Intonation as a Means of Expression

October 5, 2008 at 05:35 PM · In an interview in Gramophone Magazine, Vadim Repin said that he "uses intonation as a means of expression."

What does this mean to you? What does every body think about using intonation as a means of expression?

There is one segment in the Art of Violin where Gitlis is talking about how so and so plays this note higher or lower and it creates such and such an affect.

What do you think? Should it be done, or should everything be exactly in tune?

Replies (22)

October 5, 2008 at 05:55 PM · I am a great advocate of the theory that vibrato is the ultimate thing when we talk about the expression! Listen to all the famous players, except maybe the bow speed which is another caracteristic, we all admire those who can not only play but "tell" us something by using different vibrato types...

October 5, 2008 at 06:20 PM · I'll put just example: when you play any of Bach, find a harmony of diminish 7th and listen to root sound and 7th interval(ex.: in d minor it will be c# and b-flat) Does it make sence?

October 5, 2008 at 09:30 PM · "Everything exactly in tune"? In tune with what? The piano? The electronic tuner? your partners in string quartet?

Seriously: Some say that major thirds and leading tones should be played a) slightly sharp when occuring in a more soloistic context, b) pure (i. e. in accordance with the natural harmonics of the fundamental) when they form harmonic underground.

Others say that, when playing with piano, you have the option of using your own, more expressive sharps (sharper), flats (flatter), major thirds and sevenths (sharper both), or to go with the artificial equal temperament of the piano. One of my teachers advised me to play Schumann with some liberties, and Franck always in tune with the piano.

But how to decide which is which, and when to use what?

I hate to use the term of good taste (because so many people get it wrong -- "good taste is what suits me"), but intonation is one area where good taste is needed. I. e. you have to know about the composer's background (pianist? string player? neither?), about the instruments and temperaments he knew (if keyboard: meantone? well-tempered? equal?), about his or her main area of musical activity (opera? vocal? chamber? plucked? orchestra? keyboard?), about the musicians he or she knew, and their playing. Then you have to do an ananlysis of the music and decide if there are principal lines in the texture that need to be highlighted, and how to highlight them (loudness/sound/vibrato/rubato/intonation ...). And from all that -- and probably more -- you should draw your conclusion about whether to use intonation as an expressive means or not. Non-equal intonation, or intonation differing from that of an accompanying keyboard instrument, will seem slightly irritating to many listeners. The question is if this kind of irritation can perform a function in your concept of the music.

Having written all that -- I think one should be prepared to use any kind of intonation as long as it serves the music (and as long as it's not rightout bad -- but that one you don't "use").



P. S.

The best intonation I ever heard was done by the Leipzig String Quartet (their recordings appear on the German label MDG). Their former first violinist, Andreas Seidel, has perfect judgement about how to achieve the best sound and expression under any given circumstances. To watch him doing it live is breathtaking -- so refined, so good, and sounding so easy while you know that it's really, really hard to do. Sorry to everyone else -- but he's just the best.

October 5, 2008 at 08:11 PM · Rita do you mean the dim 7th interval needs to be modified in general in Bach? Is it different with keyboard? I don't understand the example.

Regarding the main question, I think intonation is a means of expression whether you want it to be or not;) Anything you can control is your expression.

October 5, 2008 at 09:43 PM · Pianists don't need to think much about intonation, but every other kind of instrumentalist and singer does. Not only should it be used as a means of expression but it is one of our most powerful means of expression. I won't get into a boring lecture about the physics of sound except to say that playing a major seventh just a little bit higher than the temperament of the pianist will create such a feeling of excruciating tension that getting to the tonic will be a sublime release. Same goes for major minor sixths and thirds. Minor seconds are yummy when super low, while major seconds can be tricky. Don't touch perfect intervals. They're already perfect.

Is there a difference between D flat and C sharp? A pianist will tell you no. To a violinist though it's a world of difference in spacing.

October 5, 2008 at 09:45 PM · I am not sure what the violinist is saying in the interview. He may be refering to a technique of expression, which is very vocal in nature. In some authentic baroque music recordings, I have heard the violinist play out of tune on purpose in order to convey certain emotions. A slight slide can convey the feeling of sadness in slower movements. A hard down bow, anger. Playing close to the bridge, an airy feeling. A good example that most readers of this forum would know is how the soloist may interpret the many colours that can be achieved in Vivaldi's Four Seasons cycle. Along with tasteful improvs, one can become "vocal" in their rendering the effects of birds, stamping of feet, etc., that Vivaldi calls for in the music. I have certainly noticed how somtimes the cello can often become percussive in it's effect and it works well. Baroque music aims to achieve a visual aspect through sound, much like Jazz. Of course good intonation is always a must, but even some of the most famous violinists have been known to lack a full mastery of this. It is evident in many older recordings of the past and I've even been aware of some modern violinists who seem to not always play in tune. I am very familiar and aware of modern recording technology/techniques and that even the most out of tune violinist's sound can be "sweetened" both in the sudio and on the stage today. I've always noticed in many master classes that the master violinist never sounds like they do on their recordings. Sometimes they are slightly out of tune, but they are conveying the general idea in the lesson.

October 5, 2008 at 11:58 PM · Jim Miller wrote: "Anything you can control is your expression."

I think that this is a profound truth about music performance.

There are violinists who have intonation, timing, tone color, virtually every element of their playing under great control, but only the most superficial content to express by means of this control. Listening to that sort of playing is almost looking into someone's eyes and seeing a mannequin instead of a person.

Then there are violinists who infuse every timing, every pitch, every change of tone color with humanity. Toscha Seidel was such an artist. He had only to play five notes and you felt the depths of your soul stirred by it. In our time, I regard Roby Lakatos as an artist who, like Seidel, has great control of every element of his playing, *and* the ability to use it so as to make human contact. Repeated listening to a phrase played by that sort of artist gives more with each listening.

October 6, 2008 at 12:35 AM · Jim Miller wrote: "Anything you can control is your expression."

Almost correct. It's actually anything that is perceived to be under your control that is your expression.

October 6, 2008 at 02:56 AM · Vadim's expressive intonation or Buri's recent blog, honest intonation brings to light many good points. Intonation for me is like searching for the holy grail, will I ever find it? And then I go on my quest again, doesn't matter which music I'm playing. Kyung Wha told me of the time she recorded the Berg VC with the Chicago Symphony, George Solti conducting. After the recording she said "Oh My God, Sir Solti is going deaf". I thought to myself gosh, it happens to everyone not only me.

October 6, 2008 at 03:24 AM · "Is there a difference between D flat and C sharp? A pianist will tell you no. To a violinist though it's a world of difference in spacing".

Thanks Marina ! I'll relate this to a flute player who lives near me and is continually

harping about similiar subjects !

Holds as a truism for a flautist also---right ??

October 6, 2008 at 04:45 AM · Milstein was a master of "playing" with the intonation ...listen carefully to his Bach... should it be done?...if your ear and technique are strong enough...IMO...

October 6, 2008 at 05:25 AM · While we're discussing intonation has anyone purchased the video See-Like-Me Play Like A Pro? They're a sponsor for The illuminated graph of the violin fingerboard looks interesting. Curious.


October 6, 2008 at 06:49 AM · Kevin beat me to it, sort of:

I was going to say, listen to Milstein's recording of the Bach Chaconne, and notice what he does with the half-steps (A - B flat, G# - A, and C# - D especially). It's like a master class on the use of intonation as an expressive device.

(P.S. I'm a flute player, and Joe, you should definitely just give that flutist a hard time in general. :D )

October 6, 2008 at 08:09 AM · Of course intonation is a means of expression, but I don't like to think of it as playing higher or lower - instead it's a matter of colour and direction. Saying to myself: "play this C sharp high" doesn't get nearly the same result as when I think "bright", or "friendly", or "edgy", or "this line is reaching up here".

October 6, 2008 at 11:36 AM · Good point Megan, directional agenda has lots to do with it as if notes are reaching for their destination in some cases. And what's more expressive than applying expressive words to your choice of notes?

Bottom line - intonation is organic. I like to think of it as tool to be used at the discretion of our ear, and it takes time to develop. Unless you are imprisoned by your instrument's tuning (piano, harp, etc) then feel free to experiment. Every pitch is up for grabs. My teacher used to say "no, you didn't play that note out of tune, you just played the wrong note."

For what it's worth, I think when one is given an opportunity to pick on a flute player one should take it.

October 6, 2008 at 12:07 PM · It is not the flute players that are the problem, it is the piccolo players...

There is a marvelous book called "Casals and the Art of Interpretation" by David Blum, ISBN 0-520-04032-5, that covers this subject quite nicely. Casals called this "expressive intonation".

October 6, 2008 at 10:25 PM · Greetings,

yep.What on earth is it about piccolo p@layers?

Need prunes. Aaaaargh/......


October 7, 2008 at 12:24 AM · Buri, I think they're just deaf. Use a lot of hand gestures.

October 7, 2008 at 12:35 AM · Greetings,

I like the one in which the wrist flicks and a stale prune donut flies in the direction of the offending noise. I found it in the original text of the Kodaly system.



October 10, 2008 at 09:31 PM · Performing the high leading tone is a common practice of singers who quite often do a slow glissando from this high seventh up to the tonic.

It must be an inherent tendency of vocalists who really want to emphasize smoothness.

The unfretted strings, brass and woodwind instruments have no problem in imitating this vocal technique.

However, when the 7th is used differently, as in an ascending passage or as part of an embellishment, it is performed lower.

The tempered scale was a tuning system which was invented for practical reasons since the re-tuning of a piano, harp or organ, to any specific key, would have been impossible during any performance.

Ted Kruzich

October 11, 2008 at 11:17 PM · Ted --

I was going through the responses planning on saying what you said and then there you were. Oistrakh I believe plays a sharp leading tone. Certainly, Bjoerling was not above sharping the leading tone--he did it frequently and it makes his singing sound excited and exciting.

October 14, 2008 at 02:51 AM · If you want to hear really excellent intonation get recordings of the Flonzaley Quartet. They disbanded in the 1930's so they are very old recordings but the intonation and sonority are flawless.

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

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

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

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

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