Intonation - some beginner thoughts and advice please

February 12, 2010 at 08:09 PM ·

 A little background: I am an adult beginner violinist.  I have been playing for a few weeks, and am working on various studies, half a dozen two octave scales, various bowing exercises, string crossing and arpeggios, and a concertino piece by Millies.  I have an excellent teacher.  Though very new to violin I have an extensive musical background, mostly on piano at an advanced level.  I practice violin around 2 hours a day, usually in lots of short bursts of around 10-15 minutes.  Practice is focussed on particular objectives (ie I ado not practice mistakes!). 

My problem:  it is evident to me, and to my teacher, that I am tending to play a little sharp.  This especially applies to the A and E strings, and is perhaps especially evident as tempo increases.  

This is not necessarily a finger placement issue though, that usually affects beginners.  Rather, I think that what I hear as being "in tune" or at least close enough to being in-tune, is in fact a little sharp.  

I established this last night by playing the Millies piece (which is in Dmaj to start with) very slowly with a high end Korg needle dial chromatic tuner in front of me.  The open strings are perfectly in tune. 

However, In first position, I am typically 20cents sharp and sometimes as much as 40 cents sharp on the dial.  In normal playing I may very well find around 20cents sharp sounds to me to be in-tune.  Hence, in correcting my playing, going by ear alone, I am correcting to notes that are in fact slightly sharp.  

You must remember here that I have spent thousands of hours sat at a piano - which has tempered tuning (of which there are several stretch variations) - and so my ear and mental perception may well be affected by that?  

It is evident that my teacher achieves far better intonation than me  (of course), but I wish to find a way of practicing correctly right from the beginning of my violin studies, so that I do not have to go back and correct things later.  I read stories on forums of players struggling with intonation for years.   Poor note accuracy is not acceptable for me. 

Has anyone tried re-trauining their ear by playing the violin with an electronic tuner (I use a Korg GT-12) on all the time and aiming to be within say plus or minus 5-10 cents of perfectly in tune?  Or is there a better method?

I am aware that violinists vary their intonation slightly to suit the key.  However, despite a web search I do not yet really understand this or indeed how you do this in practice.  

Any advice would be very much appreciated.  


PS: this "discovery" occurred shortly after my last lesson.  I will of course discuss it with my teacher next time I see her.  








Replies (23)

February 12, 2010 at 08:40 PM ·

A suggestion that has been made to me and that is indeed useful in some cases is the following:

Get an electronic tuner or metronome that can generate a pitch. Then set it to a given pitch and practice slowly, paying close attention to how each note you play relates to the "drone" pitch. For example, if you have a scalar or arpegio-like passage that is in D major, you may want to set the pitch to D, and practice with that note sounding constantly.

That said, this can only be helpful in some cases. I don't think it would be the best idea to use this method to practice solo Bach, for example, because that is one kind of music in which we can explore the non-tempered nature of our instruments and it can actually work. However, the drone method can be helpful when practicing music that will be played with a piano (as accompaniment or in chamber music).

With some notes, it helps to listen for tone. For example, if you play a G anywhere in the tessitura of the violin, when you play it in tune you will get an open, ringing tone, due to the sympathetic vibrations from the G string. If you play it flat or sharp, you won't get those sympathetic vibrations.

I hope that helps, and I'll be keeping an eye on this thread because intonation is one area in which I struggle a lot. I think my problem is like yours in that I tend to hear notes in tune when they are in fact sharp.

February 12, 2010 at 09:14 PM ·

Don't pretend to be an expert here but some comments and echoes from Manuel's thread--1) the ringing thing does work well especially if you're in a key in which the intonation is natural to the violin i.e. G, D, A major where the main overtones of the key are already present in well-tuned open strings.  That is a very true thing.  2) the drone idea is a very good one, and I would say is actually conducive to a violin's non-equal temperament--if your drone is tonic you will be tuning your notes to the key your are in and listening for the "ring" or "blend" with the drone notes of the overtones matching up.  The biggest problem with the drone method for a whole piece is when you get into more foreign keys or chords within the piece.  Example: if a piece modulates to relative minor , the tonic major drone can be misleading as that's no longer the harmony you're tuning to.

February 12, 2010 at 09:36 PM ·

Another idea is to play scales with your tuner behind you.  Play each note as on target as you can then after you have made your best shot turn and see what you have done.

Even more fun if you have a tuner that does different temperaments.

Tuner use is often pooh-poohed as a visual crutch or too restrictive to equal temperament, but if you can learn to hit given pitches by ear and just use the tuner for feedback then you have trained your ear to discriminate and can branch out from there.

February 12, 2010 at 09:42 PM ·

Kathryn: Yes, I should have clarified, the drone thing doesn't work if you try to use the same pitch for an entire piece. I meant for specific passages.

February 12, 2010 at 10:17 PM ·


with all due respetc to the excellent advice above I think you are on the wrong track in emphasizing tuner work.

I think there are two basic principles of intonation it is vita to understand from the beginning.

1)   Notes of the same name should be in tune with the open string of the same name.

2)   Playng a note then correcting it once is useless.

Number two needs some serious exploration.  First of all if one recognizes that a notes is out off tune one does not slide te finger around to correct it.  This merely teaches one to sldie the finger around,  not good intonation.   Second repeating a note once is not enough.  The simplest way to fix correct intonation is what Drew Lecher refers to as `repetition hits.` If you read his blogs on the subject and follow up with my blog `A humble stab at repetition hits,` (or soemthing like that) these are explained in enough detail.



February 12, 2010 at 11:23 PM ·

 Thanks for the responses so far.  It has been 24 hours since I originally wrote this thread and in the meantime I have played every singe thing with the tuner on in front of me.  

I do not have to "slide my finger around" to get to the correct pitch.  20 cents out is a fraction of a millimetre and all that it needs is a tiny roll or even a bit of extra fingertip pressure in many cases. And now I am hitting correct intonation with far more accuracy already.  I have not tried the drone idea yet.  

My experience over the last 24 hours (in which I have probably spent at least 4 or 5 hours practicing) is that I am gradually re-training my ear to what certain notes should sound like as opposed to what I thought they should sound like. 

The problem manifests itself much less when I play scales that start on a correctly tuned open string.  This may well be because I have in my head the correct root note as a reference point.  If the first note of a scale is correct, whether open string or not, then the rest of the notes through two octaves will be very close to perfectly in tune as a rule.  

This translates to pieces too, so bars with scale runs will tend to be quite accurate.  

I am not convinced that finger placement of itself is the issue: this is because my finger placement is not erratic, on the contrary I will play a first position D on the A string 20cents sharp with considerable accuracy every single time!  This is because it sounded right to me...So all I need to do is get correct that placement, which is easy enough - the hard part is convincing myself that it sounds right.  

Interestingly if I sing a low G (say), without picking up the violin, then when I look at the tuner it is about 20 cents sharp.  This is very annoying indeed.  

It appears that whatever tones I have playing in my head are fractionally sharp.  

Incidentally, if I play to other people (not musicians) they struggle to tell the sharp note from the "in-tune" note and will often call it incorrectly.  Perhaps because violins do not generate single pure tones?  

I could conclude that the tuner is slightly out, were it not for the fact that my teacher notes that I am fractionally sharp too.  




February 13, 2010 at 12:29 AM ·

As an adult student who has spent a good part of the last year refining his intonation, I can heartily endorse the idea of not practicing sliding into pitch, but rather striving to hit the desired pitch dead on - at least during scale practice.  When you are working on interpretation you're going to miss some, I think, but in general the scale practice holds a person in good stead.

I find that practicing against a drone is very useful.  I have some free software that will generate sawtooth waves at any pitch I set, with considerable overtones, and it makes hearing intonation pretty easy.

I also do long, slow scales listening hard to each note.  It seems to me that each note has a sweet spot relative to the violin where it opens up and just sounds "right".  I've heard that called the "center" of the note.  It also seems to me that I can judge intonation better by timbre than by pure pitch, at least on a violin.

There is an inexpensive software package called "Intonia" that records what you play and shows you whether you are flat or sharp, and by how much.  It lets you choose equal tempered tuning, just, or Pythagorean, but it doesn't adapt precisely to a violin's unique situation, being tuned in fifths to a 440 A.If you are playing in C, for example, with A at 440, the other strings will be out of tune with the just scale.  Still, it's great for recording yourself and looking for patterns where you are consistently off, or having problems.

Finally, I find recording myself with Audacity and a decent USB mic to be very helpful.  Playing yourself back gives you literally instant feedback, and lets you hear things you miss when you are busy playing. Learning to hear is a big part of the battle.

I don't know how this fits into current teaching practice, but it seems to be working pretty well for me.

February 13, 2010 at 03:22 AM ·


during practice 

>all that it needs is a tiny roll 

this is technically incorrect.   The ability to adjust rapidly and accuratley during a performance is predicated on eliminating this kind of action in private practice.



February 13, 2010 at 04:30 AM ·

Your electronic tuner is probably set to equal temperament, as is a piano.  How are you tuning your instrument to start with?  A perfect fifth is a bit wider than a tempered fifth, so if your E sounds perfectly, sweetly in tune with your A, the tuner will tell you it's sharp.  If the tuner approves, your ear won't.  With your years of piano experience you are used to equal temperament.  The big secret to string playing is that A-flat and G-sharp truly are different notes.  There are a couple of good, fairly recent books out on this whole issue: Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground For the Great Minds of Western Civilization by Stuart Isacoff, and How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You should Care) by Ross W. Duffin.

February 13, 2010 at 06:22 AM ·

Lisa is repeating something that has come up now and then but seems to always bear repeating: you don't tune each string to the tuner!  Tune only the A to the tuner.   Then tune E and then D to the A by playing both strings at once; then tune G to the D in the same way.  (Someone please explain how you know the G, D, and E are tuned?  I'm not sure how to describe it in physical terms.)  I have also played the piano for a long time, and I practice scales on the violin in first position by finding the place on the string where 3rd finger down makes the violin resonate the most.  (Warning: G and E are difficult.)  Once I find that spot, I find the 1st and 2nd finger positions relative to the 3rd finger and the open string by ear to complete the notes of the scale.  (Maybe that's how everyone does it?)

February 13, 2010 at 10:05 AM ·

 Thanks all.  


Buri - I know that even a tiny roll is technically incorrect.  This need is what I am trying to eradicate.  It is much better to have perfect finger placement immediately and I have adopted your recommended finger placement exercises to help - though in practice I have not had much trouble with intonation in scales. 

For a beginner, the "don't roll"  point it is a bit like a man asking for directions and being given the answer "don't start from here!".  I am already in the wrong place, so now what, leave it?  Correct it?

Clearly "don't get it wrong next time" is the optimum answer...but should I just accept intonation mistakes when they do occur and not correct them at all during a piece, in order not to make correction habitual?

Lisa - the electronic tuner is not set to a tempered scale.  These kind of instruments never are.  Electronic piano tuning devices (which this is not) are quite specialised and can deal with a number of tempered scale and stretch variations.  This device is a professional tuner that I use for stage use with a variety of instruments (mostly guitars) and it generates or records measured tones in hertz on a chromatic scale. I can also set A at anything from 438Hz to 445Hz  as a reference point.  

Now - using a tuner to tune all the strings is a no-no?  I can tune by ear and I can tune using the tuner - and I cannot detect a difference, between the two.   Open G3 is G3 whether I do it by ear down from the A string or on the tuner.  So what is the problem with this?  

I have both analogue and digital studio recording and sound analysis gear.  I have tried recording both guitar and violin tuned by ear and using the electronic device and they produce an overlapping mirrored frequency response either way.  

I do like the idea of recording myself and also generating the tones that a poster suggested (I can;t see the posts as I type this) - so I will give that a try tonight.  

Really the answer that Buri gave - which basically seems to be summed up as "be disciplined", seems to be the real solution though.  I think that if I accept poor intonation now, at the beginning, it will be all the harder to eradicate later.  












February 13, 2010 at 12:01 PM ·

James, with all due respect and to others who have posted to help, I'm gonna 'rock' the boat a little here by suggesting that you try and ditch the tuner sometimes and try not to rely on it to get that 'perfect intonation'.   The piano relatively plays ‘out of tune’ compared with the violin and to try and play as in tune as piano does (tempered) you may actually sound out of tune. 


Having said that, I would only use the tuner myself to secure a concert A (440) or indeed to lower the tuning to baroque pitch when needed.  I would then tune the other strings without the tuner.  If you are to secure a ‘perfect intonation’ then maybe it’s time to start learning how to tune your violin into the perfect 5ths.  Once you start doing this, you can then start tuning other stopped notes against the open strings to check for perfect 4ths, major/minor thirds/sixths and octaves etc. 


An example could be: Start with a simple one octave scale, 1st position, in D major.  Play the open D string then play the D (3rd finger A string) and sound them both together and listen for that perfect pure sound (no oscillations) – that should be repeated until it’s wired into the brain – i.e. finger placement feel and ear checking the sound become automatic.  Now once you’ve learned how to place the 3rd finger down to produce a perfect octave on the A string you can repeat this on the other strings.  


This is the first step in training your ears to tune you up instead of relying on an electronic device – it’s not your eyes that tune the strings it’s your ears and the sooner you use your ears the better your intonation will be.   I’m not saying ditch the tuner completely but just use it to tune the open A to concert pitch, that’s all.


Just my two pennies worth that’s all and good luck!!




February 13, 2010 at 01:12 PM ·

Not to confuse matters even more, but the concept of narrow fifths (i.e., getting the needle to the middle of the tuner on open strings) and wide fifths (a fifth that sounds perfect) is controversial.  It seems that most violinists tune to wide fifths, but some tune to narrow fifths.  Here is a thread that provides additional insight.

February 13, 2010 at 01:15 PM ·

James --

I was interested in what you said about hearing slightly-sharp tones as being perfectly in-tune.  I've noticed, over the years, that I have the same problem -- sometimes.  It seems to come and go, and I honestly think that the way I hear things is somehow connected with barometric pressure.  Does anyone have any feedback on this possibility???

February 13, 2010 at 06:09 PM ·

Tuners are tools.  The prejudice against them is based on assumptions that they can only be used for "intonation by eye" and that anyone using one will automatically brainlessly use it as a sole reference for temperament.

Both of these assumptions are false.  As long as a tuner is used within the context of knowledge of the various violinistic intonation temperaments and specifically as an ear-training tool they can help speed up a student's progress toward a level of auditory discrimination that makes learning violinistic intonation much more reachable.

Buri--repetition hits are of obvious value but not when the student doesn't know what the goal pitch is.  Learning to play the violin involves learning many different skills, and learning those different skills requires different types of practice at different times, doesn't it?

Even when working on intonation via a drone or resonance of other strings, fingers are moved to find the right pitch, you don't repeat until you know WHAT to repeat.

February 13, 2010 at 06:25 PM ·

 Deleted duplicate post.  Sorry!

February 13, 2010 at 06:25 PM ·

 Alan - thanks for your post...but I think perhaps you did not read what I wrote.  

I can and often do tune the violin by ear.  I have been tuning stringed instruments on stage for 30 years with a whole variety of different tunings, I understand the concepts and it is a piece of cake. There is nothing special about violins in this regard.  It takes me less than a minute whether I do it by ear or using a tuner.  Same result.  No big deal.  

My issue is entirely different.  When playing pieces, not usually scales, there are some notes up the fingerboard that tend to sound in-tune (5 cents away) to me even though they are in fact 20 cents sharp.  

I had not realised this until my teacher pointed it out.  When I analysed myself I realised that it is NOT poor finger placement as I had at first suspected.  In fact I was deliberately playing the notes 20 cents sharp!  It was consistent.

It is crucial for me not to accept this as if I am not careful I will end up with faulty intonation that will be hard to eradicate.  Since I have started playing in a local amateur orchestra, I am keen not to let this happen.  

Possibly I need to retrain my ear to deal with the different subtleties that the violin offers.  30 odd years of intense piano playing has certainly conditioned me to a tempered tuning (though most of the stretch occurs well way from middle C).  

Incidentally,  the piano thing is a red herring.  My pianos get a real hammering with concert rep.  The grand will drift slightly out of tune within days of the tech coming and the unisons are usually well off inside a few weeks.  I don't tune the violin against the concert grand for this reason, though I do sometimes use the Yamaha electronic piano in my office for this purpose as it generates a stable 440 when set to that.  

Thanks for the link Smiley.  

I still think that the tuner reference point is very useful at the moment.  I already know that if I choose a tone, whatever it is, I can put my finger on it very precisely 90% of the time (and improving).  I am just choosing a slightly sharp tone for some notes, especially on the A and E strings in the range of 1st to 5th position and hence my reference point is wrong.  I need to find a ay to fix this.  

From what I can gather, this is not the typical intonation problem of beginner violinists: the usual issue is either inconsistency, or inability to tell that a tone is way off.  









February 13, 2010 at 06:46 PM ·

James - yeh sorry I over looked some of your points doh lol - one thing I can ask though is;  have you tried playing on a different violin to compare your intonation or has your teacher played your violin to compare his/her intonation against yours on your violin?

I also need to ask how you discovered you were playing sharp - by ear or device?  silly question I know but curious all the same.  It could be something else that's effecting your intonation - I know that some violins I find it difficult to place perfect 5ths yet on other violins it's easy!!

Again, my two-pennies worth.


February 13, 2010 at 07:29 PM ·

James, I'm curious as to what genre of music you have the most experience with.  Blues uses its idiosyncratic tuning, as does Cajun.  As someone classically trained, I find that Cajun, even from the best players, sounds out of tune to me.  My intonation would probably make someone used to the Cajun idiom run away screaming.  Do you and your teacher come from very different musical traditions?

February 13, 2010 at 08:02 PM ·

 Alan - no I have not played any other violins.  However, my teacher has played mine and I think it is evident from this that whatever defect the violin has, inexplicably does not manifest itself with her!  I am forced to conclude that I am the problem.  

I became aware of the issue when we played the same concertino piece together.  I have to say that my teacher is not overly concerned - she knows I have perfectionist tendencies!

Lisa: my piano background is almost entirely classical, and mostly romantic era, such as all the Chopin Nocturnes and Etudes.  Plus some Bach, Beethoven etc (typical piano rep) and a few things such as Grieg Am piano concerto.  I am not as good as a pro concert pianist, but I am quite OK.  I do not play pop stuff and only a very little jazz.

However, guitar is mainly rock, some blues and pop.  Also steel string fingerpicking, folk, whatever is called for really. And in various different tunings.  I can play classical guitar but tend not to.  No jazz. Very little slide either.  Extensive improvisation and studio work.  I have been playing piano since I was 4 or 5 and guitar since I was about 15.  

February 13, 2010 at 08:38 PM ·

Hi there,

I have no advice to add to the already wonderful and plentiful information here.  Only an observation.  I've found, with myself, and my students, that if the control center is not the ears, the fingers will end up 'training' the ears on some level.

I seriously had to confront the fact recently that every time I played a 1st finger in 3rd position (an octave above the lower string), it was sharp.  Left unattended for far too long, somehow, the finger being repeatedly placed high in this specific manouevre actually mistrained my ear.

On some level, I think I knew it was out of tune all along, but a strange mixture of motor memory/denial/unwillingness to accept that something so basic could be deficient - I left it alone.

Anyhow, all that is to say, that I have found also with my students that if they place the finger incorrectly enough times, they will mis-train the ear...and the path away from that is wonderful and frustrating!


All the best,

February 13, 2010 at 10:18 PM ·

 I have learnt a lot here - not least about myself!

I have just had a chat with my main studio partner, saying that I use the chromatic tuner for tuning notes on guitar.  The response: "no you don't - you just think you do".  "What you actually do is use the tuner, then you check it with open to 5th fret, then you check that with harmonics, then you tweak it with about six chords.  When that sounds OK you are happy, but not happy enough to prevent you tweaking the odd string again half way through a song".    

Unfortunately this may be true!  My perception of what I do is quite a bit simpler than what I instinctively do in practice.  

Smiley - that thread you referred me to was fascinating.  I shall have to re-appraise what I am doing on the violin.  



February 13, 2010 at 10:30 PM ·


>For a beginner, the "don't roll"  point it is a bit like a man asking for directions and being given the answer "don't start from here!".  I am already in the wrong place, so now what, leave it?  Correct it?

Yes.  Decide whether you are sharp or flat and to what degree.  Lift the finger rather than rolling it.  Shoot for the target again. Re-evalutate...

Andres,  it is abolsutely unnecessray to use a tuner as a guide.  My initila answer wa snot detialed but I did take care to make the point that one uses open strings to find ones intonation on the instrument.  If you cannot judge pitch against another open string then ear training is indicated , of various kinds.  That is why I proceed very slowly wthstudents in the beginnign stages. The learn the sounds of opne strings ,  what a fifth sounds like and must be able to identify and sing intervals.

Teaching the violin as far as I am cocnerned is about the relationship of the currnet stae of the mind to the desired effect/technique.  By adding the third element of paying attention to the tuner one is sacrficing a deeper understanding of how to learn and play the violin for short term gains (not actually) from an electronic insturment ,  te pitch of which people don@t seme to be able to agree on anyway.



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