Help for Better Intonation

February 11, 2013 at 04:57 PM · I know that this is a very popular topic but I had to ask : How do I improve my intonation? I've heard about drones and using chromatic tuners but aren't those set on equal temperament? From what I have heard, pianos are the only ones that use equal temperament so will drones and chromatic tuners really help? Does anyone have a solution?

Replies (41)

February 11, 2013 at 06:22 PM · Never used any drones or chromatic tuners myself, although I've read some discussions on the pros and cons. So I'll steer clear of that subject. I use an A-440 tuning fork or electronic A-440 tone to start a practice or playing session.

Don't know what your skill level is -- and would need to hear and observe your playing to get a better idea of what the problem is. In any case, you first have to hear in your mind how the intervals should sound -- and then get to know how they should feel to the hand. When you land on the next note, if you're off, your pitch sense has to tell you right away: "No, that's too low" or "No, that's too high."

Ear-training and interval drills can help a lot. BTW, in fixing off-pitch notes during practice, don't swoop or slide down or up to the correct pitch. Start over on the interval. Have your teacher go over this part of the technique with you if need be.

Hope this helps.

February 11, 2013 at 07:17 PM · I'm accompanying my scale (G major) with an open string, first D, then G - works for me.

February 11, 2013 at 07:39 PM · Thanks for the recommendations guys. I know when I'm off tune on my third and fourth. It's usually the 1st and 2nd fingers that are harder to distinguish.

February 11, 2013 at 07:46 PM · You should be able to tune your 1st and 2nd fingers to an open string next door.

February 11, 2013 at 07:53 PM · I guess there's the answer I'm looking for thanks Bud, but I have one more question: Will checking your 1st and 2nd fingers against an open string work with sharps too? (Ex. F# C#)

February 11, 2013 at 07:56 PM · I'm a beginner myself but in my experience - yes.

February 11, 2013 at 08:11 PM · Thank you for the help Bud. :)

February 11, 2013 at 09:16 PM · A drone is not the same thing as "equal temperament." All "equal temperament" means is that all the half steps are the same size.

The concept of using a drone however, whether it is generated by another instrument or an electronic device, is to have a reference pitch by which to create *intervals* that you can tune.

The challenge is in changing keys...for example, the C# in the key of A major is not the same pitch as the C# in the key of D major.

February 11, 2013 at 11:06 PM · Angelica: the simple answer is use an electronic tuner. Unfortunately, (before I am garotted with an e string for that comment), the electronic tuner does not actually solve the problem which is your ear-finger conversation. The hardest part of learning intonation is not playing the violin but hearing the note - and the next hardest part is comments like Gene's (sorry Gene) that a note is not a note but a variation on a scale.

I've been through the same process very recently and IMHO (in my humble opinion) there is no solution other than playing a LOT. And here the electronic tuner really can help because if you can keep that needle on the note you can hear what it is supposed to sound like. If you can hear it then you can learn to play it. What you mustn't do is ignore it (which obviously you are not else you would not have posted this).

Scales are great but how you play them matters. when you miss a note, don't just wiggle your finger till it gets it. Remove it and hit it again until you get it right. LOTS of practise hitting it right will train both your finger and your ear.

And when you can play a one octave scale in a range of keys THEN you should get Fisher's 'Scales' (the library if they have it is cheaper) and you should learn what Gene was talking about. Learning that is truly liberating and makes you feel like you are making progress and even more important getting the hang of intonation.

Good luck.

PS usual disclaimer: just another student passing on her experience to be overruled by any teacher who is reading this!

February 11, 2013 at 11:06 PM · [duplicate]


February 12, 2013 at 02:44 AM · Thanks guys! I guess I better start training my ears...

February 12, 2013 at 06:07 AM · Hello Angelica,

There is a rather easy way to train your ear.

First, get your strings absolutely in tune, perfect fifth. Not the piano tempered fifths.

Then focus on getting the major tones in tune.

These are G,D,A,E,B. You can always check them with your open strings. As long as you can get these absolutely in tune, the rest will gradually come to you.

As for first and second finger, try to check with the perfect intervals so if you are checking B on the A string, you can play the B with your open E and you can check your C with your open G.

Plus, try to hear the note before you play the note.It will help you a lot. Violin intonation is very yeah. It takes a lot of practicing and the right guidance.

I personally tune my A to 442. 440 A doesn't really work well with violin A. It doesn't quite bring the sound out but it is a personal thing.

Practice hard!

February 12, 2013 at 06:22 AM · IMHO when practicing scales, one must learn to listen and develop the drone inside the head. It helps a lot by developing the drone of the root note, followed by dominant or the 5th note, and then the third note which either 3rd or flatten 3rd to give the scale a major or minor mode. Then you can fill in the rest of the notes in the scales pretty much naturally.

Same concept when playing the music, one must have at least the octave and fifth drone inside the head as IMHO it's the foundation of the harmony structure. The best is if one can develop to hear the chords inside the head, one can play more musically in tune (which the electronic tuner might not agree with) especially when playing unaccompanied solo pieces like paganini and bach.

I also use terms like brighter or darker to describe if the sound is too flat or sharp, which IMHO relate to the mood of the music much better.

February 12, 2013 at 07:58 PM · I am a bit confused with this example

"The challenge is in changing keys...for example, the C# in the key of A major is not the same pitch as the C# in the key of D major."

The open strings of violin are tuned in perfect fifth, Pythagorean ratios 3:2. Let us assume A=440, D will be then (2/3)*A-> 293.333...

A Major: C# is major third, pythagorean ratio 81:64 -> 556.875

D Major: C# is major seventh, pythagorean ratio 243:128 -> 556.875

You do not need to use frequency, just algebra.

C#(A) = (81/64)*A; C#(D) = (2/3)*A*(243/128) = (81/64)*A

In my reasoning, they are the same, am I wrong somewhere?

February 12, 2013 at 09:00 PM · I agree entirely with Elise's answer. There is nothing wrong with using a tuner initially to help you get started on the "target practice" aspect of intonation. Some notes will be off if you do not set the correct temperament on the tuner (not all tuners have this feature) but you will still improve. But ultimately the violin must be in tune with itself, and that means learning to listen to the resonances within the violin (play G 2nd finger on E string, move finger around until the note "sings", at this point it will be in resonance with the harmonic on the G string). The resonances will allow you to continually adjust and improve your intonation "on the fly" by providing calibration points as you play. The resonance will respond more quickly and reliably than the little dial on the tuner too. Some scales do not have as many resonance notes ("ring tones") as others, and this is why some keys like A flat major are harder to play and sound less bright. For the notes where there is no obvious resonance, I also agree with Elise that there is a wonderful section in the early part of Fischer's "Scales" book that addresses this question with rare clarity. I respectfully suggest that you steer away from discussions about whether A-flat is the same as G-sharp until you feel you can play something like Kreutzer No.2 pretty well in tune.

February 12, 2013 at 09:38 PM · Kurt Sassmannshaus' violin masterclass website has some good discussion of the different tuning issues in his free videos.

February 12, 2013 at 11:35 PM · Thanks for the responses, the "ringy" notes are incredibly helpful. By the way I'm curious about Fischer's "Scales" book. Is it like the Hrîmaly Scales? (I'm working on Hrîmaly right now.)

February 13, 2013 at 09:35 PM · Fischer's book is like none other. Hrimaly is a great book and gives you a graduated approach. Flesch and Galamian give you all the fingerings and lots of challenging, complex exercises (interval scales and such) with bowing suggestions too.

What makes Fischer's book different is that he provides you with specific exercises that isolate and improve the part of each scale or arpeggio that is the most critical. He teaches you how to understand what you are doing when you practice scales.

February 14, 2013 at 01:56 AM · my two favorite exercises for intonation:

1. listen to recordings of yourself and compare your intonation to the greats ;)

2. an electric tuner...

Now people come and tell me its tempered. The idea of practicing with an electric tuner is more to be able to make the ear more sensitive to small changes and the fingers more responsive to small adjustments. After exercising with electric tuner I am much more under control of my intonation than usually

February 14, 2013 at 07:31 AM · Simon

I think it unlikely that Heifetz and Milstein et al had access to a tuner. Maybe they just had better developed ears?

February 14, 2013 at 08:32 AM · you are right obviously but Heifetz and consorten had all amazing teachers, wich lend their ear to them until they developed their own inner ear. Some develop earlier and some later, but all of us must learn to listen correctly to intonation sinse its not necessary a natural thing. Arabic music or indian music has a whole different intonation.

So... because we lack really great availible teachers, who wants to tell you the same intonation issues over and over again (wich is, what great teachers should do in my opinion even on high levels), why not use an electric tuner to sensibilize our ear? Its much cheaper and always availible as long as you don't forget to turn them off from time to time.

And lets be honest: Most intonation issues are far worse than the difference between tempered and natural intonation. Also we are quite used to tempered intonation because we listen to it every day in the radio and television.

Also on a side note: I know some very good klarinettist and bassoon players, who regularly practiced with electric tuner. In some orchestral repertoire tempered intonation may also be appropriate because of relative diffuse harmonic grounding. It all depends on the situation and what a electric tuner can teach you is to listen to details.

If you play with a piano, Akkordeon or other tempered instrument you should be used to tempered intonation anyways...

February 14, 2013 at 08:44 AM · I agree with a lot of that Simon. And we certainly have to play with modern pianos and their tuning so we have to adjust instinctively.

However, Milstein states that Auer really did not tell him much other than use your brain and think about the problems a lot. Milstein is a great believer in not practising your way out of trouble.

I think it all comes down to ear training whatever way we do it. I only use a tuner for A440 and as a metronome.

February 14, 2013 at 10:56 AM · Milstein must have been already quite accomplished when he arrived at Auers class. He was at Stoljarskys school before and has played the Glazunov concerto in odessa under Glazunov himself. I don't think there was much to do for Auer in the aspect of intonation with Milstein. As i said, some develope fast some later. Of course a good ear is to a certain degree inborn, but you have to know how to use it and if you can play perfectly in tune harmonically there is still a benefit in learning how to play tempered. For string quartet playing tempered tuning for example is sometimes the only way to go.

February 14, 2013 at 07:11 PM · Reginald Kell, one of England's top clarinetists, started as a professional violinist. He used to say the clarinet was tougher to play. I'm sure the main reason being at least the violin has four notes in tune!

February 15, 2013 at 03:36 AM · Not to mention what can happen to your teeth. Though I must admit I did have a brief affair with a lovely clarinet once in my youth. When I discovered that it would probably take up to five years to get a good sound I went back to the recorder and one-key flute (another notoriously difficult instrument for an amateur to play in tune.

Of course when people ask when I'll play the violin for them I say "another three years", that will make almost five. (I'm playing the violin for me, so I don't want the distraction of others.)

February 16, 2013 at 02:08 AM · Interesting responses going on. Anyways, no my intonation doesn't just fail on akward keys and I really hate that I can't notice it until I look at a recording of myself playing or a person telling me I'm out of tune.

February 16, 2013 at 03:46 PM · Very few friends have good hearing or good taste in my experience ...

February 16, 2013 at 03:53 PM · Practice with a drone. Your tuner should be able to produce a pitch.

Simply set it to the key of the piece you are practicing and play through very slowly listening to the intervals between the note you are playing and the drone pitch. Correct each one until it perfect so you can year what the "right" intonation is, then track drop your left hand and try again.

It is slow work, but it will train your ear and your intonation will improve.

February 16, 2013 at 05:43 PM · Of course, the very best for good intonation is playing in an orchestra.

February 16, 2013 at 06:20 PM · "Of course, the very best for good intonation is playing in an orchestra."

You are being sarcastic I assume? Some of the worst intonation is only to be experienced in an orchestra. (Professional that is, as well).

February 16, 2013 at 06:39 PM · Oh. I spend my time tuning to the leader - is that not a good thing?

February 16, 2013 at 07:27 PM · Depends on who the leader is ... one or two have good pitch.

Reminds me of a true story told to me by someone sitting on the second desk of the firsts in a Heifetz recording of a concerto (A few years ago, forget which concerto). At one point H said to the leader, that passage is out of tune. The leader (who must remain nameless) turned to the other players and said "Mr Heifetz says this passage is out on tune." Mr Heifetz then said,

"No not THEM, YOU!"

February 17, 2013 at 03:46 PM · Disagree. It could be the instrument is too close. It could be the afferent nerves are all too busy, fogging the brain. Or maybe the busy combination of efferent and afferent. Poor intonation stands out a mile on a recording - it's weird you don't notice otherwise.

February 17, 2013 at 04:50 PM · while playing our ear often adjusts to our poor intonation. Thats why beginners tend to land in d major when after starting and playing a d-flat-major scale over 3 octaves... and thats why I still recommend an electric tuner. On those sensible displays you can also see if you start the notes correctly, wich is very important for clear articulation and intonation in fast passages. Its a common habit to start the note slightly off tune and slide into perfect intonation. That should not be the case when practicing intonation (as opposed to playing a concert). The intuitive memory of the spacing between the fingers and positions is the key to proper intonation training. Its a never ending task but very beneficial.

One more thing about correcting the pitch while playing. Often technical insecurities result from too much effort put into intonation correcting. Very good players know when to leave a poor intonation where it is and try to correct the next note without throwing the technique off. If you play a note wrong its already too late and if you correct it the next note you will have to do the same because you hadn't had a chance to prepare your ears and fingers.

So clean technique is about knowing where to go, not correcting every note and hoping the best for the next. Knowing where to go by ear and by touch on the fingerboard. One concertmaster once said, that he tries to practice a passage until he could play it nearly with his ears closed. He must know exactly what to do, because in an orchestra you cannot always hear yourself that perfectly and he is the leader and cannot just lay back.

February 17, 2013 at 06:21 PM · Throw away the tuner, it stopped me dead in my tracks for a whole year.

February 17, 2013 at 07:43 PM · I will not throw that thing away ;) I don't know what you mean with "stopped you in your tracks" but I am sure you must have done something wrong.

Its a tool, its not an surrogate for a good ear, but it can teach you alot about your intonation. And I am a believer in the theory that if you make a problem conscious it is nearly solved already. The tuner is not a cure for bad intonation but an valuable tool.

February 17, 2013 at 08:25 PM · I think vision uses such an humungus amount of brain capacity that looking and listening can't really go hand in hand. That's just IMHO.

February 17, 2013 at 08:32 PM · I thought so too and there is some truth in it, thats why I keep the practice with tuner simple and no repertoire just slow scales... its all a matter of "how"!

February 18, 2013 at 03:46 AM · quote:

•If brain space indicates the importance of a sense, then vision is the most important. Roughly 30 percent of neurons in the brain's cortex are devoted to vision, compared with 8 percent for touch, and 2 percent for hearing.

Closing your eyes when you play is a good thing.

Don't worry about temperaments, it's impossible for us to learn temperaments. We can follow temperaments, but we can't learn them. We always revert to Just Intonation when playing solo as long as we listen to our mind. Playing consistently out of tune is a motor memory, not an auditory memory. We need to create proprioception/auditory memories, not visual/motor memories.

February 18, 2013 at 07:44 AM · ... and 2 percent for hearing.

That means a conductor's brain has only 0.00001 percent for hearing? That figures!!

February 18, 2013 at 01:38 PM · in my opinion motor and auditory memory are both important.

In a fast passage you cannot correct the notes after hearing them it must be in place already. Thats why slow practice is so healthy, because we can correct the intonation there. But proprioception is a beautiful word too and as I translate it its very important for violin playing. Actually You need all your senses. And you need many connection between them too. You need to be multitasking a lot when playing with others. Therefore intonation shouldn't be an issue.

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