Checking intonation when learing something new

April 13, 2016 at 02:51 PM · I have no need to develop a conscience regarding good intonation, I'm obsessed with checking every note with an open string or a perfect interval double stop. But I drive myself up the wall with this when I learn a new piece and my intonation is not reliable or consistent yet. Should I first get the piece under my fingers and wait until I have consistent intonation before I start checking or should I be checking right from the start and get my intonation reliable measure by measure?

Replies (35)

April 13, 2016 at 04:08 PM ·

April 14, 2016 at 05:06 AM · I can agree with the above comment to some extent. For me, I make sure the notes are right and nothing's noticably out of tune to my ear, though I save the perfection work until I have familiarized myself somewhat with the piece so the notes aren't a concern anymore.

April 14, 2016 at 09:12 AM · I see (hear!) no reason to learn a piece with less than perfect intonation; human weakness will rear its charming head soon enough!

April 14, 2016 at 09:55 AM · Thanks for the answers, it would seem like there is a clear consensus here but Ella's advise seems to be the most time efficient. In 'The violin lesson' Simon Fischer states that one should practice a piece at tempo even before one has mastered it at a slower tempo even though it won't be perfect, I forgot his reasoning but it made sense to me.

April 14, 2016 at 11:10 AM · Hang on, we should practice slowly, then try things faster in the same session.

April 14, 2016 at 01:42 PM · Students like me who have not yet developed a truly reliable intonation are often faced with the predicament that a piece will have a few notes out of tune, but we still need to be able to play it at tempo and thereby develop the rest of your technique as well as the interpretive aspects of the piece. The teacher who refuses to let a student progress from Suzuki Book 1 to Suzuki Book 2 because the pieces in Book 1 cannot be played with perfect intonation -- this teacher will shortly find himself without any students at all.

April 14, 2016 at 02:50 PM · Hmm.. My two fellow violin teachers complain obout their student's intonation, but seem to have no solutions. The latter end of Suzuki Volume I needs careful fingering across the strings (arpeggio-style practice). Each of my lessons has time on slow work on tone and intonation, with personalised tuning of the whole hand, and then time on rythm and continuity, when I let go a little.

April 14, 2016 at 04:30 PM · "My two fellow violin teachers complain about their student's intonation but seem to have no solutions."

Presuming these teachers use sound pedagogical methods, the only solution to any such problem is to have a waiting list.

April 14, 2016 at 04:43 PM ·

April 15, 2016 at 09:25 AM · Hi, Paul!

Sound pedagogical methods? I fear we all explain and demostrate least well those aspects which cause us least trouble, or which we learned very young.

I "sorted out" one teanage student's intonation: it took some time, and one colleague said "Why bother?"

April 15, 2016 at 10:29 AM · Hi,

Intonation problems can be fixed with anyone. The most common causes are:

1- not being able to hear in tune; fixed with comparing notes to open strings.

2- faulty left hand\arm setup; best fixed for most players by using the classic setup of left hand on the base of the first finger with thumb opposite at its own natural height for each hand, and the left elbow pointing down, not being rotated to the right.

3- making sure one lifts the fingers vertically up and down from the base knuckles and not slinging them; if one has problems with this, the best cure that I have found is the first exercise in the Urstudien of Carl Flesch done a few times a day at different intervals.

4- shifting; should be done in a straight line following the string, with intermediate notes and no swinging of the elbow.

5- slow practice; all the top players advocate it and do it.

6- not being tense; achieved by keeping no pressure from the thumb against the neck of the violin, and not clamping between the neck and shoulder to "hold" the violin.

7- not fearing mistakes; what we think we create, so fearing mistakes creates mistakes - focus instead on what to do and how.

8- not pressing with the bow; best achieved by keeping the thumb of the right hand released and also watching the contact point - an incorrect contact point or pressing will distort the vibration and cause intonation problems regardless of the left hand.

9- if all of the above are covered, one shouldn't be struggling on every single note; if one is, then one of the above issues most often needs to be examined and addressed.

When we teach someone, I always felt that the goal should be to help the person get regardless of level or shortcomings. That is the goal, at least for me. Regarless of whether we succeed or not, the important thing is to try as best as possible. My own two cents on this one.


April 15, 2016 at 11:46 AM · Hi, Christian, one can't get much clearer than that!

One point: No.4. Even in the first 4 positions, moving tha hand in a "straight line" is accompanied by a very slight swing of the elbow. I find it easier to "ignore" such motion if I am aware of it first.

April 15, 2016 at 12:01 PM · Thanks Christian, I will keep those points in mind when I work on intonation, they are very concise. However, my post is more concerned about how lenient one should be about intonation when you first start out learning a new piece of music. I find that my intonation is only really consistent (whether in tune or not) after I have played through the piece numerous times (about a week or two later). It just seems impractical to stop in every bar to check my intonation during the beginning stages of learning a new piece when my intonation in the difficult passages is so inconsistent anyway. No doubt when I'm past the beginning stages of learning a new piece I will be VERY meticulous about my intonation.

April 15, 2016 at 12:41 PM · I'm sorry, but it is while learning the piece that we have time and the necessary concentration to care about intonation. When we join up those beautiful fragments and speed them up, each finger has little time for those minute adjustments.

April 15, 2016 at 02:27 PM · Yes, I agree with Adrian's post. That is why Sassmannshaus recommends bringing up short sections (say, a few bars) at a time starting with notes played individually at 40 bpm. But if the best you can do is not (yet) perfect then you cannot spend weeks "caring" about the intonation of short passages played slowly and neglecting everything about the piece.

David, if you are starting your work on a piece by playing through it several times just to get the hang of it, this may be good for your sight-reading skill, but not really for anything else. You're already cementing mistakes. Once or twice to find out the areas you need to study the most closely, and then your work needs to be methodical from there.

The reason I said "pedagogy" before is because I managed to get through 12 years of lessons as a child and my teacher never showed me how to find pitches on the violin using resonance. When I restarted violin 25 years later, my teacher was appalled by my intonation (rightly so) and showed me this at one of my first couple of lessons. I was aghast at what I had missed before. You might say, "well you were an untalented moron if you could not figure that out on your own," and maybe there is some truth to that, but I had so much faith in my teacher that I did not consider trying to do that. I also had no real instruction on proper hand positions, framing the hand in the octave, correct shifting, etc. I just played my etudes and pieces at my lessons and got assigned new ones.

April 15, 2016 at 03:22 PM · Christian, thank you for that wonderful checklist.

April 15, 2016 at 11:52 PM · How "Pitch Blind" is created.

Pitch Blind (PB) is a term 'I' use when we can't hear when we are out of tune or it becomes very difficult to pitch match a note.

PB can be caused by three things:

1) Playing too fast. It is important to learn in increments of speed over a long periods of time. The mind needs a lot of time to learn to process intonation correctly at fast speeds. This can take years. It can take weeks to learn to play in tune at a slow speed, but years to play fast, not weeks.

2) Backwards listening Procedure. We concentrate on what the pitch our mind is thinking of, and then we place the finger. This keeps us in tune. If this concept is backwards you will play out of tune without realizing it, or hearing it, or you wont be able to pitch match.

3) Weak Music Memory: If I played a series of random notes and then I asked you to repeat them back, how many would you able to remember, 5 ,8, 20 .... The higher the number the stronger your music memory is. If you are unable to repeat 5 random notes, than I would say you have a weak music memory that requires practice and strengthening. Poor intonation is going to be a struggle until it is strengthened.

April 16, 2016 at 09:00 PM · Charles, how about Pitch Deaf? (More exact than Tone Deaf.) Pitch Blind makes me think of stickers, of which I think you heartily disapprove!!

April 16, 2016 at 09:51 PM ·

April 17, 2016 at 10:01 AM · Touché!

April 17, 2016 at 12:03 PM · If random notes are a bit "off", it is just immature technique. If certain notes are consistently out of tune, it is faulty technique, which requires Christian's and Charles' checklists.

How do we know if notes are in tune? Resonance and open string comparison are only a small part of the story. The aural memory needs to be well nourished by very frequent and very attentive listening to fine violin playing. For example, Suzuki insisted on hearing the recordings daily before studying a piece.

April 18, 2016 at 11:58 AM ·

If random notes are a bit off, it could be: tension, poor technique, playing too fast or not enough variation of pieces for that scale, position or shift. I feel intermediate violinist don't have a collection of 5-10 slow to moderate 2 octave pieces that they are able to play in 2nd 3rd and 4th positions, and in different keys. Variation is the key to playing in tune at fast speeds, not repeating the same thing over and over again.

Playing a note consistently out of tune at a slow - moderate speed could indicate they are Pitch Blind: unable to, or struggle to pitch match the note even if you repeated the note on the piano, violin, voice or other string. Another symptom of pitch blind is the are unable to tell if they are in tune though they are in tune: it doesn't sound right to them, or they question it.

April 19, 2016 at 09:30 AM · Hi,


Thanks to those with kind words! Always appreciated!

David: I think that one should aim for the best possible intonation from day 1. I often get scores or parts rather late, and still have to get them ready, so having that habit is useful. It helps also in developing an approach that gets that done.

Adrian: re-no. 4 - The left forearm moves in and out for sure. Don't know if that is what you were referring to or not.


April 19, 2016 at 10:05 AM · Re: No.4 I find the left elbow also swings very slightly to the right when going from 1st to 4th position, and rather more for the higher positions. (I play mostly viola). So I initiate all shifts from the shoulder so I can concentrate on the hand!

Re: Waiting List! It should be an enjoyable task to make a pleasant tone, and in tune, right from tha start!

April 19, 2016 at 12:04 PM · Thanks to everybody for the responses. I will make the effort to make sure I'm in tune right from the start even though it means I'll be working on passages longer before I string the whole piece together, especially when learning a piece in a new key. As a Suzuki student I'll also augment my scale studies radically in order to save time having to work on intonation in a new piece.

April 19, 2016 at 12:36 PM · And David, you will actually progress much faster and better, by building a reserve of good habits.

And treat peers and/or parents with courteous disdain!

April 19, 2016 at 12:41 PM · But there is always the exception, practicing sight reading as Paul mentioned one can't be too fussed about checking intonation then?

April 19, 2016 at 02:26 PM · David, if you could open up any piece of music and play it just like Zuckerman's recording, you wouldn't be here to begin with. It's one thing to try your best, but you do have to be realistic. There's good value in opening up a book of studies to a random page and just trying to play through it for the sake of improving your reading skill. You will make plenty of mistakes beyond those that involve intonation. It's okay! On the other hand, trying to learn a piece by just playing it through over and over again hoping that weaknesses in intonation (and all the other problems) will resolve themselves "over time" is the road to violin hell. But you're not doing that. You play through it a couple of times just to see, feel, and hear what it's all about, and then you break it down into small bits -- divide and conquer -- and then finally you stitch the bits back together (also a gradual process) into a smooth and beautiful whole.

April 19, 2016 at 03:13 PM · Agreed! Thanks.

April 20, 2016 at 03:29 PM · "The aural memory needs to be well nourished by very frequent and very attentive listening to fine violin playing. For example, Suzuki insisted on hearing the recordings daily before studying a piece."- Adrian

If you are learning a particular style,than yes it is a good idea to immerse yourself into it. When we are strengthening our music memory I wouldn't say this really works. It sounds good, but it would be like a walk around the block twice a week, compared to a daily weight lifting regime.

The goal is to develop a strong music memory so learning, memorizing and perfecting(having only a few minor mistakes) pieces is done quickly.

I have developed a strong music memory recently and I still have a ways to go. My music memory was weak before; therefore, learning, memorizing and perfecting new pieces was too time consuming. For example, I can memorize a fiddle tune in less than 15 min. and perfect it in a 1/2 hr. now; whereas before it would take me a few days or more to memorize it and at least a week more to perfect it. I haven't tested myself with classical music yet, but I am planning to do a test this week.

April 20, 2016 at 06:46 PM · Charles, I wasn't thinking so much of the music memorising you describe, only constant exposure to in-tune playing, to fill the passive memory with good intonation. Many of us were surrounded by good playing and recordings at an early age, and even experience of keyboard and fretted instruments, not to mention choral singing; but the less fortunate need to fill the gap byconstant listening, whatever the style.

April 20, 2016 at 08:45 PM ·

It is one in the same, that's what I am getting at.

Having a strong music memory equals better intonation and ability to correct poor intonation quickly.

April 21, 2016 at 07:05 AM · Not for everyone, in my (long) experience..

April 21, 2016 at 07:23 AM · I get to listen to beautiful in-tune playing all day long at work. I develop software for a living, best part of my job!

But it still takes me a while to memorize something new on violin whereas on guitar it's quick. So it must be technique rather than aural.

April 21, 2016 at 08:33 AM · On keyboard or guitar, we can concentrate entirely on the notes; with voice and violin, we can never completely let go of conscious intonation.

There are some marvelous improvisers on violin, but far fewer than on fixed note instruments: we are too busy playing in tune..

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