December 5, 2006 at 10:23 PM · Try as I might, I just can't nail intonation. I play with a chromatic tuner on, and just in first position it seems like I can't just get the notes in-tune. In third position I have less difficulty, fortunately.

Mainly I am having trouble with the third and first fingers....

But ahhhh, I've played cello now for one week and already my intonation is better than on violin! It's driving me insane, 'cause I am beginning to feel like I'll never be able to play in-tune.


Replies (33)

December 5, 2006 at 10:38 PM · Greetings,

assuming thta your ear is okay then hitting wrong notes is a mchanical problem. It is posisbleyour hand is too near the scroll for starters. Try starting with the fourth finger to set your hand up. Getit in anice curved relaxed position. Your hand should stretch bak fro this. If ou are doing the opposite you will have problems. The next thing to recognize is that the elbow basically sits under the fourth finger. This emans that there is quite a bog differnece between oits position on g string and e stirng. It seems ot take some stuendts a long time to realize how importnat this movement is and veyr often frustrating intonation problems are simply cure dby a small movement to the right or left by the elbow.

But also recognize that ther eis an even smaller mpovement of the elbow as the fingers ascend on the same string 1234. That is . your elbow is further under the violin when you play a fourth finger thna when you play a first on the same string. This -micro- movement is rarley mentioned but is extremely im@portnat.

Now you just have to discipline yourself to practice slowly and in the correct order. By the latter i mean that one should hera a note befor eplaying it. in geenral stduents and many profesionals do the revrse. Then you listen to the note you play and aks ypursle if it is sharp or flat. Then strat again until you can nail it slowly and remian compeltley relaxed.

When you think you have nailed a note ir need sto be repeated many more times than you have misse dit or all you will have done is taught yourslef bad intonation. The next problem is to recognize that although a note may be in tune it is not quite ringing a swell as it could be. learn to listen really carefully to a note thta has a slightly dull sound and then move your finger a fraction of a fraction of a mm in either direciton and hear the same note with a more ringing sound. That is your violin`s intonation and is what ultimately you are aiming for. So lots of slow pracice.

There have been endless debates on the merits of usingg a tuner to check indfividual notes. I have no intention of entering into any more debate on this subject. I will just goive my opinon for whta ot is worth , which ain`t much. If you are using your tuner to tune individual notes you are on coimpletley the wrong path and shpould stop immediately.



December 5, 2006 at 10:55 PM · One of the things that helped me--I'm still far from perfect, is to play along with the keyboard--I record scales, double-stops, Wohlfahrt even on the midi and play along--and other music as well.

That micro-elbow adjustment Buri just gave I think will help me too... al

December 6, 2006 at 03:33 AM · Buri,

Excellent post, as always, esp the recommendation to hear the note before playing it (something I have mentioned myself, and a crtitcal concept when I teach voice students) I notice, though, taht yor spellnig seems to be gettig evn wores than in psat threds!



Another thing to be conscious of is your vibrato technique. A bad vibrato will obliterate intonation, no matter how precisely you position your fingers. For most genres, is is best if the actual note is the highest pitch heard, with the full vibrato ocurring below that pitch. This is because the brain (typically) keys-in on the highest pitch.

I originally developed my vibrato without this knowledge (three teachers somehow failed to mention it) I THOUGHT my intonation was excellent. I will never forget the shock of listening back to the first recording I made of myself playing violin (on top of a piano track) after thinking I was ready. It made me sick.

I have since been completely re-working both my vibrato & my left-hand position (along the lines Buri mentioned) It has been quite a struggle, but it is now just starting to come into focus, and it is paying off. I happened to record myself last night, on the same song, and the difference was amazing.

December 6, 2006 at 01:19 AM · Greetings,

< notice, though, taht yor spellnig seems to be gettig evn wores than in psat threds!


one would not have thought such a thing psooible



December 6, 2006 at 03:56 AM · Rachael, I use the midi to play note for note -- not to be confused with what Allan was talking about playing with the track. I do this because like him, sometimes it even sounds correct... al

December 6, 2006 at 06:10 AM · Practice drone scales. That is playing against open strings, in appropriate keys. Make sure you know what each interval sounds like, and then adjust to match these intervals. It will be pretty apparent when you are in tune, because there is a pureness in the double stop (it will have almost a buzzing harshness if its out of tune) and depending on which interval you are playing, you may listen for a resulting tone.

Check against open strings.

If you're playing in a key where you can't practice the scale against an open string, hold one note in the tonic chord (be certain that note is in tune) and check against the notes in the tonic chord.

Hearing and playing these intervals and chords in tune is the most essential part of playing the violin. This will become more apparent when you play solo Bach and Paganini, or when you play in a quartet.

December 6, 2006 at 10:19 AM · The concept of hearing the tone before you play it is immensely helpful -- and can be extended to colour, dynamics, attack etc. --, but sometimes is hard to get to. A colleague once helped me a lot by explaining to me, "While playing, imagine you`re singing along really loud". That hint got me on track.



December 6, 2006 at 11:36 AM · LoudLY.

Bad grammar, but good advice!

Singing along is also an excellent way to develop improvisation skills, for those palyers who are so inclined.

December 6, 2006 at 11:36 AM · .

December 6, 2006 at 12:02 PM · You really need to have an idea of the interval between one note and the next,thus hearing the note before playing it becomes simple.When you say you have trouble with the the third finger does this mean that you are placing only the third finger down rather than in a block.If so you could try using the finger pattern blocks until you get your intonation established.This will give note only each interval a relationship with its predecessor but also each finger.

December 6, 2006 at 12:05 PM · besides checking ag. open strings whenever possible as mentioned above, buri's line on "exploring" the neighborhood of the exact spot, bit up and bit down, helps you distinguish a perfect sound vs 99% perfect sound, assuming that you can tell the difference. yes, the resonance is very different, especially for some notes, depending partly on your finger execution as well as to some extent your violin.

simply check againist another source like piano or tuner helps, but not much if you cannot tell the 100 vs 99% spot.

the best situation imo is have someone else jump up and down next to you when you miss the spot, a good form of biofeedback that is not easy to arrange.

also, play SLOWLY to give your brain and ears time to learn and condition.

also, less is more. only first finger today on all 4 strings. tomorrow another pack. etc

December 6, 2006 at 01:44 PM · Hi, I'm not crazy about the technique of playing to a tuner. Those things can take a while to settle in, and if you notice, they can show pitch changes with when we start the bow, play near the tip, or do accents. Most of don't hear that stuff as being out of tune when it's happening. It may be that your ear more naturally hears intonation in the cello range. It also may be that your cello is in better adjustment, it's proportions are more correct or the strings are fresher. If your violin strings are old, I'd suggest getting new ones. If you're not sure you can determine whether your strings, or your fingerboard, neck and bridge assembly for that matter, are true, find a really skilled player to test it out, or a good luthier. If anything about your strings or violin construction makes it so that you don't get perfect fifths directly across on each string, you're working against a big liability. Luck! Sue

December 7, 2006 at 06:27 AM · Rachael, what has helped me more than anything is this: if descending or changing strings, always place the next finger well in advance. Play slowly, working out exactly where to place the next finger well before you lift the 'old' one or change strings.

Ascending, use the same principle, but have the next finger just hovering above the spot it needs to come down onto.

December 7, 2006 at 11:52 AM · Hi! I know exactly what you mean! I played the cello for a long time until I took up the violin. No problem what so ever to play in tune at the cello, but another story on the violin...

But, my advice to you:

1.Practise the Flesch scale system or likewise in all keys every day. Dull, but effective.

2.Sharpen your hearing by covering the right eye with a pirates-patch. Put an earplug in your left ear. That makes your hearing more "objective" (it has something to do with the function of the brain).

3.Skip the vibrato totally, until you´re sure that your intonation is excellent.

4. Always study your musical pieces with "open string checks", i. e. if it sounds like a chord, and your violin "sings" with beautiful overtones, then it´s right. If it sounds like the fire alarm = wrong.

5. Don´t forget that the piano is a bad companion to naturally tuned instruments as violins. Sometimes you have to adjust the fingers not to sound "pitchy" while playing with pianoaccompaniment, due to the tempered tuning of the piano.

6. Remember that some keys are badly adjusted to the violin itself. E. g. the E major and so on. In such cases the scordatura tuning can help, but remember that the scordatura creates tensions in the instrument, so if you got a really old and fragile instrument, discuss it with your luthier first. Good luck!

December 7, 2006 at 01:30 PM · Scordatura does indeed put a lot of extra tension, and I would generally avoid it! Some keys aren't so friendly to a violin, but they can all sound beautiful in the end. I like the more conventional suggestions above. :)

December 7, 2006 at 05:52 PM · Pirate Jenny - by K.Weill / B.Brecht

December 7, 2006 at 08:38 PM · Scordatura ???

I have never heard of this, and I have studied many books & articles on intonation & tuning. Is this a violin-specific thing?

Where can I read about it?

December 7, 2006 at 08:43 PM · Greetings,

its just tuning the strings to differet pitches. Paginini is reputed to have use dit a lot. In the d mjor concerto he tuned his violin up a semintone and the orchestra played in e flat but the fingering remained the same or was it the other way round.

Anyway, you get the idea?

I think a recent recording that use sit is Midori and Nobuko Imai recoridng of the Mozart double cocnerto.



December 7, 2006 at 09:11 PM · It's common in Baroque music and some fiddling traditions, and not just for the violin. The Bach Fifth Cello Suite was originally written in scordatura tuning, with the A string tuned down to a G.

There are also a few prominent examples in romantic and modern rep -- Bartok's Contrasts has a passage with the violin tuned in diminished fifths, Mahler 4 has a concertmaster solo with nonstandard tuning. For those you usually keep a second instrument handy for the passages in question, but in the Schumann Piano Quartet the cellist is supposed to retune the C string down to a B-flat in the middle of the piece.

December 7, 2006 at 09:52 PM · OK, but what is it for? Some kind of double-stops or chords?

-And what does this have to do with the key of "E" ? (or is that a separate issue?)

December 7, 2006 at 11:00 PM · I think that the person who first brought it up had the idea of changing the open string pitches to better match the notes of the key, to make it easier to play in the key in question (personally, for practice purposes I would find this confusing.)

In musical contexts, there are a variety of reasons. It changes the tone color of the instrument (in some cases by a lot) and, yes, it often makes certain doublestops and chords easier. In the case of the Schumann, the tuning extends the range of the cello (I guess he got carried away writing the piece.) In a folk piece you might be using one or more strings as drones in which case retuning would free up your fingers for the other strings.

December 7, 2006 at 11:19 PM · Greetings,

ion Paginis case it made for more briliance by tuning the fiddle up. I think there are soem apssage sin the violinny Brandeberg that are theoretically (but not reall) impossible to paly as written but absolutley udner the hand if the tuning of the string is changed. Bach woudl have been well aware of this practice through the influence perhaps of Biber . I am not well up on this are aof music but I think one of his sonatas is famous for using scodature.

tehre is also a piec eby Heifetz that reuqires detuning the g string for a few nots. I don`t know if thta counts.



December 8, 2006 at 12:00 AM · Very interesting.

We use alternate tunings on guitar all the time, but I would have never thought to do so on a violin. I imagine up or down-tuning the whole instrument would give a useful color change, esp in a recording situation (lightbulb goes off above Allan's head)

Does anyone know, with a "standard" modern instrument (not a heavy trade violin) how high is considered unsafe? is a full tone OK?

December 8, 2006 at 01:13 AM · I'd be more worried about breaking the strings (especially the E) than about damaging the instrument. The aforementioned Mahler solo raises the pitch a whole step (I think) so that ought to be okay.

Apologies for derailing this thread...

December 8, 2006 at 01:45 AM · Alright, I've been trying these various things...and my intonation is still blargh.

And it seems to be getting worse; I used to be able to nail the first finger in first position and fourth finger every time, but now they're out of tune more than not...

Oh, sweet sorrow, to be in love yet fail miserably :P

December 8, 2006 at 03:30 AM · Greetings,

you may not have thought of this, but it is quite possible that your hearing is getting better and now you are simply more aware of what you hav ebeen doing all along. The only way is up!



December 8, 2006 at 03:37 AM · My hearing is getting better, I can tell, but I am using the chromatic tuner as a crutch to check my intonation, so I know it's not because my ear is becoming better that I am getting worse at intonation, heh.

December 8, 2006 at 04:13 AM · Until you stop using your crutch I'm afraid you will remain disabled.

December 8, 2006 at 05:01 AM · Rachel, Brian is correct, and here's one of several reasons why:

You can't possibly learn, nor even CHECK, with a chromatic tuner, because it is set for equal temperment (as on a piano) which is a compromise tuning for fixed-intonation instruments. I allows a piano, guitar, etc to be tuned so that they are equally out-of tune in every key, but never truly in tune in any key.

What we play is called "just intonation" and it is what sounds best to the ear. this is an oversimplification, but all you need to know right now.

One could learn using a special tuner that shows just-intonation (by setting it for the specific key you are playing in) but it would still be difficult, since it is very hard to draw an even note on the violin. In fact, as someone noted above, a beautiful note is definitely NOT an even note. As you vary bow pressure, the pitch changes slightly, and if you don't vary bow-pressure, you are not creating music.


For the record, I tune my open strings with a just-intonation strobe, which also shows stretch tuning (an $800 Peterson strobe) but I would never PRACTISE with it.

You may want to do some listening & thinking, and determine if the problem lies with your ear or your fingers. i suspect, as Buri wrote, that your ears have now developed to the point that your fingers are no longer keeping up. You may simply need patience and slow, careful practise.

December 8, 2006 at 06:09 AM · It can be a slow proccess. In Ricci's book on left hand technique he has "Practice Prescriptions" in the back. "For intonation: constant vigilance."

December 8, 2006 at 01:52 PM · Actually I don't think "we" necessarily play in "just" intonation either. The just major third is very low. It sounds sweet in a chord but rather flat in a melodic ascending series. So depending on the mode of the piece, it may be really good and the best choice, or not so good and a poor choice. In fact you might modulate between the two in some pieces! (This last statement may be blasphemy of not. But I know I've heard this modulation happen).

In fact intonation is not easy and never will be "easy" because it is contextual. For some that context is simply effortless, which makes it seem easy.

When you play a simple round or Canon with a friend, you start to feel these adjustments. If you do it often enough with your ears flapping, the nuances become apparent, especially with respect to thirds. At first even the 5ths, 4ths and octaves can be difficult to match.

Even if you have "good" intonation, a new piece of music may throw you off. I can only speak for myself and my son here. Last night we took out a piece for two violins and ran it through about 10 times and it was really rough (mostly me) at first, but got quite harmonius after 1/2 hour of iterations.

Some teachers talk about "blocking" or the frame of the hand and that has a big influence on how close you land on that first go around.

Regardless of whether you are using equal temperament, just intonation, 1/6 comma meantone or pythagorean or whathaveyou as a reference, the basic block is really the same. In other words these variations from one tuning system to another are very fine scale relative to the overall distance between notes. Of course there are some outstandingly different notes--the true minor 7th for instance--but for 5ths, 4ths, 2nds and 7ths and even thirds and 6ths, the variations in finger location are smaller than the difference between semitones--by about a factor of 5 or more. This is not to discount the importance of hearing those differences. Rather, it is to give you a sense of the importance of basic hand shape. (For the sake of completeness, I am writing in the context of european/american music. The tuning and intonation of other music, arabian, javanese...many others, is full of additional intervals not recognized in this discussion).

December 8, 2006 at 01:53 PM · I'm procrastinating writing all sorts of things which I should be writing, but am trying to get myself into a writing groove by easing into it via posts here. So I won't reply in detail - like I want to - but will at least point out one vital issue. Tuners train you to WATCH your intonation. The idea with playing the violin, or any microtuned instrument, is to LISTEN to your intonation. Pre-hearing is absolutely on the money. I'm just trying to add some fodder to the anti-tuner rationales.

It's amazing how often I've seen students seek any and all manner of visual feedback (tuners, teacher's facial expressions, yowling cats...) but resist the simple act of LISTENING TO THEMSELVES.

December 8, 2006 at 02:43 PM · Hi,

You know, this issue was discussed in Flesch's Art of Violin Playing more than 3/4 of a century ago, and the bottom line doesn't change I think, or so is experience as a teacher and player teaching me. First, you have to know the components of intonation:

1- Do you hear in tune? If not, that can be learnt.

2- Do you know how your hand is shaped? (where the semitones and tones are)

3- Do you know how your hand is getting from one place to the next on the violin? (intermediate notes are key here)

4- Is your bow in the right contact point and are you sure you are not pressing? Pressing bends the string out of tune, whereas the wrong contact point does not permit true vibrations.

5- Is there anything in your setup that is interfering with your ability to hear? (i.e. excess tension in your neck that falsifies hearing by putting extra stress on the eardrum, etc...)

6- Are you hearing and fixing every note as it is played? People concentrate less and less on this but this is an essential. In first position the difference between a note in-tune and not is about 1/6 of a millimeter. The distance gets smaller as you go up. So, you have to listen and fix. Great players do that and you can hear it at all times.

7- Are you practicing well - slowly - with the things that will permit you to control the movements at speed? Fast playing is slow practice speeded up. Important to remember.

8- This is an odd one that extends on Emil's post above about listening: is your mind clear when you play? If you talk to yourself, than you create either doubts that can affect you physically and also, you distract yourself from actually hearing what is coming out of the instrument. Milstein said it well in the Art of Violin about this: (translated from French) "When I play, I cannot think about what I have to do. Either one plays, or not. If you start thinking..." Thinking and talking to yourself is a distraction that inhibits your abiltiy to hear, make corrections, etc. Therefore, your mind should be clear.

9- Lastly, the law of least effort. If you try to force your hands to do something, they won't. Let them do it.

My own two cents on the matter, but targetting this seems to make major strides in both my playing and that of my students.


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