Intonation question for a beginner

January 5, 2008 at 02:02 AM · I'm a bit confused about intonation. What exactly is intonation? I wikipedia it, and it says it's the players ability to recognize pitch accuracy.

I used to play the piano, so I never really came across this term, so please forgive my ignorance. I read on the discussion board that alot of people have alot of problem with intonation. Does this mean you're playing on the wrong tone and not realize it? I'm a bit confused if that's the case, how is that possible??

I'm an absolute beginner in violin, so maybe I'm getting this all wrong. My trouble is, my finger doesn't press down onto the correct position, and I'm out of tune, but I can hear it and therefore move my fingers position accordingly to adjust it, is this what people mean by working on their intonation?

Replies (31)

January 5, 2008 at 02:54 AM · Intonation is putting your finger on a string. To get a desired tone or sound you need to put finger in right location on a given string. The 4

violin strings are (from low to high pitch) G; D;

A; E. If violin is in tune and you bow the G string without touching it (i.e. open) the sound will correspond to that of hitting G key on piano. Slide your finger down the G string a bit and you get same as piano A. You mst remember where to put finger to do so the next time. Now slide down a bit further and you get B; a bit further and you get C. Similarly you can do the

same on D string, A string and E string. Violins are tuned to perfect 5th's. Hope this helps.

January 5, 2008 at 03:25 AM · Yes, it's the player's ability to recognize the accuracy of pitch, but it doesn't end there.

When students say "practice intonation" we mean exactly as you are doing. Place the finger and if it's wrong, correct it.

January 5, 2008 at 04:19 AM · Thanks!!! Well, in that case, I'm quite horrible. :P

January 5, 2008 at 11:28 AM · Remember that intonation on a violin will usually be slightly different to a piano. A piano is tuned in such a way that it is all slightly "out of tune" so that it is possible to play in all the keys without it sounding horrendous.

January 5, 2008 at 01:52 PM · True vs. tempered intonation is the least of the problems that a pianist turned violinist/violist/cellist faces. In my experience, string students who are also pianiists (even very good ones0 sometimes have unbelievable intonation problems.

After all, intonation is something the piano tuner does for them, and then they adjust theiir miinds to whatever their pioanos deliver until the next tuning.

On a bowed string instrument, intonation is somethiing one does continuously - multiple times each second - it is JOB ONE. JOB TWO is sound quality and that is the job for the right hand - as well as the left.

A pianist-turned-violiniist should play scale segments on the piano and immediately reproduce them on the violin. It can take a long time to get one's fingers familiar with the spacing required (in first position on a string instrument) and then even longer to relate the changing finger spacing to the arm position when moving to higher positions.

Eternal vigilence over your intonation is required. There is no violin tuner but yourself!

January 5, 2008 at 02:51 PM · pm chu, i think you have asked the right questions, the same one i have asked all along in the beginning when one of my kids started playing violin (the other plays piano, reluctantly:)

funny that andrew mentioned the comparison with piano because i always tell my violin kid that unlike your older sister's piano, your violin is like an out of tune piano every time you pick it up and it is up to you to "tune" it right with each note.

there are reading materials on what andrew said in terms of true vs tempered, which is good to know as a theoretical background on the differences in intonation between piano and violin. practically, for violin intonation, you really need to listen so that every note on your violin fits within a framework in the context of your violin, and not against a piano's system. later, when you work on double stops, you will come across situations where the same "note" needs to be placed/played a little differently when playing 2 different sets of double stops but sharing the same note. the bottom line i think is that when all is said and done, the note has to sound "comfortable" to a listener with a good ear. to develop that, you need time for trial and error.

with better violins, often the "correct" note causes a bigger resonance than the neighboring "almost correct" ones. this is a feature that you can listen for and also "feel".

agree with the above that, just like learning anything that requires attention/thoughts, the slower you build your system of intonation (assuming you are still alert:), the more solid the system.

below is a clip of my kid playing a simple piece that is very difficult to sound "right". it is a good demonstration on intonation on when she got them "correct" and when she got them "almost correct". in her case, i believe that when she was off, it is a matter of techniques (missing the exact note even though knowing how it should sound correctly, like you said in your questions)

pm, you are lucky to have found this site at the very beginning of your violin saga, but i also feel sorry for you for having found an instrument that "almost correct" can mean life or death:):):)

January 5, 2008 at 03:33 PM · In my opinion, there is one false idea about pitch that has caused the greatest amount of grief and frustration amongst violinists: the idea that there is one pitch for a note, which, if you get it every time that note occurs, will result in good pitch. Nothing could be further from the truth! Prove this to yourself by playing a double stop of open G with E on the (first position) D string; adjust the E until it blends perfectly with the open G. Then play that E with open A. It will be out of tune! In order to make it in tune with the open A you will need to raise it. So why would anyone want to use a device (a so called "tuner") which supposedly tells you when you are playing THE in tune E? The whole point is that playing the same E in every situation will *guarantee* bad pitch.

Now that I've vented my anger against these destructive machines, I need to offer a positive suggestion.

The violinist who develops beautiful intonation is developing not one, but three, ear training skills:

1. Melodic listening, the ability to choose the pitch that makes the most pleasing interval with the pitch that preceeded it.

2. Harmonic listening, the ability to choose the pitch that makes the most pleasing interval with the key note. (If someone is playing a measure of Beethoven Romance No. 2, that measure being in the key of Db Major, he holds the key note, Db, in his memory and uses it as the tuning reference for the notes in that key.) Also the ability to hear when the two notes of a double stop "blend".

3. Resonance listening, the ability to hear subtle changes in the timbre, or "vowel sound", which are caused by the subtlest of pitch changes.

One of the most important ways of cultivating these listening skills, and aesthetic choices, is hearing mass quantities of the highest level intonation. Intonation is an art which, like all art, depends upon cultivating a sense of what is beautiful to you and delights you. When a student, eagerly and daily, listens to lots of Heifetz recordings, it usually shows in the beauty of the student's playing.

January 5, 2008 at 05:22 PM · Al Ku- Thanks for sharing your daughter's video, I'm speechless!!! It's very inspiring!! I wish I was exposed to different instruments and get to pick what I waned to play when I was a kid!!

How many years has she been playing? It's so nice! I can't comment on her intonation because I am still learning, but I'm very jealous!!

About tuning my violin, this has gotta be the hardest thing for me since I started learning. Like everyone said, I'm used to this being done for me, it's almost impossible for me to tell if it's slightly out of tune. My violin teacher told me to listen to A and E strings (open) and listen for the fifths (and I was like, oooookkkkkkk, what the?) Even when I was playing piano, or when I was singing at the university choir, harmony is like my sore subject. If an alto stands next to me, I can barely sing the melody, I'm that bad :(

January 5, 2008 at 05:51 PM · pm chu, you should pay more attention to what mr steiner has said in his post because one, he knows what he is talking about and two, there are lots of mentioned issues to be confronted when you develop further. one thing he has touched on (angrily according to him:) is the gold standard of intonation for a violinist. to put it simply, it is not piano or an electronic tuner, but a moving target because it takes a long time of listening to great violinists to help develop that acoustic paradigm, if you will.

one time i read in ?business week about ?meadowmount (a high pressure cooker camp for aspiring prof young talents) that during practice, the teacher would walk around and on purpose turn the pegs to put your violin out of tune while you are still playing, to see if you can quickly readjust and continue. as you can imagine, if you just remember the locations of your fingers on the fingerboard, you will be deadmeat. you have to use your ears and instinct to march on.

pm, intonation ( i mean good intonation:) does not come easy to any beginner, so don't be too paranoid about it which may make things worse. if you think you will be wrong, you will:) first learn tune all 4 open string really well and build from there.

good luck. may pain and suffering accompany you in this interesting journey but don't lose hope and optimism in the end of that long tunnel:)

January 5, 2008 at 06:06 PM · Oliver, could you expound on this, I find it almost hard to believe.

My first teacher (she moved) used to pound out notes on a piano and have me match them, is that bad? From what others are saying about the tuning of a piano it sounds like it would be out of tune a bit.

Is this true of electric keyboards too? What are they tuned to?

January 5, 2008 at 06:32 PM · John, I would like to hear Oliver elaborate on that too.

As you probably know, keyboard instruments have the intervals adjusted so that every interval sounds in tune, or in tune enough, in every key.

If you could reproduce that with violin, you would expect it to sound as in tune as a piano. I think what is happening in Oliver's illustration using the E and open G, is that we are best able to hear in-tuneness in terms of Pythagorean system of intervals, so when we try to adjust something to "absolutely in tune" that system is what we are aiming at. When we listen for best intonation prior to comparing it with open A, we are hearing best Pythagorean intervals, which won't work with what we want to do with the open A. This makes sense because Pythagorean intervals is an expression of actual physical properties, and of course the same physics governs our hearing; the physical mechanisms in the ear, and I assume the physics of the brain itself.

January 5, 2008 at 06:17 PM · As you can see, PM Chu, this is a hot topic for musicians in general (aside from keyboardists :P), and it doesn't take long for the conversation to veer in the direction of "equal," "just," "natural," "Pythagorean," etc. etc.

I'd venture to say: keep Mr. Steiner's "Melodic/ harmonic/ resonance" listening skills in mind from the beginning, but if you're just trying to find the _basically_ correct place to put your finger down on the string, checking with a tuner or a piano (one that's in tune!) is a good place to start. If you can play in tune with a piano, that's a very solid accomplishment.

The main thing that we all try to do is to train our ears, not only our fingers (although that's a huge project as well).

January 5, 2008 at 06:57 PM · John Platen wrote: "My first teacher (she moved) used to pound out notes on a piano and have me match them, is that bad? "

Yes, indeed!

I could add to what I wrote in my previous post by saying that all I've described does not involve intellectual and verbal thinking. Rather, it is more like having exquisite taste in clothing, wine etc. The exquisite taste is cultivated by repeated exposure to the finest examples. The three listening skills use three different references. Sometimes a violin student will listen with great concentration to the interval between two succesive notes, yet he hears that the pitch isn't as beautiful as it could be. Then he succeeds in finding a more pleasing pitch, not by concentrating harder on the interval, but by shifting his point of reference from interval to harmony. He listens to the note he is playing, with reference to the key note, rather than to the preceeding note. The good news is that there is no decision making process involved. He simply plays what sounds prettiest to him........but what sounds prettiest to him is informed by exquisite taste, cultivated by repeated practice in using each of the three listening references, and by hours of hearing the greatest artists do this.

January 5, 2008 at 06:12 PM · PM,

What you really need is for your teacher to explain what it means to play in tune. All of us have had teachers that said things like "play better in tune" without really explaining it. Your teacher needs to give you a clear concept of what that means...or you must find another. For beginners, I'm not sure it helps to point out differences between the different types of tuning/intonation. These are for more advanced players.

For my students, I give them a priority list: first the perfect intervals MUST be in tune. Then we worry about the imperfect intervals. You may not know what these terms mean, but you teacher should explain them. And again, if your teacher can't or won't explain these terms, it's time to look for one who can.


January 5, 2008 at 09:07 PM · While what Mr. Steiner has written is indeed true, it is quite sophisticated, and not relevent for a beginning student who does not know what intonation means.

At the beginning it is sufficient to be able to "play in tune" by matching the frequencies of the fundamental tones as played on a tempered ("relatively in-tune") piano. Later on (much later) it is something else to match the intonation of a string ensemble, like a string quartet. Finally, at some later time, trying to "lead the intonation" of an ensembls is an even higher level of endeavor. And, as great soloists do, sometimes exagerating the intonation, yet remaining within the "harmonic envelope" of an ensemble (like a symphony orchestra) is at an even more advanced, and sophisticated level.

Learning to hear "fifths" for tuning the instrument can be helped by buying a digital tuner (like a Korg-30) and tuning the strings using the meter and lights and then carefully listening to the fifths you have tuned for each string. While they may not be harmonically (mathematically) exact they will be close and give you a starting point for trying to perfect the harmonic resonances of the "perfect fifth" by slight adjustments from there.

January 6, 2008 at 02:44 AM · There are a series of videos by Todd Ehle on playing in tune on youtube, organized over at

Fiddlers Cove that may help beyond the good information here. You may wish to review the vid on tone production as well.

Also, there will be some others appearing there soon.

January 5, 2008 at 11:26 PM · Andrew Victor wrote: "While what Mr. Steiner has written is indeed true, it is quite sophisticated, and not relevent for a beginning student who does not know what intonation means."

I mostly disagree. It is true that I would not explain it to a young beginner in the words I used here, but I would start them with these concepts from day one. I don't want them going up the wrong path by seeking one C# which is in tune for all cases.

I would have a tiny little beginner child listen to Heifetz...they respond to him!

I introduce harmonic listening to young children by playing a game with them: I sing an improvised melody. Before singing it, I tell them: "When I point to you, immediately sing a note to finish my melody." Then I stop midway through the melody, and point to the student. Without use of analytical language that would be more appropriate for an adult, they are learning to identify the key note.

I introduce resonance listening by asking them to imagine that the violin has a mouth. The mouth is changing its shape to form different vowels. The student sings Ahh-EEE-oh-aw, and feels his mouth changing shape. I play a pitch, and then slowly move it very slightly lower and back. I ask them to imitate what vowels the violin is saying. (Here, just about every answer is correct, because the violin can't do a perfect imitation of a person saying various vowels in a slur.) I use the game to heighten their awareness of vowel get them started in listening to their timbre changing as a result of the smallest of pitch changes.

There are more games one can invent, to start a student on the right listening paths.

There is no reason that the youngest and most beginning student should be mis-led by being asked to emulate a piano's pitch, or comply with the dictates of an electronic oscillator.

I believe that whatever rung on the ladder of highest ideals a student has reached, the teacher is responsible to see that the student is at all times on that ladder, and not on another.

January 6, 2008 at 01:29 AM · mr steiner, even though i agree the "best" way to learn is through the approach that you seem to strongly advocate, it is possible that people with lesser talent do not gravitate toward your studio and thus you may not have been thoroughly exposed to what is out there:)

my dear father, for instance, is 100%, certified tone deaf! my dear wife who does not read this forum is a close second!

so, i would venture to say, for blissful few like my folks, to be able to tune nicely to piano/tuner is probably not a bad thing. it will be a miracle. but, for them to struggle to be a serious violinist can be painful...not unlike a guy with an indifferent nose who aspires to be a perfume tester...

January 6, 2008 at 01:49 AM · I agree with Mr. Steiner. Honestly, all of this really came to life for me when I went to see sessions in L.A. In those sessions the last voice was almost always the string section, and playing on top of all the tracks already recorded took on a different form, playing in tune took on a different meaning because of it. It had too because the tracks were already there and those players were not about to adjust to the string section, so you had to really listen to the chord changes underneath it all. Or you could play out of tune with the tracks! LOL

January 7, 2008 at 04:00 AM · "I'm used to this being done for me, it's almost impossible for me to tell if it's slightly out of tune."

Try this - play a chord on the piano, then make one of the notes sharp or flat so it is dissonant. Makes you cringe right? Now take your violin, and "detune" the A string while playing it at the same time as your D string (a double stop). See how far you have to detune it until you cringe. Then tune it back up until you are happy with how it sounds. Then check your A with the digital tuner. Note how far off the A is. Then re-tune your A with the digital tuner and then play it with a D again. Can you notice the difference?

You can do the same thing playing an E on the A string while playing the open E string.

The "out of tuneness" that you hear are "beats". It makes a pulsating sort of sound when it is not quite in tune but close. When it is way off, it just makes you cringe.

January 7, 2008 at 04:41 AM · One of the impressions I see here is that these are very subtle nuances that are not what a player should work on until they are very advanced. Thanks, Oliver, for taking that on so eloquently in words. Here is Professor Sassmanshaus taking it on in video, including what you sound like if you ignore it.

January 7, 2008 at 05:13 AM · Can a digital tunner be used accurately to tune a violin? Will you get perfect 5ths by using it?

January 8, 2008 at 12:53 AM · Oliver, I like the way you think. I believe that "intonation" is a tool a violinist can use to pepper their performance.

For example, an F in d minor is quite different than an F in D-flat major. They have a very different function within the scale and this applies to every note really. It's all relative as they say. A leading tone must be "sharper" than usual etc. Don't you agree?

January 8, 2008 at 01:16 AM · Marina,

I agree with every point, except that I would prefer to say: "may be", instead of "must be", regarding leading tones. I want to be aware that a certain note is a leading tone; and I want to be aware that it's leading tone function will likely prompt a different choice of pitch than I'd make for the same note in another context, but I want the ultimate choice made on the basis of my personal emotional reaction to it. I believe that my performance is best served by choosing a pitch according to the expressive feeling I get from hearing it, rather than by adhering to a rule.

January 10, 2008 at 09:37 AM · Curiously,search in sonority seems not the priority in violonistic practice. The aim seems mostly velocity and virtuosity .Comparing a pitch on violin to a pitch on a piano is another illustration of the lack of search in sonority.This method is probably the safest to be in tune with other instrument but in a dull and motionless fashion.In an other hand, search in clarity for each note tends to maximize the physical effect of the fifth ;playing that way adheres to the Pythagorean system that yields melodic motion thanks to its larger third.

However this is ,of course,not the panacea

January 10, 2008 at 10:10 AM · I spend a lot of my time playing string quartets, and I've found that leading notes can sound quite unpleasant if played too sharp. When you play a leading note, it is most commonly part of a dominant chord; therefore you are a major 3rd above that. You'll find a natural major 3rd is much narrower than on a piano. Unless the major 3rd is bang in tune in a string quartet it can sound excruciating. I accept there are always exceptions to the rule, but in this context I find the leading note usually sounds better kept lower.

January 10, 2008 at 11:14 AM · "For example, an F in d minor is quite different than an F in D-flat major"

Sorry to be devils advocate, but the F can be the same is either case. On a violin for example, a natural way to check you're Db is in tune (in Db major) might be to tune the 3rd of the scale (F) to the A string, and then tune the Db to the F. If the F is in tune to the A string, then it is also in tune to the D string, for the D minor scale. Therefore, the F is/can be the same in both cases. This example does assume you are using natural intervals, but I think most people do when playing simple scales.

January 10, 2008 at 09:04 PM · I don't know what some of you folks are talking about who say "that kind of instruction" is only for Advanced Students. ALL students deserve excellent instruction. Even the newest of beginners (whether adult or child) want to make beautiful sounds. The instruction comparing violin-sounds to vowell sounds makes perfect sense. I would have loved to have had that analogy in my head when I first began playing violin (I'm an adult who's been playing for two and a half years). I'm happy to have that analogy in my mind now, though I'd pretty much already figured that out.

The reason a lot of people quit playing is because they can't make beautiful sounds. Why in hamper them at the beginning. Sure, what they do in the beginning may only be rough approximations, but EVERYONE should strive to play each note beautifully--which certainly includes being in tune.

I know that sometimes when I'm playing, everything will be a bit ugly, sour, and almost always it's because my instrument is a bit out of tune (like I picked it up and started playing it without tuning it first). Then once I fix a difference!

I've very much enjoyed this discussion. Thanks!

January 11, 2008 at 06:07 PM · Hi Neil,

Your post about strings quartet puts down my theory.Since cello and viola 4th string make up a third with the first string of the violin (octaves apart) the pythagorean tuning yield a third too large so it's advisable to adopt the just intonation in that case especially when a keyboard is involved.

January 13, 2008 at 03:36 PM · Oliver,

I agree with you. I mean to say that intonation is not set and rigid, it can be altered according to your personal intuition. Do I want my note to sit comfortably within its harmonic surroundings? Or do I want it to pierce through and make someone sit on the edge of their seat? This is what makes the violin the king of all instruments.


playing a solo in front of an orchestra and playing in a quartet are 2 completely different rationales. Instruments must even be tuned differently in a quartet!!!! The C string must be tuned up a bit and the E string tuned down otherwise they will sound out of tune when played simultaneously.

The point is that intonation is approached differently in a harmonic setting than it is in a melodic setting.

Oh Theresa....

no one is arguing that students should not receive top notch instruction! But beginners have enough to deal with trying to learn how to hold and play the darned thing without going into the philosophy of intonation haha.

January 13, 2008 at 08:31 PM · Neil,

playing a solo in front of an orchestra and "playing in a quartet are 2 completely different rationales. Instruments must even be tuned differently in a quartet!!!! The C string must be tuned up a bit and the E string tuned down otherwise they will sound out of tune when played simultaneously."

Hi Marina. I'm not too sure which of my posts has lead you to direct these comments to me personally (unless there's another Neil on here!). However I'll give my opinion on your above points nevertheless.

Yes, I agree that playing in front of an orchestra and playing in a quartet are 2 completely different rationales.

I don't agree that instruments must be tuned differently in a quartet. I know a lot of people choose to narrow the outer strings of the quartet to avoid certain problems (one of which you outlined), and that's fine, but it's not essential. It all depends on what keys you are playing in, and as long as all the quartet members understand which strings will be in tune at any moment then you can potentially achieve excellent intonation (far better in my opinion than if you tune any of the strings to close 5ths). I won't attempt to go in too specific detail right now, because it would entail having to be quite mathematical, and I don't think that's what this thread is about ie intonation help for a beginner!

I also agree that the harmonic and melodic context can dictate where to place a note. In my experience however, if any chords in a string quartet are not spot in tune (and that includes 3rds), then to me it just sounds painful. Just go to youtube and listen to some amateur quartets playing to see what I mean!

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