can be found on Bayla Keyes site at The Ideal Violinist.


August 29, 2018 at 01:12 PM · Laurie's column is great but it is really only the start. Slow practice, ear training, scales, arpeggios, Schradieck and Sevcik -- all this is essential, it's foundational.

But it needs to be pointed out that it's only the beginning. Once you are playing music with other people, once you are playing chamber music, once you begin to play highly chromatic late 19th century and 20th century repertoire, the decision about what note is in tune becomes incredibly complicated.

It's true that there is only one note, say a c sharp, that is perfectly in tune. But where exactly that C sharp is becomes a very interesting question. Here are some situations to think about.

1) (the easy one) In a piano trio, playing a c sharp minor chord. You will match the piano.

2) In a string quartet where you have an ascending melodic line in D major. You will generally (unless you're in one of those baroque ensembles) push that C sharp higher to make the melodic line sound sweeter.

3) But in the same movement of the same piece, if you are playing a C-sharp-E double stop as part of an A major chord, you will play that C sharp lower, at perfect pitch, so that it rings property against your open E.

4) You are playing an onstinato in Dvorak in a modulating passage and you're playing a C sharp that is really being used as an E flat, so the rules are different. Sometimes, sorry to say, the C-sharp will need to be slightly different from measure 132 to measure 133, because the note is serving different functions for different chords!

5) You're playing Dohnanyi, the passage is in Aeolian mode, and all of a sudden your C sharp is played against a G (tri-tone) as part of an eerie harmony. You really have to study it and think about how you want people to hear it. Sometimes it can take extended discussions to sort out how to anchor the intonation of music like this. Intonation becomes part of the whole discussion of how to be expressive. It is true, though, once you decide how it should sound, then there is only one "right" intonation.

6) You're the first violin playing Beethoven and you're playing a C sharp three octaves above middle C, you may play it just a teeny bit high in order for a line to stand out from the 2nd and viola who are also in the high register.

7) You're the viola in a string quartet and you have to choose between a cellist who hears things on the low side (which is very common) and a 1st violinist who has a tendency to play a little sharp (which is also common). How do you fit in?

Say one passage you're doubling the cellow an octave above; next passage you're playing thirds with the violin. My point is you can't just play the perfect tempered pitch and hang your partners out to dry -- you have to fit your intonation into what other people are doing, sometimes when you don't even agree with what they're doing!

8) You're playing in the 1st violin section of an orchestra playing Mahler, a gorgeous and very exposed little melody, and you know your section, led by your concertmaster, is playing a little sharp, you have to blend in and match.

So my point is, it was easy for Heifetz to say there is only one pitch that is ever right. Heifetz was a soloist. He was playing with a piano, or he was playing with an orchestra, but what Heifetz said was a C sharp WAS a C sharp in the context of where he was playing.

If Heifetz had played 2nd violin in the Guarneri Quartet, he would have more subtle ideas about intonation I'm sure.

So when you think about all the complexity of intonation, you really can't just plop down your finger into the "right" place. Your job doesnt end there. If you are not a soloist, who have to be always listening to the musicians around you and thinking about how to make the composer's music as beautiful as you can.

August 29, 2018 at 05:28 PM · In short, intonation is subjective....Alexander Schneider 'claimed' during one of his lectures at Univ of Buffalo, when the Budapest Qt was in residence that he couldn't stand playing with piano because of the clash with mean-tone tuning....and as mentioned by others, there is personality in tuning....most stringers love to raise the leading tone and 4ths and 5ths certainly DO reveal accuracy.

August 29, 2018 at 09:31 PM · It can be even more complicated. There can be a situation where two players play a different C sharp and that is the only solution which sounds right. Strange? Not at all when you look at the circumstances. It can happen in a string quartet this way:

Let's say there is an A major chord which is resolved into a D major chord next bar. The chord is a sustained note, bass note A in cello, the third C sharp in viola and the fifth E in the second violin. In order for that sustained chord to sound and resonate right the C sharp should be slightly low. In the meantime the first violin plays a cadenza like type of thing with many notes and at the end of the bar plays a C sharp which is resolved to a D in next bar. This C sharp should be slightly high.

If the first violinist plays a C sharp exactly one octave higher than the viola's C sharp it sounds out of tune because you will hear it as a leading tone which leads to D, and that sounds right if the C sharp is high. If on the other hand the viola player plays a C sharp which will be as high as the leading tone in the 1st violin it will make the A major chord sound out of tune. The magic of perfect intonation appears if the viola player plays a low C sharp and the 1st violinist plays a high C sharp.

August 29, 2018 at 09:38 PM · Yes thank you Lars. It is the musical equivalent of Greek columns. Because of the way our eyes work, in order for them to appear perfectly straight they have to be slightly curved and skewed. It's extremely complicated. Modern architects only figured out how the Greeks did it in the early 20th century.

This is why in string quartets two people can be certain they're playing in tune -- and in fact they are -- and it still doesn't sound right. Short of a really great understanding of acoustics and how human hearing works, all we can do is keep trying it and adjusting until it sounds right to us. And then as we get experience, the adjustments happen more organically.

August 30, 2018 at 03:10 AM · Laurie, this is a great blog, which I'm posting for my University students. I especially like what you said about being careful about how one corrects intonation - the quick, intuitive fix (aka fudge into tune) is often the culprit of many problems. I had a teacher who said to me once that it's the beginning of my notes that need to be in tune, not where I ended up. This stung, but it turned around this bad habit I had of autocorrecting. These days, I use the tunable app a lot. For one, I'm trying to play tempered all the time, and secondly it shows you the history of your intonation. It's allowed me to see patterns, like I tend to be sharp in certain regions (also up high, like you Karen - I think this is most everybody) and flat in others. The app also lets you record yourself and play it back with the tuner on so you can see where your most egregious notes are after you have played an entire passage. The reasons we play out of tune can be varied I think, and hearing is the most important component, but not the only one. A few years back I wrote an article for ASTA Journal about different ways to practice intonation while checking mental imaging, proprioception, tension, and of course hearing. Link is here:

August 30, 2018 at 07:55 AM · Regarding Quartet playing; I did read that playing with vibrato is the real culprit of not sounding in tune. This does make some sense from an acoustic point of view.

Stewart B.Sc (Hons) Applied Physics

August 30, 2018 at 03:01 PM · Thomas, those are great examples!

Susanna -- "the beginning of notes" need to be in tune - I like that idea!

Also, yes, it is physically very possible to play fifths in tune with one finger on adjacent strings (and with two as well) you just have to adjust the angles of your fingers and hand and get comfortable with feeling the strings on different parts of your fingers than what you may be accustomed to.

August 30, 2018 at 03:40 PM · What is accurate intonation? Consider intonation when playing with a piano versus a trio of stringed instruments. Also consider just intonation and equal temperament and incorporate this into your practice. Playing in tune requires good listening skills especially when playing with other instruments.

August 31, 2018 at 12:13 PM · Intonation--achh! I finally did what my teachers told me to do for years. I stopped playing music and started playing loooong notes, first single, then double stops--did it for months. Seriously, what else do I have to do? Gradually, I started playing notes (Bach, of course--don't have an accompanist), ever so slowly. Low and behold, I found I could play stuff I never could play before,and my fiddle was ringing and vibrating like crazy. And, after all this paying attention to the left hand, I found my bow arm and grip had magically evolved, so that all the fancy bow stuff which had been pretty much impossible before was now attainable. Moral of the story? Do what your teacher tells you--that's why you pay them!

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