How to improve intonation

December 9, 2008 at 05:44 PM ·

I'm an adult beginner.  I would like to improve my intonation.  I can not play the piano while playing the violin, (thought that would help).  What can I do?.  I seem to be able to notice intonation problem in others but less easily when I play.  I do practice daily scales (1hr) and Svecik exercises.  What do you suggest.  I try to check with open string and the tuner, so I'm dead on.  Open string is more difficult but I love the challenge.  The problem, is I would like to do some exercises only for intonation.   Signing would be a great idea, but how do I know I sign "in tune"?

Many thanks!

Replies (36)

December 9, 2008 at 06:02 PM ·

I've been told that I have great intonation while playing my violin/viola. So I can try to give some pointers for what helped me.

Well, since you have already stated that you played piano, you have an idea of what the 'sound' is suppose to be right?  And you have stated that you play scales?  Well those two rights there are a start. Slowly practicing scales and not rushing through will help out a lot.  But you asked, how do I know you’re playing in tune (the right note on the page to the correct pitch)?  Obviously you probably know that they make tuners that show a dial-indicator of what your actual pitch is, and then you can adjust from there by using the tuner.  Or you could buy a synthetic keyboard and tune to that.
What helped me was that I did sing in church choirs when I was growing up, and also my orchestra teacher was also my choir director as well. So understanding pitches came more fluent than others.  So, for example, if you play open 'D' and then in first position play 3rd finger 'G',  like here comes the bride, you should be able to hear your violin/viola's 'G' string resonate faintly/loudly (depending on quality of instrument) or hear it sing faintly. That is one way of really hitting the intonation sweet spot, for third finger.  Also, unfortunately, it takes time. Just practice slowly with your violin/viola/cello/bass and you will be growing into your intonation abilities.  It is very similar to vibratos as well. Practice, Practice, Practice.

December 9, 2008 at 07:34 PM ·

Do you understand in a very concrete way  the geography of the fingerboard? It is very helpful to know what is a half-step, whole-step or step-and-a-half away from what, and what is straight across from what when you change strings. If you are not secure in this bit of music theory, look for some materials intended for kid-students.There are books with very complete fingering charts/fingerboard diagrams to study, and workbooks with fill-in-the-blank.. You also need to know that as your go higher on each string, the finger spacing gets smaller and smaller.  Sue 

December 9, 2008 at 08:43 PM ·

Some thoughts:

1. Think finger patterns.

2. Think hand posture. Is the hand turned in properly so that you can place your fingers without rotating the hand?

3. Practice with a drone. The easiest way to practice with a drone is to use a Dr. Beat set to a pitch that relates to your passage. You can also play scales against an open string.

December 9, 2008 at 08:46 PM ·

Hi Sue,

Yes I'm very aware of 1/2 tone, and tone.  And also know that higher the position smaller the spacing.  This is kind of intuitive from the physic point of view.  The problem is not that I do not understand, is just that I'm not always in tune.  And I really want to work really hard on that point. Also I want to be in tune with other violinist, which may be a bit off, I want to be able (eventually) to be perfectly in tune, but also with the piano and my peers. 

Like I said I usually ear when people are out of tune, but to ear oneself seems to me , more difficult!!! Which does not make much sense to me!


December 9, 2008 at 09:04 PM ·

Hi, the advices above are excellent and I would put that ear training and theory courses are not only for children!!!!!!!!!! There are adult versions that are very good. Pianists are often ear training and theory teachers because a lot of it has to do with the piano.  If you can afford it, private courses with a good teacher is the best present a musician can do to his or herself.  It really helps and when you decide to stop, the theory goes a little away (not the basics though) but the ear and "intonation sens" remains for life time.  I really find this, so try it if you can and see the improvment.

good luck!


December 9, 2008 at 10:22 PM ·

A keyboard of some sort along with playing scales. Simple, sweet, and effective! Also play dough or clay (becareful with some clay that's greesy, it could ruin the hair on your bow if you touch the hair with the greese on your fingers/hands). I have found that the stronger and more developed the muscles your fingering hand has, better the sound, the longer you can play,

December 9, 2008 at 10:33 PM ·


I belive the fundamental precepts of playing wih good intonation is the notion of correct correction.  Although most people are either familair with or agree with the idae that if one plays a note out of tune it needs to be corrected a considerbale numbe rof times,  perhaps six,  before moving on.  Unfortunately this principle is rarely ,  in my experience, put into practice.  It wa sa really sticky point when forming  apiano trio a view years back with a very gifted semi professional cellist.   She was quite content with a beautiful sound and reasonably good intonation except that just doesn`t work in a trio and when it came to pracitcing note by note with the piano she would only corretc one time and it took a lot of discussion back and forth before we could really get to grips with actually working on true intonation trhough adequate corretc repetition.

The best way to put this into practice I have found is through repetition hits.   Using thes eonly actually lifts the finger and makes cocnrete mental decision about whre it is going to be placed.  This is very differnet from the usual sliding the finger about and calling it intonation practice that it seems ot me I see from s many players.  They also have the advantage of improving coordination between left and right hand.

For a detailed explanation see Drew`s writing and then my essay entitled `Repetition Hits,  a humble stab` (or soemthing like that.



December 9, 2008 at 11:25 PM ·

Thanks Buri for the reminder about the repetition hits. Those exercises have worked well in my studio.


December 10, 2008 at 04:46 AM ·

This helped me and is a little basic but... I played and kept anchor fingers down and didn't fish around for the notes. It is easy to start sliding into tune, so you need to be confident when you put your finger down it is correct. So when you are playing open A, then B, C, D on the A string keep the fingers down and build up a block in the pattern. Lots of beginners lift their fingers up and try to pull notes from the air. This is really difficult. So if you keep the other fingers as anchors, it will help you stop those "kitty cat" sounds. Then as you practice, you might want of practice your intervals as others have suggested. Many teachers don't burden students with block fingering, but in some cases it can make the patterns easier to understand if you do it slowly. Of course the open strings and sympathic tones are great as others have mentioned. Also if you have another violinist in your house, ask them to play a "drone" tone when you do your scales. I often get sharp in the high position scales and it can really help if you need a reference.

December 10, 2008 at 05:08 AM ·

I second the "drone" approach.  Another alternative if you have cohorts in crime, is to play scales in thirds or other intervals. 

December 10, 2008 at 09:31 AM ·

Sevcik op 6  (part 1 to 7) summarizes all the excellent given advises.

December 10, 2008 at 11:32 AM ·

There is a whole series of lessons on the subject by Simon Fischer, on Youtube: here you can find them all.

Quote: "Actually, everybody is about a week away -- one week away -- from more or less playing very well in tune."

December 10, 2008 at 06:44 PM ·

So in which video clip does Maestro Fisher get around to telling the poor young thing how to make her intonation better? 


Very sleep inducing.

December 11, 2008 at 11:02 AM ·

The concept of any one note is very ambiguous.Maybe a better question would be what is your concept of an A in the context of the phrase. In the videos Maestro Fisher pointed out that a notes intonation changes depending on whether it is a leading note or following a leading note , infact so much depends on its position in the phrase.I would go further and say much depends on the style of the piece.A notes intonation changes with the speed and pressure of the bow so merely popping your finger down on the correct place on the string is only half way there.A romantic piece played in a high position on the G string lends the note to all sorts of nuances of colour provided by vibrato and use of bow whereas a passage of baroque music played in low positions and making full use of open strings lends to a different type of intonation where the  I suppose nanno herzes are more synchronised.

December 11, 2008 at 01:34 PM ·

Of violin intonation, I know this: there are 4 aspects.

1. actually being able to instantly detect correct/incorrect intonation.

2. actually being able to hear intonation in your own playing

3. being able to instantly correct intonation

4. being able to have dead-on perfect intonation instantly EVERY time your finger hits the string


If you've got the first 3, you may be able to get by without the 4th.


Number 2 can be really tough. If you are playing too loudly by bowing too roughly, the true intonation may be hidden from you somewhat. Also, if you are playing loudly, the left ear will be the dominant hearing ear, yet it will hear sharp and so even if you adjust your intonation to what you hear, you will tend to play flat. To correct this, I suggest fitting a wax earplug to your left ear, so that you can have the same sound level in both ears (you may need 12 to 18 DB of attenuation)  I have seen this help me and others.


I have noted, in teaching some pianists to play a string instrument, that they really do not listen to intonation much:  wrong notes yes, but they are otherwise at the mercy of their piano tuner and if they really focused on perfect intonation, they'd likely go nuts, so the are willing to compromise with the tuning of their pianos, such as it is - until it is just too far off!




December 12, 2008 at 04:55 PM ·

Something about this thread leaves me unsatisfied. Is it the scorn heaped on Simon Fischer (Fischer, please, not Fisher)? Of course, he does mention, and teach, several aspects that are highly relevant to intonation: beats, sympathetic resonance, sum and difference tones, and the necessity of attentive listening. Ms Poor Thing may have absorbed more of it than she lets on.

There is another point that many of us may find trivial, but which I would like to pass off as my invention even if I know better: getting it right comes before exercising, not after. So intonation practice would consist of two stages: feeling and listening about for the right pitch, and once that is found, doing the repetition hits, taking care to keep doing it right.

The first stage, that Maestro Fischer talks about, is most important: without it, the repetition hits will become repetition misses, which cannot be beneficial.

In Simon Fischer's levels of intonation, this first stage probably corresponds to the transition to Level 2, and the second is getting from Level 2 to Level 1.

There is a Zen story that illustrates this. A prospective Zen student approaches a master and asks: "Please, Master, would you teach me Zen?" The master replies: "Yes, but it will take you ten years." "And if I work extra hard?" "In that case, I'm afraid it's going to be twenty years." "But Master, I'm going to do my very very best!" "Thirty years!"

December 12, 2008 at 07:01 PM ·

As everyone seems to agree, the first step is to find out if you are out of tune. That can be achieved with a drone or an other instrument.

But the part that havn't been mentioned yet is how to fix the intonation. Why do you play more or less out of tune? is it you finger that misses the tone? In that case I would do Buri's exercises with repetition in patterns.

But more often then not the problem lies elswhere. Most often in the head. Are you able to hear the correct tone in your head before you hit the note? Practice with drones is a good way, so is practising with patterns. Scales are good but they are merely broken seconds. You need to practice broken thirds, fourths, fifths and so on so your fingers get accustomed to play any intervall your head hears.

Other problems with intonations can be of the more technical sort. Certain intervalls, stringcrossings, certain fingerings, weak fingers,bad hand positions, bad arm position and you must not forget that the bow is a big part in intonation. Pressure and angle of the bow can alter intonation dramatically.

December 12, 2008 at 08:47 PM ·

thank you for all your advice.  I can probably sing a scale, but can not sing perfect 3rd, 4th etc.

So if I understand well I should be able to ear it before playing it? Then this means I have to be able to sing in tune, before playing in tune?  But I can most of the time know if some else is out of tune.  But I still do not feel can I sing those 3rd, 4th etc... So what is going on?

I love the idea of repetition.  That is very sensible to me.  But I'm just afraid that if I leave the tuner out of site, I may not be able to repet 10 times the same note (and this I may not notice)

Thanks a thousand! 

December 13, 2008 at 02:27 PM ·

Oh dear -- about this so-called invention of mine. Buri alone makes the same point, over and over, in Buri's Studio, on this site. Searching for "buri studio" will get you there.

December 13, 2008 at 02:32 PM ·

Yes, practice your intervals singing or listening.

If you don't have a piano there are little software pianos you can use. Remember too as you get better much of intonation has to do with being very secure as you shift around and cross over strings. Your intervals can get confusing when you cross strings in different positions so so play the stuff in one position at first if you can, and then play it in the position. We used a little software program called Practica Musica and it helped the intervals. We found that our interval recognition was great on the way up but worse on the way down for the scales, arpaggios and all the rest. If you don't have a buddy to play a drone, you can make one with a music program on the computer. Remember some tune to 440 A and other 442 so you probably won't know which at first. Good luck to you.

December 14, 2008 at 07:32 AM ·

Yes, Use a Drone...but don't use the tinny drones that metronomes like the Dr. Beat won't be training your ears very well if you play to a drone that is in the same register as the violin.  It's much more beneficial to tune to a deeper note...Darol Anger sells drone tracks of all 12 tonic tones on his website, which are low enough ( from an Indian sruti box - what they use as a practice tool - you can get one of those too but since it is incrementally adjustable it has a learning curve). Playing to the drone, teach yourself to become aware of the in-tune-ness that is inherent in human hearing. Practice easy intervals first, 5th, 4ths, octaves (with respect to the drone)...then 3rds, 6ths, 2nds, should actually spend a few minutes with each of these listening to the different options you have, not just major and minor but the minute variations contained within each third...which one sounds the most pleasing to your ear? Don't worry about your ears being wrong...if you REALLY LISTEN CLOSELY you will hear it - our ears are made to hear these relationships.  Once you find it, take a mental snapshot of that sound and focus on hearing it in your head as you firmly place your finger in that spot you've found, alternating between an open string and the fingered note, repeating til you get it right several times in a row. Then work with the same pitch and an open string. Then work on the pitch by itself, and listening to the way it relates to the pitches around it..and by the way, all notes should make the violin ring to some degree when they are in tune, not just the octaves of the open strings...look for that.

Of course, this is all moot if your left hand technique is sloppy, so check that first. Are you preserving the same contact point on each finger as you go from string to string and leading with that point on your finger, letting your hand and arm follow? Are you maintaining a relaxed thumb? Make sure all that stuff is in order before you practice with the drones or you will be expending extra effort to get those notes in tune and may not be able to do it consistently. 

December 16, 2008 at 06:43 PM ·

Drones are useless unless you're playing a piece with a drone or if you're playing an arpeggio of some sort. Melodic intonation is quite different from Harmonic intonation. If you use Harmonic intonation (Just intonation) to to tune a melodlic line, you're going to wind up playing flat on most notes.

December 17, 2008 at 06:08 AM ·


well,  to give you a classic example,  think of the opening of Mozart 4.  What happens if you tune that with the a string drone. You can certainl get the tartini tone (overtone) on the f sharp in the second bar of the solo entry however it will then be very flat.  The correct intonation is as a leading note towards g so it needs to be quite a bit sharper.

Or put another way,  using a dron is basically running a series of double stops. However,  the intonation for double stops is not necessaily the same as for single notes.   A well tunes double stop with the overtne can usefully provide an aural base in which to modify pitch according to the needs of the key in question.



December 18, 2008 at 01:48 AM ·

Electric Tuners are typically calibrated to equal tempered intonation (similar to a piano). This means that, thought it will be very close, it will still be slightly out of tune.

December 18, 2008 at 04:30 AM ·

Two things:

Marty - you are plain wrong that is is useless to practice with a drone. If you can't play with a fixed pitch centre you can't play with anybody else.

Secondly you don't have to able to sing loud in tune to play the violin. If I could sing in tune I probably never would have taken up the violin. To sing in tune takes (almost) as much practice as to play in tune. But everyone can learn to sing in tune "in the head".

December 18, 2008 at 05:11 PM ·

I'm sorry, Mattias, but I'm not wrong. If you were to play the D major Paganini caprice (the one with the drone) the melody would only sound good against the drone. If you played the melody by itself using the same system of intonation many of the notes would be considerably flat The only intervals that work with drones are perfect intervals: unisons, 4ths, 5ths, and octaves.

December 19, 2008 at 04:24 AM ·

Well how do you tune thirds, sixths and tenths in an orchestra?

December 19, 2008 at 10:59 AM ·

In old time violin was tuned differently according to piece (not necessarily in fifths). We seem to have forgotten this technique nowadays.

One of the four Paganini's secrets was to tune the G string a quater of tone higher so the thirds were almost pure. He would probably had used this "secret " for the caprice 18  and tuned his violin in pure fifths for the caprice 20

December 19, 2008 at 03:24 PM ·


Perhaps you should read my original comment. There are different types of intonation systems and they each need to be used in the appropriate setting. Harmonic Intonation (just intonation) is what would be used when tuning chords (and 3rds, 6ths, etc). Melodic Intonation (Pythagorean intonation) is to be used in scales and melodic passages. To reverse these systems, such as using Just Intonation in a melodic passage will cause you to be out of tune, hence, if you use drones as a tool for developing intonation (or while playing your scales) you will be out of tune. The reverse also applies. If you use Melodic Intonation to tune double stops, chords, etc, they won't be in tune.

In my original post I said that drones are usless unless you're playing something with a drone or an arpeggio of some sort. This is absolutely true. If you still don't believe me, there are countless books on intonation systems that you can read. There are also some great resources on the internet ( is one of them).

December 19, 2008 at 03:29 PM ·

I have to say that I'm really shocked how many people don't know the difference between intonation systems. I figured out something funny was going on when I tried to tune notes of a melodic passage with an open string. I recorded it (without the drone) and it was really out of tune, even though a minute earlier (with the drone) it was in tune. Some people just have a natural ear and are able to switch back and forth between systems without even thinking about it. I, unfortunately, am not one of those people.

December 19, 2008 at 03:47 PM ·

This argues for practicing solos with accompaniment, so that one can hear where one has to fit in with the harmony and where one can get away with melodic, or expressive, intonation.

December 19, 2008 at 04:00 PM ·

Has anyone mentioned that as the player goes higher on the fingerboard, 3rd position, 5th position, etc., the bow is to be moved more towards the bridge? Remember,  each time the player shifts to the higher positions the contact point(s) move back towards the bridge?

December 19, 2008 at 04:20 PM ·

Marty - Of course I know the difference between different tuning systems. But the OP does not and my post where intended to the OP. If you can't hear if you are playing in tune you need to train the ears. And I say that just intonation is the way to go, because then you will have a reference point that will work when you are practising, or playing with others.

The ablility to play leading notes MUST come later if ever. Most violinist never come to that point that they play just intonation too much so that they are out of tune in melodic passages. And that goes for some solists as well.

March 27, 2010 at 12:56 AM ·

I'm about to teach a workshop on intonation and so was re-reading this thread, and noticed my discussion of working with a drone did not include an important point. Working with a drone is not really useful for tuning a specific passage, as Marty said. What is is good for is teaching the ear to hear very fine subtleties in intonation, so that the player will have finely tuned hearing to the point that they will be able to "hear" (mentally) and then place  the appropriate pitch. It is definitely better to use a drone this way than to use it to memorize finger placement.

The point is to get to a point where you can choose your note based on the music going on around you, or the tonality of the solo piece you're playing, aurally visualize it, and place it exactly (having used a method like repetition hits to learn the placement of each of these choices).

Also, did I mention working with drones in all 12 tonal centers? Good idea as well.


March 27, 2010 at 03:19 PM ·

The OP requested exercises for playing in tune;  anything you play can be used to this purpose, though scales and perhaps Sevcik would be my first choice.  For an underlying theoretical perspective regarding intonation, see (from the Violin/Viola FAQ):


(10) What is the best way to achieve good intonation in string playing?
As an intellectual concept, this is a difficult area, particularly if you're primarily right-brained and not given to mathematical and scientific thinking, though this sort of thinking can in some degree be learned, with effort. There is an excellent discussion of these issues in Dr. Michael Kimber's "Scales, Arpeggios, and Double Stops for the Violist." This book, available online on Dr. Kimber's page, has several pages of really interesting text at the beginning, referring to methods of practicing the material and intonation issues in string pedagogy. Extremely valuable resource. See his diagram explaining intonation differences.

As a practical matter, there are a few concepts that teachers use, including the "ringing tones" in Suzuki. These are the fourth finger/lower open string and third finger/upper open string pitches which should match, and also the notion of "frame" formed, initially, by the first and third fingers (with a "high" or a "low" 2), and somewhat later, the frame formed by the octave reach of first and fourth finger. If you have a really beautiful instrument and you play really in tune, then any pitch you play will very likely cause sympathetic vibrations in the other strings.

The initial Suzuki way of conceiving of this starts with the matched pitches of:

1. Open string, G, D or A, and the next string's third finger, which forms an octave. An octave is one letter name to the next, so for example:

open G string matches third finger on the D string
open D string matches third finger on the A string
open A string matches third finger on the E string

2. Alternatively, the 4th finger, as I'm sure everyone knows, is, if played in tune, the exact same pitch as the next open string, so for example:

4th finger on the G string is the same pitch as open D
4th finger on the D string is the same pitch as open A
4th finger on the A string is the same pitch as open E

One can actually see the next string over vibrating in sympathy, especially in the first pair, the 4th finger G and the open D string; you can see the D string vibrate if the G4 is just right.

John Krackenberger talks about how endorphins are released when this phenomenon occurs; this is an addiction musicians have, but in a good way. Please see:

John Krakenberger's article on "Laterality," published in the April 2007 ed. of Strad magazine:

What has left-wrist suppleness to do with good intonation? Firstly, I make a distinction between correct intonation and sensitive intonation. The former hits the note accurately but may just miss the place on the string that produces vibrations in sympathy with the instrument itself or with surrounding sounds. If you can tune in to these, the sound improves, becoming richer and rounder: this is what I call sensitive intonation. To produce this requires the left hand to be supple enough that the fingertips are extremely sensitive subliminally to the vibrations coming back from the string. Incidentally, this feedback also produces endorphins in the player, and once you get a student to feel this you are on the right track. The human has an insatiable appetite for endorphins and will look for more sensations of the kind; thus, gradually, sensitive intonation becomes automatic. [pdf of Article]

An additional concept may also be introduced, having to do with the roles that pitch steps (of the scale) play within the context of any given key, [See Wikipedia:  tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, leading tone]. Stringed instruments are not equally tempered the way the piano is, and thus, key context is everything when it comes to intonation on a stringed instrument. The leading tone, for example, is higher, and half-steps can be smaller, within the context of the key (than they are on piano). Playing with piano, one may attempt to adjust to the equally tempered notes, but this is not accurate for the violinist.

Scale Steps and their Corresponding Triads

submediant or superdominant
leading tone
Regarding naming scale steps in minor:
"The names of the scale degrees are the same in major and minor, with one exception: when the seventh degree isn't raised with an accidental to make a half-step with the tonic, it's better to call it "subtonic" instead of "leading tone". ("Flat seventh" or "lowered seventh degree" will also do in a pinch!)."


Other perspectives include:

  • Within the key context: 3 and 7 are high, the perfect 5th is wide
  • Tendency tones: 2 goes to 1, 4 goes to 3, and 6 goes to 5. The exception is that 7 goes up to 8, whereas the others tend to fall down to the tonic triad tones
  • Four different kinds of intonation: illustrated at Violin Masterclass (Click on "Definition") These include:
(1) Pythagorean Intonation;
(2) Just Intonation;
(3) Equal Temperament; and
(4) Expressive Intonation.

Apparently, the best book to read on this subject is Ross Duffin's How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)
See also:

March 28, 2010 at 04:37 AM ·

 You can also try downloading a program like syaku8 that works with your computer mic and shows what note you are playing and how far off from a pure note you are.  I find it fun to try to get the needle right in the center as many time in a row as I can.

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