The conductor is always right?

July 3, 2015 at 11:46 PM · I just came back from a tour with my youth orchestra. During one of the rehearsals to prep for this tour, something I thought was strange happened.

We were rehearsing the second movement of Dvorak symphony 8, and as a second violinist, we have to play this strange series of notes:

Eb g, Eb g, C F#, C F#, C G, Ab G,

As you can probably tell, the tuning is strange in this area. My conductor was getting frustrated with the second violin section because we were off in this area. So he began asking us to play one by one.

I was fairly confident when it was my turn, because I had practiced this section before and my fingering was secure, and I had perfect pitch. However, after I played, he said that the C F# interval was off. It sounded perfectly in tune to me though.

After everybody played it by themselves, he demonstrated. And when he got to the C F# interval, he sounded awfully sharp to me. And I thought he was reading the notes wrong, so I told him that it was a C, not a C#. My conductor is a wonderful player (don't get me wrong, I respect him very much), but when he demonstrates, I noticed that he tends to go sharp on the fingerboard if he doesn't check with an open string.

So I told him he was playing it sharp, and he said that he wasn't, and again played the interval sharp. And it was so obviously sharp (to me) that I didn't understand how anybody else didn't hear it. I looked towards the conductor's wife who usually sits in and criticizes our performance (she has extremely good advice to give and also has perfect pitch) and she said it was a C natural that the conductor played.

I really don't understand what happened, because I clearly heard a c#, and I know I was correct because I checked it multiple times shortly afterwards with the pitch in my head and at the moment, I was checking his sharpish c natural with my open a string which was in tune! But when I did, he said "Don't check it with the a, check it with a G!" And I realized that it was not smart that I checked with a third and not a fifth, which is Pythagorean tuning?

This bothered me so much that I kept thinking about this occurrence. I'm very sure I was correct in saying that his C was much closer to a C# than a C natural. Later, I thought that this may have had something to do with the fact that both the conductor and his wife have been accustomed to stringed instrument tuning (wife plays cello) and I learned the piano first. (Pythagorean tuning vs equal temperament, which I don't understand at all and Wikipedia is way too technical for me to get much out of reading it). Does this have something to do with the way my perfect pitch is tuned compared to the conductors wife? Or am I just making excuses for my own mistake?

And should we ever disagree with the conductor?

Thanks!

-Katherine Li

Replies

July 3, 2015 at 11:54 PM · C-F# is a tritone and C#-F# is a perfect fourth. Those two intervals should not be hard to discriminate regardless of your system of tuning. Try playing them as double stops to see if your tuning comes more in line with your conductor.

Honestly, this does not seem like a good opportunity for digging in your heels and taking a stand, especially if your defense of your "C" intonation rests on your claim of perfect pitch.

July 4, 2015 at 12:28 AM · Thank you for being honest!

Sorry -- I'm not trying to seem obstinate or arrogant by claiming that my C was right -- the point of starting this topic was not to say that I was right -- what happened just piqued my curiosity of how different types of tuning might change how people hear pitch. And so it might affect my tuning as well! I don't want to have this type of thing affect my intonation. Maybe I was wrong after all, who knows? and if so, I would like to learn more about why I thought I was right, and prevent this type of thing from happening again.

So the C F# is typically not an interval that would be different when comparing different types of tuning?

I did in fact try the double stop method -- the fingering I used was a third finger c on the e string and a fourth finger on the a string close to the third finger, which was an f #, pretty secure, in my opinion! So I tried playing those two at the same time, and it sounded correct, but apparently I was flat to others.

July 4, 2015 at 12:33 AM · The proper way to disagree with a conductor is to catch your standpartner's eye and quietly roll your own eyes.

Digging in your heels and publicly disagreeing with a conductor is a very bad idea even if you are clearly correct, and in the real world can get you a reprimand.

July 4, 2015 at 02:17 AM · Beyond the fact that Mary Ellen's response is spot on (and funny), yes, you need to use just temperament, not equal temperament, when you're playing the violin. That means that pianistic tuning is going to be incorrect. You should always be tuning to the implied chord, and this is doubly true when you're an inner voice in the harmony.

July 4, 2015 at 03:54 AM · Mary Ellen Goree,

Well, now I know...

But I can't help but wonder -- although it may not apply in this case especially because the sharp flat thing is more trivial -- shouldn't one disagree with the conductor if one knows it is wrong (for example, a wrong note or something logistical that the conductor is getting wrong) for the sake of the music? I mean, the point of performing is for the audience and to enjoy it, and one knows that it is wrong, then staying true to the music requires one to speak out, right? And also, isn't it unfair to expect the conductor to never make a mistake? After all, the conductor is only human, and it should be the rest of us's job to correct the conductor when a mistake is made? At least, that's what I always thought before, and in other situations, we were always rewarded for speaking out when something was wrong. Is this just in youth orchestras, and speaking out is discouraged in professional orchestras? Or is it an issue of publicly speaking out vs. asking the conductor about it in private?

Lydia Leong,

Is this what you're saying : when playing with string instruments, focus on matching with the rest of the orchestra rather than thinking about the specific note? But the thing is, at that area that was iffy on intonation, the chord was very sparse -- it was just firsts and seconds and very quiet. I think that's why it was so difficult to tune -- with the strange intervals and everything. Is there a rule of thumb with equal vs. nonequal temperment--the way I imagined piano vs. violin tuning (I am probably way off the mark, because I was just thinking about it and I've never actually read anything about this) is that piano is tuned by octaves and half steps, right? And string instruments are tuned with fifths. And I always thought that fifths on a violin were wider than fifths on a piano. And since when tuning, they match at the A note, the e string on a violin would be higher than the e on a piano, and the d and g strings on the violin would be lower than the d and g in the piano. That was what I thought about this tuning. ^wrong? I've tried to figure it out but I can't get past the technical terms and everything. :)

July 4, 2015 at 05:13 AM · As a conductor ....I would say generally that your public disagreement was indeed not wise. Even if you are right, you earn a reputation as a "problem" , and that could impact your career. If its a serious issue, discuss it privately. If not, go with it, and "rolling the eyes" might be a better option. Try to put yourself in the conductor's position.....how would you respond if.........? Discretion is the better part of valor.

July 4, 2015 at 05:16 AM · The conducor is always right!?

Excuse me while I split my sides ...

I remember a conductor who when asked what the hell was wrong with our parts as they were wildly out with the horn section, said it was OK and correct with the score.

In the break we nicked his score and had a look. Our part was in the wrong clef! He hadn't even heard or noticed.

The best thing is to either groan loudly or laugh out loud. That's preferable to commiting suicide.

Pitch is another thing and open to interpretation. Just be in tune with whatever else is happening, if that's possible.

July 4, 2015 at 05:26 AM · Greetings,

never argue with conducters. The good ones dont make that kind of mistake too often and the bad ones are there -because- they make that kind of mistake .....

seriously, any profession tends to have its own etiquette and the music business is no different. You committed a cardinal sin. Even rolling someone else`s eyes would be better.

Dont get too bogged down in the intonation theory. Just practice Simons scale manual ;)and be adaptive to whatever context you are in.

Cheers,

buri

July 4, 2015 at 05:45 AM · If you have Absolute Pitch (I avoid the word Perfect, which often suggests perfect intonatiion), you may not be in agreement with the very mobile pitches of an orchestra.

The original oboe A will have gone up audibly as the instrulment warms up. Same with the entire wind sections..

N.B, flutes have a very high C#, if un corrected.

Also, individuals don't always agree on what are exact pitches, and the conducter is in the best position to judge the overal effect. So, in a rehearsal, he is Right!

Thirds and fifths: the old, old problem.

If we tune C to open E, the major third will be too small: usually, but not always. E.g. in a slow piece in C major, we may want to play our E's lower than the open E.

Equal Temerament is really not far from Pythagorean, but so-called Just intonation tries to make greater use of the "pure" thirds.

I well remember playing this symphony. Some of our problems come from lack of conscious and consistent use of the "half" positions: to "catch all the awkward accidentals, we sometimes stretch our fingers, some times curl them, and when re-playing, we shift the whole hand a little. (Violists are more used to think their positions by semitones.)

July 4, 2015 at 05:52 AM · Yes, quite right. The conductor is God. They walk on water! (Often their own perspiration on the podium floor).

It's always best to discuss music with musicans, and not with conductors. (wink).

July 4, 2015 at 07:31 AM · In any case, we have to "recover" from orchestral work, and fine-tune our ears, fingers and bowing!

PS, although I am jealous of those with Absolute Pitch, at least I am obliged to listen to what's going on around me..

July 4, 2015 at 09:37 AM · I think we are lucky Adrian not to have perfect/absolute pitch. We need to listen and tune our ears. I've known lots of string players with AP and many but not all of them have definite intonation problems.

It's all relative anyway - orchestras no matter how good are never really in tune.

July 4, 2015 at 10:35 AM · Katherine, generally, in my experience, it is a bad idea to correct people publically, especially, one's superiors. The conductor is the boss and the final arbiter on performance decisions. A better approach would have been to discuss this with him privately during a break or after the rehearsal.

As to the pitch issue under contention, what one hears under one's ear and what one hears at a distance, are not always the same thing. If you were to remove all overtones, you would probably be correct, but the way all the overtones combine at a distance, may effect the ultimate pitch perception, in which case the conductor/wife would be correct. So, perhaps you're both right in this case, but he would still be more right because it is the audience perception that should be the primary consideration.

July 4, 2015 at 11:37 AM · I never realised that conductors were supposed to be superior! I did experience a few that were, but for every one of them there were one hundred plus who definitely were not!

But having said that I loved them all (or nearly all) and I really do miss the aches I used to get from laughing. In fact one of the greatest in my opinion was in fact the one who would make me laugh the most, and provide some of the biggest mess-ups as well. But his musicianship was magic and no one would ever find it necessary to disagree with him. He rarely broke into a sweat. He did not need to as he knew the works inside out. He also had something all conductors should have, and that was a great sense of humour. No one should be allowed to conduct without a sense of humour.

July 4, 2015 at 11:41 AM · I agree that arguing with a conductor (esp. in public) is not wise. And ultimately your intonation in an orchestra has to blend with the other instruments, you are part of a whole (hence the earlier poster's comment about sharp flute C#s, for instance). If the whole group's pitch rises and you stay stubbornly at your absolute-pitch-perception, you will simply be in the wrong for the performance/rehearsal.

Truth is, pitch is fluid, at least as long as there is no piano in the group. Doesn't your absolute pitch adjust to a group where the A is 443 instead of 440? have you never played in an early music situation (or at least listened to one) where A is 415?

July 4, 2015 at 05:28 PM · For a string instrument, pianistic tuning is *always* wrong (although if you are playing with piano accompaniment you may need to adjust accordingly). Your intonation should always be relative to the harmony and harmonic progression, which is why an awareness of what's going on around you (as well as an understanding of your own part) is important. The more chromaticism there is, the more difficult this becomes.

If you have absolute pitch in pianistic tuning, you actually need to be able to discard it in order to have better intonation as a violinist.

July 4, 2015 at 07:54 PM · It is a lot more complex than pythagorean vs equal temperament vs just intonation. It makes no sense to talk about C without knowing what is around it; the chord before, the chord at and the chord after.

It has been mentioned already, orchestras rarely play perfectly in tune. Try string quartets instead and you can argue all you want (and need).

July 4, 2015 at 08:39 PM · The bottom line to remember about conductors is that they are "performing" the music, are ultimately responsible (in theory) for what the audience experiences, and the orchestra is their instrument of choice. I can understand a conductor's reaction if his "instrument of choice" isn't reliably producing the goods when needed.

Concertos of course are a partial exception to this, and poor conductors don't play their “instrument” very well.

July 5, 2015 at 01:01 AM · It's easy to say "don't argue with the conductor," but what CAN you do? You can ask discreetly and individually during the break and cast your objection as getting advice from him/her. One needs to learn the art of feigned sincerity.

"I'd like to understand better how to play that interval, maybe you can show me how you would finger it." And hand him your violin.

"Our part sounds weird with the horns. Can I peek at the score?"

Something that's hard for a younger person to do, I find, is to put himself/herself in the shoes of the conductor. Their job is harder than it looks and there are difficult aspects of the job that the section player never sees.

July 5, 2015 at 01:10 PM · I suggest that the best course for a rank-and-file orchestral player faced with a technical issue of the nature we're talking about is to discuss it with their section leader who may be able to resolve the problem. If the section leader cannot solve it then they can pass it up the line to the concert master. It is then for the concert master to discuss it with the conductor if there is no obvious solution - diplomatically of course.

July 5, 2015 at 01:44 PM · Trevor is exactly right. It is protocol for section players (rank and file) to take their questions to their section leader, not directly to the conductor. As principal 2nd, though, if I have a question that does not involve other string sections, I am more likely to take it to the conductor myself than go through the concertmaster. But even if I disagree with the conductor and even if we are talking privately during a break, the most I might do would be to phrase my disagreement as a question--"Is this section forte or should we be playing less?" when I think we should be bringing our part out more but the conductor is not indicating that. But I then accept the conductor's response even if it is not the one I was seeking.

Never, ever, ever argue with a conductor, and doing it in public in the middle of a rehearsal is the worst way to do the bad thing. It's rude, and in the professional world it is self-destructive. And this is really not different from other professions. Public disagreement with a superior is seldom the best way to achieve one's goals.

Orchestras are not democracies.

July 5, 2015 at 03:59 PM · Yes, valid points.

However, I'm afraid in the UK we are not quite so disciplined or aware of orchestral ettiquette so much and players do sometimes ask the conductor directly something, as it's quicker and more efficient. Of course most of the time it would go through the section leader.

I did see an old Youtube clip where the most famous London orchestra at the time was in rehearsal with the great Otto Klemplerer, who banged his score down and shouted at the first fiddles because they weren't all doing the bowing he had just given. Back came a back desk retort "we haven't had time to put the b****y bowing in yet!" At which OK shut up!.

July 5, 2015 at 04:24 PM · Tuning is relative, you need to be flexible. Just try playing 1st finger E on the d-string with 1) open G 2) open A. Any given E will not be in tune with both open strings.

At one of my chamber music workshops one of the coaches gave a talk on quartet tuning. .. all kinds of interesting points like how c-strings should be tuned up and e-strings should be tuned down and how the player who has the third in a major triad needs to tune it upwards.

I very much agree with Trevor's point & it's something I often need to remember myself. There is a certain etiquette that you need to try to observe as a section player in orchestra. If everyone spoke up when they disagreed with something it would be total chaos. Don't take it upon yourself to be the exception. Plus if you ever get into the gigging, you do what it takes to be a team player. Speaking up & contradicting is the kind of thing that contractors remember for future reference.

July 5, 2015 at 04:55 PM · I stand corrected -- I agree that taking your issue to the section leader is better. My experience is with orchestras (such as community orchestras) in which the conductor is a very accessible person and encourages direct questions, and in which the section leaders are generally chosen on the basis of seniority and attendance rather than skill.

I didn't understand Christina' comment about E (1st finger on D string) not being in tune with both open strings. Here's a Devil's Advocate position: The E should form a beatless perfect fourth with the A string (and should also "ring" the E string). The same E should be "in tune" with the G string and if the 6th interval is not as sweet-sounding as you'd like, then it's your conception of an in-tune 6th that needs to change. If that's wrong, I'd really like to know as it would really help me understand intonation better.

July 5, 2015 at 05:41 PM · Assume that the strings are tuned in the perfect fifths of Just Intonation as,

E 660

A 440

D 293.3

G 195.6

Each string is thus beatless when played with an adjacent string.

The E on the D that is perfectly in tune with A string and the E string (beatless) is 330Hz.

However, in Just Intonation the note that is the 6th above the G string should be at a frequency of 5/3 of the G string frequency. This E on the D string that sounds pleasantly in tune with the G string is therefore 195.6 x 5/3 = 326Hz, significantly flatter than E330 and does not sound in tune with the open A440.

Good string quartets, string orchestras take into account these significant differences when playing. A capella singers do also.

For reference, here are the pitch ratios for the scale of C major in Just Intonation:

C 1:1

D 9:8

E 5:4

F 4:3

G 3:2

A 5:3

B 15:8

C' 2:1

July 5, 2015 at 05:55 PM · And many quartets tune to tight fifths. One quartet I know (which shall remain un-named) uses an electronic tuner.

July 5, 2015 at 07:18 PM · Kevin, I feel a story coming on.

A few years ago, when I was on a traditional Irish music-based holiday in Ireland I attended the Finals of an international Irish harp competition. There were 6 finalists, and they took their turns to play their pieces on stage before the audience and the sole adjudicator.

The competitors tuned and warmed up in a side room before carrying their harps onto the stage. On stage each performer would check their harp's tuning by ear in case it had changed during the move from the green room.

It was apparent from the beautiful quality of sound in the performances that tuning was to Just Intonation, with one exception: a lady competitor produced an electronic tuner on stage and checked her tuning from that. In the audience, eyebrows were raised, looks and whispers exchanged, and the adjudicator suddenly became stone-faced. When she played, her intonation sounded terrible in comparison with the pure tone of the others, similar perhaps to the difference between the intonation of a piano and that of a good professional string quartet. As soon as she had finished, doubtless realizing what she had done, she packed up her harp and left, not staying for the results. She wasn't in the first three.

July 5, 2015 at 07:57 PM · Are you saying harps are like string quartets?

String quartets really don't always play in just intonation, even if it is possible. Here is an example for a duet in which if you play in just intonation, you'll run into a problem called pitch drift:

Time signature 4/4. Key signature C

Voice 1:

Measure 1:

Half note C above middle C

Half note A above middle C tied to the next note

Measure 2:

Half note A above middle C

Half note G above middle C tied to the next note

Measure 3:

Whole note G above middle C

Voice 2:

Measure 1:

Whole note F above middle C

Measure 2:

Whole note D above middle C

Measure 3:

Whole note middle C

If all intervals are played just, the middle C at the end of Voice 2 will be more than an octave below the first C in Voice 1. I don't think any professional string quartet or choir would let that happen.

July 5, 2015 at 09:43 PM · "Here's a Devil's Advocate position: The E should form a beatless perfect fourth with the A string (and should also "ring" the E string). The same E should be "in tune" with the G string and if the 6th interval is not as sweet-sounding as you'd like, then it's your conception of an in-tune 6th that needs to change. If that's wrong, I'd really like to know as it would really help me understand intonation better."

You are wrong. :-)

If you try Christina's suggestion exactly as she described it, you should hear right away that the E making a perfect fourth with the A is not at all the same E that sounds good with the open G. I use this exact example frequently with my students, as an illustration of the relative nature of pitch on the violin.

July 5, 2015 at 10:57 PM · Greetimg,

it's always good when the devil is stymied. I use b against open e and open d to demonstrate exactly the same point. I also think it is good to encourage the student to listen for the strong over tone for the b against e

cheers,

Buri

July 5, 2015 at 11:53 PM · Thanks for the response Mary Ellen, I figured that was the answer, which is actually good because it's how I've been tuning double stops for some time now. You really notice it when you have to play something with a lot of chords. My question was really to get at whether there is a distinction between "sounds good" and "correct" when tuning thirds and sixths. After all, we should be capable of changing what "sounds good" to us. I've had to make that adjustment a few times. :)

July 6, 2015 at 02:07 AM · Keep in mind that thirds and sixths, unlike fourths, fifths, and octaves, are not perfect intervals.

Here's a clip from the French TV show Kaamelott which illustrates this brilliantly. It's in French with English subtitles. Warning: there is a bit of PG-13 language in it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmgFyBJ1MKU

July 6, 2015 at 05:23 AM · We should make creative and interpretive use of our "natural" ear, not try to retrain it.

Smooth, pure thirds and sixths, are essential at times, and disastrous at others.

BTW, the term "perfect" applied to 5ths, 4ths & 8ves refers to the fact that they have no major/minor versions; nothing to do with perfect intonation!

July 6, 2015 at 10:50 AM · That Kaamelott video is Just Perfect. My daughter could not understand why I laughed like a drain. Have to create a translation for her, she will understand more of musical history.

July 6, 2015 at 11:45 AM · The Kaamelot video was great. On the violin one can imagine an operational definition of a "perfect" interval: perfect = beatless. In that sense perhaps we try to make all our intervals perfect, recognizing that sometimes there may be irreconcilable conflicts? Is that a bad way of looking at it?

July 6, 2015 at 01:18 PM · The issue here has nothing to do with with the subtle differences in tuning systems. Although I don't know the level of the poster, I do work on a regular basis with our local youth orchestra (for the last 14 years), and have conducted orchestras at various levels, middle school to college level.

MOST students below college level lack a fully developed understanding of intervals, and I could well imagine a tritone tuning being a point of contention. Students can typically hear perfect and consonant intervals well, but have more trouble in the correct tuning of dissonance. They will try to force tritones into either a p4 or p5. Again, I don't know the ear or background of the player, but she is in the second violins, which means less experience/training. And if the interval In question is indeed a tritone (c-f#) then in this case I would put my money on the conductor as being correct.

Discussion of tuning systems is of dubious value here...

July 6, 2015 at 01:41 PM · Try playing the following using just intevals. The interval between C and F# in Voice 3 will be incredibly narrow. This example shows tuning is incredibly important in determining interval width.

Key: G major

Time: 4/4

Voice 1:

Measure 1

Half note rest

D - half note tied to the next bar

Measure 2

D - whole note

Voice 2:

Measure 1

A - whole note tied to the next bar

Measure 2

A - whole note

Voice 3:

Measure 1

C - half note

Half note rest

Measure 2

F# - whole note

July 6, 2015 at 02:19 PM · In his book, "A Smattering of Ignorance," pianist and noted wit (not to mention a close friend of George Gershwin) Oscar Levant shared an anecdote regarding some famous conductor who insisted on tuning every violin in the orchestra himself. But he didn't realized that all of the violinists in the orchestra played a little practical joke. They each passed around the same violin, which the unknowing conductor tuned dozens of times, not realizing he was tuning the same fiddle over and over again.

July 7, 2015 at 05:26 AM · /confused

So if the e's as tuned to the a and g string are different, which one should be used?

OR, if I'm understanding this correctly, it shouldn't be tuned to either? It should either be tuned to a b or the chord around it if there is one.

Hopefully, that is correct.^ that would mean I am understanding this better! :)

Trevor,

I was very interested in your story! The harpist was technically right in intonation because she tuned with the electric tuner -- however, it sounded horrible! Why would electric tuning (absolute tuning?) sound good on a piano, which is a kind of a string instrument that is not limited to the fifths of a violin, while sounding bad on a harp, which is also a string instrument that is not limited to intervals of fifths?

This kind of reminds me of what I had spent a lot of time thinking about before. How do people perceive pitch differently? Because their idea of an F# is different than another person's idea of an F#? I listened to a video of Heifetz playing something (I think it was vitali chaconne) and in the comments, one person said that she thought his intonation was absolutely horrible and that she had checked with a tuner and that his pitch was all over the place (and recommended sarah chang instead)! However, the playing sounded just as in tune as all his other playing. This could be the electric tuning vs string tuning that you were talking about, but In this case the person preferred absolute tuning over just tuning. I was curious so I listened to Sarah chang's version and it sounded different, but not wrong either. I thought (this was before I knew about piano-electric and string-just tuning) that it sounded more like a piano, actually.

I also had some more questions from listening to other artists (by the way, I'm just sharing some thoughts that I had and they might be (probably are) completely wrong!) I watched midori play ernst's last rose of summer, and was amazed by her intonation -- all of her double stops were so smooth, they couldn't have been smoother. And this was a live pformance! Then I wondered why she isn't famed for her intonation just as some others were (like Heifetz, but not specifically him), who did not have double stops as smooth as hers IMO. I was curious, again, so I searched up in google "midori intonation" to see what would pop up. And I was surprised that not much was said about her really really nice intonation! And then I thought that, somehow, many of those artists who are famous for their on-the-spot intonation have notes and chords that just sound very pleasing to the ear. So just tuning is the secret to that intonation?

July 7, 2015 at 05:39 AM · Katherine, three remarks.

1) For the piano, an electronic tuner will only cover the middle two or three octaves; beyond those, the tuning is "stretched" outwards. Try "inharmonicity" in Wikipedia..). Even on the violin, I have to finish by ear, for the same technical reasons (different stiffness of each string).

2) E should be tune to A. Usually!

In one quartet workshop, (Haydn in c major) we were asked to tune the E to the 'cello/viola C, (true third) and lower the A a little, to make it equllay good (or bad!) with the new E and the old D. More or less Meantone tuning.

3) On a bad day, our vibrato can hide these problems.

On a good day, it keeps the hand "alive" so we can continually seek out the real heart of each note, according to surrounding harmonies, or for expressive melodic expression.

July 7, 2015 at 08:52 AM · I suggest reading this book.

Pianos are not always tuned to equal temperament from what I heard from a professional piano tuner. And if you do have a piano tuned to ET, you can really hear that major thirds are out of tune. If you have a digital piano, there usually is a list of historic tunings you can choose from. For example, Werckmeister III is quite commonly available. Use it to play some Mozart and compare with ET. Werckmeister III will sound smoother.

Intonation on strings instruments is really a matter of trickery. Unlike human voice, you're still stuck with the tuning of the open strings. So which E to use? Use one that the audience cannot notice. Obviously, if you use two versions of the E successively, people with a good ear will notice.

A piece that illustrates the problem of tuning quite well is the Andante movement from the Sonata in A minor by Bach for solo violin. Just play the first 8 bars and you will quickly realize that if you tune your strings in perfect 5ths, you'll have some difficult intonation problems to solve. I once asked a renowned violin professor about this passage and he couldn't give me a satisfactory answer. I suppose most people don't really notice imperfectly tuned chords, especially when they are used to hearing equal temperament pop music long enough from the radio.

To play Bach, one might want to tune to tight fifths as described in Before the Chinrest.

July 7, 2015 at 11:27 AM · My digital piano is supposedly based on digital samples of a top-of-the-line concert grand (and I would guess that the intention was equal temperament). But, it's out of tune. My piano tuner proved this to me. I was absolutely aghast. He rattled off a handful of intervals and told me how many beats per second they should be, then I proceeded to play them on the keyboard and they were wrong. My suspicion is that the digital piano manufacturers intentionally make their instruments very very slightly out of tune so that they will sound more "real" and more "alive."

July 8, 2015 at 12:56 PM · Can't trust a soul these days!

July 8, 2015 at 03:10 PM · Years ago, my violin teacher told me a story about Nathan Milstein, who came to play with (I think) the Detroit Symphony. At the rehearsal, the orchestra tuned up. Then Milstein tuned up a quarter-tone or so sharp, and indicated he was ready. The conductor tried to make a diplomatic remark that Mr. Milstein had tuned sharper than the orchestra. Milstein replied, "Don't worry; they'll come up."

July 8, 2015 at 03:33 PM · "So if the e's as tuned to the a and g string are different, which one should be used?"

that's the whole point, it depends on the situation.

(ps-just fyi I believe Adrian thought the question was about the open e s-string )

July 8, 2015 at 07:39 PM · (Indeed!)

July 9, 2015 at 09:20 AM · In Richie's "Before the Chinrest" he refers to "tight fifths" as "narrow fifths" (see the later chapter on tuning), the purpose of which is to give good-sounding thirds and sixths.

July 22, 2015 at 10:47 AM · It always sounds differently when you are closer to the instrument, especially with an instrument with a ton of overtones. Also vibrato can be misleading. the conductor also may have some hearing loss. only a tuner can tell. Any conductor I've seen uses a giant strobe tuner which he has on all the time (or she). I guess this person doesn't.

I have been wondering this for a long time:

for you violinists, your ears are right on the violin. the rest of us hear what bounces off your face and the ceiling. But we guitarists (classical) have the worst vantage point. It does make a difference.

July 22, 2015 at 11:27 AM · I dont think I've seen a strobe tuner since middle school band.

I dont think vantage affects intonation. At least I hope not.

July 22, 2015 at 11:41 AM · Vantage doesn't affect it much. I'm kind of reaching on that one. Vantage affects phase and phase cancellation also which can come across as intonation. Under high volume situations it's noticeable. Strobe tuners are great because you can see from far away if you are in tune. I haven't come across a modern tuner with a similar display.

July 22, 2015 at 11:42 AM · Any conductor who needs to use a strobe tuner shouldn't be conducting in the first place.

July 22, 2015 at 11:46 AM · I guess it fell out of practice. But it was a youth orchestra if I remember the post correctly. I mean we're having a difference of opinion in pitch here. That needs some electronic help.

July 22, 2015 at 02:00 PM · The reason that section players shouldn't argue with a conductor have less to do with either the player or the conductor. It has more to do with the morale and dynamics of the whole group.

I've played in orchestras where lack of respect had become institutionalized, with musicians yelling out their opinion. In one orchestra where I had filled in as concertmaster, it carried over into my authority as well: the principal second very publicly refused to change a simple bowing, and did it in the the same disrespectful way she had used with the conductor. I knew it wasn't me, but rather the way she had learned to behave from her colleagues, who were unfortunately university professors. They would argue, roll their eyes, and so would their students.

The same behavior carried over into the university symphony that I conducted. It was one toxic cluster fire truck.

We professionals have played with all manner of conductors. But respect should be maintained for the benefit of the group itself lest the entire experience becomes unpleasant for all.

July 22, 2015 at 02:22 PM · Some years ago I was present at a regional schools orchestra rehearsal in my capacity as cello coach when the conductor on the podium decided to give the whole orchestra an "A" from an electronic tuner by waving it in a big arc from side to side.

I suppose the best you can say about it is that the kids all experienced an instant introduction to the Doppler Effect :)

July 22, 2015 at 02:57 PM · I had to look up what a strobe tuner is. How exactly would a conductor use that?

July 22, 2015 at 03:16 PM · I also think Scott is correct that you don't argue with the conductor for the same reason that you address the President as "Mr. President" whether you voted for him or not. It's about respect for the office, regardless of your feelings about the individual.

July 22, 2015 at 03:18 PM · I often wondered if you could get doppler vibrato on pizzicato quarter notes by shaking your violin back and forth.

July 22, 2015 at 03:41 PM · You wouldn't be able to hear dopper by shaking something. You can hear phasing.

A strobe tuner is a really neato thing. It is analogue, though, but works well. The pitch and sympathetic overtones make the strobe light flash, and covering the light are a series of spinning disks with slits in them, spinning at various rpm. if you're in tune, they appear to be staying still. it's very accurate. they are good for the stage. It tunes not only the fundamental note but all the overtones also.

http://i8.photobucket.com/albums/a13/stevesmithjr/gilmoursthing1.jpg

July 22, 2015 at 05:29 PM · "I mean we're having a difference of opinion in pitch here."

No. It is not a difference of opinion in any meaningful way. The conductor is right. Full stop. It is completely out of line for a musician to dispute pitch with the conductor.

I would go so far as to say that even in the youth orchestra or middle school situation, it would be a mistake for the conductor to pull out a tuner and say see? See? I am right. All that teaches the kids is that they are on an equal playing field with the conductor, free to dispute things, and that is not true.

July 22, 2015 at 06:25 PM · "You wouldn't be able to hear doppler by shaking something."

If I shake my violin such that it moves (initially) toward the audience at 20 m/s, then the frequency of a plucked A (440 Hz) will sound to the listener as 440 + [440 x (20 / 343)] = 465 Hz, which is a B flat. When I pull it back again such that it is moving away from the audience at 20 m/s then the frequency will be that of an A flat. Therefore in order to realize a vibrato amplitude of a half step (and that's a pretty wide vibrato), I would need to be able to shake my violin back and forth at approximately 10 m/s. (The number "343" in the formula is the speed of sound in dry air, 343 m/s, you can find the formulas on the Wikipedia page for the Doppler Effect.) As long as I didn't screw up the calculations somehow, the question just comes down to whether I can shake my violin that fast. But then, I'm told a wide vibrato is something one works up to.

July 22, 2015 at 08:13 PM · If I were a youth conductor, no way would I indulge pitch disputes with students. I'm surprised any conductor would do such a thing.

July 22, 2015 at 08:36 PM · If I were a youth orchestra conductor, I would just say "comments are welcome ONLY at the end of the rehearsal. Until then, please do as I say."

July 22, 2015 at 09:52 PM · Easy to be an armchair disciplinarian. Harder when you're the one standing in front of a bunch of 14-year-olds who have just discovered Starbucks.

July 22, 2015 at 10:59 PM · There's a reason I'm not a youth orchestra conductor. :) Crowd control isn't my forte!

July 23, 2015 at 12:32 PM · Paul, there might be a little bit of doppler, but the amount of other factors like phasing, etc, are going to make it impossible to detect with the ear. You can't make much doppler. Your arm isn't fast enough. If you threw the violin as hard as you could past someone, that would be about 40 mph maybe. But that's pretty fast. That's 20 m per second.

July 23, 2015 at 12:42 PM · I'm not sure what you mean by "phasing" but we can leave it at that.

July 23, 2015 at 12:42 PM · Mary Ellen,

You're right. Arguing with a conductor is not a good idea for a variety of reasons. ANd ordinarily I would say 'why use a tuner'. This story seems to me like something extremely strange. I'm just wondering if there was something we could do to prove what happened without calling one or the other person a dufus. I don't want to tell her that her conductor is pitch deaf, and I don't want to tell her she is wrong. I don't really know. Maybe she had an ear infection.

July 23, 2015 at 12:45 PM · I think it's one of those things where you just say "oh well" and move on. Respect for the conductor is a good policy to carry forward, regardless of what happened or who was right.

July 23, 2015 at 12:52 PM · phase shifting and phase cancellation are important concepts. It has to do with the room's acoustics, echo and the overtones, etc. When something making sound is moving, these things will all change and the ear will track them. It would be hard to detect slight pitch changes.

If you have a pair of revolving speakers turning at slightly different speeds, it creates a very interesting effect.

July 23, 2015 at 05:16 PM · @Ezra, both could be wrong. Playing a sequence of notes out of its context tells you nothing about the in-tune-ness of the notes. At least have the first violins (or the violas and cellos) to play along.

July 24, 2015 at 08:04 PM · Katherine, I'm not sure if you're still following this discussion but I'd like to respond and hopefully it will help you understand what's going on with tuning. It seems that you tuned your wonderfully sensitive ears to the piano. Nowadays it's become standard practice to tune pianos to Equal Temperament. This tuning seemed like the best way to deal with the fact that tuning fixed note instruments, such as the piano, according to harmonics (as in pythagorean tuning) did not work when playing music that modulated between various keys, as is done in Western music. This is because, if you go around the circle of fifths in pure harmonics, when you get back to your starting note it will be off considerably. The harmonically derived intervals cannot be reconciled with twelve evenly spaced half tones per octave of Western scales. It just doesn't work. Before ET came along, various systems were developed to deal with this inconvenience; some opted for pure fifths and omitted some keys, others tried to get more sweet sounding (i.e. harmonically pure) thirds and then the fifths were dreadful, and some attempted all kinds of various combinations. The goal was to be able to play in all twelve keys and have them all sound beautiful. Equal temperament advocates decided that the best way to solve the problem was to intentionally put all the tones out of tune by such a slight amount that most people wouldn't notice too much, but at least all the notes would be equally spaced intervals and the circle of fifths would work: your ending note would be exactly your starting note, and you'd be able to move seamlessly between all the keys. So if you have tuned your ear to this kind of tuning, you would hear true harmonic intervals as being slightly out of tune.

I also started in piano. But then I got interested in music from the Middle East and Asia. This music is called "modal" music which does not modulate to other keys like in Western music but plays in modes; the music can move between related modes but stays in basically the same tonal system. So musicians play in just intonation and even play in microtones that fall between our half tones but are still based on simple ratios, so it all sounds pleasant once you get used to these different tones. Since they're not modulating to different tonal systems (keys) they don't get the drift you get with modulations to other keys. An instrument like the piano with fixed notes cannot play this kind of music. My ears got so accustomed to this music based on harmonically accurate tuning that I couldn't play piano anymore, I couldn't listen to how out of tune it was; and so I switched to viola. (I will mention as an aside that a harpsichordist named Brad Lehman describes a method of tuning he believes was developed by JS Bach. At least one member of this forum doesn't accept this, but I did get my piano tuned to Lehman's tuning and to me it sounds fantastic. All the keys have regained their unique character which was lost with ET. It definitely sounds different, sometimes kind of twangy, but the piano is resonant and alive and harmonically aligned; and works beautifully in all keys and modulating between keys. So now I can play piano and enjoy Western music again! However I now prefer viola anyway.) I hope that helps your understanding of what might be going on with how you're hearing notes.

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