Intonation Confusion

May 21, 2009 at 06:42 PM ·


I have been researching the topic of intonation slow practicing technique both as a skill for my own playing and my teaching.  I have found there to be a division regarding the actual practicing/fixing intonation problems in the practice room.

When practicing a passage slowly for intonation these are the two schools of thought:

1) Go slowly, adjusting the pitches until each is in the right spot.  This is a method described by Fischer in his books.  I have read many threads on this site in which people have written that this method is faulty because one is memorizing the adjustment, never the true position of the pitch from the previous note.  I would argue though, is it possible to land in the exact spot everytime?  Isn't one going to have to adjust constantly in performance?


2) The other approach is to repeat note to note without adjusting, trying to land in the right place.  In this method it seems like one repeats mistakes too often, and (as mentioned above) adjusting is quite necessary in performance.


I'm very curious as to everyone's personal methods regarding intonation practice.  Do you use either of these methods--something else?



Replies (22)

May 21, 2009 at 08:54 PM ·

  • the second the closest I abide by, although not exactly as you list it
  • "trying to land in the right place.  In this method it seems like one repeats mistakes too often",..that is why PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE  is the battle cry 

May 21, 2009 at 08:18 PM ·


could you indictae where Fischer argues for number one in his book? Not syaing your wrog but I don`t recall that advice exactly and it is usually held to be poor for the reaosn tou state.

Deciding on whether the note is a) sharp or flat and b ) often ignored-  to what degree is the firts step.  then Lifting the finger off and repeating many times.  See Drew Lehcer`s blogs on repetition hits. Plus putitng it in context.  If one follows this procedure then the ability to make split second adjustements during performance becomes a piec eof cake.  It is a question of a slight differnec ebetween the practice room and the stage.



May 21, 2009 at 08:47 PM ·

One should strive NOT to have to adjust in performance. Of course sometimes its necessary, but it's not the best thing. A couple of my students have the problem of constant adjustment, and it's difficult to fix: they're so used to quickly adjusting that they haven't really learned where the notes are. It's a crutch. 

May 21, 2009 at 11:57 PM ·

I believe....once the preliminary intonation excersises have been practised and mastered it is a matter for the inner ear to antisipate the pitch which compels the fingers to play in tune.

Poor intonation would be a result of lack of focus. With 100% focus it is possible to land on the exact note every time. This is how I practise my pieces for intonation.

May 22, 2009 at 01:18 AM ·

Scott you said "One should strive NOT to have to adjust in performance. Of course sometimes its necessary, but it's not the best thing."  But didn't Heifetz say "I don't play more in tune than anyone else, I just fix it faster than anyone."  Violin playing is organic is it not?  There will always be adjustment whether it is perceptible or not.

May 22, 2009 at 01:23 AM ·


exactly. Ther e is also the classic problem of chamber music.  The piano is out of tune,   the cellist has a cold or whatever.  It might be a case of `the operation was a success but the patient died.`



May 22, 2009 at 04:56 AM ·

I do BOTH. My teacher never taught me exactly what method I should use to play in tune, so I just use my own anyway.

When I'm practicing, unless I'm picking a certain passage out to do extra practice, then I'd do shifting / adjusting while playing. It's just a matter of that I don't like to be stopped during playing. However, the next time I play the piece, I pay extra attention to the note. For example, if the last time was flat, this time I'd try sharper. I don't have the problem of memorizing the wrong position, it's just a matter of "use your mind while playing", and not just let your finger move automoatically.

If I'm picking a certain passage for extra practice, then I'd repeat the position until I get it right, then play the passage without stopping to see if I really got it right. If no, then...repeat the whole process.

May 22, 2009 at 02:26 PM ·

When I listen to my playing, say a passage, and hear something out of tune, I'll listen again and find out which finger is giving the wrong intonation.

Then I'll try take a "snapshot" of my current "wrong" shape of my fingers, and adjust only the finger(s) that's causing the problem, and another "snapshot", so that everytime I'm playing that passage I'll adjust the shape of my fingers according to the 2nd snapshot. For example, 3rd position on A string, 3rd/4th finger on F#/G, I know I always play the G too sharp, so everytime I play that note I'll adjust my pinky to stick closer to the F#/3rd finger.

It's all about the mind game. It'll help if you could practice virtually too. Say, the shape of your hands required to hit the 7th position, so you practice virtually, what kind of "feel" you should have with your hands. Then do it on the violin, and you found out it's too flat, or too sharp, then adjust it and take a snapshot. Then, try to shift to 7th position with the latest snapshot or the feel/shape of your hand.

I find that, doing so on my own violin will lead me to be able to play in tune only on my violin, as my violin has got shorter stringlength. But I'm sure a seasoned player will do the above mind game and adjust accordingly pretty much instantly after they play a few notes or the 1st passage so they'll know if the instrument needed any adjustment to the fingers.

May 22, 2009 at 02:56 PM ·

You worded the question so clearly that you almost answered it yourself!  I like to use the analogy of trying to improve my skill at playing darts: How silly would it be if, after the dart lands on the wrong spot on the target, I were to move it to the bull"s eye (and thought that by doing this I was improving my skill)?  Yet on the violin, it is very easy to get tricked into doing the equivalent action, thereby teaching ourselves the somewhat useful, but entirely secondary skill of moving from the wrong pitch to the correct one.  So we want to be very clear about the skill we are trying to learn: moving from the *previous* note to the correct one!

Therefore, when one hears a wrong pitch one wants to stop and *relearn the action* that resulted in the wrong pitch, by doing several repetitions of a two note excerpt consisting of the previous pitch and the one that had been wrong.  These repetitions must be in strict rhythm, and at several tempos.  I would then do a somewhat longer excerpt which includes the two note excerpt.

P.S.--Marina Fragoulis poses the question: "But didn't Heifetz say "I don't play more in tune than anyone else, I just fix it faster than anyone."  I don't believe that Heifetz ever said that, but it is repeated on the internet so frequently that there is a danger of history revision!

May 23, 2009 at 01:35 AM ·

If one utilizes the adjusting method, has anyone found that after several repetitions of adjusting, after I awhile, the finger soon learns the correct spot, and lands in the right spot?

May 23, 2009 at 03:14 AM ·

I sometimes use a variation of the adjusting method to help my students learn to  hear in tune--I'll have them play a scale or passage slowly, often in whole notes, against a tonic drone.  As they play the whole note, if it's out of tune, I'll have them adjust until they can hear the "ring" and then repeat the in-tune version with three confident bows to kind of cement in their fingers that "this is the right place".  But if it's not a hearing issue, but a physical coordination, I'll use more of the second approach, combined with the concept of "think before you play" or, "ear before finger before bow."  Again, that concept of knowing what you want you want to hear and making the physical adjustments accordingly. 

I agree with Marina that in performance, intonation and even, if necessary, intonation adjustments, should come naturally, almost like breathing.  Most people though, can't achieve that without plenty of focused practice to teach they fingers where they should go, so that that knowledge becomes innate for the performance setting.

June 3, 2009 at 06:29 PM ·

How does this relate to the fact that many people can play in tune on out-of-tune strings? To me, that argues that memorizing finger placement is not all that happens. Finger movements might also become directly linked to pitch in some mysterious way.

just wondering,


June 3, 2009 at 06:51 PM ·

Interesting question... I use double stops if they are possible, from previous pitch to following and so on. Anyway, I suggest to form intonation from previous pitch, or group of notes (like phrase) especially if the music is tonal. If it is atonal music, one could also go from pitch to pitch but without feeling of "mode's gravity". And in this case practicing double stops doesn't have sense anymore unless it is perfect interval:)

There also takes a big role mental predicting of right pitch. Usually fingers follow this prediction (if someone is skilled enough in musical and technical aspects). That's why it is possible to play in tune on out-of-tune instrument.

I'd like to know Buri's opinion...

June 4, 2009 at 04:42 AM ·

So would I..

June 4, 2009 at 05:01 AM ·

so would I....but I`m in the middle of an interesitng exchange with ole Smiley and can`t get to it.

I think most of the pieces are here.   One has to be in a key to play in tune.   F# is not the same as gflat and it is interesting that Heifetz picked up Ms. Kloss on this point (as described in her book) and demanded she play gflat starting in first position. So for me,  many people will simply be playing out of tune by playing either enharmoncially or in the `wrong ` key.  Thus the key is to have a deep sens eof undelrying harmonic structure in the unconscious (or whatever) as one is playing or mentally rehearsing a passage. This is where youngsters who think they can play the Beethoven fall down. They can play all of it (heck I could play all the `notes` when I was 12) except the intonation as part of a -whole- score.

Perhaps this is the big picture.  The trees part of the woods involves being able to ehar what you are going to play and learnign to hit it directly without sliding the finger around which is simply wrong. cf Oliver`s darts analogy.  One might make use of the kind of snapshot suggestiosn put forward earlier in this thread.  Also taking care of finger pressure and part of the finger and similar issues of physical consistency.  Tartini tobnes are useful but not the ball and end all. Rita`s suggesitons of double stops is crucial not oly in the music but in terms of a hint.  The best way to acquire the required sensitivity and tehcnique for all this is through double stops practice applyig all the points mentioned. There is no other road.  The trainign in thirds is fundamental in all keys but also develop more sensitivity by scales in 2nds and especially sevenths.   And when all this is over recognize that every violin has its own unique tuning that needs ot be catered too.  Life is not easy for us fiddlers.



June 5, 2009 at 03:32 AM ·

 Ah one prime example of what Buri is speaking of, in terms of enharmonic intonation, is in the Barber Adagio. After the climax, the second violins hold an A flat for a dotted whole note then play a G sharp for a half note. The difference between the A flat and the G sharp is fascinating and actually quite difficult to truly accomplish.

June 5, 2009 at 04:05 AM ·


that@s a good one. I think we ought to ahve a trhead on `the enharmonic crime of the century.`  



June 5, 2009 at 04:34 PM ·

So is the consensus that it is better to practice hitting the note right on, even if you miss it several times, or when you miss it, to adjust to the correct pitch, and the brain will learn where to direct the finger?   The end goal is consistency...

June 5, 2009 at 05:12 PM ·

Beautiful analagoy by Ollie about playing darts. Thank you, Ollie. I'll use that one with my students!

June 6, 2009 at 09:49 AM ·

Intonation is primarily a science and once the concept and science of acoustics is understood then the ear can be developed through study and discerning use of a tape recorder.

There are detailed explanations and examples of what the different intonations are and how to achieve them.

As the site explains there are four different methods of intonation depending on context and personal preference.

They are;

1. Pythagorean Intonation

2. Just Intonation

3. Equal Temperament

4. Expressive Intonation (an extension of no.1)


June 6, 2009 at 07:44 PM ·

Be it far from me to elaborate further but my guide and mentor on this subject says that just intonation is divided into two: just intonation based on the dominant key and just intonation based on the tonic key. Does that confuse? 

June 7, 2009 at 07:18 PM ·

An example to add to the confusion: in the Sarabanda from Bach's d minor Partita there is a a passage bf' - ef' - g' - ef' - bf' - g' - ef' etc, which is obviously in E flat major, related to d minor in devious ways. One naturally plays this in E flat major, not in d minor -- which for me is just as well, because my concept of e flat in d minor is rather hazy.

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