Intonation Troubles!

August 24, 2008 at 03:05 AM · I just got back from a quartet rehearsal and I am just so angry with myself, I played so out of tune! This has been a continuous problem the last few days! I just can't seem to play anything in tune, be it scales, arpeggios, or the concerto I'm working on (Mozart). I'm even having trouble adjusting my intonation. I keep second guessing myself, because what I think is in tune is frequently "too sharp" to my teacher (who I'm quite sure is right 100% of the time). So I guess my question is what should I do, and how should I go about fixing my intonation problems! Even checking notes with open strings hasn't played in my favor. Help!

Replies (34)

August 24, 2008 at 03:09 AM · Next best step.

Deal with your frustration first as that would be an obvious hamper to your practise. Don't throw the poor violin, take a relaxing shower and walk for a bit then return to it - make sure your relaxed, your whole being carefree and your mind without clutter.

Then after.

Practising using either a keyboard (There is an online flash MIDI keyboard you could use) and ear-match your notes. Or go for an alternative like using a tuner/tuning software(Requires a microphone for computer)

Slow practise single octave scales in first position. Then work your way up with positions, then increase to 2 octave and 3 (If your up to that level in scale practise)

Also try practise chromatic scales (Play them extra slow and pay attention to detail and the notes)

Or go back to your basics however you learnt them and start from them again revising them and refreshing them in your mind.

Good luck mate!

August 24, 2008 at 03:14 AM · Use a pitch generator.

Practice scales and your rep with respect to a drone pitch in the present key of the music. Note how I said "present key" there.

This is what it means to be in tune......even adjusting your pitch to open strings--will make you *more* out of tune, unless the interval formed is a 5th (or you are playing in an open string key).

There are debates as to what constitutes "in tune", and they make for neat cat fights. But, regardless, pianos are the most out of tune instruments in the world (everything is out of tune, anywhere from a little to over a 1/4 tone). The only time one should worry about if you're in tune with respect to a piano, is when in fact you are playing with a piano.

August 24, 2008 at 03:22 AM · Would a pitch generator be similar to a MIDI keyboard? If not where could I get one?

Also I forgot to add this one in - Make sure you try imagine the sound before you play it, I think that is an important part of scale practise.

August 24, 2008 at 05:27 AM · Adam I will e-mail you with some suggestions.

August 24, 2008 at 05:32 AM · Thank you all for your advice! I'm sure your tips will work out very well when I practice in the morning (can't wake up the people in my house now!).

August 24, 2008 at 11:06 AM · Mr. Clifford,

Please have your instrument checked. The higher humidity at this time of the year can exacerbate the difference in the radius at the top of the bridge and the fingerboard.

August 24, 2008 at 01:42 PM · Dmitri,

Unless your MIDI keyboard can sustain one pitch for several minutes at a time (without you doing anything)--I would find something more suited to the task. Many (better) tuners have loud and good sounding pitch generators that do the trick. I use a Seiko ST777 that I got on clearance for $30 several years ago--it can sound any pitch the violin can play, sounds good, is loud, and I can turn it on and it keeps sounding for 5 minutes at a time (it is also a needle tuner)....I can also easily adjust pitch +/-50 cents or so. You *can* do the same thing with a MIDI piano--but it is much more work, in my experience.


There are several different schools to can also try to "play the needle" of a tuner, which is much more difficult than playing to a drone.....this way you have the flexibility to choose how in tune you are, and a fun game on standard repertoire....but you have to have in your head, the difference between what you want to play, and how out of tune it is with respect to even temperment (because that is what the needle is reading).

I like drones-because they teach you how your playing implys a given key, just from 1 or two non-simultaneous notes.. Only one note-the tonic of whatever key you are in at the moment. Anything else will only confuse your ear. Also, when putting the tuner away and playing without it, remember several keys are easy to hear (your open string keys, and their dominant keys) and some are not (all the rest, basically) due to the natural resonance of the instrument.

Playing in tune is where the art comes in, in violin technique. There are all manner of schools of what constitutes "in tune"....there's "just intonation" (my preference), there's even tempering (how your modern piano is tuned), there's Aeolian tempering, there is string quartet tuning (a school all to itself), just to name a few. Thus "in tune" is a stricky thing-dependent on exactly what one is doing.

August 24, 2008 at 02:36 PM · You might try Intonia software. It records sort of a piano roll of what you play and tells you whether you are flat or sharp, and by how much. You have a choice of temperaments: equal, just of Pythagorean.

I find it really helpful working on keys where there aren't a lot of natural references. 'll use it while watching the screen to learn the sound of a given key, and then play passages without watching, and go back to see where I need to make changes.

August 24, 2008 at 03:43 PM ·

August 24, 2008 at 09:55 PM · "Fast bow, slow fingers." For example, play a scale with 4 quick bow strokes per note. You won't die of boredom listening to a slow bow and you will have time to adjust if needed. Maybe you will be able to notice some bad habits or movements you didn't notice when your fingers were going faster.

August 24, 2008 at 11:12 PM · Here's a trick that will have you playing your scales very well in tune:

First play only the tonic. For example, open G, third finger G on the D string, etc. Make sure all of those Gs are in tune with each other. Then do the same thing, but add the Dominant: G, D, (next octave) G, D, etc. After that, add the subdominant in each octave: G, C, D...G, C, D, etc. Always make sure your tuning each note so that their in tun with each other AND with themselves.

After you do the perfect intervals add the 3rd degree AND leading tone of the scale: G, B, C, D, F#, G, etc. Finally, add the 2nd and 6th degrees.

Remember, tune the notes to each other and themselves in different octaves. Major intervals can be a little on the high side, especially those ascending in half-steps (the 3rd degree and the leading tone).

With arpeggios, I do something similar. I start with the tonic only in each octave, then the tonic and the 5th, then I finally add the 3rd.

August 25, 2008 at 12:13 AM · Nate sorry to ask but do you think you could send to me what you sent to Adam?

August 25, 2008 at 02:39 AM · I second (third, fourth, fifth...?) the drone idea...especially with scales. I have a Korg chromatic tuner that works pretty well for that.

Something I made ALL of my middle school/High School students do was SING!!! I suck at singing, but matching pitch is important, and it's a great way to train your ears.

Sing the scales, use the solfege and hand symbols, solfege your music (or sing it on La, or even hum it).

Also, don't forget to keep listening to a lot of music.

Schradiek school of Violin Technique & Sevcik Violin Technique have some decent (repetitive, dry, etc.) exercises that force you to hear and feel the intonation with different intervals and finger combinations.

August 25, 2008 at 04:14 AM · Drones are a bad idea. There's a difference between just intonation and pythagorean tuning. If you use drones you'll wind up playing a bit out of tune on your non-perfect scale degrees.

August 25, 2008 at 05:25 AM · I was wondering if someone was going to point that out. It's a good way to practice some times, but not all of the time.

You know what, though? It wasn't until this past year or so that I noticed I was using different tuning depending on the context. I can really hear it now, but I'm still working on having the accuracy to pick and choose to that degree. A lot of the time, especially with more difficult stuff, I'm happy just to be in the ballpark.

Having a good ear is pure torture.

August 25, 2008 at 10:24 AM · Dear Natalie,

thank you for the email! But I have a few questions.

Third scales... Am I just playing Diminished 7th Arpeggios? example - C Eb Gb A

I am not really too sure what a third scale is, and so forth.

August 25, 2008 at 11:55 AM · Yes, I second the singing idea. Of course if you can't stay in tune when singing, well, knock that idea out. W/o a piano, a person tends to sing, or "hear" the forthcoming notes in just intonation. Guess that echoes someone else's comment to hear the note in your head before playing it.

How frustrating for you - good luck!

August 25, 2008 at 12:54 PM · Hi,

I hear a lot of great suggestions. I think that first, before attempting a solution, one has to figure out the root of the problem. With intonation, there are many, but here are some ideas on where to investigate.

1- Are you hearing in tune? This was a first for Carl Flesch, and he advised on practice things comparing notes to open strings (making sure the violin is well tuned) to train the ear to detect notes that are out of tune. Then, one begins to correct as quickly as possible. Henryk Szeryng also recommended an amount of this kind of daily practice by playing slow scales comparing notes to open strings to keep the ear in shape.

2- Do you have problems with the placement and balance of the left hand? Often a problem of overall intonation when the ear is hearing well has to do with the thumb not doing it's job properly. With most people, the thumb should be in line with the first finger and following it. Although I could write pages about this - Drew Lecher just wrote a great post on this topic in his blog.

3- Are you practice slowly enough and have a clear ideas of the relationships between fingers (i.e. where the tones and semitones are in your frame of hand) and how your hand is moving around the violin (i.e. guide fingers or intermediate notes, however you want to call them)? Slow practice focusing on this is of the utmost importance in securing good intonation by knowing what your hand is doing and how it is moving around the violin. Many a missed shift happens by not knowing which finger and how it is getting you from one place to the next. Making sure that the intermediate note is in tune too, helps in making shifts more consistent.

4- Are you pressing with the bow? Squeezing the sound or pressing the bow into the string (instead of using weight) can bend a string out of tune and affect intonation just as much even if your left hand is in the right place. If you find that you are pressing and squeezing, release the thumb. This will release the whole hand in a simple and easy command. Feel the weight in your forearm instead of pressing with the hand. Often this simple thing can solve hours of practicing when the left hand is not the culprit in intonation.

I hope that these suggestions help you find the cause(s) of your intonation problems and help you find the appropriate solution to them.

Best of luck and cheers!

August 25, 2008 at 01:35 PM · Christian,

With regard to open string playing a drone while tuning left hand... How does this work for upper positions and/or higher strings?

August 25, 2008 at 02:40 PM · A hearing problem should always be suspected when one's playing goes out of tune - especially if the problem has started only recently.

Wax in the ears can be one source of this problem. Damping overtones can spoil one's sense of pitch. I know this is what has happened to me as I have aged - I now compensate by using a hearing aid in my right ear whenever I play the violin.

Another problem can be overdriving the left ear because it is too close to the instrument, If a player's head tends to lay over to the left while playing, the signal going into the left ear can be 12 to 18 DB higher than that to the right ear. When this happens, the higher sound pressure can make the pitch in the left ear sound higher than that from the right ear. However, the right ear will be hearing "in tune" and also hearing all the other players in tune. Unfortunately the stronger, higher pitched sound in the player's left ear will be much louder and tend to dominate, tending to make the player play flat relative to what is heard through the right ear. (This known physiological phenomenon can make it very difficult to tune to an oboe in orchestral tuning.)

I actually tried an experiment with an entire community orchestra violin section (1st and 2nd) giving each player a plug for their left ear and the improvement in the sections' intonation was instantaneous.

This is one possible source of poor violinist intonation.


August 26, 2008 at 01:48 AM · Hi Tasha,

Although many factors go into intonation, comparing to open strings can help in all registers (ear wise), at least in my personal experience and with those to whom I have given the exercises.

Cheers and all my best!


August 26, 2008 at 09:55 PM ·

August 28, 2008 at 02:07 AM · Hmmm, even if someone sucks at singing, I would consider it even more of an indicator of them needing to improve their singing and ear before applying it to the violin.

I understand that it might be a frustrating, slow process...but if someone can't sing or match pitch, then it's likely an issue with his/her hearing. Before trying to improve intonation on the violin, I would wholeheartedly suggest improving it with singing.

See, I am horrible at singing (I had TWO college professors laugh at me when hearing me!!) HOWEVER, I can match pitch like no one's business. My vocal chords don't have great stamina or control, making singing hard for me in choral settings...but give me a small phrase or something to match and my ear makes up for that.

Being able to sing/solfege it is really about the ear...and that directly applies to the intonation on the violin. It would be a shame to shy away from it out of frustration when it's one of the best ways to overhaul or work through pitch problems.

August 28, 2008 at 02:22 AM · Need help fixing intonation?? What a stupid question! Just kidding of course, i struggle with mine sometimes..;) For beginners-intermed., I would spend a lot of time practicing 1-2 octave scales and one-octave arpeggios. Make sure the left hand is relaxed, and I would recommend practicing them really slow, and also using a metronome tuner to make sure you are getting the exact hand position. For more advanced players, practice scales, arpeggios, 3rds, 6ths, etc. Also getting a scale book would help to. Intonation is tough to fix, but if you can train your ear well enough to remember finger patterns, your problems can be solved.

August 28, 2008 at 03:43 AM · My teacher told me last spring that to fix intonation, to practice scales with a drone. Start off, with C Major. and place a metronome with a chromatic pitch player on the perfect 5th above the C, so on the G. When you play the drone note on your violin, play it longer than the others to make sure that it is in tune. Once you feel comfortable with that, switch it to the 4th, then the order doesn't really matter after that. The problem I had with this was I kept imagining that the drone was tonic so I would add sharps or flats to the scale without realizing it until I came down. Also, you need to tune your tonic to the drone, otherwise, your tonic will not be in tune with the notes in the scale.

Hope this helps.

August 28, 2008 at 04:54 AM · #1 Resolve any left hand tension issues so your fingers can move freely to where they are "told" to go.

I have found that I have to "plan on" playing in tune. Meaning, first I can feel it (stretching, touching etc.), then I can look at it. By the time I play it and hear it, hopefully I have done enough planning so I don't have to constantly be adjusting. Afterall, the goal is to get it in tune the first time not the second or third etc.

I complimented a 7 year old student on playing a particular note in tune. He looked at me somewhat perplexed and said, "Of course it is, I planned it that way." People who plan often get "lucky".

August 28, 2008 at 04:53 AM · I have a different idea: try stepping away from the instrument and listen to some fine recordings of artists and ensembles who play beautifully in tune. They don't even have to be fiddle players. I mean, Kathleen Battle singing the last movement of Mahler 4. ;) But maybe you just need to shake your ear out a bit.

August 28, 2008 at 05:10 AM · mmm...excellent point, Laurie.

Sometimes it seems magical how the ear can communicate so accurately with the fingers.

August 28, 2008 at 05:24 AM · It's not that I'm not familiar with all of the scales, arpeggios, etc., I know them all by heart. I can also sing relatively well, I can sight-sing like there is no tomorrow! This is where my frustration was coming from though, I wasn't aware of my relatively shaky intonation until my teacher really made me stop and listen. But once I started practicing thirds, octaves, and other double stops, my intonation improved immediately. For the most part, no more frustration! :)

August 28, 2008 at 05:28 AM · I guess I should have said "slowly re-practicing" my thirds and other double stops. I practice them a lot before but without listening as closely as I've been trying to lately!

August 28, 2008 at 05:29 AM · Being able to hear well can be a blessing and a curse! Glad you are on your way again.

August 28, 2008 at 09:48 AM · I practised 'Anticipating the Notes', same as suggested before, ‘hearing the notes before you play them’ eg,.

Play the tonic, rest then sing it……DOH…….rest.

Hear then Sing the super tonic….RA…..Then play etc.

Make a mental note of what your finger produces….is the note sharp or flat?

Endeavour to play notes right on pitch but never allow playing sharp, repeat if this happens.

With relaxed finger pressure slide up from the flat notes.

Eventually trying to make the slide as short and inaudible as possible.

August 30, 2008 at 07:22 AM · Henry, I love that exercise too....sadly my students didn't! But I think it is definitely helpful.

August 31, 2008 at 11:19 AM · Also sad that not all children receive the benifits of singing in a choir,

thus learning to Sing the scales by using solfeggio and hand symbols,

and solfege games and songs.

What ever happened to......."Doe a Deer a female deer, ray a drop of golden sun,...."........?

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