yes, you have intonation problems,,,,

November 8, 2006 at 04:57 AM · 2 issues that come up often when reviewing violin playing is (1) musicality and (2) intonation.

without actually attending a play, almost always safe to critique with,,,the playing can be improved with more work on musicality and intonation:), like other parallel less and exercise more, will you?

i know better not to touch musicality, not with a 12 foot bow even if one day i know what it is. but intonation perhaps needs a revisit:)

if we miss notes all over, even i can see that labelled as a problem, especially if it is elders looking at students who are supposed to have problems. when the opportunity arises, use the 2 stamps!

if we miss some notes in a challenging fast piece, an intonation problem? well, by students, most likely, but by our experienced peers? are we really going to mumble or point the finger?

if we miss only couple notes, say with some zany paganinis,,,we scratch our heads and wonder,, hmm,, accident or a rooted problem?

by listening, how can we judge if the false notes are due to poor execution or simply bad sense of pitch? bother to discriminate or one label covers it all?

if the notes call for more robust broad effect and we come up with a mouse,,,dynamic or intonation?

what is the problem and when does a problem become a problem? :)

Replies (30)

November 8, 2006 at 05:07 AM · I think the question is about how to tell when out of tune notes are a fluke or a trend. A momentary lapse, or a general moral weakness? :)

I feel more comfortable making that judgment call the more experience I have playing and listening. Maybe it's like a psychiatrist who by now is used to hearing a certain pattern of problems, but at first just said, "Wow, you're really screwed up!"

When I hear someone, I am usually comfortable with their pitch concept or I'm not. If I am, and I'm never distracted, then great! If I am, but I'm distracted here and there by pitch issues, then I figure they're having a bad day or they just didn't prepare well. Then there are folks that I figure will never sound in tune to me.

Usually people are honest with themselves when they hear recordings of themselves. I know it's illuminating for me. Either you like your pitch with a few exceptions or it's a constant distraction.

November 8, 2006 at 01:04 PM · Hi Al,

This is an interesting post. I've seen many teachers point the fingers in the most general ways, saying "you have intonation problems" to students, as if the problem is that they can't play in tune. The reality is that they don't know HOW to play in tune. The teacher observing them (usually someone else's) doesn't want to try to suggest how to fix various problems because he/she doesn't know the student's playing well enought to say something that will correct the problem at the snap of a finger. Or, some are afraid of saying things like "You play out of tune because your thumb is in the wrong place" out of fear that the student will develop a bad habit on his/her own in trying to correct this (this is just one example).

Nonetheless, it's a touchy subject!


November 8, 2006 at 01:39 PM · Al - It is not clear whether or not you have a teacher, but it sounds as if you could use one. A teacher can observe your technique and tell you how to improve whatever intonation issues you have.

November 8, 2006 at 02:16 PM · And then there was the guitarist I met last night at a jam who clamped an electronic tuner onto my son's fiddle and said that not only is this visual tuning aid the best way to tune your strings to the group, but also that once tuned, it is the best way to play in tune as well.

When I said, "but the notes aren't always all the same in every scale" he looked at me like I was from Mars.

What this makes me wonder is whether when it comes to intonation, if we are in a cultural flux. I wonder if the equal temperament of the piano, and the quasi-equal temperament of the guitar affects people's expectations.

If you listen to a cajun fiddler it often sounds strange intonation-wise but that doesn't make it wrong.

If we are culturally predisposed to a certain set of pitch relations, do we tend to interpret other relations by stretching them in our brain?

Have you ever tried to sing or play the "1/4 tones" so to speak of Near Eastern music? (Not easy to do).

If you play the blue note nice and flatted, as it can be done to great effect, is this wrong (I say no).

If you get accustomed to palying a English (forked fingering) recorder with simplified (german) fingering, do you screw up your sense of pitches?

And some tunes are ambiguous, or can be interpreted two ways: Greensleeves for instance.

If the "third" makes for the major vs minor tonality, and the just third is flatter than the pythagorean, then this leaves a lot of room for interpretation in actual play.

There are many examples of this!

November 8, 2006 at 04:20 PM · nathan, daniel, tom and bilbo, thanks for the responses.

nathan, i am intrigued by the moral weakness mention :) you must elaborate.

also, don't all psychiatrists start, tell me about your childhood...

daniel, i think you have touched on some of IT. look at my case. don't really have a teacher (long story), but can "basically" tell pitch ok, especially in the context of a phrase where i "think" i can judge individual tone relatively. when a note is out of tone (to my ears), i knew it is because my finger is not 100% on. so i vibrato it into the slut:)

in the case of our kido, decent ear. every time i pick on her, IMMEDIATELY she repositions it to the perfect spot without any hint from me which way to go. so i ask her often, why? she just shrugs her shoulder as if the question is so obviously redundant. at least in her case, there may be couple factors:

1. her finger strength is not there yet, so sometimes her fingertip is not firmly planted? or got to the spot just teeny weeny late?

2. her fingertip sometimes may not have landed "square" on the string, creating less than perfect pitch?

3. not enough practice? knowing where to go, just not good at it yet.

4. she has rather long fingers and tend to land on the sharp side, esp with her ring finger.

5. moral issue?:) wait and see if i can get to it tomorrow or may be by tomorrow it will fix itself?

bilbo, what you are talking about is similar to another thread in which there was discussion on playing in a group and trying to reach a consensus tonally... a larger broader deeper context. obviously that is made tougher if we cannot competently handle "individual" intonation first. know what i mean?

now, cultural flux?:) that is on par with moral issues!

November 9, 2006 at 02:44 PM · I thought I had a good sense of pitch, until recently I spent a week in the pit with a director who apparently has perfect pitch. When I would hit what sounded OK to me, he would hiss "B! B! B!". This was no use at all; I was playing B. Which way am I off? We struggled through it, and then parted ways amicably. And he was friendly and positive when we weren't playing.

November 9, 2006 at 05:59 PM · This is why I am so adamant about the need for 4 fine tuners. So many violinists THINK they are in tune, when they are not. I have yet to mee a violinist who can consistently tune to within even +/- 5 cents using pegs, & if you tune high & pull, you just wear out the strings faster.

Everyone here gives me a hard time about this, but it is a simple truth. While the brain & fingers can compensate for an out of tune string, you can only do that so much. If one string is 5 cents flat, and another is 5 cents sharp, ,then the next day that is reversed, there is no way you can compensate and nail it.

Again, certain situtation call for more precision than others. Studio work (pop & country) is the most critical, followed closely by quartets & pit orchestras. In full orchestras, with no singer, there is much more room for "out ness" and in fact this can actually sound good. (a chorusing effect within the section)

Bilbo makes excellent points above, but they simply reinforce the idea that the open strings must be as exactly in-tune a spossible. If one is to gain mastery over all those subtleties he mentions, one must start with a consistant grid under the fingers. It can't be a litle different every day, with vague hopes that your brain & musicality will compensate.


Another thing that may be a factor is vibrato: Do you really nail the note, then vibrato completely underneath it, or do you slip just a little above the note as well? I never realized how much of a difference this makes until I started recording my violin on pop tunes. I was STUNNED at how out of tune I was. It was the vibrato, which I am now working on perfecting.

Also with vibrato: There seems to be two schools of thought on it. One says to start the vibrato with the note. the other (the way I was taught) says to hold the pure note for a 1/4 second, then start the vibrato. I strongly prefer the latter, musically, but also I think it helps establish intonation. -not just physically, but to the listener as well.

November 9, 2006 at 07:46 PM · Allan, I agree with the spirit of a lot of what you write, but not all the particulars. The pitch of the open strings is definitely important, and I tune carefully. You've never met anyone who can tune within 5 cents with pegs? They must not be trying very hard! :)

But the reality is that strings change due to so many factors. Even my E, on a fine tuner. I'll allow the possibility that violin strings in general would start more in tune with everyone using 4 fine tuners. Why should I disagree with something I haven't tried? But that factor is tiny compared with what someone does with his fingers afterwards. The best in tune players I've ever heard use one fine tuner, and I must assume that their strings behave as mine do. It takes years or decades to build that kind of hand-ear relationship, and if some on the forum get hot and bothered it's because your suggestion seems to trivialize that.

Speaking as a symphony player, I'm hurt at the suggestion that pitch isn't as important for me! :( What am I practicing it for? I don't think it's ever an option.

November 9, 2006 at 08:24 PM · It took me a long time to understand this, but part of the problem of playing in tune is that no one *really* plays in tune (in the sense of smacking your fingers down in exactly the right places all the time) -- but you can get very close from technique, muscle memory, etc, and then make up the difference by adjusting very quickly and spackling over the remaining cracks with vibrato. Personally, I find that it is necessary to have a concept of what the "correct" pitch is before playing a note, or else it's not possible (for me) to adjust quickly enough.

Recording yourself can be very humbling. I like Nathan's term "moral weakness" -- I've definitely had the experience of playing along, noticing intonation errors but thinking that they were small enough to go unnoticed, only to find on a recording that the errors were all too obvious. Good intonation really takes constant vigilance.

Hmm...this morning I pulled out my violin and had no problems tuning within 5 cents with my not-especially-well-adjusted pegs (and I'm just an amateur.) Of course, tuning the instrument is important. However, the conclusion I usually draw from recording myself and listening critically to intonation is that, yes, there are problems, and they aren't primarily because the instrument wasn't tuned accurately enough.

By the way, when I hear someone who checks their tuning on every note before starting their vibrato it drives me up a wall. It's like putting an accent on every note, and doesn't usually make musical sense.

November 9, 2006 at 08:10 PM · so that is what moral weakness is,,,,i thought it has to be a president and an intern:)

here is an article that i first saw on stringasylum, courtesy of kabal64...describing the "helpfulness" of the teachers...

November 9, 2006 at 09:43 PM · On the radio I just listened to Neil Young and he sounded out. Now there is some girls singer-songwriter with a texas twang that sounds nearly tone-deaf.

Now, how did you measure cents?

100 cents is 1/12 of an octave, right?

When that guitarpicker stuck that tunerthingie on my son's violin, the needle wandered all over the place as he was bowing, and plucking of course it was sharp at the pluck and flatter at the sustain.

If the needle of a tuningdevice wanders around during bowing, then presumably your bow is controlling pitch to some extent (duh, we all know this from experience). Furthermore, don't the tuners merely measure the fundamental? They can't measure sensible pitch or whatever you would call it.

That "chorus" thing must be what I notice with tuning double-string courses: that when you zero out the two strings perfectly, the whole instrument gets quiet. A slight out makes the combination more vibrant. But on certain frequencies (for instance the G on a mandolin) being out can make an obnoxious thrumming pulse.

5 cents. Hmmmm. Let's play with some maths.

Let's take that pesky major third.

Pythagorean third = (9/8)^2 = 81/64 = 1.265625

Equal Temperament third = [2^(1/12)]^4 = 1.259921

Just major third = 5/4 = 1.25

What are these in cents?

I can clearly hear the difference between the EQ temperament one and the pure third, especially against the tonic. I can hear the difference beween a narrow "pythagorean" leading tone and an equal one, so then I must hear the difference between an EQ temperament third and a pythagorean.

One more thing. If a tuniethingie wanders around while bowing, then it stands to reason that we need our ears/brains to tune an instrument well, because there is time integration to be done.




OK, now I remember.

It is all in the matter of


ln(a/b) = cents/1200* ln(2)

Or in other words to make EQ semitones, take exp{[LN(400) - LN(200)] / 12}


just harmonic 3rd = 386.3 cents

12EQ M3 = 400.0 cents

Pythagorean M3 = 407.8 cents


So, what do you know! That's more than 5 cents.

5 cents is pretty narrow.

I'm going to have to play with the guitar the back of a knife tonight. (Slide guitar).

November 9, 2006 at 08:48 PM · Bil/bo, can you explain for an non initiate just what this means. Is it that the interval of 1:3 is 1.25 'ish parts of an octave? I like your posts, but I have absolbutely no idea whats going on in this one. (Humble Sharelle, realising a use for the senior school maths that she avoided).

November 9, 2006 at 08:58 PM · > Is my maths bad?

Yes. You need to use log base 2.

November 9, 2006 at 09:20 PM · Thanks Peter; I fixed the post.

Sharelle. Yes, you got it.

For instance, a "just' third is a natural harmonic, where the ratio of the string vibrating lengths is 5/4. A 5th is a ratio of string lengths of 3/2, a 4th is a ratio of 4/3, which you will notice is simply the inverse of (3/2) times 2. That's the mathematical way of saying that the perfect 4th is the inverse of the perfect 5th.

Oh, and so to understand that pythagorean major third, and the maths writing:

You know that in maths, a carat "^" means "take to the power of" which means simply that the base is multiplied by itself that many times.

So, in pythagorean, when you play from the tonic to the 2nd, you are playing an interval which has a certain width which is proportional to the tonic. Then when you step to the third, you are stepping with that same proportionality, except that it is relative to the pitch of that 2nd. Therefore it is merely multiplying the frequencey by some constant, and then multiplying the new frequency ( the second) by that same constant. So, you multiplied twice, and it was the same constant.

The constant was 1/8. That's the 9/8. The 2nd is 1/8 higher in pitch than the tonic. You do that twice, so that is (9/8)*(9/8) which is written as (9/8)^2. 9*9 = 81. 8*8=64. So the final inteval from tonic to thrid is 81/64. On your calculator or long division, that is a decimal value of 1.265625...which is that much of a part of an octave as you say, where an ocatve is a ratio of 2:1

November 10, 2006 at 12:06 AM · A quick response to something Bilbo brought up:

1: Yes, it is VERY hard to hold an even pitch when bowing.Success depends upon both technique and the brand / gauge of string you use. Also, as strings age they begin to wander more. It is my current belief that the great violinists are aware of intonation control in both their right hands as well as in their left hands.

2: You need a very GOOD "intonationthingy." A strobe, or the new Peterson electronic strobe-simulator, are critical, becuse indeed they DO factor-in the harmonics. It is true that lesser tuners do not, and is a major weakness. My Peterson 490ST even does just-intonation and various degrees of stretch-tuning. It is a wonderful machine. Such tuners also have a bit of damping, to even-out the response. Lesser tuners usually have too much damping, or none at all.

There are also some software tuners that come close, (I helped design the one from Trillium Lane Labs) though I have yet to see one that is as accurate or as stabile as a real strobe.

FWIW, using Vision Titaniums (fairly pitch-stabile) and my Peterson, and bowing an open string as carefully as I can, I can tune to within ONE CENT. Every time, and it takes 10 seconds.

This may not be important to you, and that's OK, but it's worth mentioning.

November 9, 2006 at 09:26 PM · So Allan. You need to do a test for us with that Petersenthingie:

Get a friend to make up a blind test randomized appropriately to determine what the smallest cent difference as measured on the Petersen-thingie you can hear.

November 9, 2006 at 09:54 PM · I HAVE done this. Many, many times, with top session players. -that's why I was able to post the numbers that I already have.

I have also done countless, double-blind tests with groups of top engineers & producers to see what we all consider to be proper intonation (timing as well.) It is very time-intensive, but the folks in my industry are very concerned about this stuff. It's how we pay the rent.

Funny thing is, I never realized just HOW good some of those Nashville session players really were until I recorded myself on violin. Even just playing a simple line, I wasn't close. I sure THOUGHT I was.

Very, very humbling.

Note that Mark O'Connor uses four fine-tuners. It looks like he has the Harmonie tailpiece, but I haven't been able to confirm this 100% yet. From pictures, it looks like Aubrey Haney also uses four. The last time I recorded Allison Cornell (Shania Twain, etc) she had four, but at the time I didn't know to ask her about it.

I'm trying to find someone in the USA who sells those Clemente carbon-fiber fine-tuners (as they are ultra-light and maintain proper afterlength) but so far all my emails have gone unanswered. Weird.

November 9, 2006 at 09:45 PM · I still don't see log base 2 anywhere, but I'm just gonna assume you're right instead of checking it:)

Edit: ln(2) means log base e of 2.

November 9, 2006 at 10:36 PM · but wait a min,,,,

most people listening to you are not pitch perfect, made or born (i think saying most people are tone deaf is too much), if you are off just a little bit, especially in faster passages, does it make any practical difference? mind you, i said, a little bit :)

if violinists do not use vibrato, then i see more of an issue with all this :),,,

November 9, 2006 at 10:58 PM · No, it's only about perception. At the most basic level, "does it sound in tune," or maybe "does it sound pleasing." It's the same with rhythmic accuracy. That's where the artistry is, and maybe about 2/3 or the reason everyone doesn't sound the same, if you want to think of it in those terms.

November 9, 2006 at 10:54 PM · still jim, i think intonation is more strictly enforced than rhythm. you never hear,,,take care your musicality, intonation and ,,,,rhythm!

the first two are yankees and red sox,,,rhythm is pee wee league :)

November 9, 2006 at 11:00 PM · I don't want to get into proportions in the mix:)

November 10, 2006 at 06:36 AM · Peter wrote, "By the way, when I hear someone who checks their tuning on every note before starting their vibrato it drives me up a wall. It's like putting an accent on every note, and doesn't usually make musical sense."

Peter, it

It's not a question of checking, it's a question of musicality. Obviously a very subjective thing. Many people, myself and all my old cello teachers included, think a constant, immediate vibrato sounds bad. (The same holds true with singing.) Listen to "Amazing Grace" by Mark O'Connor. This is a "just violin" recording so it's easy to hear what he's doing. He doesn't play vibraot on all his notes, not even on some of the long ones. when he does vibrato, 95% of the time he holds a pure tone for a small time period. I think it's a beautiful performance, myself.

November 10, 2006 at 12:38 AM · Allan,

I'm sure it's a great performance. And from your description, it sounds like he's varying his vibrato to color certain notes, which is great. All I'm saying is that if you do the same thing with your vibrato on every note (whether it's a constant, unchanging vibrato, or starting bare and then adding vibrato, or whatever) then it loses musical meaning.

November 10, 2006 at 12:36 AM · Fair enough.

November 10, 2006 at 01:36 AM · Al, my background as a musician was rhythm n blues based before I started studying to be a classical violist. I'm among the weakest string players at the university, but I'm constantly surprised at how bad the other string players are with rhythm. I've heard people make excuses, but I think it's because string teachers don't focus enough on rhythm and meter.

November 10, 2006 at 01:44 AM · My teacher had to deal with a lot of bad habits I developed over a 30 year period of no lessons. My technique is very good in many ways, but generally uneven and inconsistent, and often 'almost' where it needs to be. Intonation was one area where I had been playing one thing and hearing another.

Recording my sound has been very helpful, in a cold water in the face sort of way.

But perhaps the most useful method was my teacher's suggestion to generate a drone with a tone generator, and play 3-octave scales, slowly, with the drone sounding throughout.

I created the drone using Audacity, the freeware audio editor. I has a 'generate' effect that can create a sine, square, or sawtooth wave. The sawtooth is the one to use. Generate a tone of a couple of minutes duration, and then use a 'loop' play setting in Audacity or whatever player you use to play it back.

Using the drone during scale practice has made a big difference in my intonation.

November 10, 2006 at 01:59 AM · amanda, allow me to take my foot out of my mouth:) ouch.

sometimes i let my kids to uh huh to pop music because i think it is easier to appreciate rhythm. but it is challenging since the lyric really pushes the limit:)

November 10, 2006 at 02:08 AM · paul, this is my outsider take on intonation...

i don't know about others or you, but for some reason, every time the tune is right on, my head feels brighter, lighter, a comfortable feeling, like easy breathing. any time when it is not, it feels very tight, pressured, a suffocating feeling. if you play slowly, i can almost visually see a peg goes into a slut perfectly with a good tune, and then if i hear a bad one, i want to run over and push it into the spot for you:) it is pretty visceral and i am not even a musician!

i bet some here have much more violent adverse reaction:)

November 10, 2006 at 02:31 AM · And "classical" string players are notorious for not being able to swing, which is one of the hardest styles to play together. It's a matter of playing something that's not there, at the same time.

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