Intonation help

July 16, 2010 at 07:46 PM ·

So there was a thread that has already reached 100 posts, main topic was tuning with a chromatic tuner or just tuning to A and then doing everything else by ear.

This is very very awkward.. What am I supposed to do? I don't yet have a tuner but something is worrying me. What system am I supposed to use? I wonder how my teacher is tuning my violin.
He teaches both violin and guitar and is fairly proficient at the piano. As I heard, the guitar is very close if not the same to the tuning of the piano and since I do have a 2 year background in the guitar, would be it better if my violin would be tuned completely to the tuner?

I read literally all the 100 posts in that thread and I'm more than confused.. I don't want to train my ear the wrong way, I don't want to hit 'out of tune' notes with my fingers.. What the heck is out of tune now anyway? I have a choice to be in tune with pianists and only like how the chromatic tunes my violin or be in tune with most of the violinists but never like the tuning of the piano??

This all to crazy for me to think about. Since I'm only half a year into the violin, I still have a choice which system to use.. and considering I'm really planning on learning the piano and I still practice the guitar, I have a big dilemma.

I'm scared to practice the violin now as I might be.. playing out of tune all the time now! Aren't I just adjusting to my teachers hearing?? Argghh...!

Please, any advice or suggestions!

Slightly concerned Theo

Replies (29)

July 16, 2010 at 08:14 PM ·

 Theo, my view is that this should really NOT worry you at all.  Just tune your violin with the tuner.  As the years go by, as your 'ear' develops, as you gain experience the rest will 'fall in place' I think and to be honest to most of us 'mortals' (I mean people who will not be professionals and play violin for just their own pleasure, maybe in a community orchestra) will probably never make much of a huge difference! 

I have been learning for 3 and a half years and have always tuned my violin to a chromatic tuner, it's only in the last 6 months I have now learnt to tune it in fifths from the A string.  If I play with violin tuned to chromatic tuner or tuned in fifths I can still play in tune the same it doesn't throw me apart.

ok, if one wants to be a perfectionist then all the minor details matter, but even if you are a perfectionist you still have plenty of time ahead to gain the experience to understand and apply all of that. 

July 16, 2010 at 10:16 PM ·

What Jo said.

Relax and enjoy the process! Don't get hung up on trying to do everything the "one perfect way". Intonation is something everyone struggles with, but it does get better with time.

I've been playing for 3.5 years. I started out with a pitch pipe, but discarded that very quickly in favor of a chromatic tuner which is way more accurate. I still tune each string to the chromatic tuner, but now I also play 5ths (after I'm sure each string is in tune) just to get the sound of the interval embedded in my ears. Eventually I expect that I will tune only the A to the chromatic tuner and then tune the other 3 strings by ear. But I am not putting any pressure on myself to do so. When I'm ready, it will seem easy and natural... until then, I will just keep training my ears to hear the correct pitch.

Really, it's a process! You don't have to get all the advanced stuff right this minute. It's just like in elementary school: you learned your ABC's first, then you learned to print individual letters then single words and then sentences, then you learn to write in cursive. Nobody expected you to progress faster than you were able back then, and there's a natural progression in learning the violin, as well. Learn the basics first and you will have a solid foundation to build upon.

July 16, 2010 at 10:32 PM ·

... just practice intune :P


Hahaha, might help to have a reference - try an electric keyboard.

July 17, 2010 at 01:52 AM ·

Don't worry about it-- you're a violinist.  Playing sharp is much easier than playing out of tune.

July 17, 2010 at 07:16 AM ·

Learn to tune your guitar by ear (in fourths). 

July 17, 2010 at 07:31 AM ·


Seriously, for now ask for help from your teacher and listen to what they are doing. Show your teacher your tuner and ask for their help in how to use it. You are not the only person learning how to tune a violin! We've all been through it. I'm not sure why it's become such a problem for you. You have to train your ear, like the rest of us, there is no magic pill. For now, have your teacher tune it, then use your tuner at home to check and see if it's still in tune, between lessons. If worse comes to worse we'll make a meeting time in Yahoo Chat and on voice chat we'll tune your violin together, does that help?

PS, your title is "Intonation help" and should have been about tuning, not intonation ;o)

July 17, 2010 at 07:52 AM ·

The difference between the violin and the guitar is that the latter has to be in tune because the note is set by the fret (it is possible to bend the note a bit but its not something you can do easily with chords) whereas on the vioiin almost all the tones are created by the position of your finger on the string.  Thus, if you use your fourth finger and no open string its all up to you!

I remeber hearing a stofy about Heifetz and someone plucking the strings on his violin after a concert and finding they were all extremely out of tune.  I bet that he (H) adjusted automatically and may not even have noticed...

July 17, 2010 at 08:48 AM ·

Thank you for your encouraging posts!
A guitar is easy to tune because I already played countless melodies and I already have the idea of how a certain fret sounds like. But the violin doesn't have frets, I don't know if I hit the right spot where the note is supposed to be! 
I think 'intonation help' should be more accurate because I'm worried that my intonation will be different or maybe slightly messed up as time passes with a different tuning system, will that not happen? By my understanding, the violinist is trained to always hit the right spot on the fingerboard, and if the note isn't there then it will take some time to adjust.

Won't the positions on each string for let's say first finger be different if the D and G are slightly flat than when the strings are tuned in to each other? That's what I'm worried about..
Also, there is only ONE note that is correctly in tune, right? But.. if the open D string is slightly flat, then the fourth finger will most likely hit the flat D as well on the G string.

Those are the things I'm worried about :(
Do the notes on the guitar sound different than of a violin? (the intune notes)
I just hope my hearing doesn't have a preference to some kind of notes that would be intune but others find them out of tune.
That's the last reason why I'm worrying.


July 17, 2010 at 09:49 AM ·

Theo, someone who cares as much about this as you do WILL get it! Just roll with the waves and be patient and listen. Before you know it you will be bowing to the audience!

Your story reminds me of when I was 7 and ran home from school and threw myself into my Father's arms sobbing as if someone had just killed my dog. My Dad was a violinist and I was in a big hurry to play like him. He was very concerned and asked me what was wrong. I finally was able to squeak out that my violin teacher told me that I had to wait to learn how to read sheet music. I wanted to learn right away and had been pestering him for a while about it. I was sure if I didn't learn how to read sheet music right away that I would never be a good violinist! I'm sure my Dad had to stifle a smile. As it turns out that had nothing to do with it, but I was very worried about it!

July 17, 2010 at 08:04 PM ·

"Won't the positions on each string for let's say first finger be different if the D and G are slightly flat than when the strings are tuned in to each other?"

Are you referring to the phenomenon of consecutive 5th's getting wider?

In any case, I wouldn't worry about this for a long while. If I were you I'd try and tune your strings to natural 5th's, so that when you play any two strings together they sound dead in tune.

Secondly, establish what key you are about to play in. Sing the notes of the scale using tonic solfege if possible. You can find details on youtube if you are unfamiliar with it. Assuming you can sing or hear the scale in tune, which I'm sure you can, then aim to play the notes with the same intonation.

Finally, tune the tonic (1st note of the scale) with a corresponding open string. If there isn't one, such as C major, consider tuning the C against the open G string. Aim to get the 4th and 5th notes of the scale in particular in tune with the tonic. 

Things get more complicated when you play in a string quartet of other ensembles, but I don't think you have to worry about this for a while. Some people tune the G string up a tiny bit, and/or the E string down, but this is not compulsory, and personally I don't do this.  

July 18, 2010 at 12:31 AM ·

Do get a chromatic tuner, and tune every time before you practice/play. Most violins don't stay in tune for a week, so waiting until your lessons to have your teacher tune your violin means that you are likely playing on an out-of-tune instrument most of the time, which definitely doesn't help train your ear or fingers. 

As to what tuning system you should use - if you can, tune in perfect fifths, otherwise use the meter on the tuner until then. Tuning in 5ths requires: 1)  The ability to draw long bows on two strings steadily and sound evenly. 2) The ability to hear the dissonance(beats) when two strings are not in tune with each other. The former is relatively easy to acquire, but the latter takes a while to develop for most people. There is no need to worry about which method to use until you can tune in more than one method and tell the difference.

Also, playing a note in tune does not mean that the finger hits the right spot dead-on. Human ear cannot discern small changes in frequency. So for example, if your A is 440.1 Hz instead of 440, nobody will notice. Besides, people's ability to discern pitch deviation varies. That's why intonation is a hard thing to gauge - your intonation is only as good as your audience's ear.

July 18, 2010 at 10:30 AM ·

Thank you for the replies!
I guess I was worrying about something I wasn't supposed to.
Lisa, that's a very nice story. I would probably do the same at 7 years old, luckily I am/was old enough to learn how to read sheet music myself ;)
Happened to me all the time when I was little, crying over something so much that it would seem that something really bad happened but I guess for me back then, it really was really bad (whatever the situation was).

I tuned my violin yesterday but I guess when I was tuning perfect fifth's, the A peg slipped a bit and I didn't notice. Or for some reason, my violin stays in tune a lot longer if my teacher does it.

While I don't have chromatic tuner, I guess I'll just use a reference note and tune the notes to that. Those notes tend to be in perfect fifth anyway but I will bow 2 strings at a time to check if everything is in tune as well.

I'll go visit the music shop on.. eh, Monday has a tight schedule, Tuesday it is. Hopefully they sell  viola's too *I haven't asked before*. That would be just great, I'd love to give it a try since I'm learning a piece that is specifically made for the viola. (Im planning on playing both)
Bach cello suite no 1 prelude.. I heard that the cello suites were originally for the viola.
(No, I sound fairly decent but I would really like to play it on a viola)

Sorry for worrying about something apparently little!


July 18, 2010 at 12:28 PM ·

If you've got money to spend I've just bought myself an Olympus digital voice recorder (VN-5500PC £50 - bit pricey but they're proud of their recording quality).  One button operation - that should sort out my intonation.

July 18, 2010 at 01:42 PM ·

I really found this post interesting, because I didn't even know people used chromatic tuners, and I will not judge it one way or the other.  What I will say is that if you expect to play a fretless instrument in tune, you have to develop your relative pitch and develop it well, no matter what you use to tune your instrument.  You ultimate must learn what a perfect fifth sounds like and if it takes using a chromatic tuner to do that for you then so be it.  But remember, you ultimately have to trust yourself (and your teacher) in developing your ear.  How do you work on intonation?  Playing scales, developing your ear using relative pitch, understand in your ear and your mind what a perfect fifth and an octave sounds like and you constantly cross reference yourself as often as necessary until you've learned it.  i.e., if your playing an E with your fourth finger, you can cross reference to the open E string, you can cross reference your open E with your open A, and you can play the C major scale up to and including the E that your concerned about and so on.  The western ear has a sense about whole steps and half steps that will guide you along the way.

July 18, 2010 at 02:23 PM ·

I just did some testing and it's truly hilarious.. I always play out of tune if the violin it self is even a tiny bit out of tune. Doesn't matter if it's tuned to perfect fifth's with the out of tune A, I will still play the notes wrong. It's funny, I played for 2 hours then suddenly I sound horrible. I stopped, listened and indeed, the strings were out of tune. It wasn't anything major but it needed some fine tuning.

No wonder my consistency was so awful!! When I played good, I must have taken time to adjust my fingers but then again, I do play open strings a lot. Who would have thought that taking 5 - 15 minutes to tune the violin a day would make such a wonderful change.. I'm finally happy with my etude, most of the hard work is done!! Too bad it's out of tune now again but oh well, I pretty much finished my practice and since my fingers have now a string tattoo, I would need to rest anyway.


July 18, 2010 at 04:55 PM ·

Theo that's great! I'm very happy that it worked out!

July 18, 2010 at 04:55 PM ·

July 18, 2010 at 05:10 PM ·

It's now nearly 500 years since Gaudenzio Ferrari painted the earliest known picture of a violin in a church in Vercelli, Italy.  During all but the last 20 or so years of that entire period, violinists somehow managed to tune their violins without the aid of electronic tuners, by listening for perfect fifths.  So, believe it or not, it can be done.  In fact, it's not all that hard, even for beginners, as long as they're old enough to be able to twist the pegs with their fingers.  Why not get your teacher to show you how?

Michael Thoma made some good points.  Having perfect (as opposed to tempered) fifths is very helpful in checking the intonation of your fourth finger in first position.  Also I would be concerned about learning to hear scales properly with the strings tuned in tempered fifths.  I started the violin long before anyone dreamed of electronic tuners, and I've never used one, so maybe I'm not completely aware of their advantages.  But sooner or later you'll have to learn how to tune without them, and why not do it now?

July 18, 2010 at 06:19 PM ·

Your factor X was factor T(uning) then. Congratulations on finding out. If the tuning of your strings bothers you, that shows you must be doing something right.

Onwards, to factor Y (or X2, as more modern mathematicians have it).


July 18, 2010 at 08:07 PM ·


all this high tech stuff is making my carrier pigeon feel faint. I`m grateful to Bill for mentioning something old.

You might consider the really cheap investment in a tuning fork. Carry it around with you all day and keep banging it at all hours.  In this way you will learn the actuall pitch of `a` very quickly.  Then,  when you are sitting on the toilet doing this practice singing with the fork.  For example listen to the a and sing a major third.  In some countries that is the sound of a cuckoo.   Then try singing a fourth . You might even think of London`sfBurning if you know that one.  Then you can practice singing arpeggios doh mi so   - up to the figth and holding thta note.  The practice singing fifths directly from the a and so on. Use your imagination.  Learning intonation is an internal process but it really isn`t difficult.

We just enjoy complexity on this site which is why prunes are in such demand.



July 18, 2010 at 08:33 PM ·

Thank you everyone, I'm glad it worked out too!
I wonder how people will look at me, walking around with a tuning fork and singing along :D
I found out I have no problems tuning perfect fifth's but what I did find out is that I have bad luck with E strings. First my guitar, then my friends electric violin, finally my own violin has fallen victim.
So I currently own a 3 stringed violin. It's so strange.. my strings got a lot SOFTER and demanded a lot less pressure . Heaven for my fingers and it's very easy to hit the notes, sounds very very sweet as well. And all that after my E string popped. My sister was like.. "Let me guess.. a string broke?". I don't even know the brand of my strings. I guess instead of a chromatic tuner, I'll be buying myself a new E string, or better yet a suite so I would finally know the brand of my strings.

Since I had nothing to do and I still needed to practice, I uploaded a video of the bach cello suite. I already have a feeling that I will be 2 times better next week. The recording doesn't do any justice to the sound.. I heard there is a some kind of.. sound sample or err.. a way to upload how you sound onto your profile??? I click on any profile and I don't see anything similar. I checked out my own profile, nowhere I could upload an audio file..

Anyway, I just hope the strings wont cost me any more than a tuner would.. I have a lesson tomorrow, hopefully I can get the money and buy the new string(s?) before the lesson and have the teacher set them up! :)

I can imagine how freaked out my teacher will be when I'll show up with just three strings...

So I guess my consistency will be better from now on but it will still be pretty random mood wise! :D


July 18, 2010 at 09:24 PM ·

Thank you Buri and Bill for mentioning the traditional methods.

Train and use your ears!  You have to rely on them eventually.

To the person who recommended tuning a guitar in fourths.... Hope you don't forget the third in there otherwise you're going to wind up with quite a strange tuning... Secondly, guitars are always slightly out of tune and you tune to a compromise depending on what key you're going to play in, hence the old joke about guitarists spending half their time tuning up and the other half playing out of tune.

There are guitars that, by use of fanned frets, attempt to get around this but most guitars... It's a compromise.  This is why you'll see guitarists tune up, play a few chords, and then adjust the tuning (or in the case of bass guitarists, tune the E and A string then head off to do a gig).



July 19, 2010 at 12:23 AM ·

Every note on a given string can be cross referenced with an open string.

The unison with the 4th finger.

The octave with the 3rd finger.

The major and minor thirds with the 2nd finger.

The major 6th and perfect 4th with the 1st finger.

The minor 6th and the augmented 4th with 1st finger.

Also the augmented 4th with the 3rd finger.

So learn to sing the scales and arpeggi and the intervals, and carry that tuning fork with you every where you go and take advantage of every spare moment and sing.

July 19, 2010 at 09:32 AM ·

 Hi Theodor,

I think you should check out books or online reading (from a reliant source of course) about the different tuning systems. Everything, when it comes to tuning, is relative. When playing Bach (just to have an example) you play a line in the music that includes an B, and the next measure you have a fifth with the B and E on the d string. Then al of a sudden the B is not the same as before, and if you listen and tune your "new" b, you will find that this B will not sound in tune in the line of music you were playing before. 

There are different teqniques, such as dramatic (or what you may call it) intonation, where you play a note higher or lower than it is in tune, to get a more emotional effect. There is the melodic intonation, which you use when playing scales. Pure intonation is fifth and octaves, and when playing with a piano you need to tune your ear into temp. intonation. But there are also difference in when playing chamber music, as a soloist and so on. But whenever in an ensemble of some sort you never only stick to one intonation system. It varies. 

My point being, that it could be helpful for you to read some books about the different systems and ways to play in tune, so that you can begin to get a common sense about what intonation to focus on with a specific work or when you can't figure out why it's not in tune.

I dont really know a lot about the tuning of a guitar, but my guess would be that it would be wise of you to think of the violin as a whole new instrument. To listen to it  without your previous guitar-ears, if you know what I mean :)


I hope this helped you, I havent read the thread you are refering to, so I hope I didn't just repeat what some others may have written :)



July 19, 2010 at 09:35 AM ·

 I'm sorry, I think I may have misunderstod what your question was. It's HOW to tune it and NOT have to play in tune. Sorry, just overlook my looooong post :P

July 20, 2010 at 05:01 AM ·

 If you perfectly tune the G, D, and A strings and then play an E-natural on the D string so that it makes a perfect fourth with the A string, you will find it is way too sharp when played against the G string.  This has to do with the fractions of the frequency of vibrations that govern the intervals we call a fifth and a third.  

Another example would be if you are playing F# on the A string against the open D in the key of G, if the F# is in tune with the D it will sound flat if you compare it to the G. 

On the violin part of what we get to do is balance intonation so that it is expressive and reasonably pure and consistent.  On a fretted instrument or the piano it can't be done so we've figured out how to compromise so the fifths sound good but the octaves aren't so wide that they sound bad and a tuner uses this type of intonation.  

Actually, tuning the violin is pretty complicated, beyond what a tuner can do.  Normally we tune the A so that it's in tune and then tune the other strings so the fifths are perfect and pure, but on a cold day with an orchestra we have to consider that the wind instruments might grow sharp as they're played and tune slightly sharper than the oboe that gives the A.  If playing a string quartet in the key of C the fifths are often tuned slightly too small so that the C of the cello sounds good against the E and G of the violins.  

In any case, violins have traditionally been tuned by ear so it's a good skill to have.  It's often necessary to be able to tune by ear quickly and accurately, both as teachers and performers.  I remember it was one of the earlier skills I was taught.  

I'm also of the tuning fork camp.  Never runs out of batteries and never breaks and starts sputtering on me...

edit: I realized that I used letters which may have been the best idea (I have no idea what is used in Estonia).  D= re, E=mi, G=so, F=fa, A=la.  

July 20, 2010 at 05:07 AM ·

-double post-

July 21, 2010 at 08:12 PM ·

It takes a decade to reply all of the posts and the fact that the page navigates away when clicking reply button doesn't make me happy either!

@Marie - No problem, I really used your advice! Very interesting information. Can you recommend a book? I will gladly read it!!
The system we use in Estonia is CDEFG (piano uses H instead of B, violin uses B but my teacher recommended to stay with the H system)
Perhaps about 30 years ago we had the do re mi system. I was completely alien to it until my teacher explained what's the deal with all those systems! I'll find the sheet just to share it with everyone! *steps away from the computer*

English system: GABCD
Italian: sol la si do re
French: sol la si ui (ul?) re
German: g a h c d

Hopefully this was useful to somebody. As to listening to the beats.. IT IS STRANGEE!!
One day I hear them perfectly, I tune the violin to perfection! The other day, I can barely hear anything, what the heck is going on... My violin, or my hearing? Very strange.
What I found out of why I play horribly at times!
I play the notes accordingly to the open strings (I did learn to stay in tune like that..)
So I guess it's only natural I don't like the sound when I ALWAYS use open strings as a reference. Is that bad or...?


July 21, 2010 at 09:32 PM ·

Depends on who you want to call a bad person :)
I'm quite good at comparing cultures and countries so..
I guess I can say that Estonians are very close minded, as in.. everybody are in their own bubble, some people form a bubble together so other people have problems getting in. But I guess except drinking, there's no other major problem. I'm not trying to say that everybody are alcoholics but by my own experience I can say that most of the people who weren't raised well (at least 70% of our school) smoke and drink at a young age but mostly smoke. Russians.. they are common to fight a lot and cussing or swearing is a big problem as some people put and F-bomb or some other profanity after 2 or three words. Some even say that Russians have 3 additional snippets that you use in a sentence, all of them are cussing words.

Oh well, every culture has it's own problems. Any culture can be friendly, fun and social. There are always exceptions, all I'm talking about is the impression anybody would get getting to know either Estonians or Russians. (The problem is, I'm half est and half rus so I know everything!)

I doubt this is.. the right place to talk about cultures so if anybody want's to talk to me about it, feel free to email me!


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