D on E - always sharp...

February 9, 2012 at 06:00 PM · My intonation has improved a lot since returning (though still a ways to go) but this particular note is enough to drive you crazy. A combination of the close position of C# with fat fingers (blush) can push the D into the sharp range - but that is not the explanation since the same thing happens with C(natural). My brain even LIKES the sharp note (when playing) but not when listening to a recording (another clue I think).

Explanation? I think it has something to do with how the D string is tuned - and may be one of the best arguments for natural (untempered) tuning on the violin. I tune both by ear and also by an electronic tuner (no deluge please or I'll throw an SR at you). As I understand it, tuning with the electronic tuner will result in a D string that is slightly sharp compared with 'natural' tuning. What is happening I think is that the D on E is resonating with the sharp D string - and thats why it sounds good to the ear.

Make sense? Or is there another mysterious explanation.....

Replies (34)

February 9, 2012 at 06:56 PM · don't waste time or energy on all the mysterious explanations- just reprogram your finger to land a bit closer to the nut- in the right place. It'll take tons of repetition, the same exact way you got sharp. Check the octave w/ open D a lot.

February 9, 2012 at 07:07 PM · Tom's suggestion is good. When you hit the D correctly, the open D string should vibrate and resonate. Listen for that. If you don't hear it, either you are out of tune or your violin is.

February 9, 2012 at 08:09 PM · I don't think you quite understood Tom(H). I hear the resonance just fine - in fact that may be the problem. If you use tempered tuning the resonance will occur when you are sharp. How does one deal with that when playing with a piano? Tune non-tempered and stay in violin tune or tempered and have a sharp-resonating D.

Odd that it does not seem to affect the other major resonances as much ...

And Tom(B) finger placement can not get you precisely in tune - that requires your ear. If that sounds good, but is sharp, you are kinda screwed - you will resist moving the finger down.

I think the only answer is to never tune tempered.

February 9, 2012 at 08:57 PM ·

February 9, 2012 at 09:00 PM · Yes - but I have yet to see this raised in the whole tempered-non tempered discussion. My point is that the violin should not try to be something it is not - even if the circumstances 'request' it.

February 9, 2012 at 09:14 PM · Elise, Your theory is correct...I don't allow my students to tune with a tuner except for the A string - most tuners are calibrated to a440, so we tune a to the tuner, and then I teach them how to hear the perfect 5ths. It's worth spending time working on hearing the perfect resonance of the 5ths, not just for tuning, but it trains you to hear other justly intonated intervals, the ones our ears are "made" to hear, and has the wonderful side effect of training your sense of relative pitch so that if you do play with equal tempered instruments, you can use that form of intonation when you need to.

February 9, 2012 at 09:15 PM · Elise - do you have perfect pitch? Maybe you need to get rid of that (lol). Otherwise, the obvious solution is not to play with a piano.

February 9, 2012 at 10:18 PM · Yes but. (There's always a "yes, but.") Pure fifths are wider than tempered fifths. (The whole circle of fifths thing is a lie; there is no circle. Gb does not equal F#. Sorry, pianists.) If you tune to A 440, D down a perfect fifth, G down another, and E up a perfect fifth, you'll be out of tune with yourself. Open G to open E just won't work, and when you try to blend with the violist's open C, ouch.

Any system of temperament has its pitfalls, because the math just doesn't work within a single octave, much less across the key signatures. D that is the second note of a C scale isn't the same D that's the third of a Bb scale, in relation to the C. The E on the D string- first finger- isn't in the same place when perfectly in tune with both the open G and A. On a cello, the difference is quite visible.

So, what are you gonna do? If you have noticed this particularly in one piece, it may have to do with the key signature of that piece and where D falls in that scale. If it's across the board, a lot of factors besides temperament come into play.

February 9, 2012 at 10:34 PM · Interestingly, I notice it particularly in the key of D. If I go out of tune in a three octave scale its always but always sharp.

OK, I have seen the Light, from now on I'm a non-tempered girl... But I'd say this is the BEST argument against teaching students to tune to tempered 5ths there is - it makes you out of tune with not only the violin, but also yourself!

February 9, 2012 at 11:15 PM · Um, tuning in pure fifths will make things worse, as that will make your E string high to start with.

February 10, 2012 at 12:27 AM · Surely it will make my E string in tune with my A? And when I play D it will resonate with my in-tune D string slightly more flat (it does not matter what the E string is tuned to).

Or will D now be flat?? Arghhh...

February 10, 2012 at 07:48 AM · The simple thing is ladies and gents, that you need to tune perfect 5ths (non-tempered) but then play in tune (or adjust certain notes) with whoever you are playing with. Being tempered, pianos are never in tune, so at certain critical points you have to tune to them, as they can't tune to you.

Anyway, what happens if you play in a string quartet where the other members play out of tune? Aside from bashing them over the head all you can do is play in tune with youself. Anything else and you may head for the loony bin.

P.S. Have you ever heard a soloist tune their strings in anything other than perfect fifths? I've never yet heard any professional players tune tempered - and violas and cellos do check their C strings to match, but only after they have tuned in perfect 5ths.

P.P.S. unfortunately pianists love to give an A (possibly even at 440 Hz - I'm being my usual sarcastic self now!) and then the D and G!! All string players need is the A - just like in a band when the oboist gives a clear straight A (although I have known some ******* who add some vibrato). Just because pianist's have found out that we have D, G and C strings [they rarely give the E] they feel superior in giving us all these extra notes - which are out of tune on a piano anyway!

ANOTHER EDIT, someone shoot me!! If you want to train yourself to play in tune with yourself, then play unaccompanied Bach, in other words, the Sonatas and Partitas. If you can play these in tune with yourself then you are damned good.

February 10, 2012 at 10:53 AM · I tighten my fifths to oblige the piano. After all, we want to sound good. No use arguing with a piano...

February 10, 2012 at 11:28 AM · But I've always relied on resonance to tell me if I am in tune. Someone please clarify - if the violin is tuned to perfect 5ths will the resonant D on the E string (G on the A etc) be in tune? Or do I have to tweak - or maybe I should just have faith in what I hear as 'in tune'...

Emily: then does your 'D' tend to be sharp too? Or do you not use resonance for pitch...

February 10, 2012 at 11:31 AM · Peter: I'm beginning to wonder if instruments should only be allowed to play solo!

PS trying to finish my first (chorded) B movement...

February 10, 2012 at 12:06 PM · You will drive yourself insane trying to figure temperaments out, Bach was going nuts with this one. If it sounds in tune than it is in tune, that should be good enough. No one is going to notice, not even your hair stylist.

just intonation and ET compared


February 10, 2012 at 01:28 PM · My opinion is that the violin should be in tune with itself for the best possible tone and to ensure that double-stops sound correct.

Adjusting to accommodate the equal temperament of the piano is totally pointless anyway, unless the piano also is perfectly tuned, which generally speaking it won't be unless you are performing with a digital piano. My advice is stop wringing your hands over this. You'll just wreck your intonation, especially your double stops, trying to make these incredibly small adjustments. If anything this is the sort of problem you should worry about only after you've complete mastered the instrument in every other respect. That is, once your intonation is truly perfect then you can figure out when it is necessary for it to be imperfect.

The only situation in which you would even attempt this anyway is if you have a long unison note with the piano which is pretty rare to begin with, plus if you're using any vibrato then the difference will not be noticed anyway.

Wind instruments are more accustomed to making these kinds of adjustments because their instruments are intrinsically out of tune, and because they never have to worry about internal resonances or double stops. So if you are playing in a chamber group with winds, let THEM adjust to YOU.

Thus, Elise, your E-string D should be always perfectly in resonance with your open D string, in my opinion as a confirmed, card-carrying violin-anti-snob and rank amateur. If you play "May Song" starting with the D on the A string (first finger in third position) then if you are playing in tune you should hear a great many of these "ring tones" and I recommend to anyone to practice simple tunes like this across all four strings to recalibrate your intonation and position shifts from time to time, in addition to scales played with various fingerings of course.

I think you asked originally why these particular resonances were so bright on your instrument. My answer to that is that now you know why there is so much stuff composed for the violin in the key of D.

February 10, 2012 at 01:47 PM · There's some "interesting" (in the Chinese sense) listening to be found in Alois Hába's Fantasy Op 21 for violin and quarter-tone piano. Normally I can get my ears around his microtonal solo violin pieces and microtonal quartets, and enjoy them, but the combination of violin and quarter-tone piano is at the moment beyond the pale. My first thought was "that's a pub piano!"; the second was that it was making life even more difficult for the violinist (Antonin Novak). Not surprisingly, this piece apparently has only ever had one performance, and that was in the Supraphon studios.

February 10, 2012 at 05:03 PM · Elise, if you really want to understand this, let me recommend two books: "Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilazation" bu Stuart Isacoff; and "How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)" by Ross Duffin. Both are quite readable, especially for music nerds, and with your science mind you will love them.

The basic problem, as I said in an earlier post, is that the math just doesn't work. A perfect fifth- D to A, let's say, plus a perfect fourth, A up to D, does NOT equal a perfect octave. Compromises must be made. When and where to make them is the crux of temperament. Any tuning is tempered. It has to be.

February 10, 2012 at 07:37 PM · I really don't understand the fuss. In my case, ignorance really IS bliss.

February 10, 2012 at 07:52 PM · This article by Jan Swafford is a very good, quick tour of the temperament issue: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/music_box/2010/04/the_wolf_at_our_heels.html.

February 10, 2012 at 08:00 PM · Elise,

as a confirmed temperament geek I believe this is not about temperament. The difference between a just fifth and an ET fifth is no more than two cents, and if you can play to such accuracy you'll be the Star.

It's just your ears having a temporary lead over your motor skills, and it will be alright in a few weeks.


February 10, 2012 at 08:15 PM · If I had a penny for every time I play out of tune, I would have a lot of cents.

This from my calculations

G -4 cents from ET

D -2 cents from ET

A 0 cents from ET

E +2 cents from ET

So if you are playing a two octave G scale with open stings, you should end with a slightly sharper G note(on E string) than the open G string. You will be out of tune by +6 cents, arguably.

I agree with Smily, It's best not to think about it and just play. The mind will adjust the fingers accordingly.

February 10, 2012 at 08:38 PM · so my qualitative interpretation was right - but how many 'cents' difference can you hear?

Actually thats rather interesting because obviously our detection of sound-dispartity in harmony must be much more acute than that for absolute tone (for wave interference issues I guess).

The problem Bart is that my ears are telling me the sharp note is 'right' and the correct note is, well, not exactly wrong (it actually sounds 'stiller') but not as nice. Hence I'm going sharp on purpose. :(

February 10, 2012 at 09:52 PM · @ enion pelta: how do you train your students to hear "the perfect resonance of the 5ths"? While there is more than one way of doing this, I am trying to find the best one. Having restarted playing a couple of years ago after a long absence, I'm trying to get my ear tuned in again as finely as possible.

February 10, 2012 at 09:53 PM · I think you may have just learned to hear that note a few cents sharp as being correct in a particular context, and you have to unlearn it.

This happens to me somewhat regularly, with a note here or there. Once I discover the problem, either by having it pointed out by a listener such as my teacher, or with a tuner, it will sound weird to play it correctly for 1-2 practice sessions. But then after a week or so of practice, sometimes less, I will learn to hear it correctly again and the correct pitch will sound normal to my ear.

With that particular note, could it be that you are regularly sharp because it's hard to instinctively put your 4th finger close enough to your third finger to get a good half step? I'm not regularly sharp with that note, but I have to be careful with the F and above on the E string, especially if I play any of those notes with a 4 right next to the 3 in a half step pattern. Up there, if I'm not consciously trying to prevent it, I'll go sharp.

February 10, 2012 at 11:11 PM ·

February 11, 2012 at 04:20 AM · Elise, to answer your question, my main aim is to sound good with the piano. Having a teeny bit sharp D is barely noticeable, so it doesn't appear to sound sharp on the E string, either. I only run into problems when I think too much. I play much better when I just listen to the big picture and go with it. Context is everything. This is why practicing by yourself all the time is problematic, because you don't develop the skill of listening for context.

Not unless you have a really good imagination. Nothing beats a good imaginary friend.

February 11, 2012 at 04:47 AM · you're asking whether your "error" is due to the natural limitations of tuning systems? to my mind: but you use a tuner and you're still learning about all this - so chances are its an error in your playing (or hearing?)?. i think a lot of things need to be aligned properly in one's playing and knowledge before the tuning discrepancies are exposed for onself, well thats what it seems like to me.

so..simply..if you know you're going sharp and you hear it, why don't you just practice the finger landing on the in-tune note?

February 11, 2012 at 07:33 AM · Elise - for heavens sake - all you need to do is practise one finger scales in major and minor and particularly in semitones. (Chromatic scales).

You use one (any) finger and go up and down each string for at least one octave and train your ears.

It's as simple as that. Look at Ricci's book "Glissando" on one finger scales. It does not matter if you have fat fingers like Mr Perlman, he manages just fine, and he has a bunch of bananas.

Putting fingers down one after the other, only bypasses the ear, as he says.

February 11, 2012 at 09:19 AM · charles - I haven't played OFSs (one finger scales; and I have 'Glissando') in a while - and that is a good idea. Fat fingers is not a problem really - once I learned to use my finger tip that is (I had a habit of flattening my last digit with just the fourth finger that created mayhem on the same note.

I now think the point above (was it Lisa - can't see the text when I type in the entry box) is right that I have to reprogram my idea of 'D'. I suppose there is another level of intonation that goes beyond resonance that you have to attain for truly great playing - resonance has its limits when you play in 6 flats! Or, god forbid, atonal music...

February 11, 2012 at 10:03 AM · But Elise, if you read Ricci and look at his left hand pictures you will see he does not advocate using the tips of the fingers, but the pads.

He is also subtly suggesting that we do not have our chins on the chinrest a lot of the time. (Ricci = subtle??!!)

February 13, 2012 at 06:35 AM · WOW! I just found Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier being played on a well-tempered harpsichord! I never knew all the key signatures had such truly individual personalities.

Bradley Lehman. Look his videos up. His written commentaries are so enlightening!

February 14, 2012 at 10:03 PM · Is it possible that this D# on the E string happens to be a natural frequency that your violin resonates to? Is it possible to try the fingering on two or more friend's violins?


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