'Contextual' intonation (and 'harmonic', 'interval'...)?

August 14, 2014 at 01:30 PM · 'Perfect pitch'. That's how each prodigy is described as if this is the elite natural gift. Its meaning is a bit obscure: to the uninitiated its someone who automatically plays every note in tune without any struggle to learn. However, its more commonly used amongst musicians as someone who can recognize the name of a note after hearing a tone. A violin teacher once surprized me by saying that 'people with perfect pitch often have lousy intonation'. Go figure. However, these people often are gifted and get 'in tune' rapidly - but this topic is about 'the rest' of us.

Plenty of violinists (and other musicians of course) play 'in tune' (which here is defined solely as 'with tones that are pleasant to the average listener's ear). They (me included)are described as having the alternative to perfect pitch - 'relative pitch'. The meaning of this is that on hearing one note they can match another note to remain 'in tune'. Thus, given a C they can form a minds-eye sound of an F# by relative position. least that's the theory.

A 'relative pitch' violinist studies intervals, harmonies (e.g. drone notes), scales - and cheats with an electronic tuner to find the note and hopefully memorize it. After a lot of practise and just time intonation gradually improves - and many relative pitch people end up with better ears for, say, chamber music than their perfect pitch colleagues (least that's how it seems to me).

But why all these methods of learning intonation? Is it possible that 'relative pitch' is just a grab-bag. Perhaps there are sub-categories and if you could identify what kind of intonation you have you could learn 'playing in tune' far more rapidly?

Well, I'm throwing that out there. But I'm writing this topic so I get the first shot:

1. Harmonizing intonation. People who pick up pitch from playing two notes at the same time - open string with chordal notes on the next one. Ricci goes on at length about this so I guess it worked for him.

2. Pattern intonation. This really is relative pitch - you learn best by running scales and arpeggios and by learning intervals.

3. 'Contextural' intonation. And this is my favorite - since its me I think. Basically you only learn the correct pitch when the note is in the context of the music you are to play. If you practise scales until they are near perfect - and then try to play a piece of music in the same key but its still out of tune (just look at your teachers perplexed face), then this might be you too.

What I've found is that for many notes I will play them in tune for one phrase - but then they will be totally out the next. If I focus really hard I can hear the note from the previous phrase and while this can help, it is not a cure-all (sometimes I haven't played it for a while). As I see it, the trouble is that for me a note sounds different in each musical phrase and my mind will make it sharper or flatter to suit. Great for me - but awful for the listener that does not have my ear. The solution (I think, early days yet) is to tune each phrase separately. Thus, I play a phrase and check all the notes in it and then learn it as one, a tonal-word if you like. The good news is that once learned 'in context' the notes stay learned.

I think (hope) that this is the reason that almost every teacher I've worked with has remarked on my awful intonation with a new piece - and later wondered why they thought it so bad. Only to rediscover with the next piece!

If I am right we might learn this critical aspect of playing much, much faster if we first identify each person's intonation mechanism, or combination.

Replies (62)

August 14, 2014 at 03:59 PM · To sing or fiddle in tune, we absolutely need to know (= have imagined) the note before we play or sing it.

For those with real absolute pitch, no problem.

For us mortals, we have to have learned in advance. This requires total and continuous conscious awareness. Exhausting!

As I am maladively envious, may I point out the disadvantages of Bloody Perfect Pitch:

- It ages badly, slipping down as we decay.

- It makes its victims know the coming sounds without the boring necessity of listening to their musical partners; so they rarely tune their notes so carefully as we do, even if they are never completely wrong. And it gives them an insufferable superiority complexe.

They can even be downright mean! I had two teachers of ear-training. After a hair-raising atonal dictation, I might have misjudged one petty little interval halfway through, so the rest was transposed.. The teacher with the BPP syndrome would take away a point for each note after the mistake: 2/20; the mortal teacher would only lose me one mark for the false interval: 19/20.....

The idea that one can acquire BPP is an illusion, although "timbre" comes into this APP. If everyone can shut up for a moment, I can hear in my head the sound of my own violin A very precisely. But I am remembering its sound, not its pitch. Real BPP is timbre-independent (or so say its smarmy, self satisfied victims.)

August 14, 2014 at 04:28 PM · For the other question, yes my teaching will adapt to the student's apparent mode of perception. E.g. those who never sing take a little longer to really care about intonation, as do those who read more easily than they hear (very common with the french solfege sytem).

I use harmonics, resonance, simple double stops etc. when the ear is under-prepared or lazy. But it is still vital to "nourish" the aural memory with attentive listening. Suzuki suggested that 1/3 of "violin time" should be spent listening to good recordings (then 1/3 revewing, and 1/3 challenges). Otherwise, we only hear our own playing.....

August 14, 2014 at 07:40 PM · I just want to make sure everyone's on the same page with tuning and intonation and we're clear on issues like equal temperament vs. just intonation...

It's confusing to talk about playing in tune as "something pleasant to the ear" if one doesn't know what scientifically makes an interval in perfect consonance, and then to go on and discuss how to maneuver around our compromised tuning systems...

August 14, 2014 at 07:41 PM · I just want to make sure everyone's on the same page with tuning and intonation and we're clear on issues like equal temperament vs. just intonation...

It's confusing to talk about playing in tune as "something pleasant to the ear" if one doesn't know what scientifically makes an interval in perfect consonance, and then to go on and discuss how to maneuver around our compromised tuning systems...

August 14, 2014 at 08:32 PM · Dorian, I also enjoy rehearsing and conducting unaccompanied choral singing: small (pure) major thirds, large (pure) minor thirds, surprisingly large resulting semitones, finding G-sharp lower than A-flat; then the momentary adjustments to keep the piece on pitch, but no equal temperament. A sort of Just Scale with carefully chosen glitches.

I even get my students to make two versions of the note B separated by a syntonic comma (2.5 millimetres on my violin) by double-stopping against G and E strings in turn. And the problem of a Pythagorean open E in a C major triad.

I can continue thus for pages, but I'm not sure that was what Elise was asking, despite (I think) her scientific background. The problem seemed to me to be more about pitching tones without a director, or reacting to other players. I find "pleasing to the ear" a reasonable summary of just intervals.

August 14, 2014 at 09:35 PM · This is great!

It seems having perfect pitch and the issue of playing in tune are two slightly different subjects, or maybe two can of worms in close proximity of each other...

I don't have perfect pitch and I would guess that people who possess it yet play badly out of tune are simply only hearing the tones in their head not truly listening to what they are producing. But I don't know since I don't have perfect pitch...

A lot of people also say perfect pitch is a disease, and I understand the sentiment, because I've seen it can be very irritating if not debilitating to people...

But on the subject of intonation, I think it is combo of your harmonizing, pattern, and contextual strategies, and I would emphasis the latter and I'm not sure there's a short cut.

>>What I've found is that for many notes I will play them in tune for one phrase - but then they will be totally out the next. If I focus really hard I can hear the note from the previous phrase and while this can help, it is not a cure-all (sometimes I haven't played it for a while).

There's also the issue of pitch memory which just takes time, and I don't know how off is your "totally out". But I can't imagine it's that bad if you're thinking so deeply about this already!

For me because I play a lot of baroque music, I find it very insightful that my cello friends playing continuo will write in the figures in their parts too if there are figures so they know what chord is happening in the bass line and they know what note of the chord they are playing.

August 14, 2014 at 10:34 PM · I rather surprised my viola teacher by sketching in the bass line in my viola parts: I wanted to "hear" it as I played....

But then only half my rather small brain was listening to my viola, which then didn't always live up to my imagination..

August 14, 2014 at 11:12 PM · Sorry if I was not clear enough. Let me make an analogy.

There are (at least) three main mechanisms of learning: visual, aural and kinesthetic. Its simply a waste of time trying to teach a pure kinesthetic ('acting out') learner by just visual means. They will come across as stupid.

I suspect that there are several ways of learning to tell when you play a note 'in tune' - not just the current choices of being 'perfect pitch' or 'relative pitch'. What I tried to do was to list some of the options (there are probably more).

As far as types of tuning - please don't complicate the issue. Look at it instead from the point of view of a non-musician audience member: does the music sound 'in tune' to them. It will do with any one of a number of tuning (scale) methods - but the instrumentalist has to be consistent and for them to pull that off they have to play the note 'in tune'.

August 15, 2014 at 02:37 AM · Perhaps we're not even thinking of the same thing. To me, "harmonizing intonation", "pattern intonation", and "contextual intonation" all describe the same process.

Just to be on the same page, perfect pitch to me is simply the ability to name note names without a reference pitch. Being able to name this note is C# off the top of your head from the air and playing C# in tune are two separate abilities.

Also perfect pitch folks learn relative pitch just like the rest of us. From what I've been told by other friends at conservatories, perfect pitch can be annoying because they just get the note names and before actually processing and feeling the relationship between notes - understanding harmony.

I think playing scale patterns and intervals with double stops and playing against a drone all help the brain learn what pitches sounds good, and then when your listening is refined enough, you can then decide whether you want a wide or narrow third or whatever. I also 100% agree with what Adrian said about listening to great performers because it gives me a sense of intonation I want.

I guess if we want to go through practical things to practice, being able to play perfect unisons and octaves against open strings with no beats will be a great start, playing chords on piano is helpful, playing against a drone is fantastic, and listening for difference tones is another tool. It seems to me it's a combination of all kinds of vertical and horizontal listening and there's no secret shortcut to "download" pitches into your head.

August 15, 2014 at 09:10 AM · Dorian - when you are working on a piece and hit a bit of difficult intonation, whats the first thing you do to fix it?

August 15, 2014 at 09:56 AM · Elise, I too may have less than good intonation when starting a new, difficult piece; I am so concentrated on complicated note-content, that I am hardly listening. Doing rather than listening..

In my student days, with limited access to pianos, I had to find the notes interval by interval. (I still mark diminished fifths with a cross when singing tenor in a choir!) In my lazy old age, I go to the keyboard to read the notes, which I then play by ear. I am refering to very chromatic or even atonal music.

I was so lucky: before starting the viola at 14, I had played piano and was a choral scholar. On the one hand, all the notes were "mapped out" in my mind, on the other, I was used to pitching sounds in my head.(Tonic Sol-Fa rather than Solfège.)

For my boarding-school pupils with no piano skills and no musical background at home, I provide recordings of their pieces and scales, even lending them mp3 players.

But before practicing, I tune my strings, then I tune my fingers with very slow, resonant scales, e.g. G major, then A-flat major.

This "reconstitutes" my inner "keyboard" which I can the use more freely. Fingers, like strings may then need re-tuning during the practice session!

August 15, 2014 at 10:49 AM ·

I think what you are describing in your playing seems to be a underdeveloped pitch memory(tonal memory).We can strengthen our pitch memory by learning simple pieces by ear and learning solfege(sight singing).

A strong pitch memory is the key(pun intended) to staying in tune.

For example, if someone is using a tuner or another note to correct poor intonation, but they play the out of tune note first then use the other note to match it or tuner second, and then move on through the piece; this poor practice technique won't develop their pitch memory. To develop pitch memory you need first play the in tune reference note first, and then play the actual note second and then repeat this action 2-3 times.

Tape on the fingerboards, matching notes, incorrect use of the tuners and not learning tunes by ear: these strategies weaken our short term pitch memory.

This statement is incorrect,IMO.

"After a lot of practise and just time intonation gradually improves - and many relative pitch people end up with better ears"

If a student is taught correctly, it will only take a few weeks to a few months to get them to play in tune; for it takes years to develop speed and variety. Our ears don't get better, but our pitch memory strengthens.

August 15, 2014 at 11:35 AM · Yes, and don't forget that the left hand is a measuring machine assisted by the ear. We tune all notes relative to each other and to other people if playing in a group. That's why violas and cellos check their C strings with each other when tuning in an orchestra. Also string quartets etc in some situations may tune a string slightly flat or sharp, often the lowest string.

Play one finger scales to train the ear, and with an open string or drone if possible.

August 15, 2014 at 01:32 PM · [Charles: 'ears' in that context was metaphorical, not literal! The learning of pitch is obviously in the brain.]

But what you have done is described how YOU learn pitch - and typical of most teachers you make the assumption that everyone does it the same way. That's why I mentioned the analogous issue of primary learning mechanism (in a later post above). Teachers teach the way that they learn - be it visual, auditory or kinesthetic - assuming that that is the way the students also learn. The result (I suspect) is that with a visual teacher the visual students do the best and are seen as the 'smartest'.

I'm suggesting that we have the same issue with intonation. The way you learn may not work so well for me. Since we are rarely 100% one or another type of learner it will work eventually - but I may learn far faster with another method.


August 15, 2014 at 01:59 PM · I do not think teachers necessarily teach the way they learnt, otherwise there would be some terrible teaching going on (as there undoubtedly is anyway).

We are taught but we have to learn for ourselves and the best players are the ones that get advice but work it out for themselves.

And it's not really visual, it's tactile and auditory. The only visual things are to check the bow for position sometimes, and the left hand to check bad use. Although some players stare at their left hand, a lot look the other way or close their eyes. Looking at fingers can't tell you where to put 'em!

It just a matter of the ears, brain and fingers as far as pitching goes. And yes, I've known lots of perfect pichers who have terrible intonation, and others with very good intonation. It's often relative (Pun intentional).

August 15, 2014 at 02:30 PM · Visual?

BTW my "inner keyboard" is aural more than visual.

I put one or two small stickers on the fingerboard for, say, 1st & 4th fingers, so the pupil doesn't play out of tune all week till the next lesson.

When the stickers wear off, they often don't need replacing, until changing to a bigger violin.

A visual aid, therefore.

My strategies for intonation vary a lot from student to student. We all need the same elements, but thy will not be acquired in the same order.

August 15, 2014 at 03:08 PM · I think this thread would be revitalized by some really super newbie questions so here goes.

It seems that teaching strategies for intonation are closely guarded. What would I expect to learn about the subject in preparation to becoming a music teacher? (What does INTONATION 101 have to say?)

I do not have perfect pitch or even close but I manage very well with a different attack. I play by chord structure but not well in all keys. The music becomes much easier after I hear the chord structure and then the notes just "happen".

August 15, 2014 at 03:23 PM · I'm not sure that teaching strategies are "closely guarded"; just that we teach least well those aspects which caused us the least trouble.

I've read that you can't teach vibrato: not true!

Can an apparently tone-deaf pupil learn to play and sing in tune? Yes! Very rewarding!

August 15, 2014 at 04:31 PM · Darlene: EXACTLY!! You've identified your learning mode for intonation, chordal. That would be the harmony listed above. Since you are relatively new you can probably understand that this would not work so well for others - that they may need sequential, pattern or contextural (or any more that someone might think of).

[BTW the methods of learning are not specific for music where I guess aural is dominant (and maybe kinesthetic) - I was talking about general learning (math, biology, dance, etc etc).

August 15, 2014 at 04:49 PM · I do NOT have absolute pitch. Sale's pitch is more my thing because I live in Sale, Cheshire, UK.

August 15, 2014 at 05:20 PM · I have to say Adrian, that I am totally against putting tapes on instrument fingerboards. This is the way to train your pupils to play out of tune for the rest of their lives, unless someone later shows them how to use their ears.

A lot of good teachers have to undo all this bad teaching that plagues our students here in the UK.

August 15, 2014 at 05:37 PM · Elise

There is a major difference between your scales and playing in context. You essentially have the scales memorized. The new music initially dilutes your attention and , therefore, performance.

My playing in "chordal" fashion has some pitfalls. Sometimes I find myself doing a few bars that the composer did not write !!

Without diverting the thread, how does the Suzuki method achieve intonation success?

August 15, 2014 at 06:32 PM · Peter, I am well aware that one cannot see the stickers(small roud ones,not tapes) clearly and they are a temporary measure. Very, very few beginners correct on their own. They enable the poor child to play nearly in tune in my absence, and really reduce time taken to correct by ear. Trust me, I've been teaching beginners aged from 3 to 50 yo for the last 40 years!! Not everyone has our (yours and mine) facility.

Darlene, the slow scales establish the "reserve" of sounds in the aural memory which will last more or less well into practice of pieces.

Even for me, the time spent on such scales depends on weather/digestion/fatigue etc.

Elise's questions concern those for whom the path to Good Intonation is less obvious; everyone, but everyone, has the right to be helped, I think.

August 15, 2014 at 07:03 PM · According to Ruggerio some teachers had a foolproof method of making their pupils play in tune. Taking a gun from the gun cabinet the teacher said "play that note out of tune again and I will shoot you." It's a very effective way of teaching, either they play tune or they don't play again!

A pupil in Auer's time (about 1910) in St P-Burg gave the 8 year old student a study to learn. His father ( a bit of a fiddler himself) said to his son, do this other one - it's better. When the kid played the wrong study a week later, the teacher grabbed him by the neck - opened the window and held him outside saying "if you ever play the wrong study again I will drop you." (They were on the tenth floor ...)

It's a very effective way of teaching.

Much better than spots on the fingerboard. (Spots of blood are OK). You must have had a soft life Adrian! (wink)

August 15, 2014 at 08:23 PM · "You must have had a soft life Adrian!"

Yes, but I play the viola to compensate!

But may I insist on listening to good players almost as much as playing oneself. Apart from drones, harmonies, resonance, context etc, we need immersion in the right sounds.

For example, when I speak my fluent French, I think of what I am saying, and my eengleesh accent is blatant; when I sing a French mélodie, I imitate Pierre Bernac or Gérard Souzay, with no accent, because I am imitating sounds, not words.

August 15, 2014 at 08:30 PM · That really is a penance over and above the call of duty!

August 15, 2014 at 08:40 PM · Elise,

I have a little report re intonation that may prove nothing but was a big surprise to me.

I have always liked to train with midi backup files but it was horrible whenever I made recordings. I blamed it on poor midi quality.

I did an experiment. I accompanied the midi file playing intentionally sharp and then flat.

I'm not even talking about a minute finger "roll" for flats and sharps. Less.

Guess what? I have been playing flat all along. I retested the conclusion and that's the fact.

I think that by playing occasional notes flat (i.e. lazy left hand) I then pull the whole note pattern down.

I guesstimate that the technical range I'm dealing with is 10-15 cents(?)

No star for me today!

August 15, 2014 at 10:12 PM · To answer a question about learning pitch with Suzuki, I had the tapes when I first started. I forget how long they lasted. It's really not the worst thing in the world. You're supposed to listen to the recordings over and over as well, which feature very good (and in-tune) playing. So there's a feeling of success when a child can put his finger exactly on the tape and produce the exact same pitches he hears on the recording. Soon enough he's not looking at the tapes anymore, or better yet they just fall off!

I do agree, by the way, that in theory a purely ear and feel-based approach would be ideal.

August 15, 2014 at 10:39 PM · I had not thought of the motivation aspect. Instant reward in a way.

August 16, 2014 at 01:13 AM ·

August 16, 2014 at 01:25 AM · Hi Elise,

I want to apologize if I sounded I was complicating things intentionally with tuning systems, I probably got too nitpicky because it's a confusing subject and I want to be precises. It's probably least well understood even among professional musicians, and my knowledge of it is pretty superficial to be honest...

I think Kurt Sassmannhaus' intonation page is not a bad place to start open this can of worms:


If I find a passage that I'm consistently out of tune, let's say a very awkward triple/quadrupple stop in solo Bach,:

1) the first thing I do is check my balance - feel that the knees are not locked, chest is open, thumb is not squeezing, and so on - this solves a lot of things already,

2) build the chord from the root, then fifth, then the other notes. I figure out what key and see if there's a neighboring open string that's suitable to find the note. So obviously if you're figuring out where to put a B-flat, open A string might is not your best choice play off against. Once you've figured out your anchor note, find where to place the other fingers in just intonation.

3) When you've able to find all your notes in that position, go to the previous note or chord, and practice playing from the previous thing to the anchor note you've just found, and then build the chord again from that anchor note. So you're breaking down this huge process into many tiny steps.

This is probably too many words to describe your "contextual" intonation. I find half the time out of tune-ness comes from tension in the body. When it's not excessive tension's fault, it's because the fingers haven't been told by the brain where to go, and that's because the brain itself don't know precisely what it wants.

Other pitfalls I find in myself are, for example, playing octaves - when I adjust one finger, the other finger moved without realizing, and so both notes are adjusting to each other in a circle.

If it's a melodic passage and it doesn't sound right, after I check my body I would play a scale in the key with whatever notes are in it, that usually solves things quickly.

I would go check out the Sassmannhaus page if you haven't, I think it's really worded well maybe it would illuminate some of the posts's original questions...

August 16, 2014 at 07:14 AM · Peter Charles, 15th. August, wrote "..yes, I've known lots of perfect pichers who have terrible intonation..."

Me too. And quite a few played without shoulder rests, as well.

These folk were often in "better jobs" than me, so one began to wonder if I was misguided. "I'm concertmaster, you are not; what I say goes; I MUST be right....and yes, that really was a dirty look ..."

I suspect that there's a gap between having "absolute pitch", recognising decent intonation in others, and being able to check what you are doing yourself. Maybe after years of study the player, who can't often hear him/herself if in a large ensemble, or is preoccupied with the need to "act the part" (see another thread) will begin to rely on autopilot or dead-reckoning rather than sat-nav. As Robert Burns might have written:- "O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To hear oursels as ithers hear us! "

Intonation is a funny subject. There have been many threads about it. The problem began when THE CREATOR, inventing the whole universe on the back of an envelope in 6 days, happened to fix it that no matter how many times you multiply 1.5 by itself you never arrive at a multiple of 2. Ascending perfect fifth on perfect fifth starting on a C many times SHOULD eventually arrive back at another C - bit there's a discrepancy which drives not only musical theorists bonkers but even quartet players, who, as Mr. Charles observed, sometimes need to slightly tune up C strings ....

August 16, 2014 at 07:37 AM · [Just made it to Toulouse S France - will catch up anon... ;) )

August 16, 2014 at 08:28 AM · David, I think our Creator was ensuring that we remain humble! It's the same with leap years, nothing quite fits. Endless perfect fifhs send us spinning out of orbit, so we need those mushy true thirds for a bit of comfort, a bit like sucking our thumbs.

August 16, 2014 at 11:21 AM · re:- " ....one began to wonder if I was misguided".

The sobering thought has to be that I must have sounded even worse to them than they did to me !

August 16, 2014 at 11:35 AM · Concertmasters (leaders) often think they have become god, but those non-believers, like me, just give a rye smile and note down their shortcomings in our little black books ...

August 16, 2014 at 11:37 AM · "Just made it to Toulouse S France - will catch up anon... "

You mean they let you in?!

Don't tell 'em your a fiddler or post on V.com or they will say "off with her head."

August 16, 2014 at 03:13 PM · Elise wrote :-" 'Perfect pitch'. That's how each prodigy is described as if this is the elite natural gift."

There's a gift called Eidetic Memory - a small proportion of kids have it for a limited time. Have a look at the link below, folks !

Some prodigies drop off the radar as they mature. This might be a clue as to why.


BTW is the smile mentioned by Peter Charles a rye whiskey one ??

August 16, 2014 at 04:02 PM · Rye's good but a single malt is even better. Especially when its more than a single, single malt ...

August 18, 2014 at 08:03 AM · Elise, I was thinking, at last, about the terms you used(!):

- "contextual" is perhaps more an awareness of chords: the most helpful for fine tuning; but also melodic movement, for "expressive intonation";

- "pattern" goes in melodic "chunks" to be repeated often, like learning to pronounce new words in a foreign language;

- "sequential" learning won't help intonation without the other two; this is why we may play less in tune while learning a new piece : we are not yet matching our notes to our store of remebered sounds

August 18, 2014 at 11:36 AM · The problem with your theory is that in reality there is only one path that a hearing violinist uses, and that is: ear, auditory sense, short term tonal memory, processing of the working memory, then finally long term memory, or as some say 'ear and head work'- metaphorically speaking of coarse.

There is also only one concept to learning good intonation, and that is to listen or think of the note first, and then repeat.

When we use visual, kinesthetic or auditory learning techniques we are using different scenes, different paths and different parts of the mind for each technique. When we play the violin there is only one true way in and one true way out.

August 18, 2014 at 11:56 AM · Charles - I sort of definitely agree (IF I've understood you correctly)!

However, and I'm not aiming this at anyone at all who as posted in response the the original poster, but I feel the need for a bl**dy great YAWN!!!!!!!

ZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzz (Wake me up please ...)

August 18, 2014 at 01:40 PM · "There is also only one concept to learning good intonation, and that is to listen or think of the note first, and then repeat."

But this is what I have said all along! It's the strategies for getting there that can vary from person to person, and imposing our own strategy on someone with quite different sensibities can slow, or even stop, their progress.

P.S. And Peter, sleep well!

August 18, 2014 at 01:54 PM · Thanks Adrian - I do need some sleep as I'm chief nursemaid at the moment as me wife sustained an injury. (I Thumnped her in the kn****rs). Only joking, she got hit by the dog at high speed yesterday and is laid up with a kn*****ed ankle, and so I'm nursemaid to the dog (only slightly shocked) and my wife who is banging away (if that's the right word) on the old johanna at the moment. No amount of whiskey is doing much good ( to me as well) and I've not gotten time to even put me new strings on.

I've just been thinking that we should really play on rotten old worn out strings as it makes us try harder for as better sound, does it knot?

August 18, 2014 at 05:23 PM · +But this is what I have said all along! It's the strategies for getting there that can vary from person to person, and imposing our own strategy on someone with quite different sensibities can slow, or even stop, their progress."

Thank you Adrian - nice to see that at least one person got it!

[And please lets keep quiet, we don't want to wake Peter...]

August 18, 2014 at 06:10 PM · Whew! Welcome back - how was Toulouse?

August 18, 2014 at 06:44 PM · Adrian got it - but he's already lost it! (BIG joke if you can stand it ...)

By the way, i am still asleep, this is just my subconscious. (I'm never conscious ...)

August 18, 2014 at 08:18 PM · Adrian - I'm 40 miles south west of Toulouse attending a violin course - and studying with a Moscow conservatory faculty virtuoso. And no, it doesn't get better than this...

And wasn't that Peter's subconscious I tripped over dropping in?

August 20, 2014 at 02:59 AM · The problem is your approach and the way you are looking at is wrong. Yes, there are different ways to teach intonation, but only a few really good ways that everyone benefits from and more poor to worst ways that make learning to play in tune a chore. You can categorize them as: 1) listen first then repeat 2nd techniques, 2)drones, 3) matching and 4)just bad(wrong, slow...).

1)Listen first then repeat 2nd techniques: The best and arguably the only way to teach good intonation. Examples: learning solfege to sight sing the melodies first, then play them on violin. Learn and memorize the melodies first on a different instrument, then repeat them on the violin. Teacher plays note(s) on piano first, stops, then you repeat. Sing the note first then repeat it on violin. Use a tuner to find a note, and then repeat the note at least 3 times without the tuner's help. Listen to the melodies over a period of time before learning them.

2)Drones:Drones are good for scales and arpeggios (not great for melodies), because the keep us in pitch and help with consistency, but shouldn't be overused(play once or twice with the drone then repeat it without). They also shouldn't be used to correct poor intonation, because than it becomes a matching technique and matching techniques don't switch on our working memory. Harmonizing is a matching technique.

3)Matching(sliding into) Techniques: matching techniques don't really work; they become more of a crutch over time, and our short term pitch memory doesn't kick into working mode. Examples: teacher plays melody and you play along while reading the music. When you play an out of tune D note on A string, then you match it the open D string. You use a tuner to find an out of tune note, but instead of repeating the note a few times without the tuner you move on to the next note. The teacher plays a note on the piano and holds it and you match it.

4)just bad(wrong, slow...)methods:

Looking at fingers during placement.This is a bad idea, because playing in tune isn't a 'hand eye coordination' technique. This action interferes with, dulls or slows our auditory and proprioception senses.

Tape on the finger board: Tape on the fingerboard is such a bad idea. There is so many wrong things with this it's not worth getting into. Teachers that use this really don't no how to teach good intonation; if they did they wouldn't use it.

Teachers that don't correct poor intonation:

Some teachers don't correct poor intonation, reasons: they are shy and don't have assertive personalities.

Teaching good intonation is a challenge and they are not up to it (lazy).

They ignore it and think you will learn it over time.

They believe good intonation cannot be taught(stupid).

They believe students that play out of tune are 'tone deaf'.


Pattern and context intonations are the same thing: they are all melodies. We are more likely to play something in tune that is pleasing to us than something that isn't very melodic.

One mistake teachers make with beginners is having them over practice before they have learned the concept of intonation, and the ability to correct poor intonation. My students are told not to practice more than a 1/2 hour A WEEK in the first month. The first lessons(month or two) are more like supervised practice.

Elise, here's one of my new students that has agreed to be video taped for a 'before and after' advertising campaign of mine.


I have a high success rate when retraining violinist with poor technique and intonation.

August 20, 2014 at 05:18 AM · Charles, I absolutely agree with all that, but:

- for those who spontaneously organise their thoughts visually, finger patterns, with or without temporary tapes (I prefer a few dots), are a useful "tool" to form the kinaeshetic side; then the fingers are near enough "on the dot" to correct aurally. When my dots fall of, they are no longer necessary. I also propose the dots when changing to a larger violin, although many adapt spontaneously by then;

- whatever the universal requirements for good intonation, we have to grasp the individual's learning mechanism (initial perception, mental organisation, memorisation etc.). Folks' hands and minds are as different as faces!

- in addition to the methods you outline, I must insist on "passive" listening to good playing, which creates the vital backround reserve of remembered sounds; like expat children who learn a new language in the playground, with no accent..

August 20, 2014 at 08:09 AM · Charles - interesting and informative post. But you seem awfully sure of yourself. You seem to claim to both be able to teach anyone intonation and to do so faster than they can learn by any other method? From how you write it seems you know more about the subject than anyone else.

For example:

"Pattern and context intonations are the same thing: they are all melodies. We are more likely to play something in tune that is pleasing to us than something that isn't very melodic"

What if I told you that one works great for me but the other does not? How then can they be the same thing for me?

It seems to me that you teach intonation by every method at the same time (all of which are good) - and yes, that you will have success with most, if not all, people that have the capacity to learn. However, that's exactly my point, that it may be that for each individual much of the time spent you teach may be with minor returns while a few of the methods may be doing most of the actual learning.

August 20, 2014 at 12:22 PM · I think that this robot has perfect pitch which amounts to a decision about where to put his fingers which essentially is the same decision I would have to make. This is a purely mechanical interpretation of a note "data base". Nothing more.


August 20, 2014 at 07:00 PM · I do agree with Charles and I would repeat that I think personally that teaching even beginners with dots/tapes or whatever is a mistake. If I had a child learning with another teacher and they did that I would sack them. (No danger as I'm too old to produce children anymore).

But this is my last word on the this subject and probably any other so I will bow out gracefully and drown in my (Charles) beer. (Puns intended).

August 20, 2014 at 08:17 PM · Peter, could you please help me - what does fingerboard-tape have to do with this subject? A form of intonation memory? I don't think even the most optimistic taper would dream to argue that...

August 20, 2014 at 08:22 PM · Oops!

August 20, 2014 at 08:22 PM · Oops!.

August 20, 2014 at 08:22 PM · "..I would sack them.."

I would hope that such a parent would discuss the matter with the attention it deserves...

My priority is the interests of children and music; my choices come from several decades in those two fields: I have had the time (and patience) to seek for what is best for each individual.

August 21, 2014 at 02:07 PM · Come on, wake up e!

It's part of the dicussion.

"I put one or two small stickers on the fingerboard for, say, 1st & 4th fingers, so the pupil doesn't play out of tune all week till the next lesson. When the stickers wear off, they often don't need replacing, until changing to a bigger violin. A visual aid, therefore."

Quote - Sir Adrian (I used to work for one Sir Adrian (Boult) who never used fingerboard tapes but a long stick called a baton (not a french loaf by the way) (Ha, Ha, wink, wink) (Don't take any of this too seriously as I've just escaped again from you know where).

By the way, I've just been sacked as chief nursemaid to my wife (with damaged ankle) for gross dereliction of duty, as I was caught out with the dog who dragged me into a public house where I helped empty the barrel of beer. As a punishment I have to play, G,A and D major and minor scales in four octaves for three hours ...

August 21, 2014 at 02:52 PM · I'm going to call your wife Peter and insist that your punishment is served with the entire spectrum of fingerboard tape. Welcome to the shoulder mandolin...

August 21, 2014 at 03:45 PM · Pleased you can see the funny side of this. I can't as i've worn out 4 thicknesses of tape and the fingerboard is a half inch thinner ... I must be pressing too hard, and it got very hot from my speeds and almost caught fire. I've burnt fingers now ... (Back to the pub to soak them in beer...)

August 21, 2014 at 11:06 PM · Great discussion, thanks for all the info.

Ive been writing a blog and i also talk about this. Please i would like some feedback to improve myself! thanks :)


August 22, 2014 at 12:22 AM · Hi Elise:

Consider this (key of D minor) sequence of 4 tones: D, Eflat, C sharp, D

1) As harmonized by Tonic Chord (for D )

2) next the Neopolitan 6th chord which is in harmony with the E flat

3) next the Dominant chord which harmonizes the C sharp.

4) finally resolve to the tonic chord for D

Oboists love this 4 note seuence (D, E flat, C sharp then D) when they loosen up and play an ultra low E flat followed by an ultra high C sharp. Expressive beyond belief.

The same sequence occurs from a lowered B flat descending to a higher pitched C sharp. Melodically singers, string, woodwind, and brass players emulate this compressed interval rendering of such two note progressions.

Keyboard instruments are not able to do this kind of interval tuning.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

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