Playing in tune: mechanical or auditory?

October 6, 2010 at 06:40 PM ·

I'm back to 'playing in tune' again.  Seems a place I visit an awful lot!

But whats dawning on me is that playing in tune is really (primarily) a learned mechanical act.  Your finger has to hit exactly the right spot without hearing the note.  Sure you can fix it or fake with vibrato but that sounds awful. 

So try this: record yourself playing a tune - pick one that is in your comfortable range technically (so beginner baa baa black sheep and world class virtuoso something by Paganini will do).  Then record yourself again but with ear plugs.  

My prediction is that the more seasoned a player you are, the more in tune your deaf recording will be.  I actually wonder if this is a way to learn intonation since it will identify finger placements that need more work.

That said I had better go try this myself :) 

Replies (94)

October 6, 2010 at 07:32 PM ·

Auditory and mechanical, but auditory is first and foremost for intonation.  What has occurred dictates what will occur and what is likely to occur.  I have a fair distance to go before I'll be willing to consider my intonation good also but one thing that has always seemed to work for me in improving the intonation is hearing the note before it's played in my head.  I'm not convinced that being able to play without hearing what you're doing is going to very applicable because the process of monitoring your intonation relies on relationships between pitches (intervals). As I understanding it, it's about training the fingers to relate to each other and respond to your mental ear, almost like they have radar.  If you hear the note in your head before you play it you are much more likely to be on target.  There's no use in memorizing mechanics if you aren't listening to the intervals, in my humble opinion.  

There's an amazing video of 14 year old Midori playing Bernstein's Serenade and breaking her E string.  She traded her 3/4 violin for the concertmaster's Stradivarius and continued to play with good intonation even though suddenly all of the notes were further apart than she was used to.  Her ear is so good that her fingers adapted to the new distances.  If she wasn't relying on her ear to make the corrections those notes would have all been flat.

October 6, 2010 at 08:11 PM ·

Not really a good idea to even think about the mechanical aspect. Yes, that part is learned, but it's a smaller factor in hitting the notes in tune. If you played open A, B C nat, D and listened, then played open A, B, C# D you would feel a mechanical difference, but you need your ear to make sure that C# is the exact right pitch (fractionally flat, so can can sound the open E with it and make a sweet, not jarring sound). You can't do that without hearing! So, hearing first, learned spatial mechanics later. If you ever get hearing loss (eg in the upper register, like me), then no amount of learned mechanics will help if you can't hear the notes properly. Something to ponder :)

October 6, 2010 at 08:26 PM ·

People's pronunciation goes to pot if they go deaf, over time.  And that has a much more profound level of physical feedback involved, and it's something we've been doing since we were born.  I don't doubt that intonation would drop off even faster if someone lost their hearing.

Earplugs aren't a good way to test this -- for most people, earplugs don't deafen you, they just muffle stuff, mostly high frequencies.  You need to get the pricey custom-molded ones to get real sound suppression.

October 6, 2010 at 08:31 PM ·

I'm definitely more dependent on hearing!  I have both a 4/4 violin and a 3/4.  On days when my arthritis makes the slightly longer stretches on the 4/4 too uncomfortable, I switch to the 3/4.  Also, my 3/4 has a tendency to "close up" noticeably if not played at least every 3 to 4 days.  So far I've been able to make the transition between instruments without much finger-to-brain chaos.  I have to add, though, that I'm a beginner, so the material I'm working on doesn't contain the potential for disaster that more complicated pieces would.

October 6, 2010 at 08:50 PM ·

Are we forgetting the visual part of this? Light travels much faster than sound...there's a reason you can see performers checking out their intervals in the left hand as they set up the next notes to play  (like du Pre in her recorded performances of Elgar).

It's the combination of three senses, visual, auditory, and tactile that contribute to our overall ability to play specific pitches.

October 6, 2010 at 08:51 PM · So Michael and Dion are you saying that when you play (I stress play, not study) you press your finer down in the approximately correct position and then wiggle it a bit to find the note? I think I have been doing that but it sounds awful and I certainly don't hear Heifetz doing it. No, you place your finger where you will get the perfect note - a position learned by many hours of practice.

October 6, 2010 at 09:07 PM ·

I don't have Kato Havas's book, A New Approach to Violin Playing, in front of me right now, but I know some statements by heart.

Havas says that intonation isn't primarily a mechanical process of placing the fingers on an exact spot.  It is more of a mental process -- a process of elimination.  Instead of spending hours training the fingers to play in tune, we should train our minds to hear the tune.

Havas also points out that, since the violin isn't a well-tempered instrument, there is no such thing as absolute pitch on this instrument.  There is a difference between the tendency tones of G-sharp, ascending to A-natural, and A-flat, descending to G-natural.

Every day, I review 3-octave scales, double-stops, and position changes.  The key is: Listen, listen, listen, and listen.  Have clearly in mind what the next note or chord sounds like before aiming for it.

Of course, good listening will help to reinforce correct automatic responses, or muscle memory, in the hand.

Regarding the visual side, I find that, although I do occasionally check what the left hand is doing, I am more often concentrating on the bow arm, emphasizing tone production and evenness of bowing.  The left hand seems pretty much to take care of itself once I've mastered the basics of a new piece.

Haven't yet tried ear plugs for practicing.  My limited experience with ear plugs -- e.g., if the radio or CD at the gym is playing too loud -- is that I can still hear plainly what's going on around me; but now I can enjoy the music at my preferred volume.  Fortunately, gym owners seem to be catching on to the trend: DON'T PUMP UP THE VOLUME.  So I haven't had to use the plugs for months.  That's another discussion.

October 6, 2010 at 10:05 PM ·

I think it's a bit of both. If I'm finding shifting and intonation a bit unpredictable, closing my eyes helps me envisage where my fingers should go.

October 7, 2010 at 12:09 AM ·

I used to play the viola as well and I could swap from a 16.5 inch viola to a normal violin and back without problems. I too think it is ear training that counts.

October 7, 2010 at 12:13 AM ·

 I play the cello and violin.  No problem.

October 7, 2010 at 12:42 AM ·

I find it hard to believe what I am reading.  Say you are playing a series of 16th notes.  Do your fingers know where to go (mechanical) or do you place them some place and when you hear whether its flat or sharp maneuver them to the right place??

Working on intonation for me is learning exactly where to put my finger to get the exact note.  No fussing, no obfuscation no experimentation.  Bang.  I learn the decreasing intervals up the keyboard.  Indeed, its one of the sure differences between a beginner and a seasoned player.  Sure we can get a hint from shifts by sliding up the string but its much cleaner to hit the note bang on if you can.

And different size instruments just means you learned the intervals for each one.  After a while I am sure that you can adjust very quickly to the different string lenghts - but that has to be learned too.

But prove me wrong - try recording when you are deaf (point taken on earplugs - get the kind that really does cut out noise - or even better put on earphones with white noise....

October 7, 2010 at 02:54 AM ·

There have been too many times when I've been playing in an orchestra and my own sound is completely obliterated under my ear to feel safe relying too much on hearing.

If that is Havas's definition of "absolute pitch," I disagree with it completely.  440 is 440 no matter what instrument you play it on or what note comes next -- leading tones are a psychological phenomenon which functional harmony exploits.  There aren't any in twelve-tone music because enharmonic notes are not treated as different pitches.

October 7, 2010 at 02:56 AM ·

Best intonation is a constant flow of tiny and rapid adjustments guided by dynamic precision listening, No wiggling needed, these kind of adjusts are really gradations in exact finger pad contact point and typically occur over single digit millisecond timescales.

When asked about his perfect intonation Heifetz is reputed to have replied  "I do not always play in tune, I just fix it quicker than anyone else."

Also for the most part there is no 'bang on' absolute location for each note, good intonation is expressive, intervals (excepting perfect intervals) can be wider or narrower depending on harmonic, emotional and stylistic contexts. Double stops introduce a third resultant note into the mix which can also be tuned in different ways.

This is the promise and peril of fretless stringed instruments - we work with a continuum, not a grid. When it comes to intonation I'm afraid the piano metaphor may be misleading, since most notes are (slightly) out of tune. This is just the physics of dividing an octave into equal parts. The upside of twelve tone equal temperament is that you now have a powerful compositional framework with a democracy of keys. Perhaps a closer comparison would be the human singing voice which does a lot of this intuitively, barber shop quartets have no problem creating justly intoned chords for example.

The differences between twelve tone equal temperament, Pythagorean and Just intonation systems is well documented and understood - tho the last two are not options for pianists :)

So I think the answer is not to put things in our ears, but rather to remove the barriers to achieving highly trained active listening. 

October 7, 2010 at 03:00 AM ·

I do however agree with Simon.  If you tune to a 440 today and 442 tomorrow, your ears are going to tell you that your fingers are wrong and vice-versa, which can be disconcerting.

October 7, 2010 at 03:12 AM ·


Believe it or not, it is primarily the ear that tells the fingers what to do.  Obviously, the left hand fingers need training, but intonation really happens on a subconscious level.  Sound enters the ear, and the brain continually processes the sound and causes the left hand to adjust  to achieve proper intonation.  The adjustment happens BEFORE the finger goes down, so no wiggling is required. That is why people can readily switch between violin and viola or play in tune even though the open strings are out of tune. 

The human brain is an amazing thing.  Consider this.  Scientists conducted an experiment some years ago where they had special glasses that made the world appear upside down.  Test subjects wore those glasses and amazingly, after just a few days, the world appeared right side up again.  The brain automatically flipped the images to make them upright.  When the subjects removed the glasses, the world appeared upside down WITHOUT THE GLASSES, but then, shortly after, the brain flipped again and everything was back to normal. 

October 7, 2010 at 03:47 AM ·

When I am specifically working on intonation I close my eyes, listen intently, make myself very aware of what my finger "feels" like, if you will. Get it just right, concentrate on that feeling, physically. We all know that the slightest variation in the attitude of the finger makes a big difference. I do the same note or a few notes, over and over, and for me, it is about the mechanics. I do the same thing for position changes to "land" at the right spot, with my finger at exactly the right angle, or to start a piece. You sure don't want to be wiggling around playing 3rd position d and open d at the beginning of the Allemanda of the 2nd Partita, it sounds just plain YIKES.

And I think there was a study done on great violinists, slowing down the recordings, and found many do make minute adjustments, very quickly. Sorry if someone mentioned that and I missed it. I say whatever works for you.

October 7, 2010 at 04:00 AM ·

 "So Michael and Dion are you saying that when you play (I stress play, not study) you press your finer down in the approximately correct position and then wiggle it a bit to find the note?"

Nope, that leads to sloppy playing.  I'm saying that you hear the note in your head and your mental ear tells your finger where to go.  If the finger hits the wrong place DO NOT wiggle it into place.  Pick it up and try again.  You have to train your finger to hit the precise note based on what you hear in your head.  Wiggling into the note will make your intonation sound terrible.  It's a combination of your ear and also the relationships between your fingers that guides your intonation.  When I have a problem note that seems to habitually be out of tune I train myself using the "5 times right" method.  I play it and think about the correct pitch before the finger lands.  If I fail, I decide if it should be higher or lower, pick up my finger and try again.  The goal is to train for consistency 5 times in a row.  If I get it right 3 times in a row but on the 4th time I fail, it's back to one all over again.  The best teachers I've had always said that you should never slide into a note unless you have a specific musical reason to do so (like in the second movement of the Ravel sonata).  The finger must know where it's going because you can hear the note before you land.  If you fail, the finger has to come up and aim better next time.  If the note is in a fast passage with other notes, isolate the problem note, fix it and then think of the grouping of notes (like if there are 4 sixteenths) as a unit.  Play them all and listen for notes within the grouping to be correct.  If one or two notes within the group is still failing then I would do the 5 times right method on the whole group and repeat until the problems are worked out.  This way you train your ear and you train the fingers to respond and work together.

October 7, 2010 at 08:46 AM ·

 This is how my cello teacher taught me how to find my way around the fingerboard when I was about 12 ...

He'd tell my to shut my eyes, let my left arm hang loose by my side, and then he would say something like, "play the second F# on the D string with the 2nd finger".  And I would have to hit it immediately and dead accurately with my eyes shut.  The next instruction would be for another random note on a random string with a random finger (perhaps including the thumb). It seemed impossible at first, but after a few weeks it started to come together, and later on I was never again worried about playing anywhere on the finger board.  To this day, if anyone asks me what position (that artificial didactic construct!) I'm playing in on the cello fingerboard I'll have to think about it.  It's getting to be like that on the violin.

This system of learning finger placement can obviously be used on the violin or viola, and it can easily be adapted to learn the placement of the bow on the string in any one of the notional 5 "tracks" between the bridge and the end of a standard fingerboard. 

October 7, 2010 at 09:21 AM ·

simon lyn

Nice to hear from you, and I must tell you that I knew Barry Haskey quite well. He was a great guy and very good fiddler. Played in the BBC Welsh as sub leader, and often as leader. I played in that band a lot as a free lancer and I also was amember of WNO. I was in Wales from 1976 to 1982 and then in London but working there a lot from 1983 to 1987.

I also agree very strongly with your comments about intonation, and your Heifetz quote is very interesting and reminded me that I may have heard it before.



Try hearing a note high up the fiddle in your head and without thinking play it. Quite often it will be spot on and with practise it will get to be accurate 99% of the time. The 1% when its not is because you have thought about it first!

October 7, 2010 at 10:21 AM ·

There's another Heiftez quote (perhaps apocryphal) to the effect that when he played a passage in octaves he'd let one note drift ever so slightly out of tune so that the audience would know he was playing octaves. 

October 7, 2010 at 10:45 AM ·

I think people are still mixing up learning with playing.  Undoubtedly, we adjust the finger to get perfect intonation when we miss the note.  

Michael: I'm saying that you hear the note in your head and your mental ear tells your finger where to go.  

Trevor: He'd tell my to shut my eyes, let my left arm hang loose by my side, and then he would say something like, "play the second F# on the D string with the 2nd finger".  And I would have to hit it immediately and dead accurately with my eyes shut.  

Smiley: Try hearing a note high up the fiddle in your head and without thinking play it. Quite often it will be spot on and with practise it will get to be accurate 99% of the time. The 1% when its not is because you have thought about it first!

These are all perfect examples of mechanical placement.  Sure your brain is involved but you hit the note WITHOUT listening to what it is first.  You are using the exquisite ability of the brain to remember and calculate exactly where the finger needs to be before it hits the finger board.  And when you miss your ear kicks in to help you adjust.

Hearing is essential to get to this point but it is not used to actually make the finger position and contact.  It is used immediately after to bend the note or to adjust the finger if there is an error - but the best players simply don't make that error, or rather do very rarely.  And IMO thats what Heifetz was referring to - that he occasionally misses a note but he adjust very fast to correct it - he certainly does not do so in his 1/32nd runs...


October 7, 2010 at 11:01 AM ·

"Try hearing a note high up the fiddle in your head and without thinking play it. Quite often it will be spot on and with practise it will get to be accurate 99% of the time. The 1% when its not is because you have thought about it first!"


Don't blame smiley for that quote, it was me!

I don't entirely agree as Heifetz hit a note way out high up in Rondo Capriciosso when it was recorded on 78's with less editing possibilites and he did not move his finger.

He was talking of minute adjustments I think when he said about fixing it quicker.

No it is not about mechanics - but hearing the note in your head first. It is mostly to do with ear training.


October 7, 2010 at 11:17 AM ·

An experienced conductor when working with non-professionals will tell the violins to mentally hear a high note before they play it.  It works every time.  Of course, this implies they will have already done the woodshedding to discover exactly where those high notes are :-)  

October 7, 2010 at 11:25 AM ·

 There's a story about Casals who went down with a bad head cold which made him very deaf shortly before he was to give a performance of the Dvorak concerto.  He said later that he was unable to hear a single note he was playing and had to rely entirely on "muscle memory" and, presumably, his eyes.  As far as everyone was concerned he was giving his usual virtually perfect performance.

October 7, 2010 at 11:45 AM ·

Elise, maybe we can convince the crowd by using the term proprioception instead of "mechanical placement." It's how we all found first position in the first place, and 3rd and 2nd and 4th... As you say, we fine tune our proprioception, our 'self-sense' of placement and movement, with our ears, eyes, touch, and imagination. The proprioceptors are sensory receptors on nerve endings found in joints (in the tendon and muscles) but also in the inner ear. I don't know if the inner ear gives us any more information other than for balance and motion, but by practicing we are literally mapping out angles and velocity in every joint we employ to play.

October 7, 2010 at 12:01 PM ·

October 7, 2010 at 12:19 PM ·

In engineering terms, what Elise is describing is the difference between an open loop and closed loop control system.  With just the fingers and no hearing, you will get the notes approximately in tune.  But, to really nail the intonation, you need to hear the notes.  Hearing the notes provides the essential feedback for the brain to process what's going on and make the micro adjustments to the fingers.


October 7, 2010 at 12:30 PM ·

Smiley is spot on!

October 7, 2010 at 12:35 PM ·

"There's a story about Casals who went down with a bad head cold which made him very deaf shortly before he was to give a performance of the Dvorak concerto.  He said later that he was unable to hear a single note he was playing and had to rely entirely on "muscle memory" and, presumably, his eyes.  As far as everyone was concerned he was giving his usual virtually perfect performance."

I suppose there is always the opposite story!

I remember years ago at a live Prom cocert from the Albert Hall in London we heard that the violin soloist had a head cold, and sure enough he had intonation problems high up where he couldn't hear.

Maybe it's more mechanical on the cello!! Or maybe people were used to hearing Casals using approximate intonation.

But maybe these tales are all to be taken with a pinch of vibrato!

October 7, 2010 at 12:36 PM ·

Peter: No it is not about mechanics - but hearing the note in your head first. It is mostly to do with ear training

OK, if you wish.  But please describe to me how you go from hearing the note in your head to playing the note.

October 7, 2010 at 12:39 PM ·

OK. So perhaps I should have said that you have an idea of whereabouts the note is, but then you let your ear do the work.

October 7, 2010 at 01:02 PM ·

So you both subscribe to the 'place the finger and wiggle' method?

My teacher has made me take my music and play each note so that it is in tune.  That means placing the finger and hearing multiple times (as suggested above) until I can consistently hit the note.  At that point my ear's job is (mostly) done - I have reduced the intonation process to a mechanical act - the fastest way a note can be played.  I say mostly because there is ornementation ontop of the note and I will still make mistakes but the result is clean and accurate.  Possibly the first time I have ever played that way.


October 7, 2010 at 01:15 PM ·

"So you both subscribe to the 'place the finger and wiggle' method?"

I can only speak for me but that is not what I've said. You get very close to the note and then adjust - we are probably talking of an adjustment of only one or two vibrations here.

When playing a fast run of course then that is a case of learning where to put the fingers by practising slowly and getting it in tune.

Here is a little test for you - put your fiddle out of tune (about a quarter tone or less out with each string) - and then play something you know very well, slowish, not using open strings. Can you still play it in tune? (And at the correct pitch for each note?)

October 7, 2010 at 01:27 PM ·

One should always insist on having a least a football field between one and the nearest French Horn ...

October 7, 2010 at 01:39 PM ·

Even beginners with absolute pitch will still have to learn to find their way around the fingerboard. As much as hearing is essential to the control mechanism, so is proprioception and tactition essential for accuracy.

October 7, 2010 at 01:51 PM ·

Here is a little test for you - put your fiddle out of tune (about a quarter tone or less out with each string) - and then play something you know very well, slowish, not using open strings. Can you still play it in tune? (And at the correct pitch for each note?)

I think we all do that inadvertently when the violin goes out of tune during a piece.  And sure I never said that the ear is not involved, of course it is, just that learning to play in tune is a process of minimizing the feedback required to hit the note.  One of the wonders of the brain is that it can adjust to the new normal very fast if you train it.  After all, the intervals between notes decrease as you go up the fingerboard so in the process of learning to play in higher positions you are training your fingers (read cortex/cerebellum) to work with different distance intervals.

A year ago if I tried to (jump not slide) shift from F# to B on the E string I would be consistently 1-2 full notes out.  Now I am a fraction of a note out.  I hope to get to the point where I will nail it 98% of the time thus reducing the auditory freedback (and wiggle) requirement to an absolute minimum.  I really believe that that is a major factor why star players sound like stars.  The pitch of the note is never in question and vibrato, is an ornament/embelishment and only that.


October 7, 2010 at 02:13 PM ·

October 7, 2010 at 02:32 PM ·

Karen - thanks for that, its just about exactly my experience too.  I've got to the point where I think every note on the violin is actually a unique beast that has to be learned by itself - you can do it over time by just playing or by trial and error (I'm working on the 5 times method too) but ultimately you have to 'know' that note.  Octaves help only marginally, getting an F# correct on the G ane E string, even in first position, are independent beasts.

With shifts, however, do you try to jump into the note or subtly slide up the keyboard?  The sliding is definitely easier although I would still like to be able to just hit the note.

Funny, its just like dancing, the more you get into learning higher levels of playing, the more basic your work becomes.  After 10 years of ballroom I am now working on taking a single step and likewise on the violin playing one note in tune! :\

October 7, 2010 at 03:17 PM ·

October 7, 2010 at 03:48 PM ·

so i understand that even when an expert finger presses the string, it still need not fall exactly into the heart of the note. or that the more expert the ear is, the narrower the range of the note towards its sharp and flat counterparts and everywhere in between is virtually the heart of the note. so there if we ptlay 440.2 it would still be recognized as a 'perfect' A. and likewise, parallel to training the ear, the finger trains itself to identify this allowable range of spatial interval. first to second for a note, first to fourth on the consecutive string for an octave. i feel the note there, physically and expect it to be there. but sometimes., i'm wrong (the degree of wrongness proportional to my level  of playing) and i use the ear to adjust. but sometimes my intervals are right, but my ear is wrong..since i start on the wrong note. so i go back to a resonant note. and i think this is why my third finger first position is the easiest and the most trained, since the violin comes to life. the ear, at least at some points, is powerful enough to lead the fingers...but at others not as easy. so i would say that the auditory comes first but somtimes it doesnt come at all. the more expert the ear, the less it needs to rely on resonance of the violin the more it can identify intervals abstractly.

October 7, 2010 at 03:54 PM ·

duplicate post

October 7, 2010 at 04:17 PM ·

Tamuz: thats IT!

Thanks for putting it so eloquently (and musically, I hasten to add)... :)

October 7, 2010 at 04:51 PM ·

"Elise, I think it depends on what the shift is if I jump or slide.  I recently converted a shift from a low E (first finger on the D string) to the E 2 octaves above, which I'm playing with a 3rd finger on the E string (3 not 4 for vibrato purposes), from a jump to a slide.  My teacher suggested it for several reasons.  First and foremost, I was jumping into the unknown and not finding the note reliably.  I could hear that it was often out of tune, and in that range, I could hear that it was usually sharp (but not necessarily how sharp--it varied--it just sounded like a mess).  "


E on D string - jump two octaves to E on E string. You could make that easy by going to the harmonic E on the E string, then putting finger down and do your vibrato then. All in a flash.

Even if you only use the harmonic E to get used to it, then just jump into the note. If you have played the E accurately on the D string first then the E high up will be in your ear.

It is really not difficult, if I can do it anyone can!!

October 7, 2010 at 05:30 PM ·

The way to train any shift, even across strings, is to practice the guiding note/finger, which is always a slide on the old finger to it's place in the finger pattern of the new position.

If your target is a 3rd finger for the octave E on E-string, the first finger E on the D-string would slide to a B on the D-string, a position shift of a 5th, and the E would be the equivalent of a minor third above, but across strings; if the target is a 4th finger, the first finger on the D-string would slide to an A on the D-string, a position shift of a 4th, and the E would be the equivalent of a 4th above. All shifts, then, consist of a same finger slide on one string, plus the adding or taking-away of a finger. The main purpose of all such exercises is to train the arm to feel the proper distance for the desired interval, i.e. to train the proprioceptors in the arm. (N.B. it's useful to hear the shifting interval as well as the actual interval)

After the arm 'knows' where to go, the hand can be expanded or contracted, with the appropriate adjustment in the shift, depending on context for the actual performance of the passage.

Of course it is useful to be able to play the harmonics (both divisions of 1/2 and 1/3s) with any finger, but this practice also trains the arm proprioceptively. So we come full circle to Elise's original point that to play accurately we must train the arm in all it's mechanics; and the more we train the arm to guide the fingers (of course, ultimately guided by the ear) to find any note anywhere on the fingerboard in any key, the more facility we will possess.

Often, training the posture of arm/hand/finger in it's target position will help the execution of a shift or arpeggio as the arm learns how it should feel when it's arrived. In this way the arm can prepare ahead of time for speed of execution and so that it doesn't get stuck in a position for an intermediary note.


October 7, 2010 at 05:55 PM ·

Absolutely don't place the finger and wiggle. This creates bad habit, and it sounds bad. You need to practice nailing your finger down in the right place, precisely the right place. For this you will need your ear, but don't wiggle. If you play it wrong, do it again. Once you get it absolutely correct, do it again and again and again.

This is why people practice scales and Schradieck.

If you place your finger and wiggle, you are practicing placing your finger in the wrong place and then moving it. You must practice placing your finger in the right place. 

October 7, 2010 at 06:27 PM ·

October 7, 2010 at 06:37 PM ·

 What Laurie said about wiggling.  Also, the "5 times right" method that I described is not a one-time fix.  It is simply an efficient way of training yourself for consistency.  It must be done each day on the same part to build success in that particular area.  For instance, in my Gavinies etude that I learned this week I started off just by playing through it once to identify all the problem areas.  At each point I circled the problem.  As I continued to practice it other problems inevitably became apparent as I fixed the previous ones but in general as long as I'm focused the main problems will be consistent.  Each circled area gets the 5 times method every day and each day the whole thing becomes easier.  I'm not saying that's the only way to do it but that's how I use it and it seems to work for me.

And Elise, I never claimed there was no mechanical aspect to intonation, all I said was that the ear dictates the mechanics.  Obviously there are mechanics involved, those notes aren't going to play themselves and understanding the relationships between your fingers is a physical understanding.  However, it all comes down to what you hear and what you expect to here.  Miss DeLay said "expect excellence and settle for nothing less".  Those are very powerful words and she said this in relation to intonation. 

October 7, 2010 at 06:58 PM ·

October 7, 2010 at 07:03 PM ·


I think you have put the cart before the horse!! You need to get the left hand shape and finger patterns sorted out before you even think about vibrato. Even if this is confined to first position, you can then repeat this all over the fingerboard using the ear to teach your fingers where to go, as the distances get smaller the higher up you go. Sometimes there is no room with a semitone to put another finger down so you need to slide a finger.

Those scales and studies mentioned previously by Laurie are important too, for basic training of the hand and fingers, and ear training.

October 7, 2010 at 07:08 PM ·

"Yes, absolutely, but in order to do it 5 times right, you have to *actually know that it's right* those 5 times.  Otherwise you don't really know what you're training yourself to do.  It could be 5 times wrong."


Again I would urge you to play the passages, notes, or whatever, on the piano to let yourself hear what they should be. Otherwise you are practising errors and bad pitch. If you have a recording of someone playing these notes (providing they are playing in tune and correctly) then listen carefully first before playing them yourself.

October 7, 2010 at 08:39 PM ·

Sometimes my fingers will tell me they're in the right place but my ears tell me that the note is wrong.  Sure enough, when I stop and check, I find that the string has gone out of tune.  It's kind of fun, though, knowing that I can correct for it until I have time to retune.

I have to work more on avoiding the "wiggle" myself, though.  Landing off the note and sliding into it sounds awful, especially since I'm still working on getting decent tone in the first place.  So many things to practise, so little time...

October 7, 2010 at 09:15 PM ·

Hi Karen

"floating in the breeze," is a good way to balance the hand to focus on vibrating that finger. Coming back into frame is just a matter of getting used to, as I'm sure you're aware. It sounds like you may be comfortable measuring tone-semitone patterns from the first finger up, but perhaps your hand could use some exercise finding patterns from any finger. It always helps to locate the note you got lost on within the scale; i.e. name it's degree of the scale and just sing and play the rest of the scale up or down (playing it down an octave helps with hearing notes in the gerbil zone, as does keeping track of the tonic or the fifth of the scale.) Also filling in the chromatic notes can help to sensitize the hand to all it's finger patterns within (and outside) the frame for a given position. 

If you want a more systematic way to train tone-semitone patterns you can try the following tetrachord exercise, although it might quickly drive you crazy enough to go sing with the gerbils ;)

Play any note and locate it within all possible diatonic scales (and others if you want.) Some advocate a similar study going through all permutations of finger patterns and labelling each pattern with an abstract number, but I think it's more useful to work on finger patterns in the context of keys -- thinking in keys is the first step in ear training.

Think a Tone-Semitone pattern within 4 notes (tetrachord) which includes the note you're measuring from; locate the pattern within a scale; start on your note and play up using all fingers and down to the tonic.

E.g. Play A on E-string with third finger. 

Pattern 1) F-G-A-Bflat (TTS); (think the key) play A-Bflat-A-G-F-Eflat-D-C-Bflat OR A-Bflat-A-G-F-E-D-C-Bflat-A-G-F; the tetrachord starts on: I of F Maj or V of Bflat Maj

Keep checking A with open A (or a tuner) in between patterns to make sure we're measuring from 3rd finger (while acknowledging this does not yield pure tuning.)

2) F-G-A-B (TTT); play A-B-A-G-F-E-D-C or A-B-C(with extension)-B-A-G-F-E-D-C; IV of C Maj

3) F-G#-A-B (AST); VI of A min

4) F-Gflat-A-Bflat (SAS); V of Bflat min

5) F#-G#-A-B (TST); II of E Maj or VI of A Maj

6) F#-G-A-B (STT); III of D Maj or VII of G Maj

7) F#-G-A-Bflat (STS); leading tone of G min

Have I missed any?

Repeat octave higher. After you get used to the various patterns, play them one after another, rapid-fire. After you get used to that, vibrate freely on the finger before rapidly playing each new scale. It doesn't take long for the hand to frame itself around any finger in the context of a key after doing such 'measuring exercises' ; the hand starts to move and feel in patterns.

Hope that helps,


October 7, 2010 at 10:12 PM ·

Of course there has to be antisipation of pitch and through that the mechanics of spatial distance is learnt, which would you rather being thinking about? I would prefer to hear the pitch of the notes. But I believe there is a wiggle (for want of a better word). It is the movement of the finger bone with in the finger pad so the finger does not actually slide on the string and there is not a wild shake to adjust the intonation, so you need to be pretty close to pitch in the first instance. 

October 7, 2010 at 10:34 PM ·

October 7, 2010 at 11:10 PM ·

<<<hearing a note an octave down>>>


This is achieved through ear training....the singing of scales and modes, step wise and broken, and singing arpeggios and intervals.

October 7, 2010 at 11:55 PM ·

 But Henry, seriously, how does that help your fingers know where to go?  

October 8, 2010 at 01:02 AM ·

Because the pitch you hear in the inner ear fires up the neurons in the brain compelling the muscles to react through the nervous system. 

October 8, 2010 at 08:12 AM ·

I'm with Henry on this one. It's how we do most stuff as humans. Walking is quite a complicated thing - yet we just think to move and we do it "compelling" our muscles and bones to walk us from A to B.

Last night I went into a pitch dark room, walked across the floor and turned on a table lamp. My hand went straight to the switch, no flailing, no fumbling.  I couldn't see it. But I knew where it was and that was enough. I have a feeling that finding notes on the fingerboard is a similar process.

October 8, 2010 at 08:20 AM ·

Which raises the question Karen is there any finger position, beyond first position that you are really confident of?  I find I can hit third position perfectly - 10/10 and more.  Its VERY rare that I miss.  The reason is pretty obvious: it was the first higher position I was taught and is the role model for this topic - the fact that there is ONE position that really is learned and requires no wiggle.

Its pretty obvious that if I can learn that with such confidence I should be able to learn all the others too.  And its also pretty pathetic that I could hit third so reliably and yet felt a sense of panic every time I say a second or fourth - hitting either perhaps 10% of the time.  Doing etudes (they seem to love second position) has improved the former but nailing 4th is taking some time - I'm at about 60-70% for (E) B but steadily improving. 

I wish I had been taught from the start to play with all the positions - even if it would hvae extended the 'insufferable noise' period.  It would have been worth it.  Indeed, it might have been best to learn to play wiht one finger only and then add the others later!  I think thats what Ricci espouses in essence, the idea that there are no positions you just have to know all the first finger placings...

October 8, 2010 at 11:19 AM ·

October 8, 2010 at 11:48 AM ·

Karen: what do you mean by high A? one or two octaves above the A string?  Seems to me that if you can't hit 4th reliably you probably shouldn't be thinking about the 'gerbil zone' (love the phrase).  Till about 6 months ago I couldn't recognize any notes above D (one note shy of an octave over open E) but now I think I can manage up to G but stick a flat in there and I'm liable to play snakes and ladders too :D

When it comes to tape - IMO whatever works.  I finally grasped, painfully late in life (embarassingly so for a neuroscientist), that we all learn differently and a tape for you might be a barbed wire fence for me.  The key is to figure out how you learn best and then adapt the teaching methods (if you can select the teacher ;) ) that works best for you.  So put sparkly lights on if that helps ...

October 8, 2010 at 01:02 PM ·

 If it helps, Bach and most of the other Baroque composers (Locatelli being a notable exception) never went above that high A on the E string (a fourth above the E harmonic), and I don't think Mozart ever went above the D a fourth up again from the high A  – it's just a few notes from  the end of the finger board – and that was in a concerto.

Now, the question of an easy notation for this type of discussion:  I suggest we adopt the ubiquitous ABC notation. In the ABC notation the case of the letter is important and an apostrophe or comma immediately after the letter is used to indicate the higher and lower octaves. 

In ABC notation, the open A (A440) is A followed by B–c–d–e(the open string)–f–g–a. The next octave, which takes you out of the 1st position, is b–c'–d'– e'(the harmonic)–f'–g'–a'(the high A)–b'–c'–d'(Mozart's high D).  Going down from the open A we have G–F–E–D(the open D string)–C–B,–A,–G,(the open G string).  Note that each note below middle C has a comma after it to indicate that it is in a lower octave.  If you use this notation for the cello you would be using two commas after the letter for this second octave below middle C.

If the situation arises, the symbols ^ = and _ are used (before a note) to generate respectively a sharp, natural or flat. The symbols ^^ and __ can also be used for double sharp and double flat.

There is a lot more to the ABC notation, as you may imagine – in fact you can transcribe an entire orchestral score in its detail into ABC notation. The end result is a plain text file, so it is easily transmittable over the Internet.  It's advisable to use a simple text editor to generate an ABC file rather than a word processor because the latter will probably alter the cases of the letters and mess around with the syntax.  There is software that will play music written in ABC. Apparently, it converts it  to MIDI first, so don't expect too much in the way of a convincing sound :-)

October 8, 2010 at 02:03 PM ·

Diet can have an effect on intonation.I've been doing a lot of research into this lately, and found that there are alot of over processed foods that effect brain cell  regeneration.To be able to play in tune requires a strong short term memory,a strong long term memory,the processing of learn motor skills and good proprioception skills.The overuse of eye-hand  coordination techniques will interfere with real intonation development, and also interfere with the "feel" of the bow hand.

Foods that will interfere with brain cell regeneration are;

   White bread ,white rice ,white pasta ,hydrogenated oils, spoiled foods, alcohol, caffeine, processed meats , red meat ,refined sugar and parasites. 

Foods that are excellent for playing in tune are ;

Spinach ,salmon,tuna,avocados.flaxseed ,walnuts, nuts, seeds raisins,8-10 glasses of filtered water,balanced diet, green tea ,chicken and turkey ,fresh fruit  vegetables ,blue berries and etc ...

Staying away from over-processed foods and exercising 1/2 hr a day will make you a better player, and will help decrease your chances of injury.

October 8, 2010 at 02:35 PM ·

Deleting all my posts from a thread that has clearly jumped the shark.

October 8, 2010 at 05:45 PM ·

I'm afraid I'm going to uspset a few people here, BUT any teacher who uses tape as a guide to a note or a position should be taken out and shot, and don't even wait for dawn!

And look, A two octaves above A 440 is not that high although it is just going into the frostbite area.

If it is going to be that hard, have a few gin and tonics and chill out as they say.

You are making something that s not THAT hard into I don't know what.

October 8, 2010 at 06:04 PM ·

 Hear! Hear!  And mine's a double G&T. 

October 8, 2010 at 06:23 PM ·

And I'll join you in two doubles -- that way one doesn't notice the frostbite in the high altidudes so much!

October 8, 2010 at 06:23 PM ·


October 8, 2010 at 06:23 PM ·

Deleted - software went mad.

October 8, 2010 at 06:40 PM ·

 Not upset here, Peter.  I've been saying for years that fingering tape is a sign of a lazy teacher who doesn't know how to teach intonation.

October 8, 2010 at 07:27 PM ·

@Peter : there's at least one person here who could give you advice on guns (meaning, someone who know a lot about guns, that's all)    :)

About the tape thing - I think the whole idea is misunderstood. As someone who played guitar and mandolin just before the violin, I obviously knew where the notes were, and years of practise got me good intonation. Now, have you ever seen the cartoon where there's a puzzled guy looking at a sign, which is a blank map, with a dot in the middle of it, and an arrow saying "you are here" ? Well, that's what the blind black fingerboard is to some people in the early stages, regardless of whether they have played another non-stringed instrument or not.

Tape simply maps out the approx position of the notes. Not the exact position - you ear needs to take over at that point. If the object of tape was to get you to play the exact notes with perfect intonation, then it would have failed miserably. See what I'm getting at? Personally, I have never used the tape thing with students, but I can see how it would give a heads-up to some.

 @Charles - not disputing your advice on the healthy food / good intonation thing, but it's worth remembering that the great Eugene Ysaye ate lots, and unhealthily too, then washed it down with fine wine. It affected the way he looked (corpulent) but it didn't seem to affect his intonation or anything else musical :)

October 8, 2010 at 07:41 PM ·

What I'm saying is that we are living in an increasingly visual age. We need to develop our ears and not use visual aids so much.

With tape most people think they are playing in tune with their fingers on the tape but they don't listen so they don't hear it's out of tune. Teachers who use this method are out of tune, and totally lazy and inept. No other word for it.

October 8, 2010 at 08:18 PM ·

Even the approximate position can be mapped by the ears, and then refined beyond that to find the exact position.  It may take a little more pitch matching work and determination than a lot of people are willing to do but the benefit in the long run is very great.  I believe that even though the tapes seem like they're making it a little easier they are preventing preliminary learning that should be done.  A lot of students who think they need tapes really need correct hand positioning more.  Correct hand positioning will go a long way in providing the approximate position of the notes.  Students need to have more faith in their ears.  If the difficulty seems too great a burden then I believe the teaching is insufficient.  

October 8, 2010 at 08:35 PM ·

"A lot of students who think they need tapes really need correct hand positioning more.  Correct hand positioning will go a long way in providing the approximate position of the notes.  Students need to have more faith in their ears.  If the difficulty seems too great a burden then I believe the teaching is insufficient.  "

This is totally correct, and I completely agree with this statement.

October 8, 2010 at 08:48 PM ·

Michael + Peter .. maybe you are right. But you are HARDCORE!!! :)

October 8, 2010 at 08:58 PM ·

No - I've given up hardcore fore softcore. Better for the blood pressure ...

October 9, 2010 at 12:11 AM ·


Well with some  bad habits , it generally takes about 2-3 months to get corrected, if your lucky.When tape is used to teach intonation ,and there is no form of ear training, you will be lucky to be able to teach the student to play in tune in a year.

Jim ,I know what you mean. I hear the same rational  from alcoholics that say they drive better when they're drunk ,and heavy smokers always seem to know some really old guy who smoked all his life and died in his nineties.

October 9, 2010 at 08:00 AM ·


sometimes I think we should not be able to delete posts :(  Your posts were great and had lots of interesting and useful content. And reflected a method of learning that suited you - and as such argues against its blanket damnation by others.  I hope you still have the posts and that you will put them back where they belong.

Besides, some sanity came back with Jim's excellent post on what tape actually is for - its so easy to jump to conclusions.  And, it was right on point to the subject of this topic - which is mechanical memory.  I can see that providing a sensile signal to where the note actually is might help develop the 'muscle memory' to find that note automatically.  As said, it really depends on an individual's best way of learning.  If there's one thing that pedagogy teachers best, its that one size does NOT fit all and to damn any particular approach is to declare yourself superior to others.  And I can make that statement based on some experience as teaching (obviously not violin) happens to be one of my primary occupations (even if it is acquired and not learned).



October 9, 2010 at 08:03 AM ·

But noone yet has taken up my challenge!  Record yourself playing normally and then again with your hearing restricted to the point where you can not tell the note accurately (some might have to pad to prevent 'feeling' the note.  Do you play out of tune?  I would like to add - if you do, does it depend on where you are on the fingerboard?  An obvious prediction is that it would get worse in higher positions but it may also do so on different strings.

October 9, 2010 at 08:16 AM ·


Now that you have mentioned recording there is an interesting point I would like to make.

People (and I've done this myself) often record themselves playing a piece, study or scales, so they can play it back and hear where their bad intonation is. Well, it will certainly tell you, and I suppose that could be some help, but the whole point is that we should be hearing and correcting that bad intonation as we play, as it is too late once the act is committed.

What Heifetz said was absolutely right, he was good at correcting his intonation in a millisecond, so no one noticed. I think this is true of every outstanding player from way back. It is the development and training of our reflexes and our ear that really counts.

Of course one has to be able to hear that a note is slightly off - otherwise there is no chance of correcting it. We have all heard the players that play really out of tune and are unaware of that fact!

October 9, 2010 at 08:19 AM ·

I suspect, excepting those with perfect pitch, we were all those players at some point!

I'm sure you are right about the instant correction with respect to training the finger placement but the recording is none the less useful because it tells you where to look when you next practise - the parts where your intonation is weak. 

October 9, 2010 at 08:24 AM ·

"I suspect, excepting those with perfect pitch, we were all those players at some point!"

Don't believe it about those with perfect pitch - I've know lots of professional players and others that have perfect pitch but still have rather poor intonation.

My wife has perfect pitch and as a pianist (due to the pianos innacurate well tempered tuning) has different ideas of what is sharp and flat than me, especialy with singers.

Having perfect pitch can be a curse.

October 9, 2010 at 08:56 AM ·

I really dont see how this could work because one would need to be stone deaf. I have used my *industrial* ear muffs while practising and I can still hear the fiddle, The effect is supposed to be of what your audience is hearing. And I have played my silent fiddle without amplification, I can still hear it and thats really good for focusing the attention to intonation. And if I was to wear head phones with some distracting noise, that wouldnt be fair because I may find it very difficult to hear/sing in my head the music that I am playing.

Sure your finger has to hit the right spot, but not without hearing it. You take a reference from the previous note or from the arppeggio and the next note is anticipated in your head and you trust your muscles to carry out the mechanic act which you have practised repeatedly.

It is the focus away from the mechanical act which allows the subconscious to take care of it and thus play with total abandonment...........singing in your head. 

October 9, 2010 at 09:05 AM ·

SPOT ON Henry!!

October 9, 2010 at 12:08 PM ·

You guys give up too easily.  First, try ear plugs WITH a headset.  If that is still not enough then play white noise through either the sealing bud-type or a good headset.  And yes, its easy to get free as a download (eg: ).  By its nature it will not bias your hearing.

Happy non-listening. 

October 9, 2010 at 12:28 PM ·

Maybe your white noise idea would be good as I've just been listening to here in London a Ms R Podger murdering Bach's E major violin concerto and playing it in E flat.

It was definitely a mistake to listen and white noise and earplugs would have been great!!

October 9, 2010 at 12:31 PM ·

Perhaps your ears were tuned to 440?  I believe they work at a more Baroque frequency...

October 9, 2010 at 01:40 PM ·


October 9, 2010 at 02:03 PM ·

Don: Gee, I must have missed something.  How do I make my intonation corrections while given a few hundred milliseconds per note a la presto ? 

Yes indeed, you did Don - actually the whole point of the topic.

Start at the beginning read to the end, do not pass GO do not collect 200 free E strings :D

Well, at least you are one vote for 'mechanical'...

October 9, 2010 at 02:28 PM ·

"I perhaps do miss the point because I can not imagine any other possibilities.  In fact, I even resort to telling myself  "Put your fingers where the notes are, dummy!"  This always works.

But I have even a more bizarre notion that the clue to hearing and finding notes is NOT only the notes but the chord structure.  I usually have a little buzz going on that helps to fit the note(s) into the prevailing chord(s) and, with a learned mentality about the string intervals, bingo !

I played my violin for my wife while I wore noise ear muffs.  She said there was no difference."

YOU MEAN you didn't even have warm ears?

Of course with certain fast passages you have to follow one finger with another and don't have time to change them, but these are often the easy passages, like a scale (or an arpeggio where you may have time for minute corrections).

"Put your fingers where the notes are, dummy!" often works for me too!

So Elise, you are right to say it can be mechanical where necessary, but ear most of the time.

October 9, 2010 at 03:07 PM ·

The matter of jumping versus sliding to a note came up quite a few times earlier in the thread.

I began learning 3rd and 5th positions when I was only 3 months into lessons, and I took to them quite easily.  The other positions soon followed.  My teacher felt I was ready -- and she was right.  But one of the first things I remember her telling me -- and it's spelled out in Harvey Whistler's Introducing the Positions -- was to shift with the finger that was last down.  Don't jump -- or, as Todd Ehle, aka Professor V, puts it, don't hop.

There are more than a few passages where this can be a real life-saver -- or pitch-saver, if you please.  Jeewon's input, above, made me recall the opening movement of the Sibelius VC, going into the cadenza -- the leap from low B-flat, sul G, to the B-flat 3 octaves above, sul E.  My way with something like this is to slide up from low B-flat sul G to the destination position, using a slight break in bow travel for the slide, then reach over to E string with the new finger.

October 9, 2010 at 03:14 PM ·


Try playing a 1 finger 1 octave scale with no audible feedback (if that is possible).  I suspect the notes wont even be close.  I might try it but not sure if I can figure out a way to remove the audible feedback entirely. If this thread maxes out (e.g., reaches 100 replies), I will edit this post with a recording of myself attempting this feat with and without audible feedback.  It should be interesting. :-)

I agree, it is unfortunate that Karen removed her posts. 


[Edit, after this thread maxed out]

I did an experiment.  I played the following with and without audio feedback.

- 2 octave G major scale starting on open G, first position

- 1 octave D major scale using 1 finger only

- 3 octave D major scale

To remove the audio feedback, I listened to Brahms violin concerto using ear buds, while wearing high quality ear muffs. I really could not hear what I was playing at all and did my best to play in tune.

Playing without hearing

The 2 octave scale was more or less in tune both ways, but as soon as one starts shifting, intonation completely goes to pot without audio feedback.  The interesting thing is without audio feedback, I was even having trouble playing on the correct string.

October 9, 2010 at 03:41 PM ·

S. H. -- looks like I'm # 99; so I'm getting ready for your 1-finger, 1-octave scale.

N. S. -- regarding your input above: I don't think what Havas says would be considered a definition of absolute pitch but simply her statement that, on the violin, there is no such thing as absolute pitch.  I know where she's coming from, although, on this point, I have some disagreement with her, too, if not total disagreement.

I hadn't considered how orchestral playing might enter into the discussion here, since I decided, right around the time I finished school, not to do any more of it myself and have pretty much thought since then only in terms of solo and chamber and unaccompanied playing.  Besides what I've mentioned before on the subject of orchestral playing, I found the noise level in some modern symphonic repertoire nearly intolerable; so I'll leave that field of playing to others.  That's yet another discussion.

Side note: I am a strong champion of A=440.  I can tolerate a diapason of 442 -- no higher -- but not below 440.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
EDIT: Yet another side note on A=440.  Singer Renata Tebaldi, 1922-2004, an artist I very much admire, was emphatic on the matter of orchestral diapason.  Tebaldi said it should not go over 440.

I very much agree with her.  I have had a fair chunk of experience myself in accompanying singers.  If instrumentalists wince at having to ratchet up their tunings to something like 445 or, perish the thought, anything higher -- well, just think of the singers who have to stretch their own instruments to match these high tunings.

October 9, 2010 at 03:50 PM ·

A little of both, I'd say. In slow music one can afford to rely mostly on one's ears, in fast music there is often no time to correct each note separately.

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