Intonation for the Musically Challenged.

November 27, 2011 at 11:25 PM · Good evening everybody,

I'm a longtime lurker and first time poster to the community here. I finally took the plunge ahead and just registered an account. I'm a twenty-one year old college student who has recently picked up learning the violin back in February.I'm still very green to the violin, and have absolutely no musical background or knowledge beforehand, so please forgive me for saying anything stupid or outrageous.

I've recently come into a wall, and it feels like I've been in a rut for the past month or so now. What's been troubling me is intonation. I've looked at a couple of other threads here about it and the (great) advice given there, but my brain just doesn't quite understand the concept, so I wanted to ask it personally myself in an attempt to understand better.

As of late, my teacher has been emphasizing on intonation more than usual, and not letting me slide like he used to. In the middle of scales or practicing a new piece, he'll stop me if I'm not within a hair of a centimeter on the note and adjust it accordingly. I usually have no problems with this and try to enforce it through repetition throughout the lesson and when I get home, but I still seem to have some issues with it. My teacher has told me to "test the waters" by playing a note too flat and too sharp, and listening very carefully for the correct pitch. To me, this doesn't make much sense. What good is listening for something when you don't know what it is you're listening for.

My question is how do you practice for intonation exactly? For that matter, what if you have been practicing the note wrong all this time? Then you would be trying to listen for the wrong note. For somebody who is completely new to the world of music, are there any guides at all anywhere to help you through this endeavor other than trying to hit a target in the dark? I take weekly lessons, but that hour each week seems to fly by without me ever having accomplish anything, so I'm hoping it's something I'll be able to do on my own.

I'm very sorry if this doesn't make sense or just seems to be completely obvious. I just don't really understand it...

Thank you very much for your help!


Replies (26)

November 28, 2011 at 01:07 AM · Hi David,

I recently began to teach a friend of mine and introduced her the "sliding" technique like your teacher did but it wasn't effective. Now I know why:)

What you need now is ear-training and learn to distinguish what is right and wrong. When your violin is properly tuned, you are able to check certain notes regardless how "faulty" your ears might have became. You need to get check frequently and get solid at the following notes:

1. Play 3rd finger on D string; Check it with Open G, they should sound the same.

2. 3rd Finger on A string; check it with Open D

3. 3rd Finger on E string; check it with open A

Once you have somewhat mastered these 3 fingers, you can learn more reference notes at the 1st position:

1. 1st finger on D string with open E

2. 1st finger on G string with open A

3. Low 2nd finger on E string (G natural) with open G

Note that I did not include 4th finger checking because I don't want to overload you with too much information. There are also more intonation checking techniques like perfect fourth double stops but I believe your teacher will teach you those when you are ready.

November 28, 2011 at 01:52 AM · Hi Nick,

Thank you for your advice!

I actually tune my violin myself through double stops using a reference 440Hz A on my tuner. For the most part, I don't have trouble with notes that have a very loud resonance such as third finger on all strings; in fact, the G on the D string is my favorite note of all because of how resonant it is when you hit the mark. I use that as a reference in order to get my hand in the correct position. I can do the same for fourth finger as well (although not to the same accuracy as third finger.)

Although I say I can hit those notes (most of the time), I have a little problem with the E and G strings in particular. I rarely ever use the E string, so the loud and bright tone of it makes it hard for my untrained ears to fully hear what it is I'm listening for, minus the G and A notes on that particular string (they cause the other strings to resonant too, so it makes it a little easier). I can get pretty close to the correct note, but I think my teacher won't let that slide anymore, and wants me to hit the exact same note every time.

My main issue is pretty much any note that doesn't have an open string, C natural being my hardest note to get. I'm currently learning a piece in B?major, so my teacher is emphasizing accuracy on the C specifically. While I'm able to play E flat, F natural, and G on the D string with a good amount of accuracy, I'm unable to do the same on the A string. I notice that as you get to the higher strings, where the notes are are a little higher up than on the previous string though. (Does this make sense? It makes sense in my head...)

I'll definitely try the first finger notes with the open strings to improve my accuracy though.


November 28, 2011 at 02:35 AM · Hi David,

The notes you mentioned are indeed more difficult to tune than others.

Have you tried recording yourself on tape? You can try to record a passage involving C natural several times: One with a really low C and one with a sharper C. Then, play it back and see which one sounded more in-tune. We can often hear it better when we are not playing.

November 28, 2011 at 03:16 AM · Hi Nick,

Are there any recording devices out there that you would recommend? As a poor college student, I can't go splurging on a very expensive recording device, so a cheap one that works decently is good enough for me.

November 28, 2011 at 03:27 AM · To be honest with you, the best recording device is your laptop if you have one near your practice place. Google audacity; it's a free sound recording/editing software.

I've purchased a mp3 recording device for about $50 but it was not worth it. The biggest problem is playing back. With your laptop, you can choose to fast-forward or slow down to a particular passage and analyze it. With a portable recorder, you have to listen to the entire thing.

Do you have a smartphone? If you do, they are excellent recording devices as well.

November 28, 2011 at 03:56 AM · I practice in my own room, so I have my computer in here. I've heard of Audacity before, but have heard that it was used only to auto-tune singing and the like; I didn't know that it recorded stuff. On that note, however, I don't have a mic. Is there one you can suggest in that department then? :)

I have an iPhone 4. The camera quality is fairly good for pictures, but I didn't think about it for actual music recording. Should I just use the built-in video recorder, or is there an app you (again) would suggest?

Sorry that I'm so clueless about this sort of stuff, but I really appreciate your help.

November 28, 2011 at 04:14 AM · David,

I am not a teacher, but the one who teaches me has been teaching longer than most around here have been breathing. I shall repeat his advise ~ SING. Sing each piece in tune before you attemp to play it. Also, google "Audiation Assistant". Lastly, it seems that we all struggle with intonation throughout our entire playing experience.

After a year or so of lessons, I/ we concentrated on musicianship more than anything else for the next three years or so. As your listening skills deepen, so will your critical evaluation of your music. The trick is to enjoy the journey.

November 28, 2011 at 04:36 AM · C is a very sophisticated note to play in tune. If it's high it works well with the E string, if it's low it works well with the G string and you constantly have to adjust based on what key you're in, the register, what ensemble you're playing with, etc. I've had somebody tell me to always play it low in orchestra to match the bass section and of course you have to tune your instruments differently in string quartets because of the C string on he cellos and violas (C and G higher, E lower), etc

There is a book I worked through and enjoyed on intonation by somebody named Ross. It is a little too intellectual, but it teaches you to hear for resonance and to choose tuning systems by making you play chromatic scales in a certain key with a certain tuning system/harmonic underpinning in mind. I don't know if it's still in print...

Other great intonation tools are double stop exercises and Rode caprices.

November 28, 2011 at 05:08 AM · I don't think Rode just yet...

November 28, 2011 at 05:30 AM · @J Brunson

"I am not a teacher, but the one who teaches me has been teaching longer than most around here have been breathing. I shall repeat his advise ~ SING. Sing each piece in tune before you attemp to play it."

I remember reading something on this website I believe awhile back about someone training their ears in a class setting by listening to a note, then humming/singing it awhile later to make sure that they remember it or something to that effect. I'm very shy about this (I have a hard time just singing "ta" out of tune with my teacher while working on rhythm and prefer to clap it out), but I wouldn't mind doing it on my own. My main concern is just singing an E when I should be singing a B... :)


I don't think I'll ever get to the level of being able to play in an ensemble or quartet unfortunately...

My teacher and I haven't gotten around to chromatic scales. Doing a little research, I see it's a twelve pitch scale using half-steps? Is that correct?

Could you elaborate more on the double stop exercises?

November 28, 2011 at 10:19 AM · Hi David,

Any cheap computer microphone (<$20) will do. Since you have a iPhone, it's a good idea to use it because it has a decent mike. To record, you can use the "Voice Memo" app built-in your iPhone.

Do you know about It has a good section about intonation. Check under the "Pythagorean System".

Violin Master class

I believe it shows how to check for perfect 4th double stops on 1st on G, D, A.

The last way is to play with a drone. Playing with a drone means you play a certain pitch using your computer and play your scale while the speaker is playing the pitch in the background.

Check out this instruction by Fiddlerman:

How to use Drones

November 28, 2011 at 10:41 AM · The chromatic scale is all half steps until you get back to the pitch you started on. Depending on how you're thinking of harmonizing the pitches or if you just want them to be expressive you will tune them differently and the Ross book has it worked out so you play two notes at a time or listen to resonance to make you hear how this works.

As for double stops it's playing two notes at a time. If you listen carefully double stops can have more clues as to if you are in tune or not than just one note, but it requires a teacher or a treatise to help you start hearing them.

November 28, 2011 at 11:08 AM · You have to bear in mind that ear training for intonation takes quite a while to perfect. Whilst some can do it in a reatively short time a lot of people take years. The worst thing you can do is play in an orchestra where the tuning is bad.

Some years ago I went to hear a session by an amateur orchestra made up of "late starters" and the pitch was so undeterminable that I had to leave and never went back to hear them again.

Also when playing with others some adjustment or compromise is necessary, even if they have good intonation. String and tuned instruments intonation is nothing like a piano, or a computer, or anything that has been tuned as a compromise.

November 28, 2011 at 11:15 AM · David

I'm not a teacher - just a beginner like you.

But I strongly endorse the idea of singing the piece till you can hit the notes accurately. I'm told my intonation is pretty decent for my level, and I would put that down to my training as a singer. Until you can hear reliably if the note is in or out of tune, your intonation can never improve.

Once you can hear it accurately in your "mind's ear", the next step is to listen intently to what you are actually playing. Fisher points out that many people listen lazily, and he urges us to listen to the whole instrument, including the overtones and resonances. Once you start doing this, you'll find that an in-tune note has a richer quality of sound that an out of tune note - it chimes with the overall "ring" set up by the key you are playing in. It's hard to explain, but it just feels "right". An out of tune note disrupts the ring of the instrument and feels wrong.

What I've found is that once you are visualising the right note before you play it, and listening intently once you do play it, the fingers themselves will begin to find their way to the right pitch more reliably.

I suspect that listening is much more important than rote left hand drilling. I picked up a viola for the first time a few weeks ago, and was surprised to find that within a couple of minutes I was playing in tune, even though the spacing was unfamiliar. This seems to support my theory that the fingers will find their way to the note if you visualise it clearly and listen intently to the result.

I'd be interested in feedback from experienced teachers - does this make sense to you?

November 28, 2011 at 11:57 AM · as some have pointed out, intonation learning takes time and with time it improves, from caveman, to man, to musician, to fine musician. singing may help if one is able to appreciate good vs not good, aka knowing what one is singing and knowing what one is listening to, but for someone who currently does not have a good sense of good vs not good, it may or may not work. besides, some, like me, are simply lousy singers and therefore better off spending more time and attention listening to recordings (of great players) frequently and extensively, and really slow down on your own violin, without pre- or current judgement of your own level, anxiety or fear of not being able to tell the pitches apart, to simply listen, listen, listen...move your finger a little and listen, listen, listen... being too judgmental interferes with learning to be musical.

so how to get better faster? sometimes it is important to first accept that you can't rush it and then accept that you can get better slower. once you accept it--learning at your own pace--you may find that all of a sudden your ears become more ready to absorb the information. the eagerness to improve more rapidly more often than not serves as an obstacle.

to me intonation for a violin player has at least 2 major parts.

1. can you hear it in your head before you hear the sound?

2. can you play it correctly on the violin after hearing it first in your head?

just reading someone's inquiry does not tell where the person is at. at some point it is important to make the distinction since the latter is more about violin technique and the former much more fundamental.

i will try this exercise:

find an electric tuner and play a pitch--the more randomly done the better-- for couple seconds, shut off the tuner, try to "remember" this pitch, "sing" it if you wish, and then go play on your violin to find it. here you are not trying to rely on your e tuner, but to assess how capable you are in remembering a pitch in your head and then reproducing the pitch by singing or humming it and then playing it out on the violin. this process can be as diagnostic as it is therapeutic.

another simple one that i can think of is to learn a "troublesome" pitch in relation to other well behaving ones:). instead of focusing on a note singularly without any reference, try to incorporate the note above and and the note below to form at least a string of 3 notes, go up and go down with them, like mad but slowly. if you do this frequently, it will influence your hearing. with time, when you play the bottom/top note, your head will scream out for the troublesome note before you even play it. This anticipation instinct is prevalent in and comes natural to some players, but for others it has to be programmed and built.

you can find your own ways based on your level and circumstance to make learning more fun and interesting...

November 28, 2011 at 12:52 PM · Geoff Caplan

For someone who describes himself as a beginner you talk a lot of good sense and you seem to have worked it all out.

I agree with all of your statements.

We are all beginners really, well most of us, and I face up to that every day and see it as a new start. As soon as we consider ourselves as profesionals we are doomed. Doomed I tell thee!!

I've been playing for about 58 years and I still consider myself a beginner, and now I'm retired from orchestral playing I can really get into the finer points about violin playing and music generally. Every day I hope to learn or discover something new.

November 28, 2011 at 12:58 PM · Peter - thanks for the kind words. Sadly, knowing what I should be doing is not the same thing as doing it in practice! But yes, one of the great attractions of this instrument is that it's an open ended project - it's clear even at my stage that there is simply no limit to what can be discovered... Previously I was playing a rather minor instrument, and was getting a bit bored by its limitations. But every time I pick up my fiddle I feel I'm journeying into strange new lands!

November 28, 2011 at 01:10 PM · cow bell?

November 28, 2011 at 01:32 PM · Geoff

Playing on a better instrument can be quite inspirational. I've been trying quite a few instruments in the last year or so as you may have seen on other threads.

The violin I'm trying at the moment sounded good but when I got it home I was slightly dissapointed. However, as I played it in more and more, and especially the new stringsit has on it, I got to fall in love. It was definitely not love at first sight (well - it does look wonderful) but as I got to know it the sound just exploded.

If I don't end up buying this fiddle I don't know what I will do. I will probably need councelling ... Maybe I should get the straightjacket today ...

November 28, 2011 at 02:17 PM · Peter

I wasn't clear enough. I've wanted to play the violin for years, but was prevented by ill health. My main interest is Scottish traditional music, and one of the few instruments I could physically cope with was the English Concertina. I do love my little 'tina, but it has its limitations and I never found it inspiring enough to motivate any serious practice. A new treatment made the violin a physical possibility, a little legacy enabled me to buy a wonderful new instrument by Martin McLean, and here we are.

I hope your tempestuous affair with your new violin ends well!

Now I guess we'd better let the thread get back on topic :-)

November 28, 2011 at 06:30 PM ·'s really hard to play if you're wearing a straight-jacket...

November 28, 2011 at 07:16 PM · Some good things here. Your question seems to be, how can I play it if I can't hear it?

Singing is great for eye-ear training. I'm not sure that it works though if you really don't know what the note should sound like. Recording yourself, as Nick said, can help and your phone probably has a free app.

However, the biggest thing it seems is the picky notes that may actually vary from key to key. To really get those you have to teach your ears to hear the harmonies. This is probably the most important thing for you! A few suggestions:

Follow the link about drones. Fabulous way to teach your ears to hear within a key.

Remember halfsteps need to be super-close most of the time, almost "leaning into" each other. It's my guess that will fix your C natural, esp. if you are in the key of G.

The above are self-help, but the super-best is if you can get your teacher to do some chord/harmony study with you, and do it aurally not just on paper. That will really help you sink in to the place of each note.

Best to you!

November 29, 2011 at 03:26 AM · It has been suggested to me that the reason "Older Kids" cannot learn music as fast is because they are becoming self conscious about singing. Audiation Assistant is a simple computer program that teaches you the vocabulary first, then advances you to note reading etc. It only cost about the price of one lesson and is worth every penny. Forget about what others think of you (Very liberating) and SING. I promise the results will be worth it.

November 29, 2011 at 06:04 AM · Thank you for all of you who have given your input! It's been extremely helpful.

In particularly, I wanted to ask about those who suggested using a drone or a tuner as a reference pitch and matching that— I discussed this with my teacher last week (as I used my electric tuner beforehand to help me match the B flat on the tuner), but he seemed to frown upon this heavily, saying that even a $200 wouldn't be able to get as close to the note as physically possible as opposed to just listening to it, let alone the cheap $30 tuner I was using.

I have taken a couple of people's advice about "imagining" the note before I play it (despite not knowing what the note should sound like as opposed to what I think it sounds like), and it seems to be helping-- I'm generally hitting the same pitch over and over again while doing scales as opposed to being right one time and wrong another.

And as Nick suggested, I've started recording myself while practicing. Good Lord do I sound awful most of the time, but I can hear that I'm actually pretty good on some notes. In particular, I seem to be safe on the D string, but the A string in general just sounds like a minefield. At one point, I wasn't sure if it was just my playing or my string being out of tune because it just sounded so awful...

I'll definitely talk to my teacher our next lesson about adding chromatic scales and chords/harmony study with me next time and see where we go from there. My teacher is around my age, and in college like myself, so we've just been really relaxed/slow about this whole thing. I like her, and she's very fun to be around, but I kind of feel like we're not right in a professional sense since we're too comfortable (to the point of being friends), but since I don't know where else to find a teacher, I'll just have to bear with it.


November 29, 2011 at 02:18 PM ·

November 29, 2011 at 06:01 PM · To clarify; if you do use a drone, it's not for the purpose of matching that note, but rather setting the drone to a key's "tonic" and tuning each note into that. When the overtones of the drone and the scale note you are playing coincide, it produces a beautiful blend in sound and that marks in-tune (like when you are tuning by 5ths). The reason that just matching the tuner itslef cannot do that job is that it will not adjust for different overtone matches is different keys, but if you set the tuner just to the tonic of one key you will be able to make those adjustments yourself as you listen. Fiddlerman probably explained that better than me :) but maybe it helps?? :)

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