Watch the Indianapolis Competition Livestream

Intonation and its Implications

June 1, 2008 at 05:12 PM · Let me preface everything by saying that I am a violinist and I love the instrument and its repertoire very much.

That said, I've had a burning question since I've really started listening to classical music (many years ago). Since the instrument is fretless, there is a practical continuum of pitches (frequencies) that can be played on the instrument. As such, it is virtually impossible to ever play a note in tune since hitting an exact point out of infinitely many doesn't have a high probability.

The goal then, as a violinist, is to play close enough to the "exact" pitch so that the listener cannot distinguish the two. My problem is that no violinist does this to my satisfaction. I don't know if I have unfortunately acute ears or what, but my only violinist friend says I'm pretty insane about this.

Don't get me wrong, I understand we are all human, and in a longer piece with thousands of notes, even the best professionals make mistakes, but it's really more rampant than that. Even the best violinists completely blow certain runs in pieces.

So the goal of this isn't to knock violinists. My question is whether violin pieces are getting too hard. We've all seen the youtube video of a young kid who's playing a piece way above his head and simply plays with poor intonation, making it near unbearable to listen to. There are pieces and passages in popular pieces that do nearly the same thing to professional violinists.

The best (but very unsatisfying response) to this was from my teacher, who has perfect pitch. She said that you just have to accept that that's how the violin is and be lenient towards violinists, especially on harder pieces.

To anyone who's going to say, "but xxx has perfect intonation!" Let me beat you to the punch and say that they don't and probably aren't close. Some professional violinists are certainly better than others in this regard, but I don't want to name names and turn this into an argument beside my point.

Also, I expect someone else to ask if I play in tune. I don't. I'm working on it, but I've basically resigned myself that I will never play in tune even on the relatively extremely easy pieces I am playing (compared to professional pieces).

Am I being unfair? Do I expect an unreasonably high level of perfection from professionals (on recordings and such)? Does anyone else have this problem? Any thoughts? Thanks very much for your input.



Replies (95)

June 1, 2008 at 05:43 PM · I will contradict you by saying that a violin well-played is more in tune than your reference "fixed" pitch fretted instrument (unless the fretted instrument player compensates with stretching and pushing).

Furthermore I will challenge you to accept the very real fact that fretted instruments are not fixed pitch instruments.

Finally I will ask you if you feel the piano is in tune, or what is in tune to you?

June 1, 2008 at 07:46 PM · Seph, it’s not clear to me if you consider having a perfect pitch and playing in tune are two different things. I think it’s worth reviewing some old discussions on this distinction before going further. For instance, what do you think the following comments made by Preston Hawes:

To play in tune it matters not if you have perfect pitch or relative pitch. What matters is that you have ears and that you've learned to listen. I can't count how many violinists I've heard who have perfect pitch you can't play a C+ scale in tune to save their life. Conversely, I've heard many students who do not possess perfect pitch play better in tune than some major soloists out there. Perfect pitch is simply the ability to pull a pitch out of thin air and sing or identify it, it as ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with playing in tune.

Furthermore, the idea that playing in tune has anything to do with creating a certain frequency time and time again is a very incomplete concept of in tune playing. Playing in tune is driven and defined entirely by context BECAUSE the instrument is not limited by set pitch mechanisms (like frets).

June 1, 2008 at 07:36 PM · Yes!

It is unfortunate, this is true, that it is literally impossible to play in tune, but some violinists do come close. Also, the problem of playing in tune in the first place is compounded by all the different bloody tuning schemes. Even if you use just intonation like you're supposed to with solo work, it doesn't work properly because each violin has slightly different resonating 'centers', so being off by less than a fraction of a cent will ruin a note's resonance. (If you don't believe me here, play a major third - I suggest G/B on A and E strings in third position - perfectly in tune, and try to hear the difference tone way down low. If you so much as wiggle one of the fingers out of tune, the difference tone wildly sways and/or disappears. The application to violin playing is that the violin has to resonate just like playing a chord has to resonate, and being off by the same fraction of a cent with any given note will kill the resonance). There is a cure to this, which is to stop practicing and to stop listening for whether people play in tune or not. Pretty soon you can't discern quality of intonation unless you try. But then, I don't suggest not practicing long enough for this to happen...The best you can do is to ignore it and not discuss intonation with other violinists.

Then again, anybody reading this probably shouldn't be taking me seriously because if I knew what I was talking about, I would be able to tell you how to play in tune (and I'd be able to do it myself).

*braces for upcoming onslaught of stones*

June 1, 2008 at 08:31 PM · A violinist with good intonation is one who is able to switch between different tuning systems (Pythagorean tuning, Just tuning, etc.) when the music calls for it. Intonation, in my opinion, is more of a science in violin playing than and art. I'm sure many will disagree with me, but if you do I suggest you read the book "Temperament" by Stuart Isacoff.

June 1, 2008 at 08:34 PM · Its true !

playing most pieces

violin players will not

be in exact tune

in some notes of the piece involved.

I am wearing a full suit

of body armor.

June 1, 2008 at 09:58 PM · Bilbo Prattle:

In recordings, I think pianos are tuned literally right before performance, and as such, I'm usually not offended at all by any out of tune notes. However, after even a day or two, a piano is unpleasantly out of tune. In my piano lab at school, pianos are tuned every week, and each tuning couldn't come soon enough.

To Yixi Zhang:

I don't have perfect pitch. My teacher says I have the best intonation out of all of her students (I've been playing for a much, much shorter time than the rest of her students). My teacher does have perfect pitch, but even she plays out of tune to my ears occasionally. Does this clear up what I mean in my discussion?

To Don Roth:

There are clearly different degrees to which a note can be played out of tune. I also think that some people have different tolerances that they perceive a note to be out of tune. i.e. some people will perceive a very, very small deviation from the "ideal" pitch as out of tune, whereas other people cannot differentiate the two notes and find it to be in tune.

To give a more cynical answer to your question, there are no two violinists playing exactly the same note, nor are two violists, or cellists (despite having larger physical margins of error). That said, if the soloist hits any of the notes one of those orchestra members are playing, the listener can't really tell the difference. If you decompose a sound recording of an orchestra into a frequency spectrum, the peaks are much wider than they would be in a solo performance for this reason. So if the soloist with orchestra plays a frequency anywhere in this peak, it's "good enough."

My goal here is not to have people try to counter me saying everyone plays in tune. It's a very naive idea. The best anyone can hope to do is play well enough in tune so that no listener can perceive intonation problems. If you have never encountered any pitch problems from professional performers, then I am quite jealous of you.

June 1, 2008 at 10:23 PM · Speak for yourself. I can play in tune. I just choose not to do so on certain occasions.

June 1, 2008 at 10:34 PM · Greetings,

I never play out of tune. I just borrow notes form other pieces on ocassison,



June 1, 2008 at 10:53 PM · Why do you like the violin, Seph?

June 1, 2008 at 10:49 PM · In _This Is Your Brain on Music_ Daniel Levitin writes that most people can't reliably detect pitch changes smaller than about one tenth of a semitone. I freely admit I'm in that group of "most people." Apparently you aren't.

I wouldn't say you're insane, but maybe it is worth asking yourself how important focusing on these small distinctions really is. Is it possible to just ignore them and focus on some other aspect of the music that you might enjoy more?

June 1, 2008 at 10:56 PM · Seph's answer:

I'm just addicted,can't stop

sometimes,I know I play out of tune.

please help--I know you all

have the same problem

from time to time

but I just can't get over all the assaults

the pieces take me toward.

my armored coating has

various dents

which must be smoothed over-now !!!

June 1, 2008 at 11:24 PM · Pianos are never in tune - not as long as they are tuned in equal temperament. They are just equally out of tune everywhere, when "properly" tuned. Same with any fretted instrument.

I really like the Preston Hawes quote above.

Try this simple experiment: Tune your violin as perfectly as you can in open fifths. Then play an open D against a B on the A string. Adjust it till all dissonances are gone. Then without moving your finger, rock your bow over so you are playing the B against an open E string. If you have good ears, it will sound pretty bad, and will take some adjustment to sound right.

Which "B" is in tune? The answer is both.

Intonation is indeed relative. Good intonation is basically what sounds good at the time and in the extant circumstances. Intonation that works in one frame of reference doesn't necessarily work in another. Just ask any member of a good quartet....

June 2, 2008 at 12:03 AM · I realize it probably sounds like I don't like violin at all, but it's quite the opposite. If I could choose to play any instrument, I'd pick between the piano, the cello, and the violin. The piano is great because it has the biggest repertoire. The cello is lovely because of it's deep tone and relative ease to play in tune. The violin is lovely because of it's vast (though tiny compared to piano) repertoire and beautiful singing tone. The piano is great because you can play rich, complex textures, but a pianist can't make a single note interesting. The violin somewhat mimics a singer's voice, which can enthrall us with a single note.

Not to sound rude, but I'm quite familiar with the differences between equal and just temperament. When I say "in tune" on violin, especially in solo pieces, I mean just temperament, whereas with a piano, I mean equal temperament.

Pianos are in tune when properly tuned, obviously (equal temperament wise), but quickly fall out of tune. I never tune to a piano except to tune my A string and can't understand people who do.

Thank you for your thoughtful response, Charles C. That's the kind of input I'm looking for.

June 2, 2008 at 12:29 AM · All I will say----Pianos are the MOST out of tune instruments in existance.

June 2, 2008 at 12:36 AM · "but a pianist can't make

a single note interesting"

I love it !!!!!!!!!!!!!

its true !!

June 2, 2008 at 12:44 AM · Why fret about intonation when you can easily just cover everything with 1/2 step wide vibrato ? Seriously, intonation is a subjective matter and there are many recordings made by esteemed violinists that contain deliciously out-of-tune passages....leading tones are so much more pregnant when played sharp.....whole step trills don't sound in tune unless they're played sharp. Alexander Schneider stopped playing piano

& violin literature claiming that the two brands of tuning were incompatible and painful to him...yet his own recordings sometimes reveal an inordinate perhaps "personal" tuning system generally not accepted in the free world...such fun.

June 2, 2008 at 01:15 AM · A piano is only out of tune relative to other tuning systems. If you tuned a piano in Pathagorean tuning, you'd have beautiful perfect intervals, but when most of the chords you struck would be very much out of tune. It's the same with Just intonation or mean-tone temperament. You would be able to play beautiful chords in some keys, but if you were to modulate to a different key, the chords in that key would be out of tune.

On the violin we have to go between systems. The best example of this is the opening chord in the G minor solo Sonata of Bach. On this chord the Bb has to be played a tiny bit sharp in order to be in tune with the high G, but if we used that same Bb a few notes later in the decending scale it would be sharp. Therefore we have to use two different B flats if we want to play in tune.

Here's the relationship between Pythagorean tuning and Equal temperament in Cents (100 cents = a semitone). In both systems the octave is tuned perfectly and it equals 1200 cents. (The Pythagorean numbers are rounded to the nearest 10th)

C= 0 ; C= 0

C#=113.7 ; C#=100

D= 203.9 ; D= 200

Eb=294.1 ; Eb=300

E= 407.8 ; E= 400

F= 498 ; F= 500

F#=611.7 ; F#=600

G= 702 ; G= 700

G#=792.2 ; G#=800

A= 905.9 ; A= 900

A#=996.1 ; A#=100

B= 1109.8 ; B= 1100

C= 1200 ; C= 1200

This being the case, all major intervals and the Perfect 5th in Pythagorean tuning are higher relative to the Equal temperament system.

With the 5ths being tuned slighly flat on a piano, the 4ths wind up being tuned slightly sharp. From A 440 to a 5th above in Pyth. tuning the frequency of the E would be 697.37, on a piano the E would be 696.62, a difference of .74 hrz or 2 cents. If you play a 5th on the piano it's easy to hear it's not quite in tune, but only to a very trained ear.

June 2, 2008 at 01:22 AM · Greetings,

>I realize it probably sounds like I don't like violin at all, but it's quite the opposite. If I could choose to play any instrument, I'd pick between the piano, the cello, and the violin.

I realize it probably sounds like I don't like Junko at all, but it's quite the opposite. If I could choose to marry any woman, I'd pick between Akiko, Junko, and the cleaning lady.



June 2, 2008 at 01:27 AM · How sad to listen to music and feel that everything is out of tune.

When I was starting out in college there were lots of cocky young musicians that swore by their perfect pitch and pointed to everyone to say "you're out of tuuuuuune!" We'd walk down the street and they'd point out the buzzing of a street lamp to say "ewwwwww it's between an B and a Bflat!!!!!! EWWWWW" It was very annoying. Perfect pitch is such a useless talent, like being able to roll your tongue. So what.

It is a constant struggle to play in tune on the violin in relation to yourself, and to others. But I am tolerant of intonation choices. My teacher always used to say "You're not playing the note out of tune, you're just playing the wrong note," meaning that every pitch has its place in music, not just someone's idea of a perfect B-flat.

June 2, 2008 at 01:38 AM · Seph,

You're simply wrong when you claim that there is a continuum of pitch on the violin and thus there is no pitch center. Violins have resonant points that are either in or out of tune. This also applies to flat and sharp notes, and it is up to the violinist to learn exactly how his/her instrument responds.

While many claim that good violinists can switch between tuning systems while playing with a piano, I have my doubts as to whether many really can. In any event, deviating from the natural resonance points are likely to make one sound more out of tune.


June 2, 2008 at 01:56 AM · People seem to be in passionate disagreement with me. I'll address them one at a time.

Peter Kent: In my personal opinion, vibrato is a great tool that further diversifies the tone possibilities on a violin. However, it's frequently abused and every single note that can be vibratoed (is that proper spelling?) is. Anyway, if you disagree with that, the question then becomes how do you center your vibrato around the note? Do you start from the note and go flat? Do you start from the note and go sharp? Or do you center the vibrato above and below the note? Or some combination thereof involving an off-centered vibrato around the note?

Peter Kent and Marty Dalton:

I certainly respect the performer's right to interpret music however they wish. However, I dislike when they're not consistent. If they choose to play the minor third above the tonic flat or the leading tone sharp, that's fine. But they're simply not consistent even within a piece. What I hear is definitely not a matter of artistic expression.


Am I not allowed to like multiple instruments? I recognize every instrument's strengths and shortcomings. If there were a perfect instrument, I would play that above all else, but there isn't.


I don't have perfect pitch. If you were to play a random note for me, I'd have no idea if it were an A or a D or anything in between. I could maybe guess by trying to use muscle memory in my voice, but I still probably wouldn't be very accurate.

That said, I don't think everything is out of tune. If I listen to certain violinists (not saying who) play easier pieces (as far as recorded repertoire goes), they can often nail it with only a couple notes every so slightly out of tune. However, on harder pieces (harder concertos, most show-pieces) violinists universally have worse intonation, which isn't a surprise. The Sibelius concerto is a good example of a piece which pushes violinists to play out of tune in multiple passages (to my ears anyway).

Scott Cole:

That's a very rude response, considering you have no basis for what you say.

Let a finite number line (real numbers) represent a violin string. Let each point represent where you place your finger. To be even more exact, I mean that a point actually corresponds to the point on your finger that acts as the fixed node on the violin string. There is certainly a one-to-one mapping from the points on our number line to another finite number line (also of real numbers) which represents frequencies produced. In particular, given the length of our initial number line (i.e. the length of the string) and the wavelength of the wave produced, it is a simple matter to calculate the unique frequency, using our mapping.

The key here is that we can produce any pitch whatsoever on our violin. An A string can produce any sound between 440Hz to whatever the highest pitch is (mostly depends on the violinist). Note that there is an INFINITY of pitches possible since we can produce 450.3892342340932908 as well as 450.3892342340932909. We can even produce an infinity of pitches in between these two indistinguishable pitches.

Not to sound rude, but I'm assuming you have a somewhat crude understanding of resonance. Let's say my idealized violin has only a single resonance at some pitch, x. Every single possible frequency (all infinity of them) resonate. However, the added volume is indistinguishable at pitches far from x. As you get closer or closer to the pitch x (or an octave of x), then the resonance becomes stronger and stronger and eventually, when you're quite close, the effect becomes noticeable to the ear. Your mistake is that you think a note only resonates at a certain pitch. Since the resonance response is not at all linear (we can reasonably approximate it by a parabola close to the maximal resonance) and also is symmetric about the maximal resonance response, there is a range close to the maximal resonance for which your ear cannot detect any noticeable differences. On our violin, our ears will not be able to detect a difference in resonance between x and (x - 0.000001Hz). This is not the same as saying that there is none.

So in practice, just because you hear a pitch resonate strongly doesn't mean you're playing it perfectly in tune. It means you're close, yes, but that's it. There are still infinitely many pitches in between you and your target pitch.

Scott, I do however totally agree with you about most people not being able to hear different tuning systems.

June 2, 2008 at 03:05 AM · seph, interesting topic. i wonder if you can clarify something, may be with the use of youtube clips to show what you mean. often, unless 2 persons look at the same thing, or more like listen to the same thing, they could be talking orange and apple. heck, violinists tend to talk about different things over the same!:)

let me be specific with my question. when you are talking about others' intonation problems, are you talking about occasional slips suggesting accidents or mistakes or deconditioning, or you mean consistent off notes (of the same notes) possibly reflecting a brain:)/ear problem?

i really wish you can use some videos to make your case. otherwise, talk is cheap:):):)

June 2, 2008 at 02:55 AM · How long have you played the violin, Seph? Are you a performance major, or....?

Just curious. :)

June 2, 2008 at 03:13 AM · Guys, I would stop telling Seph about different tuning systems if I were you, he obviously knows a lot more about it than I'm guessing most people on this board do. For god's sake, he knows what a Fourier transform is, I doubt we have to enlighten him about different tuning systems!

Anyways, back on topic, I think that there must be some sort of system built into the physiology of hearing which doesn't let you distinguish between pitches if they are close enough. Personally, I find I can distinguish pitches much better on a violin than from any other source, partly because of the resonating phenomenon that I was talking about earlier.

I think a good (non-subjective) way to tell if somebody is playing in tune or not is to do a spectral analysis of a violin (play through all pitches continuously) and find where the resonating points are. I suspect that the spikes (we're looking at frequency vs. intensity here) will be either gaussians or sinc functions (wiki it...). To this end I think that a reasonable way to judge if somebody plays in tune is if they play within one standard deviation or so of the centers of these spikes, because that the listener won't reasonably be able to discern intonation through resonance, and the range for in tune-ness is probably well beyond the capabilities of the human ear to distinguish between pitches. Now obviously that is not practical for a number of reasons, first and foremost because you'd have to do this for every violin but also because of other reasons like choice of bow, player, etc., but I'm just trying to illustrate how difficult it is to get a consistent description of whether something is in tune or note, let alone actually playing in tune.

BTW I'm not trying to be pretentious here, I'm just trying to make a point which will be heard by some people and ignored by others. So no worries whether you do or don't understand the above post.

June 2, 2008 at 03:24 AM · Seph, it sounds that you've got an extraordinary ability to discern intonation problems that most (including your teacher who has perfect pitch) don’t. It would be nice if we can hear you playing something that you consider to be in tune.

What you said about not having played as long as your peers did and whether the violin pieces are getting too hard suggest you've got some way to go. Maybe you can get free lessons by helping your teacher with her intonation? :)

June 2, 2008 at 03:56 AM · Playing and singing in tune is just perception and motor control. Talk about resonance in the physics sense, number lines, domain transformations, tuning systems, and all the rest is a symptom of some hyperactivity disorder, or worse.


"That's a very rude response, considering you have no basis for what you say."

His basis is that he can actually play violin. It's amusing or annoying, your choice, and familiar when a greenie starts telling experienced people what to do. There was a non-player here telling a Chicago Symphony member how to tune his violin at one point. Insane. At a master class of his, you can bet he'd have kept his lip zipped, but on the internet his adhd can come out and he can be a physics professor. Dr. Tuning Revelations himself, in person.

June 2, 2008 at 03:55 AM · Rare it is for a violin performance

to be flawless in all regards.

The super-stars of the violin world will

readily admit to mistakes made

in the recordings of concertos

they have completed on a cd format.

Mistakes of intonation are,indeed commonplace in this situation !

Just today,I heard a very well known soloist readily admit that

mistakes were made by him during a take of the Mendelssohn concerto.

Mistakes do happen,occasionally---get over it===its true and a fact of even the best of performances.

June 2, 2008 at 04:07 AM · al ku: I will do that. I hope no one is offended by my choice of violinist though. =) I should mention though, that youtube doesn't exactly have the greatest audio quality.

William Wolcott: I started playing violin early in elementary school, but quit in middle school. I picked it up about a year ago. My left hand dexterity was even better than it was when I quit thanks to playing piano and classical guitar in my hiatus. However, I was very frustrated. From a left hand technique perspective, I could totally nail harder intermediate pieces, but as you can imagine my intonation was HORRIBLE (think four year-old playing a piece too hard for himself). Since then, my current teacher has really made me focus on my right hand technique and tone production.

I am not a violin major. I might like to be, but it's far too late for that (and I'm too far behind). I considered minoring in music and took a lot of music theory, but ultimately chose not to. I am a math and physics major, as some probably could guess.

Charles C: Are you an engineer or physicist? I'm not sure about the spikes either. I'd guess it'd be a composition of numerous Gaussians, but I have no idea.

Yixi Zhang: I don't think my hearing is better than anyone else's. I'm starting to think it's just what you listen for and analyze. I sometimes think I'm quite deaf to the very subtle tone colours that professionals use. However, I've made a point to really focus on this in my listening practice lately, and I have noticed a marked improvement.

I'd love to get free lessons from my teacher, hah, but I think her hearing is better than mine. She knows when she plays even slightly out of tune (by my ear) but says that it falls within an acceptable range to her. I asked her to teach me perfect pitch and she laughed. She said it's more a curse than a blessing anyway. Easy for her to say, but I'm quite jealous of her.

Jim Miller: I may not be as experienced on the violin as you or many other people here, but I have played other instruments, and I listen to music as much as anyone else. I am a dedicated student of the instrument, and I merely asked a question that was bothering me. I don't know what you're trying to prove here, but physics provides a very real and relevant foundation to many of the ideas expressed here. I'd appreciate it if you were not so condescending.

June 2, 2008 at 04:28 AM · It isn't condescending. You don't know Jack s*** but you're going to be a teacher for the duration.

June 2, 2008 at 04:59 AM · Jim, I hope you can try and take a second to see where Seph is coming from. He is not telling anybody how to play the violin, he's merely inquiring whether he is being unreasonable by expecting people to play nearly perfectly in tune. As I stated earlier, he also seems to know more acoustics than most people here, so maybe he can't teach technique but he can certainly teach acoustics. (Consider also that he also might or might not be a genius violinist and is merely being humble. Not saying he is because I have no idea, but he could be).

Seph, you are correct, I am a physics student :). Where are you in school? Obviously you don't have to answer as this is a public forum...

June 2, 2008 at 05:51 AM · Seph,

Playing perfectly in tune is theoretically possible, therefore it is do-able. Having said that, it is also highly unlikely that a piece would have all notes perfectly played at any given time. At some point (different for all of us)the differing pitches become indistinguishable except through the use of electronics. Give yourself and others a break. We are talking about a lifetime effort to improve the ratio of bad-to-good intonation. Don't let the music get lost along the way!

June 2, 2008 at 06:03 AM · Greetings,

`so maybe he can't teach technique but he can certainly teach acoustics.`

Sorry if I`mm decontextualizing your point here but in terms of the relevance to this site what you are saying here doesn`t make sense to me. Great players have tchnique preciesly because they not only have incredibly acute hearing but also a combination of knowledge of style and an instinctive sense of how pitch has to alter to fit an ongoing and everchanging context. They then have the incredible speed of reflexes to achieve the latter. This all crosses over far into the realms of acoustics which you seem to be saying is so distinct. I`ll leave it to the experts to define acoustics but if you are talking about adapting to surroundings, adjusting pitch according to tempo (an interesting point thta hasn`t been mentioned) adjusting pitch according to musical style/era ; the ability to match complement or contradict others in a group or a Scott mentioned, the abilty to hear when a note is in tune within the context of an individual instrument (that takes a lot of experience and training by the way- usually asociated with very experience d players) then that i suseful. The theoretical stuff is interesting, it may even be useful to somepeople , but once it is claimed this is a superior dimension of hearing and used by beginners to critique expert players (always a good idea to check who one is talking to in any situation- another aspect of acoustics perhaps?) then it is pretty much as Jim points out.



June 2, 2008 at 07:12 AM · David Allen: As I've gone over and over in this thread, it is not possible to play perfectly in tune. When you play a note, there is not a "yes or no" answer to whether you're playing in tune. You have to define who the listener is. For example, your average nonmusician would probably not notice something violinists would consider quite out of tune. I'm much more critical than that and consider some things that many violinists consider "in tune" to be very slightly out of tune. Someone with better ears than I have may even consider things I think to be in tune to be out of tune. Obviously, a computer can have arbitrary frequency resolution (whatever we tell it to, or limited by the microphone input). And so a computer could consider everything to be out of tune.

I also don't understand why my ability on the violin is relevant. Many people here seem to have a very holier-than-thou attitude about violin and it's quite disheartening. My exact skill level is quite hard to describe, as some parts of my violin playing are very, very developed, while others are quite lacking at the moment (right hand). This is due to my taking so much time off from violin while playing other instruments. Suffice it to say that I am working on and can play the Vivaldi Concerto in G minor (easy, I know) "perfectly in tune" to many of you. My violin teacher gushes about how great my intonation is compared to some of the violin major students. I am not satisfied with my intonation, however. I think there is a great, great deal of room for improvement. Unfortunately, I really need to be more attentive to my bowing than my intonation right now.

I will not continue contribution to this thread. So I'm not going to respond to further posts. Every single person who plays the violin is a student of the instrument and is not perfect. =) If you think otherwise, you're wrong.

I don't expect to ever find recordings of Ysaye sonatas or Paganini's caprices or tons of other works that are well in tune. Though I'd be happy to listen to suggestions.

As for violinists who have great intonation, Hilary Hahn seems to be head and shoulders above everyone else in this regard. Gil Shaham and Leonidas Kavakos seem to follow after her. These are the best I've heard, although I hope to discover more. Other popular violinists such as Heifetz, Milstein, Perlman, etc. are nothing special in this regard. Note that I'm talking about intonation only. I quite like many violinists and their recordings in spite of intonation problems (Milstein's Bach sonatas/partitas for instance).



June 2, 2008 at 07:01 AM · Buri,

Points taken. I may have overreacted a little bit to Jim's comment...

Anyways, I think you are correct in saying that musicians in general have, for example, extremely fine senses of pitch. I take a bit of offense at your trivialization of the "theoretical stuff," which I think a good grounding in is essential to anybody who wants to do anything in music (how are you going to chat up that cute audio engineer!), but that's just me.

I'm curious, could you expand on changing pitch depending on tempo?

June 2, 2008 at 09:46 AM · Seph, tuning systems aside, you're right that violinists play out of tune, some more than others. Players of most other instruments do as well to one degree or another. With your own practicing, it's good that you hear this and try to improve.

Enjoying the performances of others may require listening in a different context than you use when practicing.

If you look at a fine painting with a magnifying glass, you'll find it very inaccurate compared to a photo. If you look at a photo with enough magnification, you'll see pixelation, graininess a matrix pattern, etc. These could be seen as flaws, and distract from enjoyment of the "big picture" if you let it.

I hope you can develop a range of different "listening contexts" which will allow you to enjoy music.

June 2, 2008 at 11:48 AM · At diffferent times (maybe that time of the month), my hearing becomes much more discriminative, and pieces that normally I can listen to and enjoy in totality, sound out of tune. I suspect that those days I am hearing the real in tuneness of the piece. Or maybe not - maybe mys auditory meatus swells and so distorts the sound.

While the un intuneness is bothersome, it doesn't detract from my enjoyment, because there's all the others tuff still going on - the bowing, the tempo, the passion of the player for the piece. those things are what makes the violin worthwhile.

I'm sorry if Seph hears like I do ALL the time, because it is, as I said, bothersome. I think he should just take it as a given that at some point on some pieces, some violinists will sound more out of tune than he can tolerate. Maybe he should have some ear plugs or something to alter his sensory registration on pieces where it really bugs him.

June 2, 2008 at 12:37 PM · "I will not continue contribution to this thread. So I'm not going to respond to further posts. "

but you just got here!!! :) if you leave, who is going to watch the store? :)

just because others disagree or are not "nice" does not mean you change your own train of thoughts or behavior. i don't think anyone here is know-it-all and through exchanges everyone benefits one way or another. on that, on behalf of the whole board, i would like to thank laurie for providing a sanctum where every poster, right or wrong, is right in his or her own mind:)

another source of iffy intonation is poor timing, may be related to rep hits recently highlighted by drew and buri. with my kid, sometimes arriving at or leaving from a note just a bit late can cause a bad, sloppy sound mixture of at least 2 notes. with younger kids whose fingering timing depends to a greater extent neuromuscular development, this happens often and is a stage to go through with patience and awareness.

with adult learners, tightness and pain sometimes contribute to poor timing.

you can't win:):):)

i would not consider giants in the field as having intonation problems, just that some players are "cleaner" than others, much like one's speech. agree that hilary h is a very clean player.

June 2, 2008 at 01:00 PM · The real problem is that we don't all agree on what "in tune" really is.

Yes, there are core intervals that have fixed sizes within a given tonality (on the whole...) - unisons, octaves, fourths and fifths, but the rest are down to personal preference, and desire to emphasise different aspects of that tonality.

It isn't a question of "Who plays best in tune?" but "Whose intonation do you prefer?"


June 2, 2008 at 01:10 PM · may be we can put that into 2 groups.

1. intonation so out of it that even grandma knows something is not right. beginners' marsh land of may be 3-5 years. more blatantly objective.

2. stylistic intonation differences at much higher level. more subjective, like debating which shade of green is more pleasing to the eye.

June 2, 2008 at 01:16 PM · I thought Seph was thinking about even the so-called "best" violinists... really only the second group.


June 2, 2008 at 03:22 PM · Seph,

I wasn't trying to be rude--just concise. Actually, I do have a basis for what I'm saying, and some of that has to do with the fact that I make a living with my violin. I'm in my mid-40s and have spent my adult life wrestling with the problems and challenges of the violin.

I'll give you a good example of what I'm talking about: if you're trying to hit an E on the A string (let's say E5), it will be very obvious from the resonance that the note is either dead center or not. There is NO continuum, and there is no disagreement, provided the violin is in tune. It is virtually the same as hitting a harmonic. All the other notes exhibit this characteristic to some degree or another. An A-flat will be very subtle, but still exhibit its own special tonal qualities.

These qualities of resonance don't occur to the same extent on other instruments. Others are correct in urging you to enjoy music for the gesture that musicians bring, not in imperfections of intonation. It reminds me of all the photographers who obsess over MTF figures and micro-contrast without actually looking at the photograph.


June 2, 2008 at 04:25 PM · Perfection is not an out-of-context absolute. If you define it as such it becomes irrelevant to human endeavors.

Seph's issue is partly that his ears have apparently outstripped the normal range of human physical ability to nail intonation.

Another part of his issue seems to arise from an application of his abstract technical understanding of pitch to the issue without defining a context. That we can measure a pitch to a certain number of decimal places says literally nothing about how relevant that degree of precision is to music-making.

The sensible approach to his issue would be to set out to define just what the gap is between Seph's hearing and various player's ability. Does he hear pitches off by 5 cents? Does he have an unusual degree of ability to retain the pitch center/tonal context of a piece of music? Just how far off (in cents) do different players play? What is the range of discrimination among listeners?

These would be interesting issues to learn about, and there could be a real benefit of eventually defining an actual objective standard of intonation that players can compare themselves to and know how they're doing. (I empathize with the potential arguments against this idea, but it would not be without value. And yes, I know the issue has been touched on lightly in the past already.)

June 2, 2008 at 05:01 PM · We should just give up on intonation and become synthesized already.

June 2, 2008 at 05:08 PM · Seph, I find it unfortunate, maybe even sad (no disrespect intended) that your enjoyment of much music may be bothered by this phenomenon.

I have no suggestions, but I think you might be interested in the novel, "The Soloist" by Mark Salzman, about a virtuoso cellist with this same kind of sensitivity to intonation.

Actually, because of the way vibrato on them works (just the physics of it), it would be impossible to play a fretless, bowed string instrument and get "pure" tones, whether the are "in tune" or not.

But I think the question you raise, which may be about your perception of sound, is much the same as that of Renne Sundheimer, the protagonist in "The Soloist."


June 2, 2008 at 06:02 PM · Aside what Andrew suggested, the problem is also the deep fear of playing out of tune. Seph clarified that he doesn’t have better hearing than others, at least not better than his teacher, whom he claims to be playing out of tune. A confusing point? Maybe, but underneath what he tries to articulate is, among other things, something probably we violinists all share or shared to some extent; i.e., you are no good if someone else can hear you playing out of tune. No amount of talents and efforts can save you as violinist if you can’t play in tune. If nothing else, you can always be criticised for lack of laser-sharp intonation.

What a devastating way of dealing with this instrument? No amount of musical or contextual justification will do if one can’t get over with this nagging feeling that my intonation isn’t good enough -- not to someone else’s standard. And there is always someone else...

Maybe it is highly relevant what ability and level one is at as violinist. Probably violin maturity entails that one understands not only how to deal with problems of intonation but also where is the permissible limit.

June 2, 2008 at 06:13 PM · If something sounds perfectly in tune to our limited human ears, even if it's not PRECISELY and mathematically in tune in a Pythagorean sense, it is nonetheless in tune. Music is a human art for human beings and as such is judged by human standards and human ears. Kind of a Plato's Cave sort of thing.

June 2, 2008 at 06:32 PM · "Since the instrument is fretless, there is a practical continuum of pitches (frequencies) that can be played on the instrument."

Violin is more difficult to play in tune than a fretted instrument, but fretted instruments, guitar for example, don't have perfect intonation, and thus pitch is a challenge. Ignoring the tempered vs. pythagorean scale differences, this means you can tune a for a particular range, say open to 3rd position to be in tune, but that could leave the high positions out of tune. Tuning then becomes a practical exercise in modifying the standard tuning to the type of music or even the particular piece that is being played.

June 2, 2008 at 06:41 PM · I think we've all forgotten what Seph's original post and question was:

"Am I being unfair? Do I expect an unreasonably high level of perfection from professionals (on recordings and such)? Does anyone else have this problem? Any thoughts? Thanks very much for your input."

Are you being unfair? Sounds like it, because you are saying that basically you don't enjoy anybody's playing because their intonation doesn't meet your standards. It is sad to have such an obsession with intonation, in my opinion.

Do you expect an unreasonably high level from professionals? Well yes, because you yourself said that it is impossible for everything to be perfectly in tune, and that is unacceptable to you, and therefore your expectations (of perfect intonation) are unreasonably high.

Does anybody else have this problem? Well, I have also got very sensitive ears for intonation, but for me it all depends on how good the performance is. If the performance is really interesting and musical, I can be oblivious to small intonation problems here and there. If the performance is boring, then I start to listen for intonation sometimes, and yes then many things sound out of tune. It's like, if you're watching a thrilling cinema movie, are you going to be busy looking out for the "bloopers" and continuity problems in the filming? Some people do, and I pity them. Personally I'm "blind" to those errors even if it's a bad movie, but if it's a very bad movie then sometimes I start searching for that stuff. Is it fair to expect a film free of any mistakes? Well it's more fair than to expect perfect intonation, yet it somehow never happens!

June 2, 2008 at 06:53 PM · "Actually, because of the way vibrato on them works (just the physics of it), it would be impossible to play a fretless, bowed string instrument and get "pure" tones, whether the are "in tune" or not."


this is only a problem if vibrato is to be perceived as a change of pitch. It's actually not--it's a change of intensity. The more effective the vibrato, the more the ear is fooled, and the less the pitch change is perceived.


June 2, 2008 at 08:04 PM · "He is not telling anybody how to play the violin, he's merely inquiring whether he is being unreasonable by expecting people to play nearly perfectly in tune."

Charles, there's no perfectly in tune, so obviously there's no nearly perfectly in tune either. It's all subjective. There's a lot people will agree on, but it's ultimately subjective. You're a participant.

There was a fine violinist here who said something is either in tune or not. Can be demonstrated to be not true - if you slide away from in-tune, it will be perceived by different folks at different points. And I'm only talking about perceiving an isolated difference in pitch. That leaves out a lot. It leaves out harmonic and cultural aspects, and conditioning, plain old preference, a universe of contexts and inflections, and it also leaves out speed. If you slow down some of Heifetz's fast in-tune playing, it will sound out of tune. It's all wildly complicated intellectually, but it's fairly easily handled through human perception and motor control. You won't get anywhere by turning it into physics, at least as far as the sound itself goes. It's music ;)

June 2, 2008 at 08:46 PM · we are human

the individual audio perception

of any piece

does resort to the listeners recent past:

what is the venue?

how was your mood at the time?

what did you have to eat before you came?

were you drinking?

did you enjoy the music?

did you enjoy the people attending?

there are many variables to be considered

in these situations......

it may have been your first,attending a concert...

you may have attended concerts hundreds of times,in past...

you may be a musician...

you may not be a musician..

what you are makes a huge difference,

at the time,whether listening or playing...

granted,there will be mistakes[maybe]...

life is riddled with one mistake,after another.

rejoice when you hear notations which speak to your heart for there is no greater joy-amen.

June 2, 2008 at 10:42 PM · Greetings,

Charles, no offence intended over theoreical trivial. Of course an intelelctual understanding of what one is doing is importnat. Many of the players here have a huge understanding of the theoreicla background to sound if any of the previous discussion are anything to go by. Theory only becomes nonsense when a) it is not actually rleevant to the topic in question b) the former is used arbitrarily by someone with litlt eplayign experience to `eductae` a top professional and c) it proves an inadeqaute key to getting into the panties of a cute sound engineer.

As far as tempo and pitch variaiton is ccnerned if one plays faster it actually becomes necessary to adjust semitones closer together or they will sound out of tune . Casals wa sa bugbear on this point.



June 3, 2008 at 02:26 AM · Related to what Buri mentioned there is also the Doppler effect in which the pitch of a moving object as it approaches the ear sounds higher and then sounds lower as it moves away from you. This effect can possibly be controlled by the carefully timed consumption of prunes prior to encountering a fast moving series of notes such as in Flight of the Bumblebee, which, if I may digress further has apparently been played 6 seconds faster by David Garrett than Nathan Milstein - I still prefer Milstein, however.

June 3, 2008 at 07:40 AM · Ah yes, the Doppler effect. The bane of my existence:

Whenever I play, people tend to run away as fast as they can. This, of course, lowers the pitch perceived by their ears by as much as 20 cents, causing me to sound even more out.

Of course, I sound a bit better to the older folks. Their hearing is pretty bad to start with, and they can't run all that fast.


What was the question again?

June 3, 2008 at 04:16 AM · dang. My whole life philosophy has been centered around this concept.

June 3, 2008 at 01:25 PM · Scott,

The problem is that one cannot know what someone else perceives as a "change of pitch."

Vibrato on a bowed instrument is accomplished by changing the pitch. If the result is perceived as greater intensity and even loudness, it is because of the way that instrument's frequency spectrum (to put it simply, if incompletely) responds to that small, rapid change of finger position while the string is being bowed in a steady way.

An ideal violin listener perceives the desired result. Are there people with faster neural responses who perceive the actual finger-motion speeds and do not hear the enhanced musical effect?

It is sort of the same thing as those who do not (or at least in the 1960s did not) react in the typical way to the 0.2 second strob-light phenomenon. There is a narrow repetition rate range in which the strob phenomenon is effective (for most people) either faster or slower, the effect is gone.


June 3, 2008 at 04:32 PM · I haven't read the whole thread so I don't know if this has already been mentioned. However, when playing virtually any piece of music, it is mathematically impossible to play it using perfect intonation (well, that's an oxymoron!) all the way through. There are always moments when a compromise has to occur. So even if there was someone who was super-human playing the violin, then possibly their intonation might not sound completely perfect to you.

June 3, 2008 at 05:14 PM · Instruments with frets don't have perfect intonation either. The entire equal temperment (even the well temperment) system is a compromise. Just tuning was the most accurately "in tune" but it didn't allow you to change keys because, for example, the various thirds didn't have the same ratio. With just tuning you ended up with one hideously out of tune interval. That interval represented Satan in religious music.

And then in addition to theoretical errors in tuning systems there are all sorts of errors introduced by the mechanical impedance of the strings themselves.

June 3, 2008 at 08:51 PM · "The idea that the old folks can not run as fast does NOT constitute proof that you sound a "bit better". "


June 3, 2008 at 10:16 PM · Just curious: Seph, is there any instrumentalist or singer whose intonation does NOT disturb you?

June 3, 2008 at 10:34 PM · As far as being "unreasonable" to expect perfection from human beings, well, the answer to that one is YES.

There is some impressive discussion going on here about the most minute details of the physics of violin-playing. Starts to make my head spin...

So, I'd suggest, to everyone, to pause for a second and reenter that "beginner's frame of mind." Especially, to you, Seph. Music is one of the few universal languages we have as human beings, and to dissect and analyze the concept is almost like eviscerating the purpose of music. I understand that you have a much more sensitive ear than most, so you find it more difficult to appreciate pieces that are played without perfect pitch. But maybe you are just being too critical?

When you stop picking apart the composition, then you let go and let yourself enter the music. That is a musician, in my opinion. One who appreciates music for everything good that it has to offer...and not necessarily one who instead has enough knowledge to point out what's wrong.

June 3, 2008 at 10:50 PM · Do you suppose Seph may think we're not taking him seriously? I shall now conduct an experiment: I'm going to run away very fast, and see if, via the Doppler effect, I can hear myself receding into the distance.

June 4, 2008 at 12:26 AM · Not trying to disturb a nest of bees, but Scott, it is not true that there are exact centers of notes which are either "in tune" or not. When you are playing continuously through all the notes on a violin, there are spikes in the intensity which from far away look like they are points which resonate perfectly, but you find that as you move closer (vary the pitch much less), they become smoothed out (in physics those are called dirac delta functions and gaussian functions, respectively. The dirac delta function is a limiting case of the gaussian function as it gets infinitely thin). I don't know if I explained that very well, but you can see it if you do your experiment with the harmonic. There is not just ONE point you can put your finger down to play it with, but rather one point plus or minus all the points within as much as a centimeter or so away from it. As far as intonation is concerned, you can be off by (now this is just my impression, with my violin, and no I didn't take a ruler to measure this) a few tenths of a millimeter before you are off the resonating center of a note and it sounds 'dead'. Carry on.

June 4, 2008 at 01:11 AM · Charles, spikes in intensity can be created by certain mathematical "in tune" relationships in frequency, but also by the way a specific violin works.

I once felt differently, but with inclusion of artistic nuances, variation between violins, and differing parts of the sound spectrum that people get their intonation cues from, it's really a judgment call. It's part of the color pallete available to violinists.

June 4, 2008 at 01:25 AM · Seph: Am I being unfair?


June 4, 2008 at 01:28 AM · Greetings,

Charles, I am really sorry, but you are trying to apply thery to somethign you do not understand in practice. It is not that your theory it wrong. Obviousy you are veyr knowledgeable in this area but it is simply not true of what happens when one plays the violin. Players of Scott`s level (and many who are less so) know that every insturment has a unique pitch for each note. Although the ear may not be able to establish that an exact variation inpitch has taken place there is a noticeable difference in quality between a note played `in tune` but not at the `ringing point` of the instrument. The slighetest change in fingertip presusr eor position may change the timbre of the ote to its maxim ringyness. This is ne of the ways good player sget the best out of an instrument without obviously doing anything that diffenret from lesser players who have some difficulty in finding and realizing this level of vibration.

I suggets you stop trying to tell Scott he doesn`t know what he is talking abotu until you understand te insturment in reality a litlte better. In the meantime I think Scott@s position in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is secure for now.



June 4, 2008 at 03:01 AM · "I think a good (non-subjective) way to tell if somebody is playing in tune or not is to do a .."

Where you eventually go with this is mumbo jumbo. THere are ways to do what I think you want to do though. But if we did, it would still be strange.

In my opinion, it's not even notes that are in tune or not; it's regions in or out of tune. That's why glissandos don't sound like an out of tune something, for example. To analyze it would be impossibly complicated, and physics would just be a tiny part, I think.

June 4, 2008 at 05:42 AM · I know I said I wouldn't respond again, but this is an important point that should be cleared up.

I can understand everyone's frustration where they think I'm challenging Scott's violin ability. I'm not. Perhaps you all can understand my frustration then (and perhaps Charles' too) since you're essentially trying to prove a couple thousands years of physics progress wrong solely by your personal perception.

Scott is indeed a very elite violinist and musician. There is no argument about this. He also has years and years and years of experience on me and probably many other people here. This is also true. However, he is taking his extensive experience and then making assumptions based on it that clearly outstrips human perception.

Buri, you made explicit what you meant about the "ringing point" of the instrument. You implied that, even though you cannot hear a change in pitch between an "in tune note" and a note at the "ringing point" of the instrument, there must be one. This is true. This change in pitch is very, very small and imperceptible for most humans. You can, however, hear a change in the quality of the note. So your ability to perceive changes in intonation fails, but you realize that these are different notes because there is a clear change in the quality of the sound (and the fact that you must move your finger a tiny, tiny, tiny amount).

Now, you say that you reach a "maximal" ringing point. This is where I have my problems with your argument. Just as humans have an ability to detect so small a change in pitch, humans can only detect so small a change in volume, tone, and "ringyness." As such, you can change the pitch by a small amount (when I say small, I mean much smaller than the previous change in pitch, which was already too small for humans to hear) and you still get what your ear perceives as maximal ringyness. This is a combination of the human ear failing to perceive a difference in both pitch and ringyness.

It is a basic property of resonance that frequencies very close to the "maximal ringyness" have very, very nearly maximal ringyness.

So basically, Scott is saying, according to _human perception_, there is not an infinity of pitches possible on the violin. This I agree with. It's a stupidly large number (that depends on the listener) that I can't comprehend, but is not infinite. However, there are an infinity of pitches produced. You can use a computer and a microphone or whatever other means you wish to test this.

Another simple observation related to this: If I asked Scott to use his own violin and produce this "maximal ringyness" on just a single note while bowing this note over and over, I'm sure Scott could keep the note maximally ringing indefinitely. Buri, you said the tiniest changes in finger pressure, etc. can kill this maximal ringyness to get something still in tune (to your ears), but not maximal. However, just think about what's going on on a very, very, VERY small scale.

Scott's finger is moving even as he is holding it down. The string is vibrating against his finger, the fingerboard is vibrating, even the blood pulsing through his finger expands and contracts the surface of his finger an imperceptible amount. All of this contributes to Scott's finger moving a tiny, tiny, tiny, TINY amount (probably fractions of a micrometer or something ridiculously small like that) that is completely imperceptible to us as humans, but is undeniable. In spite of this, we still hear the "maximal ringyness" that constitutes Scott's lovely, full professional tone. Clearly then, by simple reasoning, he is changing the pitch of the note by tiny, tiny fractions of a cent far, far beyond what a human can differentiate, but the resulting note still sounds full-bodied and maximally ringing to us.

This explanation is easily understandable by anyone, and if you're going to respond with something about Scott's laurels, then you probably didn't even bother to read it and shame on you. If you think you've found an error in my logic or explanation, please feel free to discuss it.

June 4, 2008 at 04:25 AM · buri or anybody, have you ever looked at the book

A Violinist's Guide for Exquisite Intonation by Barry Ross

the first excercise is to place one's 4th finger on, say, the e on the a string. Then you tap the e string lightly with your third finger. This stops the reverberation of the e string and makes a small clicking noise. one's aim is to maximize this click

There are lots of other exercises designed to find the points with the greatest natural resonance. Might be a worthwhile buy for those interested in this topic

June 4, 2008 at 12:37 PM · Seph, you have a good basic technical understanding, but I think you're stuck in the middle. You have enough technical knowledge to refute what the musicians are saying, but not enough yet to realize that they're right.

If you start looking at response curves of violins, you'll see that a violin is a system of resonances. Each resonance has different damping, so the width of the pitch range which can excite it varies.

A string is also a system of resonances, but because of damping and bending stiffness, and interaction with with an acoustic resonator (the violin), these resonances aren't exactly where they should be....they aren't where they would be on a "theoretical" string.

Let's take a look at the open G string, installed on a violin as an example. It emits a series of frequencies, starting with 196 hz, and rising roughly in multiples of that frequency... a harmonic progression. The problem is that a violin emits almost no sound at 196 hz, so the first thing you really hear is a harmonic, the octave. On a "theoretical" string, this octave would be perfect, 196 times two, but in reality it's not. So do you take your intonation cue from the weak 196 hz, or from the much louder octave, which is a little out of tune with that, or from the 5th above the octave? Or do you average them?

Choosing any of the above will change the way the way the note interacts with other vibrating parts of the violin, including the other strings. These other vibrating parts will not only affect the perceived tone color, but also the perceived pitch. I know it sounds strange, but a "true" pitch doesn't exist, because we're dealing with a very complex system.

That's why I said in an earlier post that on a violin, intonation is really a judgment call.

You might have fun reading "The Fundamentals of Musical Acoustics" by Arthur Benade.

June 4, 2008 at 03:54 PM · I'm guessing if you made a machine that played "in tune" according to these scientific specifications, the music produced would sound totally horrible to the human ear! It's very clear, to a trained violinist, what is in tune and what is not on a violin. The instrument gives tremendous feedback, if you know how to listen.

June 4, 2008 at 07:45 PM · Laurie,

I recall listening to an early synthesizer (not a Moog) that was 'perfectly tuned.' It also had no harmonics, just pure tones. Music played on it was miserable, almost painful to listen to.

June 4, 2008 at 08:18 PM · On the violin, you can not only hear it, you can feel it when you hit the "sweet" spot. Someone can stand and touch the scroll of your violin; it will vibrate much more when the you hit a resonant note dead-on. Play the same note a hair flat or sharp, and the vibrations deaden.

June 4, 2008 at 09:41 PM · Moog - I once worked with a lady that dated the guy that invented this, his name was Moog.

June 4, 2008 at 11:39 PM · "That's why I said in an earlier post that on a violin, intonation is really a judgment call."

"It's very clear, to a trained violinist, what is in tune and what is not on a violin. "

Laurie and David gonna slug it out, coming up next!

June 4, 2008 at 11:07 PM · David Burgess: I appreciate your interest and background reading in this topic. Everything you said was absolutely correct, but let me address and highlight some of the things you said.

"If you start looking at response curves of violins, you'll see that a violin is a system of resonances. Each resonance has different damping, so the width of the pitch range which can excite it varies."

This is true. This explicitly says that there is indeed a pitch range that induces the "ringy" response from violins. These ranges are quite smaller than the frequency resolution of the human ear.

You then went on to talk about the complexities of strings and the sounds produced by them. This is all also true. But then I'm assuming you know that when playing the open G, the octave produced (slightly less than twice the frequency) is still close enough to the octave that the human ear can't perceive a difference. Additionally, this effect (the difference in pitches) is at a maximum on the G string (due to it's relatively large thickness, linear mass density, and unbendiness). The E string experiences the exact same phenomenon, but the difference in pitch is even smaller (and even farther within the human ear's frequency resolution).

In general, it's true that an "ideal" or "pure" sound wave doesn't exist. Engineers and physicists and mathematicians have developed tools to analyze more complex waves (like the ones that exist in real life instead of an idealized physics fantasy world). One of the most important tools is the Fourier Transform. It takes the very complicated wave you described and it tells you what pitches compose a sound wave and how strong each pitch is relative to each other.

These topics introduce complications into the mix and seem unnecessary to me when simpler (although admittedly less exact) models already describe what's going on beyond the limits of human perception.

Laurie and Gary: On the contrary, listen to any MIDI recording nowadays. It is quite pitch perfect beyond what any violinist (or any other instrument) could achieve. Obviously though, no one cares to listen to MIDI recordings because there's no artistic expression (all the dynamics are preprogrammed and very mechanical) and instrument patches don't sound good (a violin in MIDI doesn't sound at all like a real violin nor does any other instrument sound like its real counterpart).

Laurie Niles: I addressed the "sweet spot" quite thoroughly in my previous post. You're merely hearing sympathetic vibrations of neighboring strings, a high-frequency response to the resonance, and feeling stronger vibrations coming out of the violin. This does not mean you're playing your idealized note "perfectly" in tune, although it's close enough that your ear (or probably anyone else's ear) cannot tell the difference.

I understand that everyone here uses and depends on their ears in a very vital way on a daily basis. However, you must understand that our ears are not perfect (we are all human) and there are very real limits to what we can perceive.

Compare your ears to your eyes for a second. You cannot see bacteria because they're beyond the limits of what your eyes can see, however simple reasoning implies their existence. With the tools of science (microscope) anyone can see them now. I guess I'm failing to see how this is any different.

While I'm on the analogy of ears and eyes, consider the huge range of eyesights people naturally have. Some people have normal 20/20 vision. Some people have vision significantly better than that. Many still have vision worse than 20/20. Granted, ears can be trained (to a degree) to hear intonation. Is it so farfetched that different people could have different intonation thresholds before their ear says "hey, this is a different pitch?" So called "tone deaf" people seem to be one of the extremes in this case.

June 4, 2008 at 11:59 PM · "Some people have normal 20/20 vision. Some people have vision significantly better than that. Many still have vision worse than 20/20. "

lol. Don't stop.

June 5, 2008 at 12:07 AM · Jim, you're consistently the most useless poster in this topic. Would you have anything to post if not to attack me?

I challenge you to contribute to this thread just once before you go back to being annoying. Please answer a few simple questions:

1) Do you ever feel professional soloists (violinists) ever play out of tune? If so, has it ever been to the point that it bothered you? Think of any recording you've ever heard by any performer.

2) Do you feel it's possible to play perfectly in tune? I don't mean playing something that sounds very in tune and resonant to human ears. I mean do you think it's possible to play the absolutely exact desired note?

3) Do you think it's possible to produce infinitely many pitches on the violin?


I understand that you don't care at all about the physics of the violin. Which is fine; you don't have to read all the crap that I write. I don't understand, however, why you blindly back Scott up when he's using his ears to make observations about arbitrarily small frequencies that are beyond human perception.

June 5, 2008 at 06:27 AM · David said,

"... but I think you're stuck in the middle. You have enough technical knowledge to refute what the musicians are saying, but not enough yet to realize that they're right."

It takes so much more intellectual rigour to understand what is seemingly impossible than being a passionate sceptic and tearing things into pieces. It takes time to build this strength and I believe our Seph is getting there.

June 5, 2008 at 01:36 AM · "Jim, you're consistently the most useless poster in this topic."

I can't take it seriously. A master of something can hand you some revelation and you don't notice or care. Then you say you're leaving, and you come back :)

June 5, 2008 at 01:37 AM · Greetings,

>You don't have any control over yourself.

Jim, he does . It just operates on such a small bandwidth we can`t see it.



June 5, 2008 at 01:38 AM · How do you know you're hearing correctly, Seph?

What scientific instrument do you use to measure your sense of pitch?

Finally, what is your point exactly?


June 5, 2008 at 01:56 AM · "To analyze it would be impossibly complicated, and physics would just be a tiny part, I think."

On second thought, physics is the whole thing, and it's even more complicated than I was thinking before :))

June 5, 2008 at 02:06 AM · Jim: I've spoken to two other professional violinists who are of similar caliber to Scott. They both agree that, even though they play in tune perfectly to their own ears (and get maximum resonance), it is impossible to play the idealized perfectly in tune note.

This statement is mutually exclusive with what Scott has said. They are all masters of the instrument. So then how do you (personally you, Jim) decide who is correct? Do we pick the person who has the better chair number in their orchestras or what? Your veneration for Scott's ability is certainly well-placed. I would never, ever, ever contradict Scott on a question of technique, violin maintenance, fingering passages, how to improve, etc. etc. simply because he knows far more than I'll probably ever know in those matters.

However, this is simply not a matter of being a good violin player, it is STRICTLY a physics question.

I understand that Scott hears very subtle resonance properties that even most violin players do not hear. This is why he is able to play at such a superior level. This does not mean he has absolutely perfect ears though.

William Wolcott: The discussion has long since diverged from the original topic. I don't intend to discuss that any more, as this board has (quite unintentionally) answered my question to my satisfaction.

If you wish to test any of this, simply get a microphone and plug it into a computer. The better the microphone, the better the frequency resolution, so you'll be able to tell to greater accuracy how much someone plays out of tune from the "perfect" pitch.

I just feel frustration when people try to spread misinformation about physics with a false authority. You would feel similar frustration if I tried to tell Scott about what good technique is or something like that. I am not an authority on violin anywhere near the level that Scott is. I never claimed to be and I doubt even if I practiced hard for the rest of my life that I could even come close.

When Scott responded with,


You're simply wrong when you claim that there is a continuum of pitch on the violin and thus there is no pitch center. Violins have resonant points that are either in or out of tune. This also applies to flat and sharp notes, and it is up to the violinist to learn exactly how his/her instrument responds."

He's using his amazing violin ability to try to back up something he is unfamiliar with. He can hear how well he plays in tune only as well as his ears allow him. He plays perfectly in tune (and maximally resonant) according to his ear. That is the best anyone can do. This does not mean he is (or anyone else is) actually playing 100% perfectly in tune, as I've discussed over and over again (quite thoroughly at various levels of technicality) in previous posts that people seem to ignore completely.

June 5, 2008 at 03:50 AM · Everyone here surely knows my particular opinion on intonation & classical violinists. (having to do with intonation of the open strings, not so much with technique) I won't go there again. Too many battle scars. (this is a TOUGH crowd!)

However, I find one recurring theme in this thread most interesting, and somewhat perplexing:

Several posters, including Laurie Niles, mention how a violin has resonant "sweet spots" and that a good player will learn to hit them.

OK, I certainly agree with the first part of that. However, what does the player do if some of those sweet spots are out of tune? - And surely, if a high-G sweet spot sounds correct when in the key of G major, shouldn't it be slightly off when in the key of Bb major? (and so on....)

So what do you do? Forgetting the OP's original question (whatever the heck it actually was) Doesn't it make sense to aim for the correct pitch, vs the maximum resonance?

June 5, 2008 at 03:58 AM · Allan, what you're talking about I never heard of before coming here. It doesn't seem likely to me either, since the fiddle doesn't know what key it's playing in, and then adapt :) But, it's not smart to completely discount the possibility of something useful happening that seems to be that. It would be interesting to delve into that; maybe a new thread.

June 5, 2008 at 05:57 AM · Wow, I can barely keep up with this thread. (As an aside, I can really see now why people leave this forum - nobody listens to anybody!) Buri, I must have miscommunicated somehow. To good approximation (minus a few details), you summed up what I had tried to say but in much clearer terms. If you or anybody else would like to discuss intonation in more detail with me feel free to PM me; there are so many people on this thread with various levels of understanding (technical or otherwise) of intonation and resonance that it seems to be a near miracle that anybody has communicated with anybody so far!

Allan, I don't know if you want to take advice from me, but it would seem to me that since most (okay, all) violinists are trying to maximize their sound, you always want to hit the sweet spots. What Jim said about the violin not knowing what key you're playing in is *almost* true. It doesn't, but it gives you choices for keys. As a relatively simple example, there are two E4s on the D string - one that resonates with the G string and one that resonates with the A and E strings. As it happens, it's as if the violin is giving you a choice between Es to play whether you're in say, A major or C major! In this way you can almost always find a note which resonates to some degree with the violin (so yes, some sweet spots are sweeter than others) and also fits into the key you're playing in (this works for most keys, as far as I'm aware).

June 5, 2008 at 06:40 AM · I’m listening to everyone, Charles, especially to your. But how can you expect people to take it any more seriously than it has been, when a student armed with a few science courses comes here to lecture people on a strict question in physics and in such an insulting manner?

June 5, 2008 at 07:10 AM · Thank you, Yixi. As this thread is basically completely derailed, I'll try to answer your question and as such word my response carefully. I think that everybody has the right to be taken seriously no matter their ability to express themselves - especially in a text-based environment. To that extent, I think people should really take measures to look past words or sentences they perceive as offensive - everybody uses different vocabularies, that is, different words for the same concepts - and try to understand at a fundamental level what other people are saying. A shockingly large portion of what everybody on this thread has been saying has been in agreement, there are merely a few fine points which various people slip up on. Miscommunication is to be expected, but I really find it odd that a group of otherwise seemingly very intelligent people is reduced to essentially name calling over an issue which could be discussed with humor and civility over drinks. Don't get me wrong; a lot of responses to this thread have been thoughtful, polite, diplomatic, and intellectually rigorous, but there is enough vinegar here to put a sour taste into just about anybody's mouth. I do not believe Seph is presumptuous enough to come on this board to lecture about things he doesn't know about; I believe he is quite qualified enough to talk about the things he is talking about. That is not the point, however. What I am trying to get at is that, as a group, we should try at every corner to take measures towards minimizing possible aggression and up-frontery instead of degrading towards escalation over trifles like who said what to whom.

June 5, 2008 at 06:52 AM · Yixi, I'm sorry you feel that I was insulting. That was not my (initial) intent.

Here is my (one-sided) recap of the thread:

-- I ask a question not related to physics.

-- People respond, generally thoughtfully.

-- Some people say that professionals actually DO play perfectly in tune.

-- A professional says professionals actually DO play perfectly in tune.

-- I respond to why this is false.

-- Multiple people essentially pat me on the head and say I "don't know the violin well enough."

-- I respond with decreasingly technical explanations of why it's not even a matter of violin ability, but a matter of physics.

-- Everyone gets very bent out of shape about my explaining what's really going on.

-- People continue to "pat me on the head" and the thread turns into a joke topic, essentially.

People are very condescending here about not just violin playing (which they at least have a "right" to be, if one exists), but also about physics, etc.

It's also quite condescending that you'd call me a student with a few science courses.

Even if Hilary Hahn were to say the same thing to me about how it's possible to play perfectly in tune, I would explain to her that it's not, even though I completely idolize her as a violinist.

June 5, 2008 at 07:40 AM · Charles, I see where you come from. The problem is not that anyone is doubting Seph’s knowledge in physics, but rather it is the way he uses his knowledge in that field to provoke people here, people in a field that is outside his expertise. He is, as it were, bashing the violinists’ theories of sound with his physics version (appears to him to be the only version) of truth in a violinist list. Also Charles, we are not in an academic setting so it's a different game here. This is a community with a lot of passion and commitment to make music. Words matter a great deal but what’s behind the words is often loud and clear. Believe or not, people here in a lot of ways are more perceptive than most we’d meet in any top-notch university. They see through, beyond and above you like you won’t believe!:) So as a new comer, listen , listen and listen, if one wanted to be listened to.

Seph, I agree that I should not have called you a student with a few science courses.

June 5, 2008 at 11:55 AM · Charles,

No offense intended at all (seriously) but I'm not sure you understand what I was asking about.(concerning just-intonation being different for every mode & chord within that mode) Either that, or you're saying that it's OK to be slightly out of tune as long as you hit get the maximum sympathetic resonance.

If the latter, well that's what I want to know, but it seems like a strange choice to me.

Maybe this is the wrong place for such a discussion. Yikes.....

June 5, 2008 at 08:13 AM · Yixi,

I feel like you're not reading anything I write.

You feel that I am trying to be a jerk and provoke people by rambling on about physics. That isn't my goal at all. My original question had absolutely nothing to do with physics. I actually expected people to respond with stuff like "you can't actually hear stuff that small" or something like that and not in the way that they did.

That's fine that violinists make theories about sound. That's great. That's more or less the application of the scientific method, which I always support. However, violinists are basing their theories off of what they can hear. So in that regard, all violinists' theories are 100% correct for what they can hear.

However, the question came down to being about frequency changes smaller than what people can hear. People then started trying to shove their experience and "theories" on me. I felt attacked, perhaps wrongly, but I did nonetheless.

You sound quite sarcastic about the physics theory of truth. It is, however, just that. That's why physicists waste their life doing physics. It describes the real world better than any kind of observations can.

Perhaps I was totally out of line throwing physics around, and for this I apologize. This is a violinist board, true, and physics doesn't belong on it. I simply had no other means to show why people's statements were absolutely false.

In either case, this thread is closed (100 posts, right?). I definitely, definitely will not bring up physics ever again, as it didn't benefit anyone.

June 5, 2008 at 07:50 AM · Wow, quite a long and heated thread here.

Let me just say that I appreciate what Seph has been trying to say. I don't feel affronted by any of his posts, and I firmly believe that physics DOES have a place in this discussion.

Let's tackle the original inquiry another way, with the following simple experiment --one that you can actually do at home:

Suppose you have a very very very sensitive digital tuner and attached it to your violin. Then try to play a piece, any piece. What are the chances that you'll be able to hit the same note with the exact same pitch each and every time --such that the tuner's indicator is dead center?

In practice, you'll notice that this is impossible to do for a vast multitude of reasons: the unique acoustic properties of the violin body itself, the speed of the bow, hand positions, the skill of the player... even the weather and the age of the strings!

However, skilled violinists (or any instrumentalist for that matter) never perform while keeping an eye on a nearby tuner for the simple fact that they subconsciously "adjust" their playing so that it "sounds right" to them and their audiences... Even if, from a purely empirical perspective, the tuner's readings are off the mark.

Buri, Jim, Laurie, Don, etc. have mentioned the ability of violinists to "feel" whether or not a note is "in tune." This is true. However, Seph's original question was (please allow me to paraphrase this) whether or not it is humanly possible to be CONSISTENT and ACCURATE.

The short answer is (in my opinion) MAYBE, but there's so many variables involved that it's hard if not impossible to prove this hypothesis. You'll have better luck proving Fermat's Last Theorem through brute force ;)

Of course, it's easy to program a machine to do it but the resulting sound (as mentioned earlier in this thread) will sound dull and lifeless. Even if it were possible to train a human being to play consistently and accurately, s/he will undoubtedly end up with the same (lifeless) results.

June 5, 2008 at 10:47 AM · Jim W. Miller wrote:

"Laurie and David gonna slug it out, coming up next!"


Naw, I'm not disagreeing with Laurie. I think we're just using different words to say the same thing. :-)

Seph, with the physics explanation, I didn't mean to deny that all musicians play out of tune at one time or another, meaning that they fail to produce their intended pitch impression. My argument is only that there isn't a perfect way to define a "correct" pitch in the real world. That's why I used the term "pitch impression".

Since you mentioned the sophistication of "Fourier Transform" (one electronic way of determining sound content), it's worth noting that there's a lot of audible information that this doesn't show, because it doesn't process sound information in the same way that our brains do. Neither do electronic tuners.

The most glaring example is the absence of "implied" tones. One might argue that these tones don't exist because they don't show up on a Fourier Transform, but they clearly show up with other electronic measuring methods. And some of them are heard with near 100% reliability by listeners, such as the pitch of an open G string. This pitch is virtually non-existent on a Fourier. It's synthesized in our brains from the harmonics above.

My point is that electronic measuring devices are not necessarily a good way of judging musical intonation. They are great tools that have helped us better understand a limited part of the picture, but which is more important? What they show or what we hear? In music, I think it's what we hear.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

International Violin Competition of Indianapolis
International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

Virtual Sejong Music Competition
Virtual Sejong Music Competition

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Bein & Company

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Los Angeles Violin Shop

String Masters

Bobelock Cases

Things 4 Strings LLC



Sleepy Puppy Press

Jargar Strings

J.R. Judd Violins, LLC

Southwest Strings

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine