Am I Hearing Things or Is It Just Tones?

February 2, 2015 at 03:11 AM · I have browsed the archives without really finding the answer I'm looking for about intonation. That is, the relation of pitch and tone. Is intonation better if the tone is better?

I have noticed something strange about all this. I often play along with backup midi or mp3. Sometimes I will encounter a note that I just can not force to be in correct pitch. In the extreme, I have a bad time playing with a recorded oboe. In contrast, I never have a problem with a recorded flute. (or live)

But my question is not about hardware. Does tone effect intonation such that it would be a major concern in new violin purchases? Yes, I would want the best I could afford but am I making too much of tone?

(I remember a young high school orchestra soloist who had the most gorgeous violin I ever heard in person. Her notes "sounded round" and I will never forget it!)

Should I expect to have some problems playing with other instruments just possibly due to THEIR sound?

(It happens that my violin and church piano are a heavenly match.)

(Yes, I'm thinking about a new violin but my favorite shop is now about 700 miles away since I moved.) (bad move!)

Replies (48)

February 2, 2015 at 04:53 AM · Greetings,

I think you may be mixing a few different issue here, but they are all interesting!

First of all if you buy as violin you want one that has a good sound, or 'tone' period. But along with this is the question of whethe for not you are compatible with the instrument. If it's size, shape or way of best being played is not compatible with your physique or psyche then it is not for you.

Then there is the question of the relationship between tone and intonation. Every instrument has it's own basic intonation which means a certain sweet spot for each note irrespective of the into national requirements of whatever piece you are playing. If you are sensitive to this then you can get the best out of that instrument compared to someone who is playing more or less in tune but is not attuned to this.

This kind of sensitized listening is a lifetimes work. I start each day with Fischers warming up which includes and exercise where you play for example a loud A on the g string listening for it's correct pitch which should have a warm core. as you play it you can both hear and see the a string vibrating. Like wise with a loud e on the g string you will hear and see your e string vibrating rather loudly. Make sure your hand isn't touching it which often happens in the normal playing position. This kind of daily work to find the most resonant sounds will improve your playing and tone in general.

Then there is another interesting effect . The perfect sound is the best possible use of soundpoint, speed and weight for a given note. In Eastern Europe And Russia etc this perfect sound is called Tonus. The player who absolutely excalled at this was David Oistrakh. Tyhe funny thing is that relatively speaking (say compared to Heifetz or Hahn) he actually didn't have the worldsgreatest left hand and on occasion as he got older he played very marginally out of tune. But his sound production was just so phenomenal that it was more or less unnoticeable as one bathed in the beauty of the sound.

Havhing a marvelous tone can cover a multitude of sins.

Cheers,

Bur

February 2, 2015 at 08:11 AM · Violins, oboes, accordions, have a timbre rich in overtones (hopefully "harmonics", if the strings are true enough). This seems to make our "ear" more fussy about intonation.

Singers, flutists, saxophinists, can get away with murder by comparison (no offence meant, they are so lucky!)

I used Aricore strings to "sweeten" my slightly nasal viola: I found it easier to play in tune, but not everyone agreed! With Obligatos, warm but with an "edge", I have recovered my usual obsession with the fine tuning of intervals.

Also, flutes and oboes, un-corrected by the players, will produce different intonation due to their structures. All on our little owns, as Buri just said, our violins may encourage a personal intonation by their "sweet spots".

February 2, 2015 at 11:45 AM · I welcome remarks from both previous posts.

Another situation I think about is common tuners. After using a tuner I go back and tweak each string by ear. I don't think my violin has best sound quality at 440 but it takes careful attention to hear that.

February 2, 2015 at 12:48 PM · Some violins give stronger intonation cues than others (and part of this will depend on which part of the spectrum you draw your intonation cues from), and some are easier to play than others.

When an instrument seems easier to play in tune than others, it's often because it doesn't give off strong intonation cues. So you can be off, but just less aware of it.

February 2, 2015 at 01:02 PM · I've read (can't remember where) some musicians with absolute pitch have greater difficulty recognizing notes produced by instruments other than their own; so recognition of pitch can be closely tied to the timbre, presumably depending on familiarity with a certain timbre.

In addition to different types of instruments (oboe v. clarinet) tending toward sharpness or flatness (in certain ranges or overall,) individuals seem to have pitch tendencies. Some people have a very centred pitch (they don't move for nobody!) others more relative. Some play sharper, others flatter. Some hear more tempered, others more pure, and yet others 'expressively' altering their tuning according to context (none of this is mutually exclusive, but people do have their preferences.)

I've observed awareness of what the left hand and arm are doing often fixes a stubborn 'intonation' problem. Though we train to move our fingers with our ears, I think we equally hear with our fingers and arms. So the more we improve ranges of motion for violin playing the more sensitive our hearing/feel-for-pitch; how we manipulate pitch becomes more in line with our expectation of the note produced.

Interestingly, when you are absolutely in tune with (or in sync with) another sound, your own sound seems to diminish in the perfect blend. So rather than forcing your pitch to match, you might want try and ease into a perfect blend, 'disappear' into the other sound. Some concert musicians seem to stand out of the texture by playing on the sharp-side of in-tune.

Short answer, I think the greater issue is physical. If the fiddle is setup well, and you're comfortable on it (size, string length, table length, stop length, neck size and shape, shape of right upper bout, rib height, even the curvature along the purfling of the plates) you shouldn't have major problems with it, especially as you become more familiar with its personality. Some instruments are higher maintenance and have more quirks, so it becomes a question of whether you love the voice enough to put up with it.

I find some violins simply easier to play in tune (even comparing unfamiliar fiddles to my own; I suspect it has mostly to do with string length, mine being a few mm too long for me; though oddly, my viola, which has a much longer string length than my violin, isn't harder to play in tune relative to my violin. It's weird.) But the setup makes a huge difference for playability and intonation: bridge shape/curvature which affects string heights, spacing between strings on bridge and nut, nut shape and height, the fingerboard dressing (the scoop in the fingerboard) and its 'straightness' (make sure there's no twisting or warping.) Some shops (and luthiers/makers) are better at basic setup than others, regardless of the quality/price of an instrument.

February 2, 2015 at 01:28 PM · It's either in tune or not - that's an absolute.

Stop blaming instruments for your own failures!

February 2, 2015 at 02:09 PM · David, by cues do you mean timbral, resonance, wolf tones, etc.? That's fascinating, especially the part about false sense of security on a bland instrument, if I take your meaning.

February 2, 2015 at 02:10 PM · Let's start with some definitions of intonation and tone so we can talk about the same thing.

Intonation is the fundamental frequency of the note being played. Pretty simple.

We have had a lot of energetic discussions on what constitutes "good" intonation, but that is a discussion on what frequency sounds "best" in the context of a melody or harmony being played.

That is why carefully tuning the strings using a chromatic tuner can sometimes result in a particular melody or harmony sounding very odd. While adjusting the frequencies "by ear" gives a more pleasing melody line.

Tone is the overtone content of the note being played. Overtones are higher frequency vibrations of the string.

If each overtone is very close to an integer multiple of the fundamental frequency being played (for the A string: 2x=880, 3x=1320, etc) the tone sounds very pure and both the ear and tuners and rapidly recognize the note. We call this a "harmonic" spectrum of overtones.

But violin strings to not vibrate perfectly, and there are any number of things that can set some of their overtones to a non-integer multiple of the basic frequency. Both tuners and players will wonder what note is being played and wander about with needle or finger trying to identify the note.

These "enharmonic" spectrums can be induced by great players to add interesting "color" to the the music.

So the short answer to your question is yes, the tone of the note is very important to the intonation.

February 2, 2015 at 02:41 PM · Carmen, I think musicologists use pitch for what you call intonation. The word tone is avoided because it is ambiguous, often used synonymously with pitch, but also for timbre, or even steps between pitches (whole-tone v semi-tone.) I think some would further differentiate pitch, as a psychoacoustical phenomenon, from frequency, a property of waves.

Timbre has to do not only with frequency, but also amplitude of the various overtones, and how we (each) perceive the relative strengths of those overtones.

I have a hard time believing a machine would be 'confused' by timbre, but I guess it's possible. On the other hand, people are not confused by the 'perfection' of overtones as machines are, because we hear pitches, whereas machines measure frequency. Good intonation is more complex than frequencies and overtones, I think, as it moves into the realm of psychoacoustics (or maybe just psychos) and musical context. Musicians learn to hear pitch in the context of tonality, harmonic progressions, various temperaments, and their (often ill-)tempered colleagues. Or not.

February 2, 2015 at 02:42 PM · I too usually retune after using an electronic tuner; not because my fiddles don't like 440Hz, but because of the inharmonicity of strigs, which Carmen so clearly explains (as usual!)

Other point: absolute pitch and timbre.

I find I "know" if we are rehearsing at 440Hz or 442Hz by the timbre of my viola, but a colleague with "real" absolute pitch (the insufferably cocksure sort!) assures me that his Absolute pitch is quite timbre-independent.

BTW, I like "timbre" as less ambiguous than "tone"; and I prefer "absolute" to "perfect" pitch, as the latter often means perfect intonation.

And Peter, would that it be so simple! In tune with what?...

PS, just for fun, play double-stops into your tuners; e.g. C+E gives C, while C+E-flat gives A-flat. Carmen, or Eric Rowe, can explain that on much better than I can, but it's the same phenomenon as hearing a double bass on a speaker too small to reproduce it physically.

PPs "strings", not "strigs": I have a head cold..

February 2, 2015 at 02:57 PM · For some violin players a difference in their 2 ears can result in some ambiguous intonation sensations because the player's ears are each exposed to a different sound. Without attempting any diagnosis, I would suggest you record yourself on a decent digital recorder and replay through a reasonably good system so that your two ears will be exposed to the same sound.

EDIT

Another thing you can try is plugging your left ear when you play and see what that sounds like. When I reached age 50 I started to notice that I was having trouble tuning to oboe in orchestra - but the problem went away when I used an earplug in my left ear (reducing the sound I heard by 12 - 18 DB).

The kind of strings you use can affect the response of your violin so very much. These days it can take a lot of experimentation to find "the best" strings for your fiddle. 40 years ago there were not so many choices.

Andy

February 2, 2015 at 03:28 PM · Peter

Yes, many of my problems are not instrument related and I suspect that will always be true!

However, I've had the chance to play other violins, maybe a dozen in all, and results varied. Not me!

I remember one violin beyond my price range which literally played "by itself". Again, same me.

RE POST ON "PERFECT BLEND"

Perfect blend lives and it happens to me fairly often. What happens is that my note(s) is in such close agreement with other players that I can't identify my note. I have sometimes purposely played slightly off pitch to hear what I'm doing.

I'm not talking about doing a whole song like this but maybe 1 or 2 bars and I would guess that many of the desirable parameters are involved covering physical violin and performer.

February 2, 2015 at 04:11 PM · Jeewon, one can refine the discussion into more subtle properties as you point out. But fundamentally, intonation is about choosing a frequency to play. Whether it is a good or a bad choice does depend on the factors you mentioned.

People who pronounce a intonation choice as correct based strictly upon some concept of absolute pitch would probably be happier playing a piano rather than a violin.

A string player is in the enviable position of being able to tap directly into the psychology of harmony and melody because of the greater freedom to make intonation choices than is available to stopped and fretted instruments.

Adrian's tuner experiment with double stops illustrates how a machine can get confused about pitch. Basically he is introducing overtones that are not all integer multiples of some fundamental frequency so the electronics has trouble deciding what pitch is being played. The human brain is not so different in this regard.

February 2, 2015 at 04:27 PM · Re: Perfect Blend (robusta and arabica?):

My woodwind friends say that string players like to tune and play a teeny bit sharp. I don't know if this is due to inharmonicity, or just to hear what we are doing.

Re: C+Eb=Ab:

This is due to non-linearity in the tuner (mic or curcuitry) re-creating a fake "fundamental". It's the same phenomenon as the ghost notes produced in our ears (but not in the room!) when we play high double-stops. Fact.

February 2, 2015 at 04:27 PM · Things don't need to be so complicated.

Tone and intonation work together. If your intonation is better, then your instrument will sing more, especially on the notes that are harmonics of other, lower notes. And there are quite a few of those, so intonation obviously affects your tone. On the flip side, if you play with a richer, more even tone, then you will be better able to discern and quickly repair smaller and smaller imperfections in your intonation. You will notice this mutual effect when you practice scales or many of the Wohlfardt, Kayser, Dont Op. 20, Sitt, Kreutzer No. 2, 10, etc., which can be played with just back-and-forth bowing. My teacher tells me to practice those with uniform "forte" dynamics (at least sometimes) and with a secure detache stroke for this reason.

Peter's post about not blaming your instrument was just mean and didn't really warrant a response, but you said that your intonation sounded different on some different violins that you tried. It's quite possible that changes in the setup (chin rest, shoulder rest, height of the nut and bridge) as well as in the physicality of the violin itself (shape of the neck) could affect your intonation. Professionals have such security in their left hand that they can adapt to those things very fast, but it's not so easy for amateurs like you or me.

When you try different violins in shops just play something really easy that rings a lot such as "May Song" from Suzuki Book 1. You can start on the A, D, and G strings. Learn it in third position and you'll have three additional test points. Does the violin have a good, strong, balanced sound across at least that limited range?

About whether violins play themselves, recall the famous Heifetz story -- someone said "your violin sounds great" and he held it up to his ear and replied, "That's funny, I don't hear anything."

I recommend you tune just your A string with the tuner, then tune the others mutually to perfect fifths. If your violin was badly out of tune at the beginning, then when you have finished check the A again because it might have shifted and you might need another go-around.

February 2, 2015 at 06:43 PM · Paul D

I'm afraid that it may be more complicated than we like because of what Carmen T. said. That is the freedom of intonation provided by the violin vs. a fretted instrument. Come to think of it, the violin is almost totally "configurable"! But that's a welcome challenge to me.

With all the ammunition from this thread I think I can refine my strategy for finding a candidate violin. (But the price may have gone up!)

February 2, 2015 at 07:33 PM · "Peter's post about not blaming your instrument was just mean and didn't really warrant a response"

Paul

You have to be mean to get good intonation and some people have too many excuses. Whilst some amount of artistic licence an be accepted - such as bending pitch to suit someone else or specific keys, or an open string etc as mentioned by Adrian, good intonation is a lifetime's work. I think this is where many players go wrong - they are not willing to be mean to themselves or others to get excellent intonation.

So I repeat, stop making excuses. And I don't care if you do think I'm a mean b*****d. (wink)

February 2, 2015 at 08:08 PM · Peter, notice I didn't say you were wrong.

Darlene, "D" (third finger on the A string) is going to ring on any violin because it's the first harmonic of the D string. I don't really buy into the idea of different violins having "different intonation" if that's what you mean. The exact *level* of response to different harmonics will certainly vary, otherwise every violin would have the same sound. But principles of secure intonation will be the same, they are rooted in relatively elementary classical wave mechanics. You don't have to spend a fortune to get a violin on which you can learn to play in tune in a way that will be immediately transferrable to every violin that has four properly tuned strings.

February 2, 2015 at 09:45 PM · My notion is that there is not only one unique microscopic spot that defines each note and this lends itself to artistic expression possibilities.

But the response varies as you point out. I only control the input.

February 3, 2015 at 01:10 AM · It is a psychoacoustic effect that loudness can affect perception of pitch. That is why when one tunes, one needs to play quite softly.

February 3, 2015 at 01:14 AM · "David, by cues do you mean timbral, resonance, wolf tones, etc.? That's fascinating, especially the part about false sense of security on a bland instrument, if I take your meaning."

I think you got my meaning quite well. :-)

February 3, 2015 at 06:06 PM · As I read this thread I find opinions from many qualified people but there is the usual room for debate. I wish there was more tangible evidence one way or another and there just might be.

My "witness" is my electric violin. It is a toy in my hands but I'm good at monkeying with parameters and achieving all kinds of sounds. I never did come up with an acceptable violin sound although many people have been successful.

It is easy however to dial in degrees of waveform/spectrum content. As I reduced harmonic content, my intonation improved. (No it didn't.) I simply did not have to struggle so hard with synthesis.

I NEVER played with more accuracy than with this "throttled" electric and I imagine that my "noisy" violin causes related problems but also offers opportunities.

My criteria for buying/evaluating a new violin will not be just "sounds great" but I also expect the impression that the instrument is "easy to play".

February 3, 2015 at 06:58 PM · My earlier remarks were just to say that we will be less fussy about intonation if the tone has fewer overtones, not that we will play more in tune!

Another (established) fact worth mentioning is that our perception of pitch changes somewhat with differet degrees of loudness; but not to the same extent, nor in the same direction, for each of us.

Yet another. A strong wolf, or semi-wolf, tone, can force the string to vibrate at the wolf's frequency.

Basically, we don't stand a chance!

February 3, 2015 at 07:36 PM · Fortunately I am not educated to the extent that I recognize all the problems and I do not plan on getting much smarter.

.

February 3, 2015 at 08:16 PM · If you really want to be sure if you play in tune, record it and use Melodyne to map out the exact frequencies of your notes. Sometimes our ears can be fooled by various things.

February 3, 2015 at 10:11 PM · "Fortunately I am not educated to the extent that I recognize all the problems and I do not plan on getting much smarter."

Very good - great humour! I think that also applies to me, I'm not getting any smarter either!

February 3, 2015 at 11:20 PM · Kevin

Expensive !

The little clip on tuners are useful as note monitors.

I sometimes test myself with a passage that lands on an open string. (I hope)

February 3, 2015 at 11:21 PM ·

February 4, 2015 at 07:21 AM · Electronic tuners are mostly tuned to equal temperament. With Melodyne, you can choose different temperaments and even create custom ones, I believe. It is expensive because it is an incredible tool. But it is probably an overkill. :)

February 4, 2015 at 10:16 AM · Being unable to pitch match isn't a problem with the violin, but a problem with the violinist not using their music memory(their ears) along with the finger placement. If we are using the auditory cortex for the correct placement of the note, then hearing 'out of tune' is easy. If we are only using the motor cortex for finger placement, then hearing 'out of tune' becomes very difficult to impossible; we need to retrain the mind to use the auditory cortex for every note we consistently play out of tune, and this could take months.

For example: if I had a student that played with finger tape on the violin for several months, and then I removed the tape, and then asked them to match a note that I played on the piano. That student will not be able to do this, this simple task would be impossible. It will also take several painstakingly rigorous months to retrain their way of thinking.

If had a new student that never played before, and asked them to pitch match a note that I played on the piano. This task is sometimes easy for them, and if it isn't, they usually are able to learn this within their first month.

Pitch matching should be easy, when its not, you have to retrain the brain, not buy a new instrument.

February 4, 2015 at 01:36 PM · Your post reminds me of a situation that puzzles me. I can usually stumble through a new piece using finger placement to find the notes. However, if I concentrate more on melody, or know the melody, everything is much easier.

That is a curiosity to me because two methods of note location might be happening. One is physical position but a second is a sort of "GPS". I can actually get into trouble if I jump back and forth during one piece.

February 4, 2015 at 02:02 PM · One can get free tuning apps for the cell phone that support a bunch of tuning options. Just do a search and be prepared to spend some time deciding which one you like best.

When first starting out, it can be a challenge to "hear" what double-stopped open strings should sound like when tuned to a pythagorean fifth. Having a tuner that supports this option is a good teaching aid. After some practice with the tuner one will quickly learn how to do it by ear.

February 4, 2015 at 02:03 PM · When we play alongside a fixed pitch instrument such as a piano or an organ we have the pitches tuned to exact 12th intervals. These equally spaced pitches allow for no compromise and must be matched exactly by other ensemble instruments.

There was one piece which had a flute and three strings close a cadence on a unison B natural which was perfectly in tune. The piano repeated that same B natural alone and we all had to tell the pianist that the piano was out of tune. His electronic tuner was used and it showed that the piano was exactly in tune. However the other three instruments together were also in tune.

Nature has a way of connecting certain intervals and each instrument has its own harmonic resonant pitches. Oboes have their tonguing up and tonguing down techniques to produce variations in pitch. Violins have vibrato to alter the pitch higher or lower.

In Moussorghsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” Ravel had to change a tuba part for a higher pitched euphonium in order to produce better harmonic intonation with the other instruments of the orchestra. Its all very nebulous when pitch is discussed and professionals are usually very accommodating when pitch compromises are needed.

February 4, 2015 at 02:16 PM · Not all pianos and organs are tuned to equal temperament. In particular, old organs are probably tuned using some sort of historical temperament. Equal temperature sounds terrible for most traditional hymns.

February 4, 2015 at 02:21 PM · "... if I concentrate more on melody, or know the melody, everything is much easier..."

I have a similar experience when learning a new piece from sheet music. I tend to think of the brain as needing some sort of physical "cue" to activate a finger.

When a blob on a piece of paper is the visual cue, I get a rather mechanical reaction.

But everyday I practice a variety of diatonic scales for intervals of 2nds through 8ves by first hearing in my head what I want the interval to sound like and then using that as the cue. So intervals when the supertonic and leading notes are involved give a different finger placement when using aural cues.

It is one of my pet peeves with etudes that are non-musical. It may be quite virtuosic to be able to fly through the sheet music of a chromatic scale study with crazy leaps, but musically it does nothing for me and promotes bad intonation choices IMO.

February 4, 2015 at 05:01 PM · To my mind a key test for the musicality of an etude is whether you would want to play it in your recital.

Probably not too many etudes come into that category. Some of the Rode Caprices, certainly, yes.

February 4, 2015 at 05:11 PM · "However, if I concentrate more on melody, or know the melody, everything is much easier."

That's one reason why Suzuki starts with Twinkle. Many short (e.g., three-note) phrases in music can be identified with something we already know. Sing "Mary had a little lamb" to yourself, and you'll likely sing it with the first and last notes (the third in a major scale) relatively high in pitch just because it seems right. If you are able to recognize the same sequence in a repertoire piece that you're studying, you'll play that part in better tune because of its familiarity in another context.

February 4, 2015 at 07:27 PM · I challenge anyone to play Sevcik violin studies as encores in a recital. :)

February 4, 2015 at 08:50 PM · Theodore,

I'm not sure what I should conclude from the 3 violin/piano story with all sounding a metered "B" ?

In particular I've always been impressed with the piano at church and a very talented and fussy organist. Playing with that piano is a joy.

(She has all kind of humidity control gadgets, etc. to keep the piano in top shape and I'm sure it is tuned as it should be.)

February 5, 2015 at 04:36 AM · My teacher told me Heifetz played kreutzer no. 8 as an encore in moscow, the audience went wild. I think its how WELL something is played. I mean how musically...

February 5, 2015 at 12:34 PM · Charles, I agree, but..

I don't use tapes, but 3 small round stickers, 1st, 3rd & 4th fingers, on different strings.

I straightaway show that the ear is more accurate the the eye, but it does help set up the hand-shape before playing, between lessons.

The sticker represents a fingerprint, so it must be covered by the fingertip.

Also they soon learn to andvance the fingertips more on the E-string (inharmonicity of the lower, thcker sstrings).

February 5, 2015 at 04:26 PM · Paul D.

About the "musicality" of a piece, I have no doubt that a simple piece of music can be a masterpiece in the right hands. I'm discovering that just about all my music has a personality if I bother to look for it.

However, as a newbie observer, I find little art on forums compared to technicalities, theories and equipment.

Too bad.

I'm not criticizing your post. You seem to be in the right camp!

February 5, 2015 at 05:12 PM · "...Also they soon learn to andvance the fingertips more on the E-string ..."

Wowza. I thought there was something wrong with the violins I own. I don't think I've ever read anyone mention the need to advance the fingers slightly on the E-string, but I have certainly encountered it first hand.

February 5, 2015 at 05:50 PM · I've always thought that advancing the finger in the higher positions on the E (and A) is part of standard technique because it is not always anatomically possible to get the finger tips close enough for good intonation (applies to the high positions on the cello, as well). Two ways of dealing with this problem - moving the finger that is already on the string out the way to make room for the next one; and, sliding a finger from one note to the next one up.

The first method works quite well in the lower positions, but not so easily at the far end of the fingerboard, where finger advancement (or sliding) comes into its own. This is especially so for players who have small hands or, like me, have thick fingers but a pinky that is short relative to the others. For me, it's a case of ignoring for the most part some of the fingering in scale books and devising something that works comfortably at high altitudes.

February 5, 2015 at 08:24 PM · When I play in the stratosphere, I do a lot of finger slides. I seem to recall hearing Perlman saying something similar.

February 8, 2015 at 07:55 AM · I like the way most "methods" leave us stranded after 7th position , just when we should like a little help!

February 8, 2015 at 12:27 PM · Just transposed your favourite method exercises an octave higher. :)

February 8, 2015 at 05:04 PM · There are interesting possibilities for the higher positions. One idea is to play soprano recorder music. Non-stop whatever position you like and the recorder music is easy to find.

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