Adult beginner - intonation: what should I be aiming for?

January 16, 2012 at 05:42 PM · Hi, I am new to playing the violin as an adult beginner with some previous experience in learning to sing and play an instrument. I've had a lot of help from this forum since I started little over 2 months ago and will now venture to ask a question about intonation. I've been bothered by my playing out of tune, and trying to get it right, without a lot of success. In today's lesson my teacher instructed me to listen for the 'ringing tones' (harmonics?) and I am very happy to find that I can actually discern them. This, however, is my question: should I be aiming to play my (simple) song perfectly in tune? This may sound silly, since obviously I would *love* to, but at this point it requires a tremendous amount of concentration and effort, which hampers my attempts at relaxation and spontaneity. So I would love to set myself a realistic goal and would like to hear opinions on what that could be at my level.


Replies (36)

January 16, 2012 at 05:58 PM · Yola,

My teacher always told me "Never play wrong notes, if the note is out of tune, fix it immediately. If you get used playing the correct intonation your fingers will fall in place automatically. You must listen very closely to everything that you play. In the beginning this may mean to slow everything down and question every tone that you play. Your ear must find the correct intonation immediately, and your fingers need to be trained to respond to what your ear hears. To reiterate, never play a wrong note if the note is not correct FIX IT.

January 16, 2012 at 06:42 PM · I will second the above recommendations. In a thread a year or two ago, the OP stated that being a little off in intonation is acceptable in a beginner.

No -- it isn't. And I challenged him on that point. It may be more understandable in a beginner -- just as 2+2=5 is more understandable in a beginning math student. But it's still unacceptable.

At this stage of your playing, the ringing tones probably refer to sympathetic vibrations of open strings -- e.g., when you play 4th finger E on the A string in 1st position and hear the open E string vibrate.

In slow practice, be sure you hear the next pitch clearly in your mind before you aim for it. When you do land on it, your mind should instantly tell you if you're too high or too low. It sounds as if you're on the right road, because you can tell when you're off. Keep working with your teacher on this so that you make a reliable connection between how it should sound and how it feels with the hand.

January 16, 2012 at 07:57 PM · Regarding the "ring tones" one good way to spend an hour would be to go all over your violin's fingerboard (as far as halfway up -- the octave)and find as many of these as you can. Some of them are quite obvious and some are more subtle. They will often be a fifth or octave up from one of the other strings (or the same note as an open string as Jim said). Play them with a good bow stroke, then move your finger slightly and see how it sounds when they're a little off. This will teach you how close you have to be to get it right. (Very very close indeed).

The next step is to find where the sympathetic vibration is coming from. For example on the E string, second finger (low) is G. If it is ringing, the vibration is coming from a resonant harmonic on your G string. Wrap your thumb around the neck of the violin (not recommended for actual playing) to suppress that vibration and release it so that you can hear the ring come and go. Try that kind of thing with some of your ring tones.

Then try playing a scale like G major from low G (open) up to B on the E string. Go real slow -- whole notes at 60. Make sure that as you pass one of the ring tone notes that you spend enough time there to determine whether you've nailed it or not. And if not, then fix it, move on, and try again. Then look for very simple, slow exercises in keys like C,G,D, and A major, and when you play them try to nail as many ring tones as you can. Always make sure your hand position feels correct and comfortable as you don't want to "learn" intonation with an incorrect hand position.

Then ask your teacher how you get the ones that don't have a ring.

January 16, 2012 at 09:37 PM · I really think that intonation is 70/80% finger placement and will develop non-consciously given a chance. Don't play Hot Cross Buns for the next two years!

January 16, 2012 at 10:02 PM · If getting the intonation perfect all the time is too frustrating or stressful, settle for playing with better intonation than you had last week all the time, with a smaller amount of practice devoted to just concentrating on getting the intonation dead on. Slow down your playing until you can get the excellent intonation without any stress. It's all very well to have high expectations, but you've got to set short term goals to get there.

When I was just starting, I had trouble telling if I was a quarter tone off, and my immediate goal was absolutely not perfect intonation, but rather improving my intonation and my ear. Almost two years in, I'm may not be perfect, but it's now something I can aim for.

January 16, 2012 at 10:13 PM · Good intonation is not in the fingers but in the ear. Ear training combined with a relaxed left hand and good use of the left hand (correct shaping, position on fingerboard etc) all lead to good intonation. It may take time.

Play scales using an open string as a drone.

Learn what the intervals of a semitone, a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, a seventh and an octave sound like. Train the ear and the fingers will obey.

January 17, 2012 at 08:16 AM · The above comments are great and I have one small thing to add:

When you fix your intonation, do not slide the finger into place. Instead, pick it up and set it down in the correct place. This will help you practice getting it right. Your finger will learn to go right to the correct place and not slide around to find it.

January 17, 2012 at 08:43 AM · Actually Michael, I have to disagree a little on finger placement. I know there is a well founded school of thought that promotes this technique and maybe it can have its uses.

But remember what Heifetz said "I do not play more in tune than anyone eslse, I just fix it quicker." Meaning that he would make instantaeneous minute adjustments to his fingers, often just a lean one way or another.

However, I would agree that players who are inexperienced who put their fingers down and are wildly out, are another matter, and here I would certainly agree with you that in those circumstances it is better to retry placing the fing and not moving it about. So perhaps we are singing from the same hymnbook!

January 17, 2012 at 10:00 AM · I like to think about intonation in simpler terms: ensure that every single interval you put down in the fingers is either a whole step or a half step. So if you're playing a D on the A string, ensure that your 1-2-3 finger placement is whole-whole-half and that each of those individual intervals is in tune.

I have students who look at me like I'm crazy when I ask them "do you know what a half step and/or a whole step sound like?" It's not a crazy question have to know what those intervals sound like, look like, and feel like in order to create the bigger ones. :)

January 17, 2012 at 10:04 AM · Playing in tune is like riding a bike , once you learn you never forget.

Playing out of tune is like riding a bike , once you learn you never forget.

Beginners need to hear intune notes before they play the notes. This will get you playing in tune in a short time; 3-6 months if your technique is good.

January 17, 2012 at 12:47 PM · Orchestras and bycycles !!

Do people know of that comment about the orchestral bycycle? I won't comment on it - it's really in very bad taste, and I must write out a hundred lines - "don't mention orchestras and bikes !!!"

But then I'm a great supporter of recycling. I might even re-cycle my fiddle ...

January 17, 2012 at 08:43 PM · Thanks to all of you for your responses. I am trying out the suggestions that are possible for me right now and keep the rest for later (for instance, it is still very hard to play two strings at once so playing a scale with an open string is out of my reach at this stage). I had a good time today experimenting with the different suggestions. The idea of training my ears first, and my fingers will learn to follow really clicked.

Being Dutch, I was puzzled by the admonition not to play Hot Cross Buns for the next two years, until I looked for the song on YouTube. Now I see what you mean, Bud. Actually I am more concerned at this point that my teacher and I are going too fast. I feel there is nothing I am doing quite right, bow hold, intonation, straight bowing, posture, left hand position on the E string, and the songs are getting more and more difficult every week. I've decided to talk to my teacher about this feeling. Since starting to play the violin has been a real adventure into unknown territory, I may not have been clear enough about my objectives on the outset, but I am putting a lot of practice time in and would really like to get a solid foundation, even at 49.

Did I mention that I fell totally in love with my violin? My daughter played for nine years, I was her (very busy) home coach at the time and it never ever occurred to me that I might want to learn to play the violin myself. My teacher thinks I picked up a lot from just watching and listening to all those lessons. If I work hard for the next couple years, I may even find out about orchestras and bicycles at some point.

January 17, 2012 at 09:20 PM · Yola, maybe if you just work hard tonight Peter will tell about orchestras and bicycles!

The fact that you realize your intonation is off is the best start you could have towards fixing it.

January 18, 2012 at 02:24 PM · Yola, I'm not surprised you picked up a lot from your daughter's lessons. I do too. This is also why the younger sibling has a huge advantage. They already know all the tunes.

January 18, 2012 at 03:14 PM · I'm back to taking regular lessons too - and as I'm finding my way around the higher positions I like to play bits of music that are very I can hear if I'm 'off'.

You learn where the 'right' notes are if you're already very familiar with what they sound like... you can always go back and revisit earlier you learn harder'll find that that material now becomes a breeze to play because you've advanced beyond it...

Fun stuff!

January 18, 2012 at 10:19 PM · Fun stuff indeed! Put in a couple more hours today listening like crazy to what I was doing, and sometimes all of a sudden everything falls into place for a little while. It puts a big smile on my face, it's like instant happiness.

My ears are in good order, I've had singing lessons and been in a small choir for years, so I was used to listening, just didn't consciously decide to apply that skill to violin playing right from the start. Still, my fingers need lots more training to learn to play what I can hear with my inner ear. But I am certainly improving thanks to the suggestions I got here, and I am very pleased!

January 18, 2012 at 10:33 PM · You'll be alright..

January 19, 2012 at 06:54 AM · though what Charles Cook made me 'chuckle' I have to disagree...

I am someone who learnt to play out of tune (blush)....

for the first 2 and a half years of my 'violin journey' I had a teacher who never taught me intonation, he never told me about 'sympathetic vibrations', how to check against open strings, about intervals, to think of what note I was playing next, NOTHING! He never corrected my playing ever, I honestly only remember him correcting me a couple of times in those two and a half years, and that was if I was way way out (ie playing totally the WRONG NOTES), and no, it was not because I was a 'genius' who played perfectly in tune, it was because he was not teaching me adequately!

Let's move the teacher I now have and have been with for 2 and a half years! the one who is TOTALLY THE OPPOSITE!

when I went to my new teacher my intonation shall I say? 'way way off!' I did have a sense of what I was supposed to play of course and I could find my notes and the pieces I was playing did sound pretty much like they were suppose to sound but there was a LOT of intonation issues there! A LOT! and I could NOT tell, that was the most 'scary' part of it!

fast-forward 2 and a half years and I am TOTALLY TRANSFORMED!

my intonation is still 'not' perfect but 'wow'! I have improved so so so much! and I have every faith that soon I will have caught up with many others who have started from the beginning with teachers like the one I have now.

YOU CAN 'un-do' the damage! you CAN teach intonation to someone who does not know how to play in tune.

maybe because I was 'caught' not too late? I am not sure! some experienced teachers might like to comment?

January 19, 2012 at 11:49 AM · Yola

I won't go into orchestras and bikes because (1) you are far too young and (2) it's a bit off topic, and I go off topic enough as it is.

Speaking seriously for a change - there is a very strong connection with your fingers and your ears. If your fingers are grouped correctly and are at the best angle on the string your ears will eventually guide your fingers to where the note is dead in tune.

Later on you will discover that it's also about finger patterns. (You could read up some writings by Willian Primrose on this - and just because he was a viola player does not mean that he can't tell us a lot).

It is possible with the right training to get someone from a beginner to a very high standard in a matter of weeks providing they have a good ear and the right attitude.

Here in the UK with have graded exams from Grade I to VIII, and it has been known and I would definitey suggest the possibility of getting to grade VIII in less than two years. (Grade VIII is just the level reached for entrance to full time music college here, although it is better to be at an even higher standard at the start of full time music college training).

So you can make serious progress. Good luck.

January 19, 2012 at 12:25 PM · Hi Yola,

You mentioned having sung in a choir. That reminds me of the choir I was in as a student, and of the way that choir's conductor handled intonation. At the start of every rehearsal, he would have us pay close attention to the first few chords, taking care to get them just right. When that was done, the focus shifted to other matters, but some of the attention paid to intonation would spill over into the rest of the rehearsal.

That approach might be useful to you as well, apart from the things all the others have said.

Good luck,


January 19, 2012 at 03:13 PM · Jo - thank you for sharing that, it is so encouraging.

Peter - you totally made my day, seeing as my younger child turned eightteen today ... On topic: I'm inconsistent as to the angle my left hand makes to the strings, and I can't really seem to fix it. I'm afraid it is related to posture and chin rest - shoulder rest issues. I can't seem to get a handle on that, but yesterday I made an appointment for a lesson with an Alexander Technique teacher who is also a (very accomplished) violinist. I hope this will be helpful at some point. Do you think getting to a high level in a couple of years is a possibility for people my age too?

Bart - thank you, I can see how this could work and will try to make it a habit. It's funny to be talking to you in English.

January 19, 2012 at 03:39 PM · Yola

Alexander is excellent and Buri will no doubt chime in here!

Age has nothing to do with making progress, and with the right attitude and teaching it can be a fast track progess. In fact older people can be more open minded and providing they can relax and not be competitive and have an easy going approach they can sometimes do better than kids. After all when I was young all my hormones played havoc and I'm a bloke! And age brings a certain logic and mind bearing.

If you were to ask someone like Simon Fischer who is a well known teacher and violin guru, he would certainly say that age is no barrier. Sometimes it can definitely be an advantage.

Shoulder rest, chin rest and associated holding "problems" can often be exagerated. We don't really hold it, but let it float. If you take your chin off the rest and move the fiddle about then you are loose. And being loose is what counts. Watch Mr Oistrakh for great examples of loose playing. Forget about holding the fiddle, and do not lift the left shoulder. (Or the right for that matter).

January 22, 2012 at 01:33 PM · One of the most useful things I've read recently was the statement that "putting fingers down bypasses the ear." This is absolutely true and it was mentioned in relation to training the ear by doing one finger scales including chromatics. (Ruggerio Ricci - "Glissando").

January 22, 2012 at 05:51 PM · Peter,

Could you explain what is meant by one finger scales? Is one supposed to remain on the same string and play every note in the scale with the first finger? Or do I play the same scales that I do now (G, D, A major) in first position, but for every note using the first finger? I can see how this is ear training, since I wouldn't be depending on the relative distances between the fingers that I'm getting used to. Or do you mean something else entirely? Do you only do chromatic scales (half steps, I suppose)? Sorry to be asking so many questions.


January 22, 2012 at 11:32 PM · Yola

You could play for instance G major using open 1, 1, 1, open D 1, 1, 1.

But what is really meant is for you to play one or even two octaves on each string for example starting on A (on G string) and then stay on G string all the way up to A (440 Hz).

Same with chromatics - play each semitone up each string (there are 13 semitones)and then down again. You can do all of this with 2nd 3rd and 4th fingers as well.

What this does is to make you measure the distance between each note (minor scales as well) by ear only - you are not putting a new finger down.

The problem with putting fingers down - say open G A (1) B (2) C (3) open D then 1, 2 3 again, is that this means we may not listen to the pitch, but rely on putting fingers where we feel they should go. Sometimes semitones are so close, especially in higher positions, that we can't believe that the intonation can possibly be off when we put the finger down next to the previous one. In fact we really need to kick that finger out of the way to have space to put the next finger.

Try playing E natural on the E string (one octave up from open E) with the first finger, then F natural with second finger. This semitone is often sharp (the F) with most people's fingers, and especially people with big hands and wide fingers.

Go up another fourth to the third finger on B natural and try with the fourth finger to play C natural. It will usually be too sharp as even the fourth finger is too fat up here. There is a final bar in the slow mvt first vln part of a Mozart quartet where the notes are up there - b,c,b,c,b,c b (long note - the first six are slow semiquavers). I play all of this with a third finger sliding between b and c - it's almost just a lean from the b to the c, you don't hear a slide.

So what we are aiming for is mastery of our intonation by ear and not by finger placement. Of course eventually in faster music we must put fingers down one after the other, but our ear should be so good by then that the fingers hit the right spot.

If you have problems with shifting, for example from B natural on the A string to D natural in third position (a minor third) it may also be a hand position problem. If the D often ends up sharp and you need a quick backwards adjustment to correct it, that may mean your fingers on the string are too much on the tips and not on the pads. With a flat wrist or a slight leaning inwards you will find you can push up to the note and not jump, and you have more control because your ear knows when you have got to the D natural. (This applies to any shift).

Hope this helps and explains.

P.S. I'm having my own troubles today as I've been looking at Brahm's second A major violin and piano sonata. (Second mvt). I find it very hard in this slow mvt to play one bit which is high up and this also uses the very same octave up high E and F naural, only it goes from F to E. I will have to sort something in the way of fingering out or I will nver get those two notes bang in tune. Maybe a shift rather than using two fingers. Or maybe I will have to shave a bit off one of my fingers ...

January 23, 2012 at 04:11 AM · Greetings,

>On topic: I'm inconsistent as to the angle my left hand makes to the strings, and I can't really seem to fix it. I'm afraid it is related to posture and chin rest - shoulder rest issues. I can't seem to get a handle on that, but yesterday I made an appointment for a lesson with an Alexander Technique teacher who is also a (very accomplished) violinist. I hope this will be helpful at some point.

A few interesting things in here;).. It actually makes no diffenrec ewhether the AT teacher is a musician or not. They all recieve the same intense training which is to allow us to consciously use our bodies well whatver activity we are engaged in. The AT teacher who helped me the most wa sa dancer. Oddly enough, I felt the string player was the least helpful.

Second, the word that AT teachers abhor above all others is posture. It is a rigid cocnept that is inextricably linked to the problems we all face. There is no such things as a single good posture and yet for many it remains an elusive holy grail that is searched for relntylessly in the hope thta using that positionwill heal all. What AT teaches is that ther eis simply good use of the body. WEithin this one can have a lousy `posture` and still be better off than the kind of body position we have a general mental image of.

It teaches us to become aware of what we are doing with our bodies and make conscious decisions and choices to do soemthing dirrent within the context of what is caslled `primary control` (the best possible relationship between head neck and back).

Will it be of use to you azt some point? The experience is variable. I have been to teachers on issues unrelated to music and had themost amazing life altering experiences within a single lesson. On the other hand, for someone basically average it usually takes about ten lessons (the first of which may be bewilderiung) before it suddnely click what is happening and a whole new world of health and enjoyment opens up. In my case I was more screwed up than averageand it took me a lot longer to figure out what was going on and why.

It isn`t something handed to you on a plate. Perhaps even one has to take things on faith at times but it has always bene jsutified form what I have sene. Part of the issue is that Alexander rightly pointed out that words are essentially misleading. since we all undertsand them differnelty mostt AT teahcers won`t explain much. The action is whta is being done by the hands. As 20c adults we tend to want explanations of things if for no other reason than we wnat to get our moneys worth. Somehow we associate detailed explanations with `value for money@ but in the initial stages of AT they tend to get in the way. AT himslef used the most fundamental of body actions for most of the time (standing and sitting) without any explnation, just the hands. This was quite cvonfusing to some poeple.However, I can assure you that there is sopme of the most powerful learning one could wish for occuring within this apparently simple process.



January 23, 2012 at 06:46 AM · Yola, just keep working. Don't get so discouraged you give up, violin takes a life time to learn, and even then there is more to learn!!

January 23, 2012 at 07:06 AM · which is why we have reincarnation.

It is no coincidence that the previous poster`s name is Lennon...



January 23, 2012 at 10:27 AM · Buri, I thought reincarnation required one person to die before they came back? Is that no longer true?

January 23, 2012 at 10:58 AM · I thought John Lennon had died.

Is that no longer true?



January 23, 2012 at 05:01 PM · A big thank you to everybody for your responses.

Peter - it was kind of you to further explain the diatonic an chromatic one finger scales, I see your point and will apply the idea.

Buri - some 15 years ago I received Alexander lessons from a lady who then became my singing teacher. Before she trained as a professional singer, she had been trained as a professional violinist. This is all a little confusing maybe, but there it is. I really thought AT was amazing, and some exercises were always woven into my lessons. Being very busy, I more or less gave up singing, although I did participate in the choir of several projects since (e.g. Mozart Requiem, Dido and Aeneas, Carmina Burana). Was I a good singer? Oh well ... Sorry for using the word 'posture' when I shouldn't have, I am not a native speaker of English. Your point about musicians not necessarily being the most helpful AT teachers is well taken. I shall see how I fare and consider finding someone closer to home.

Rebecca - thank you for your concern, I'm practicing for a couple hours every day and thorougly enjoying myself. My intonation is improving. I'm not getting discouraged at all!

John - I am not certain that I quite get your suggestion. You are saying that the scales should sound the same when sung and played on the violin, is that right? I sometimes get confused by the English names of different tuning systems. Because of the singing, my ears should be used to difference in intonation depending on what the function of a note is in a scale (just tuning)?

I find that sometimes after trying to get a note right for a while, I find I have no idea anymore how it should be sing. This happens especially with b natural (first finger on a string). Playing over a drone sometimes helps me 'get my ears back'.

By the way, in my case Yola is a lady's name, but I've learned that in Poland it can also be a man's name.

January 23, 2012 at 05:03 PM · I have experienced many conductors who have (almost) made me believe in life after death ... (But re-incarnation? It's a nice idea, but maybe only Hollywood really believes in it ...)

January 23, 2012 at 07:18 PM · My cat is a reincarnation of Bela lugosi.



January 23, 2012 at 07:29 PM · Inspiration!

January 24, 2012 at 12:57 AM · Peter, my dad was an insurance salesman while I was growing up. Later in life he became a Baptist Preacher having his own Church for 10yrs. My brother and I were both raised up in Church. He told me once that he could almost believe in reincarnation because of 3 men in our History, Nero, Napoleon and Hitler. He said they all 3 had an affliction and they all 3 tried to annihilate an entire race. Just something to think about? hehe!,

On another note, I too am an older woman, 54yrs old who is taking up the Fiddle to learn to play the Celtic sounds that I love so well. I'm Scot/Irish. I played the violin for a short time when I was 12yrs old. The passion has been reignited within me for some reason...

January 24, 2012 at 09:24 AM · Wanda

It is great that you have found a love for the fiddle again. It sort of happened to me as I was a professional for years and then did a few other things, and mainly gave up playing except on a few odd occasions and bursts of chamber music. I have gone back to the fiddle with a passion and I am working harder at it now than I ever did as a student or professional.

I have to say that 54 is pretty young and anything can be achieved - there is no time limit.

P.S. I don't play professionally ever now, and avoid orchestras like the plague! (I suppose I could almost accept re-incarnation, but on most days probably would reject it. Mind you, I think I met Mozart and Beethoven the other day. And once I got a phone call from Haydn in the middle of an argument in a quartet rehearsal about one of my discrete slides, and he backed me up ...(wink))

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