using a digital or chromatic tuner to help develop good intonation

September 13, 2011 at 02:52 PM ·

Does anyone use a tuner with their students to help them finger placement and intonation? If so, what tuner do you use? Would this tuner also work for viola/cello/string bass students as well?

Replies (75)

September 13, 2011 at 02:55 PM ·

 No, I don't. I think it's fine to use the chromatic tuner to tune the violin, but beyond that, I like students to tune in to things like ringing tones and intervals to help them play in tune.

September 13, 2011 at 05:05 PM ·

Students should learn to use their ears as early, and as quickly as possible. Its fundamental.  Any mechanical aides simply delay learning one of the most fundamental aspects of a stringed instrument.

September 13, 2011 at 05:35 PM ·

Solfege helps me tremendously!!! I have had two University professors recomend that i sing the tunes in my head while playing passages and it works very well for me. One said that we can usually whistle, "Happy Birthday" in tune. In principle he suggested that I try that when it comes to playing my violin. So to help me sing in tune I began to refamiliarize myself with Solfege from my Choir Days. Now I think when playing a major key Do, Re, Mi... Do, Mi, Sol, Do. or la, do, mi, do, la; for minor keys when reading music and playing my violin. It is a fabulous tool for me and other musicians.

September 13, 2011 at 06:10 PM ·

I teach my students two simple things at the very beginning:

"Do you know Happy Birthday? Play the first four notes." They discover what a whole step sounds like.

"Do you know the shark attack music from Jaws? Play it over and over." The repetition drives home what a half step sounds like, in motion.

From there, we build up intervals..."do re mi" comes when they add two whole steps together. Listening for the sound of a whole step from each note helps them establish a sense of interval distance that is not dependent on a specific starting pitch.

September 13, 2011 at 06:15 PM · member Nate has made a video that discusses that very topic! and I agree with him :)

September 13, 2011 at 06:28 PM ·

Oh no here we go again.

Perhaps it is time to throw in the towel. Give up ral intonatop.  Just ut som frets on all violins from now on,

September 14, 2011 at 06:29 AM ·

September 14, 2011 at 10:03 AM ·

To answer your first question- ABSOLUTELY NOT! When working on poor intonation I use techniques that get the students think before they play. Have them hear the note first ,think of the note first ,then play. That's how you learn to play in tune quickly. Techniques like drones ,tuners ,fingerboard tape and  playing along with teacher are all after thought ways. What I mean buy that is that they are hitting the note wrong first without any thought of the note ,then they  may  tor may not correct it.

This is what you do when working on poor intonation.  Play  the note on the piano ,then get them to sing the note ,then get them to play the note -repeat three times with hand drops(move they left hand to the waist) without the singing or piano. If they play the notes out of tune -correct it. Make sure they don't play along with the piano. It's listen first ,then play.

September 14, 2011 at 10:33 AM ·

 i think it really depends.  for those students that seem to catch on without much difficulty, then going by ear and feel makes sense.  

otherwise, for those without much confidence or access to reasonably good references, those who are significantly pitch challenged, then i don't see why tuners should be avoided, at the beginning stage.

i don't think it is a good way to develop good intonation, but tuner can provide a rough idea, a reasonably reliable starting point, when learning by ear seems too challenging for the moment.

charles above recommends the use of piano, but not tuner.  in what ways are piano different?

whatever makes the student learn to rely on the ear and feel the fastest.  there must be more than one way out there for all!

i think nate did a great demo, but for beginners if they can play at nate's worst as demo-ed, it is quite impressive and not bad at all,,,don't be surprised that many out there at the moment cannot hear the difference between the good and bad demos.

most people have to learn intonation through stages, as brain and ears and music exposure develop and evolve.

perhaps this is yet another example that some people, however talented themselves, are not effective teachers because they do not have the capacity to relate to others. the talented ones can only teach talented one, but not others.

September 14, 2011 at 02:50 PM ·

With the tuner I have it just seems to make more since to use a keyboard. For one thing, to use my tuner in this manner in question, I have to pretty much set my violin down, find the note I want, then pick up the violin, etc., etc., With a keyboard (even a portable) ... I can still key out the note(s) with bow in hand and violin under chin then go back to playing. But if using a tunner does the trick why fix what isn't broke? 

September 14, 2011 at 05:11 PM ·

 The chromatic tuner should be neither excessively praised nor anathematized. In the beginning, what it can do is help the student to develop the skills of listening and adjusting, especially for flat and sharp keys. The tuner can be used to help correct gross intonation error and point them in the right direction, not home in on dead-center pitch. That can only be developed by listening to the violin and learning the overtones of each pitch. People have different sensitivities to this--some get it early and some need more time. I wouldn't totally discount the value of a chromatic tuner (I'm only talking about a tone generator, NOT the needle kind, which is of little value for the above).

September 14, 2011 at 05:31 PM ·

  ‘i think it really depends.  for those students that seem to catch on without much difficulty, then going by ear and feel makes sense.  otherwise, for those without much confidence or access to reasonably good references, those who are significantly pitch challenged, then i don't see why tuners should be avoided, at the beginning stage.’

So how are those that are ‘pitch challenged’ going to improve when they perform on stage if they don’t listen with their ears?

‘i don't think it is a good way to develop good intonation, but tuner can provide a rough idea, a reasonably reliable starting point, when learning by ear seems too challenging for the moment.’

I agree it isn’t a good way to develop intonation.  In my video I demonstrate how it is a good way to develop bad intonation. 

'charles above recommends the use of piano, but not tuner.  in what ways are piano different?'

To my ear a finely tuned piano has better intonation than most electric tuners (and definitely the one I use to get my tuning A).  Piano intonation though isn't perfect either.  A finely tuned piano’s thirds will never be exactly in tune if you listen carefully because pianos are tuned with equal temperament. Electric tuners and pianos temper interval which causes them to sound out of tune and have 'beats’ as I demonstrated in the video. 

Pablo Casals, the great cellist went as far as to say in The Way They Play, Vol. 1 by Samuel and Sada Applebaum, "Do not be afraid to be out of tune with the piano. It is the piano that is out of tune. The piano with its tempered scale is a compromise in intonation."

'whatever makes the student learn to rely on the ear and feel the fastest.  there must be more than one way out there for all!i think nate did a great demo, but for beginners if they can play at nate's worst as demo-ed, it is quite impressive and not bad at all,,,don't be surprised that many out there at the moment cannot hear the difference between the good and bad demos.'

Well I believe it is important especially with intonation and rhythm to stress the fundamentals, and build a good foundation right way.  I agree, there are other ways and opinions in going about teaching intonation, but not all of them are of equal merit or value.  Sure you could let your kids eat McDonald’s and watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians every day, but is that really the same thing as eating a salad and reading a good book?

September 14, 2011 at 05:47 PM ·

 nate, from your replies many will appreciate even more where you are coming from.  for instance, my kid tunes her violin without even using a tuning fork anymore.   it is in her head already.  so i find your demo very helpful to,,,,her.

but for many who are currently going through the stages on mcd and reality shows, without you or a finely tuned piano--still lame-- at their disposal, what you have demonstrated or what my kid does are good to know at best.   they simply cannot relate right now.  but they SHOULD later.  i have never seen a person getting used to using a pair of crutches and continue to use them long after the ankle sprain is healed.  it just does not happen.  

right now means getting those who are tens of cents off to cents off.  right now means there is a big difference between A sharp and A,,,not a small difference.  for many, it may take years and lots of listening to great playing to learn to hear the tiny differences which to you are very very big.

i was not particularly singling you out as an ineffective teacher, although i will do so if you insist that everyone out there for sure can tell that A sharp is definitively higher than A:)

eat your steak.  let others enjoy their burgers.

nate i think you should do more videos.  you have a charming demeanor when you talk into the camera. 


September 14, 2011 at 07:01 PM ·

"i was not particularly singling you out as an ineffective teacher, although i will do so if you insist that everyone out there for sure can tell that A sharp is definitively higher than A:)"

If you can't tell these apart, even as a rank beginner, take up oil painting and sell the fiddle.

September 14, 2011 at 08:06 PM ·

Al , I didn't think of the tuner being used with the audio. It would be a pain and slow going  to use the audio side of  tuner for correcting poor intonation. You are right ,in tune is in tune it doesn't really matter what the source is. I just find that the piano is the easiest to work with and it is a clean natural sound.

I am with Bill on this one, intonation is instinctive and only a few are tone deaf. The rest may have trouble focusing or have learned to play out of tune first.

September 14, 2011 at 08:44 PM ·

 I think Nate is right and I think Al is right too :)  

(for what my opinion is worth LOL)

I wish I had a teacher like Nate or like Buri for example when I first started on the violin (or like the teacher I have right now), but I didn't.....

when I first started on the violin I never touched an instrument in my life, I never studied music in my life, I never sang to the radio, though I sang at heavy metal live gigs when I was drunk in my 'twenties' LOL ;) (if you call that 'music education I don't know LOL)

I started violin at age 37 (am now 41).

I had a very 'lazy' teacher (sorry but he was!) for the first 2 years, he never taught me ANY intonation AT ALL!  he would make me play tunes, if they sounded vaguely like the were supposed to sound then I was doing 'ok'!!! that's it!  somehow I managed to progress to 'asta level 4'!!!  how???

well...when I was home on my own I used the 'tuner', it was 'all I knew', I was never taught anything else!  open strings? intervals? what is that? he never told me of that!

Then I changed teachers and moved to the teacher I have now (breath of fresh air!), finally a teacher who knows how to teach LOL (the one I am with now)

This teacher when he 'adopted me' (poor teacher LOL am glad am not in his shoes) he told me to throw away the tuner (but I have to admit this has been a painful long journey as I was addicted to it by this stage), he taught me and is STILL NOW TEACHING ME about all the stuff re: open strings/intervals and how to go about constantly checking my intonation.  As a result since I've been under his wing since 2 and a half years ago I started learning the 'finer stuff' and my ear has been developing.  Do I still use the tuner?  I have to admit, I still take it out 'at times', but I think I have come along a LONG LONG WAY since I have started learning violin 4 and a half years ago and since I have changed teachers 2 and a half years ago (this teacher now is preparing me for an exam at approx asta level 8...).

Could I have started right from the beginning with no tuner? I think 'I' could have yes, but only with a VERY GOOD teacher like the one I have now, NO LESS, and let's face it, not all teachers are as good and as dedicated, well, maybe because I live in a big town, but here there is many who take 'shortcuts', or maybe they feel they have as people like 'fast results' on the violin and if they don't get the 'fast result' they get frustrated, I am not sure which way around it is.....(ie the teacher not being good or the teacher having to resort to less good teaching methods because he/she feels pressurised).

Anyway.....tuner unfortunately (or fortunately) will always 'slip in' at times ;) can't live with it or without it LOL


ps the tuner I used (and still use now and again is with NO audio, it is an app for the iPhone called 'cleartune' and you can select the 'violin family' option so that it tunes as the violin does for what its worth... or at it least it tries to....LOL)

September 14, 2011 at 08:46 PM ·

Electric tuners are awesome if you use them the correct way.

September 14, 2011 at 09:22 PM ·

 jo, we just have to assume your first teacher worked exclusively on your musicality and forgot about intonation.  :)

you brought up one very plausible reason why people tend to rely on tuners, that, dead serious intonation may not have been stressed from very early on and when these students struggle, no real help is offered. they are always told that they have problems with intonation; some of those may even hear the off pitches, but they have never been put on the right track and guided step by step.  so, unfortunately, the next best thing is the tuner, smaller, more affordable than a piano.

having said that, we do what we can under the circumstances.  if one is tone deaf, hopefully the teacher is not, haha.

September 14, 2011 at 10:32 PM ·

 Sure you could let your kids eat McDonald’s and watchKeeping Up With The Kardashians every day, but is that really the same thing as eating a salad and reading a good book?

Everyone who has every eaten a salad has ended up in the grave.

BTW--what's the name of the Kardashians' book?

September 14, 2011 at 11:05 PM ·

Jo , your first teacher is the standard for teaching  intonation.Yes ,this is the way it's done. The vast majority of students I get from other teachers have never once had there intonation corrected. I would have to guess that they figure you got it or you don't, or it's something you pick up down the road, or they have passive personalities etc.... What ever the reason is, it's a pathetic one. For most students over the age of 11 it takes about to weeks to learn the concept ,then after that we work on being more  consistent. It doesn't take years ,it takes months. With children under 11 it's hit and miss if they get good intonation. They generally have more problems with focusing and coordination.

September 15, 2011 at 02:24 AM ·

This is just like the shoulder rest debate.  There are no absolutes.  IMO, the only people that are dead wrong are those that insist it is one way or another.  The fact is, electronic tuners (like shoulder rests) have their place.  It might work for some, not for others.  I personally DO use a tuner on occasion to check notes -- for example, sight reading contemporary music, notes in the gerbil zone, you have no idea what right or wrong sounds like.  A tuner can be helpful to ensure you are at least hitting the right notes, not necessarily tuning them.  While Nate's video is informative, I would never use a tuner in that fashion.  I just turn it on and watch the needle.

September 15, 2011 at 03:26 AM ·

 'BTW--what's the name of the Kardashians' book?'

I heard it is named How to marry an NBA player for Dummies. :)

September 15, 2011 at 05:42 AM ·

 Charles, that's right, he (first teacher) never once in 2 years corrected my intonation.  Can't recall him ever saying 'that's sharp/that's flat' and as I said, never actually once talked about even simple things like checking against open strings!

I am rather upset regarding many things in the way I was taught in my first two years, this is one of them.  There's no point in 'lingering on' about the past of course, but it's interesting to hear from you that unfortunately this is what many other students encounter....

Also interesting to hear from you that for most students over 11 it would take a matter of months to 'get there'.  Thank you for sharing your experience and opinions.  

I know that I would have preferred to have been taught 'properly' from the start, if I was better informed I would have been able to choose the appropriate teacher, alas I got there eventually, better late than never!

September 15, 2011 at 04:13 PM ·

There are two sides to intonation. 

First, can you HEAR the difference between a note that is in tune and one that is not?  If you slide your finger around, can you find the perfect spot?  Or does everything (within reason) sound equally good?  A violinist develops the ability to discern correct intonation with time.  Part of this is an intangible ability just to hear pitches, and part of it comes down to more mechanical things like internal resonances on the violin or counting "beats" when playing an interval with no vibrato.

Second, can you PLAY the right pitch reliably?  How close do you get to the target?  This should hopefully improve with time too.

These two facets of intonation develop in parallel.  There's little point worrying about the difference between F sharp and G flat if you cannot reliably put your finger anywhere near either one.  And you can't expect your targeting ability to develop if you can't hear the difference.  So in that respect the tuner might help and I think on balance that for a beginner it probably helps more than it hurts.  I'm not a beginner, so when I showed my teacher my new electronic "intonation coach" (that is how it was portrayed in a catalog) he politely suggested that it would not be of much use to me, and he proceeded to spend some of my lesson time teaching me more about how to hear and find the right pitches on my violin.

September 15, 2011 at 04:30 PM ·

 Hi Nate,

I watched your video. Although you're technically correct that using a tuner will not lead to perfect intonation, there are some flaws in your argument. The first is the statement that you can't take the tuner on stage. True enough, but then you can't take your metronome on stage either, and I don't see anyone arguing against those.

The second is the question of your intended audience. The tuner will have limited benefit for some groups, like highly advanced players. The average middle-schooler will probably not even use it even if they have it (they mostly don't use metronomes either). The tuner will benefit conscientious students who have problems with gross intonation errors.

The third flaw the assertion that because it's not a perfect tool it's useless. We know your aversion to shoulder rests (and I would toss mine if I could), but just because one can demonstrate their acoustic detriment with a decibel meter or oscilloscope doesn't mean they don't have a net utility for some people.

A good analogy is the metronome. Many people who start using them voice a common complaint: "it messes me up. I just get frustrated and turn it off." I hear this from adult amateurs all the time. People inexperienced with ensembles also have the same problem: difficulty with simply listening and adjusting to what's going on around them. For many people, the issue of rhythmic perfection is secondary to the skill of simply listening.

 The last flaw in your argument is the comparison with open strings. Fair enough. However, I always teach students to compare against their open strings to begin with. One doesn't need a tuner for that. It's when a student has to grapple with keys like G-flat or F# and gets totally lost in the tonality that the tuner begins to show its value.



September 15, 2011 at 06:46 PM ·

It's always a bit of a bummer for me to hear players talk about intonation, because very few of them understand it, intellectually, though they may play perfectly in tune. The bottom line and the connundrum for piano, is that no note has any absolute value: all pitches need to be adjusted to their context. Pianos don't do this, and tuners don't do it.

On top of this is that the best sounding, theoretical intervals are uneven and don't fall on the equally spaced notes. For instance, if you tune your violin to a piano, the notes will be closer together because the actual ratio of frequencies that makes a fifth is wider than the piano (or tuner). If you had an eight octave violin, with strings every fifth, if you tuned them to "beautiful" mathematic intervals, by the time you'd tuned the entire circle of fifths up to the note you started with, you'd find yourself a note sharp!

The concept of piano tuning is that every note is out of tune equally with every other, based on a mathematically divided scale, not an auditory one. But if you play a C at the low end with a C at the high end, you'll see that they are nowhere near each other. That's because the octaves are tuned by tuning the first harmonic of the low note (which is always sharp of the theoretical double of the frequency of the lower note) so that the two identical frequencies don't beat with each other (that is A may be 440 with a first harmonic of 880.2; to sound right the A above it gets tuned to 880.2, not 880, and so on up the board). The result is a gradual spreading of the notes along the keyboard, which is NOT the same problem as the problem of fifths in the previous paragraph, but has to do with a defect in real piano strings compared with theoretical ones. From there, the in between notes are placed as by with dividers, equal distances apart, without reference to their true pitches. Every third on the piano, all of them imperfect, should beat about 3 beats per second. Fifths (false) have their own beat rate as to all the other intervals. Where a piano plays the chord as hammered, imperfectly, in an orchestra or quartet, all of the players adjust their notes to play the perfect theoretical intervals--the ones that sound so good together, not the piano interval. This means that the G in a CEG C chord will have a different pitch from a G in a GBD G chord. This type of adjustment is why, for instance, the Emerson Quartet sounds so darned LUSH and the Bozo Quartet doesn't when they play the same piece.: Emerson has every single note and interval figured out.

That said, I'm sure that most people are familiar with the concept that B as the seventh note in a rising C scale is not the same note as B as the second note in a falling C scale, but haven't given much thought as to what this means when playing with other instruments, a piano or a tuner.

Bottom line: play with a tuner (or match a piano), you will always be playing out of tune, because it never measures your note in the context of the music and the other musicians. And LEARN with a tuner, you will learn exactly what the tuner teaches you and not a bit more: how to play out of tune at the wrong pitches the tuner trains you to use. That's how learning works.

September 15, 2011 at 09:24 PM ·


The explanation of how pianos are tuned is all very interesting, but I don't buy the argument that by practicing with a tuner one will memorize those pitches. I'm also not sure the Emerson plays better in tune because they've figured out every interval--I think it's more that they are able to listen and adjust.

We all have to match pitches in a variety of situations such as with our stand partner, or a bass section, and more often as not, the pitches we have to hit will not be in perfect tune with our own violins. But whether they're in tune with our fiddles is not the point--the point is that we are able to listen and quickly match. We've all had to play in situations where our new strings went out of tune, and of course and experienced player can adjust.

Nate described the problem of matching the tuner's c# with the fiddle's A. Yet what if we have to match with someone else's version of A? What is then required is not just the certainty of the c# on one's own instrument, but the ability to adjust accordingly. Both skills are required, and I think that tuners can help with flexibility.


ps you forgot to mention that the piano tuning drifts by the 12 root of 2.

September 16, 2011 at 05:26 AM ·

September 16, 2011 at 08:00 AM ·

 "Does anyone use a tuner with their students to help them finger placement and intonation?"

A teacher who relies on a tuner to tell students if they're playing in tune should quit teaching immediately and seek further training if they wish to be a teacher. I knew of a teacher who relied on a piano to teach intonation as well and my question to her was "why use a piano? Isn't it a violin lesson"? I would never study with or recommend any teacher who didn't have a well developed ear themselves.

September 16, 2011 at 09:04 AM ·


  "A violinist develops the ability to discern correct intonation with time."

Paul this statement is a myth. I think alot people believe this to be true, but I've seen the contrary.

September 16, 2011 at 11:25 AM ·

 charles, let me tell you about me and my kid. she seems to be "tuned" in from the very beginning.  she has the ability to tell pitches apart-when she wants to-without much coaching or coaxing.  

when i want to, i cannot.  but with time and exposure to her playing and listening to others', my intonation appreciation has improved.

this discussion on intonation is not unlike your thread on musicality in that some people seem to have more latent potential which can be triggered more readily, whereas others struggle and need more time and exposure.

we are "natural" in some things and not that "natural" in others, a fact of life.

September 16, 2011 at 11:43 AM ·

  I'm also not sure the Emerson plays better in tune because they've figured out every interval--I think it's more that they are able to listen and adjust.

Scott, I don't know about the quartet rehearsals you've seen, but the ones I've been to, quartets sit and discuss these things, shifting around until they get what they hear, and then noting that down. That's how good things happen: by good planning. Imagine getting to a note, everyone instinctively deciding to correct, and ending up in an entirely different place, also bad, every time through. 

The best piano tuners, by the way, still tune by ear, not by theory, and won't use machines.

September 16, 2011 at 04:41 PM ·

Al in my experience it's more about being able to focus on intonation then having to learn intonation. If I was to listen to some play a piece I've never ed heard before on youtube, at first I may or may not recognize poor intonation. If I went and learn the piece ,then played the recording I would than  hear all of the poorly played notes.

September 16, 2011 at 04:48 PM ·


The iportance of "tone deanessf" cannot be underestimated in vioin playing. Some people really should stick to piano or accordion.

September 16, 2011 at 05:39 PM ·

coming from an english as a secondary language user, i am not sure if new england english is in finer form than new foundland english.   here is a gem:  "The iportance of "tone deanessf"..:)

alright, charles.  i tend to agree with the phenom that you have described and i will add to it.  i often videotape my kid's playing.   i just reviewed some of her earlier entries and i found them difficult to listen to because of gut wrenching intonation problems (among other issues,,hmm..musicality?). when i first uploaded them, i was under the impression there were all perfect.  ok i am lying.

i knew there were problems, but not these many!!!

this past summer, i taped a practice and thought it was okay.  just now when i reviewed it, i found it littered with intonation slips.  am i really developing golden ears?

for the sake of art and science, i jotted down some funny sounding areas, 

at: .06, .10, .34, 1:08, 1:37, 1:56, and 2:04-05...then i had enough.

in conclusion, careful listening leads to misery.  

September 16, 2011 at 05:57 PM ·

enw eglsen englesp is finr;


You found different spots than me,


I found :19, :34-35,  :42, The run at ca. :55.  1:21, 1:24.  I agree with the run leading up to but not past 1:37 needing some smoothing.


These particular points are all part of a whole. More ntable is that her double stops are still not quite "perfet".  Of course she "gets it" totally. This child does not need help. Realy. She gets it.


%$@# I just posted something nice to your gotube channrl but myrfroereafdsg3q5434 laptop stupd buttons backed me out and destroyd it.



September 16, 2011 at 06:23 PM ·

Ya got to fire that pianist , he wasn't able to keep up with her at all.

September 16, 2011 at 06:36 PM ·

 bill, i have to defer to you since i don't know the music and only react by ear, a whimsical practice at best.  once in a while we would argue over intonation.  she asked to explain why, the best i could come up with is: it sounded iffy and that is why:)  quite primitive and barbarian like...

charles, that pianist played smart so the violinist would take the fall,,,

September 16, 2011 at 07:01 PM ·

An important thing to know about intonation is when to stop criticizing and to begin enjoying the music. As always, I enjoyed your daughter's performance.

September 16, 2011 at 08:33 PM ·

Key word in Micahel Pijoan's post is "rely."  That signifies a critch.  I use a tuner for a couple specific purposes and I actually do believe that those purposes help develop my students' ears.  I use the tone-generator almost exclusively, not the needle.

1) A constant for open A; then we tune by 5ths.  I don't think anybody's really arguing with that one so I'll move on, except to say that one of my fun moments in teaching is when my students realize that their ears have started to learn open A and they can identify it accurately even without the reference--though we continue to use the tuner to keep it that way!  (amazing what an out-of-tune piano can do to your sense of absolute pitch...)  

2) A reference for tonality.  Actually, I think this accomplishes a similar purpose though with a differnt twist than the ringing notes, which I also use--and it's been discussed before on this board but not on this thread.  Whenever my students are struggling either to hear in-tune, I'll put the tuner on the tonic and ask them to tune every note into it.  This addresses Michael Darnton's comments about tuning into the tonality.  As we get more advanced we'll actually talk about the contrast we discover between major and minor, or the size of thirds and half steps, etc.  but just as an aural exercise I have found this is FABULOUS for developing that sense of intonation.

By the way, I also use that exercise when I have a student who can hear the intonation, but is running into technical challenges that aren't allowing him/her to concentrate on it, such as my student right now whose tiny hands just hate reaching into 5th position :) As her fingers are still getting used to the technique of it, they often slide out of place and she eventually loses her sense of pitch even though she's got quite well-developed intonation.  Solution: Tuner!  Gives a pitch constant so she can focus on developing the tactile skills more easily. 

Of course, I'm also one of the people that uses finger tapes as an aid  to intonation.  Gives their little fingers something to aim for so they're consistently landing in the ballpark while we're concentrating on all those fine motor skills--young kids work well with concrete!  But the key word is "aid":  We are continually doing singing gamess, listening games, playing with eyes closed on easy stuff, and the tapes pretty much hold the fuction of not messing up their intonation while they're still acquiring the motor skills to be consistent in their finger placement.  It's really as much of a motor tool as anything.  But that's a discussion for another day  :) 

September 16, 2011 at 09:51 PM ·


>iportance of "tone deanessf"

is this the latest gadget fro Steve jobs?



September 16, 2011 at 11:37 PM ·






September 17, 2011 at 12:08 AM ·

 One of the best ways to develop one's ear is to take an Aural Skills class. Aural Skills is a staple of music major courses in most universities and it's great for string players. When I was required to take this class I thought of it as "just another one of those required courses that cuts into my practice time" but afterward I realized how much I benefited from it. Basically it's the study of theory with no paperwork, all auditory and it's great for fingerboard navigation. I consider it one of the most valuable classes I ever took, especially as a string player.

September 17, 2011 at 01:27 AM ·

September 17, 2011 at 05:03 AM ·


You're right of course about aural skills--I've taught it many times at the college level. However, the ironic thing is that string player generally need it the least. It's all those voice, guitar, and percussion majors that really need it....


September 17, 2011 at 08:40 AM ·

Yes Eric, it's all about intervals, scales and chords basically. There's not any information about fingerings (well, there wasn't in the class I took, because it was open to singers and everyone else, as Scott pointed out). A lot of it was singing (on sight) solfege exercises that were studies in intervals. I didn't enjoy that part because I hated my voice and I didn't like solfege, but I stuck it out and it did make my ear more discerning. It saves time in practicing when I can quickly pick out which notes need correcting and how much, rather than having to slowly pick it all apart just to figure out which notes are making me sound out of tune. I'm not saying by any means that I don't have to practice slowly (boy do I ever!), but being more critical makes the correction of intonation more efficient for me.

Yes Scott, I do agree that the string players all seemed to have a clear advantage in the class over the other students, however it still was really helpful to me. I think of all the required courses that weren't violin-specific (like studio class, lessons and orchestra) it was the one class that I think directly correlated to my playing.


September 18, 2011 at 06:39 PM ·

 Al Ku, thanks for your comments.  I am in the "use a tuner sparingly" camp.  

One use that I have seen for it that I haven't seen mentioned here is to avoid arguments.  I have gotten into arguments with my daughter when I point out that such and such a note that she is playing is out of tune.  She will deny it.  "No it's not!  It sounds fine to me!"  (This happened to us last night).  

I don't know why she is denying it and arguing with me.  (She's a middle schooler, which goes a long way towards explaining things, I know).  Maybe she is just doing it to get my goat, but I don't think so because she will have repeated the same error several times before I point it out.  Maybe she knows that my ear for pitch is not really that great, and thinks I could be wrong (it has happened).  But if we get out the tuner and it backs me up and shows her yes, that note really is flat, it wasn't just crazy mommy complaining again, then she believes me and stops arguing, and she's willing to correct her mistake.  It takes the issue out of the realm of my word vs hers.

She takes correction better from her teacher than she does from me, but she only sees her teacher once a week.  From hard personal experience, I know what a pain it is to practice something out of tune for the entire week between lessons, learn it and get it in your ear that way, and then have to spend the next week unlearning it and relearning it after your teacher corrects it.  I think a little tuner use in the middle of the week when the teacher isn't there can save a lot of wasted time and effort.

September 19, 2011 at 03:35 PM ·

Please excuse my ignorance, but I truly wonder something! I see a long discussion on the dangers of using tuners, the importance of developing intonation for perfect tuning, that pianos are false, etc.

But I was thinking: if you play as a soloist with piano, after all it will just sound false relative to the piano if you are using perfect tuning (instead of the equal tuning).  As most of us will be playing with piano when soloists on the performance (and not alone), why cant we just use tuners and learn how to sound clean relative to the piano? This can be helped by a tuner.

Its better to play relatively clean than to play just clean...

September 19, 2011 at 04:32 PM ·

I think you want to play in tune with yourself more than you want to play in tune with the piano.  The internal resonances on the violin are so much stronger than any slight disagreement with what the piano is playing.  Of course you should line up your "A" note with theirs.  But after writing that, I pondered the following question:  If you are playing a piece in D major with the piano, should you first tune the D string, and not the A?

One thing that has been bothering me is the "difference between f sharp and g flat."   I keep reading in multiple posts that a particular note's pitch might need to be slightly adjusted depending on its context (as a leading tone, passing tone, or in a double stop, etc.).  That complexity seems to drive some folks away from the scientific approach to intonation.  As a scientist, though, it just makes the problem more interesting.  Why shouldn't we at least attempt to establish the exact correct frequency for every pitch, not just as a single note played by itself, but in a variety of the most common musical contexts?  I think a reasonable place to start would be isolated double stops.

I will begin with a musical question.  If a note's pitch is adjusted from its pitch as an isolated note, in order to be incorporated into a double stop, how does determine which of the two pitches should be adjusted?

September 19, 2011 at 04:54 PM ·

Here is my take on it:

Double-stops: the adjustment keeps the tonal center the same. In other words it fits in with the key, what preceded or what follows. One of the two notes in a double-stop is more tonally centered, the other isn't.  What is right comes clear from the experience of playing.

Piano versus Violin:

I think the best most concise discussion of this can be found at Kurt Sassmannshuss' (spelling) site He suggests that you meet the piano when there is a sustained piano note (ans especially if it is melodic) whereas you don't need to do this when the piano is playing chords.

Also note that the piano 5th is really really close to a perfect (as is the 4th). Same goes for the whole step. It is the 3rds, and their relatives the 6ths, and the semitones which are most different. And these of course are the ones most subject to interpretation anyway. These are the ones that are really different in other traditions such as maqam. Everyone seems to keep the 4th/5th pure or nearly so (for obvious acoustical reasons).

September 19, 2011 at 06:22 PM ·

Dear Paul,

I appreciate your attempt to take it from a scientific point of view - to find the exact adjustment of frequencies. But I would like to point out the following: have you heard about the Pythagorean comma? If you go up 12 quints, you end up almost a quarter of the half-tone above 7 perfect octavas. Who decides, which of these progressions should be taken as the relevant one? In my opinion, if you strictly keep perfect tuning, you finish in a desperately false relation to an equally tempered instrument. In science we call it error propagation :)

And why orchestras tune their A = 440Hz, if the piece is in other key? Good question! Because perfect tuning lacks sense also for winds.

Now tell me, how are you going to approach a dodecaphonic music of Schoenberg, where every of the twelve tones in a chromatic scale is used equally often? With perfect tuning?

Leave perfect tuning for "harmonically simple" music, pieces where a key does not deviate much from the basic key too far. Bach, Mozart, etc. - still, only selected pieces by them. And preferably, where you have no equally tempered accompaniment...


September 19, 2011 at 08:14 PM ·

My point is this ; We can't teach intonation ,but we can teach the concept of intonation which is to listen first then play. We are unable to learn temperaments ,but we are able to follow them, only if we listen. Our mind has it's own idea of what in tune is, we just need to learn to  listen to it.


September 19, 2011 at 08:31 PM ·

Me personally i use a snark.  Nice little piece o equipment.  I also have tuners on my ipod that emit the sound for you to hear and then match.  Personally and with my student, i prefer matching the pitch.  With digital tuners there is too much interference.  Pluss its an added bonus for you if you can learn to just match the pitch.  It's more professional that way.

September 19, 2011 at 09:53 PM ·

We have a 'tuner' in our head, but it must be 'calibrated' by training the 'inner ear'. 

Listening is a direct channel to the 'inner ear'......

Watching diminishes the focus on listening.......

September 19, 2011 at 10:58 PM ·

My next funny discovery with this thread:

within a string quartet, all members must match up their intonation, there it is important to be clean relative each other.

but with piano accompaniment or chamber music, it is not important to be clean (relative piano) since piano is such a false instrument.

what a discrimination! and quite useless: no matter how cleanly with perfect tuning a soloist plays, but if he does it with equal tuned accompaniment, the soloist always sounds disturbingly false. The result will be a self-blown and content soloist with a false playing :)

How quicker would kids learn to play if they rather used Sibelius to correct intonation in complete pieces of music real time while playing, its even more efficient than a tuner! (and it would sound nice)

September 19, 2011 at 11:25 PM ·


>but with piano accompaniment or chamber music, it is not important to be clean (relative piano) since piano is such a false instrument.


Mmm,  respectfully disagree a little here.   One has to bew willing to play both in tune with the paino and out of tune with the piano.   For example,  the opening of the opning  of the Mozart e minor sonata sounds terrible if the violnist is unwilling to compromise  becaus eof some belief thta his/her intonation is more virtuous. later on oin the sonata things are veyr differnet...



September 19, 2011 at 11:47 PM ·

In short, make it sound good, you have the freedom to do that with a fiddle. The pianist can't do anythign about it.

September 20, 2011 at 12:37 AM ·

Let's consider the following thought experiment.  First, start with A = 440 and perfect-fifth tuning of the instrument.  I realize one can argue about that also, but we need a starting point.  Now play a two-octave G-major scale in thirds, with ideal intonation.  What are the frequencies of each pitch?  Is this not a reasonable question to ask?  My point is that if the frequency of each pitch can be written down, then presumably a precise tuner could be used to tell the violinist whether or not he or she was playing this one scale correctly.  (Yes I know they don't work so well with double stops, but that's a purely technical problem.  Remember this is a thought experiment.)

Extrapolating, we would arrive at a point where we could take a piece like a Bach Partita, and analyze it note-by-note, start to finish, using a unified theory of intonation to determine the correct frequency for each pitch a priori, before even taking the violin out of it's case.  Do we know enough about intonation to do that?  Granted the list of rules for making small adjustments might be very long, but that shouldn't stop us.  Or is the problem intractable -- are there still too many subjective choices?

September 20, 2011 at 01:05 AM ·

You can do that easily--with computer and MIDI.  But that's not what violin is about...

September 22, 2011 at 04:51 AM ·

The scientific question isn't whether we can play the bach perfectly .. it's whether we can develop the necessary underpinning theory of intonation to do so.

September 22, 2011 at 11:50 AM ·

The scientific theory is completely unnecessary. It is des ription after the fact. Of course it is interesting, and kind of fun...but I cannot see that the scientific understanding of hrmony is of any real value to understandng and being able to play Bach well. Why?  Because you can hear it anyway...and what sound god, is good...regardless of what the "numbers" say...what do you think?

September 23, 2011 at 01:05 AM ·

The 'tuner' is a contraption of convenience for those who don't have the time to learn how to tune thier instruments. It compromises the intervals on fixed pitched instruments to allow the instrument to sound near enough in tune in all keys. But there is not any compromise on the fiddle because all the pitches can be adjusted to sound purely in-tune.

Using 'the tuner' to learn to play in-tune is very much like painting by numbers........

The shades never seem to be quite right and the colours always never blend. Through this numbers proccess one maybe able to paint 'something  like'. But do have the freedom of 'choice' gained through self criticism and analysis?

September 23, 2011 at 07:39 AM ·


Paul,  the answer is not because 1) certan notes of the scale are subject to individual inteprretation of what is in tune,  2)  violins have slightly different intonation to get maximum resonance,  and 3)  intonation is also related to speed of the music and 4)  the period in which it was written.

Art has never been subject to unification theory except in regard to prunes,



September 23, 2011 at 08:22 AM ·

You see, the only scientific way of playing is equal tempered :)

September 23, 2011 at 10:12 AM ·

 Not so.

The best way is bad-tempered.



February 16, 2012 at 11:04 PM · A tuner can be of great value if a violinist is working on some thing in a odd tuning. For example, in Montreal lots of ancient music ensembles choose tunings not only at 415, but at 414, 412, 418, 444 ext. depending on style and the length of the pipe organs. I practice once with my tuner to make sure the subtlties will come through.(people with perfect pitch struggle with this)

If ever I get to play in different venues of groups I bring a tuner to note exactly what the tuning note will be or check the baroque flute player.

Also I work with a tuner if in scordatura, like bibers rosary sonatas. Things like that really bother students, especially if it involves the D and A string.

My teachers never recomended this but I enjoy doing it sometimes and it hasn't hurt my playing.

February 18, 2012 at 10:30 PM · Consider using an app called Cleartune. It has a just temperament option (and many other temperaments) They key of the temperament can be selected as well as the pitch of A. Unfortunately the temperaments don't snap to A 440 but you can calculate and create your own temperament that does. This is a very helpful tool for tuning double stops and practicing extended passages in a single key. Unfortunately no tuner can modulate with you. It takes a good deal of theory to play in just intonation in modulating music so it isn't something that yields to a tuner.

February 19, 2012 at 01:15 AM · The best method I know of for training the ear, whether you are a student or a teacher, is going through the first several chapters of WA Mathieus wonderful book "harmonic experience." It's a theory/composition manual which uses just intonation as its basis. The first several chapters are exercises in singing (can be played as well, or both) with a drone.

The first 30% of great intonation is cultivating extreme sensitivity to the relativity of pitch. Anybody can cultivate this sensitivity - the ability to hear these things is a part of our physical make-up.

The other 70% is enforcing that muscle memory in a variety of different situations.

February 19, 2012 at 02:27 AM · In the case of the violin, I'd say that at least 80% is the ability to cause the instrument to resonate on notes related to the open string. It's not simply a matter of just intervals in this case. The fist thing that beginners have to learn is how to nail the 3rd finger so that the violin gives an open, resonant sound.

February 19, 2012 at 06:26 AM ·

February 19, 2012 at 01:39 PM · How many of these resonances do you find in the key of D flat? Even in keys with open strings no more than two of the fifths (open strings) will be perfectly in tune in just intonation so aiming for resonance may make you out of tune.

February 19, 2012 at 03:00 PM · Actually I think you are supposed to hear this without any help; simply listening to classical music definately helps my hearing.

One question though: I cannot tune the open a string of my violin without a device, simply because I do not have any point of reference. When I have the a, tuning the other strings and finally playing in tune is no problem at all.

But how do I hear when the open a string is perfectly in tune, without any device?

February 19, 2012 at 08:11 PM · Corwin,

You're right--in the case of flats and sharps the instrument resonates less. However, each flatted/sharped note still has its own special resonance that one can learn. It's more subtle. I can even hear from various students' instruments when a flat note is out of tune, not from the interval with anything else but from a 6th sense about how the note is resonating. Intervals are still important, but one has to triangulate, the objective interval versus the resonance.

Kristian, it is difficult to tune to a perfect A=440 without a tuner. to do that consistently, you need perfect pitch.

It's why I'm not anti-drone: in the beginning, before the student learns this subtle resonance of flat notes, they need something to put them in the ballpark.

February 20, 2012 at 03:22 AM · I am not disagreeing with you Scott but intonation does need a solid intellectual foundation. An App like Cleartune with the ability to tune and play pitches in just and Pythagorean intonation is no panacea but it can help reinforce and teach the sound of pure intervals. An in tune Dflat does have a resonance that is audible.

February 20, 2012 at 05:31 AM · There is an excellent video where David Finckel demonstrates how to find notes on the cello:

Cello Talk - David Finckel

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