Intonation with Bach Solo Sonatas

July 26, 2004 at 11:12 PM · I've been working on the Preludio in E and the 4th movement #1. What I didn't realize before I began is how important the simple intonation is. You can have an awsome vibrato and perfect musicality, but in these peices, if you can't hit the notes, it sucks! I feel I have hit a wall. When I record myself and listen, I am extreemly displeased: slightly flat here, sharp there. It's so slight that when i'm playing i don't notice, until i listen to the recording of myself. What should I do to begin taking my intonation to the next level, or is Bach always going to be beyond my ability???

Replies (112)

July 26, 2004 at 11:59 PM ·

July 27, 2004 at 01:52 AM · i agree with buri....haha

anyway..solo bach is hard; especially the e major i think. work on scales/etudes/caprices to help you with your bach/intonation and just work on bach super slow for intonation problems.(alot of its scales)...think of the parts(voices) all weaving together and make sure you bring them acrossed. think of chords as you play. really feel the music and think of where the melodys and harmonys are going. if you think of it like that, like a voice singing, it will be easier to play. listen to some good recordings too. the intonation part in the 1st page of the preludio with the weird string crossings is hard. practice that section very slow.with the scales/etudes, work on bow control and shifting. that will help and those two things might be causing some problems for you.

July 27, 2004 at 01:56 AM · Andrew, I am sure, you will play Bach with the perfect intonation. You know exactly WHAT you have to improve. It is not easy to play perfectly in E Major key. Practice more scales in doubles (Flesh would be the best): thirds, sixth, octaves, fingered octaves and tenth. You need not only E-Major scale but F#-minor, C#-minor, A-Major and B-Major as well. When you practice Preludium, you have the good opportunity to play almost everythimg in doubles too (instead of crossing strings). After a week of this practicing check your intonation again. Don't forget to play very carefully in the high register: many violinists lose control here and play a little lower than needed. Don't know, but I think it's some acoustic rule that we must little raise intonation in the high register to get it sounded perfect for the listener. Am I wrong? Or my ears...?

Good luck to you!

July 27, 2004 at 02:39 AM · P.S. Buri is perfect! XD

July 28, 2004 at 08:02 AM · Hi,
Rita, strange, but in my experience most people play to high in the higher positions. The reason for this might be that the distances needed to play the same intervals get dramatically shorter, up to the point that even people with very slender fingers (not yours truly) can no longer set finger beside finger, but one finger basically has to shove the other finger aside.
The reason why you feel that you have to play ever higher is explained by Nikolaus Harnoncourt in his book Baroque Music Today: Music As Speech: in a harmonic the ear takes it orientation from the highest note, causing the correctly intonating lower parts to be corrected upwards. In his 17 year experience as an orchestra musician, he was never told that he was playing too high, thus an old tongue-in-cheek orchestra adage says "better play to high than false".
Bye, Juergen

July 27, 2004 at 12:10 PM · I am having the exact same problem! I am learning the Third partita for my recital in November, and I record myself every day. I don't notice the bad intonation either. I gave a recording to someone and she pointed it was embarrassing. I don't have a good answer, I just wanted to let you know that we are in the same boat. I presume that for the other movements (Loure for example) that the bow change has a lot to do with intonation. I have found that I am somewhat harsh in my playing and lack the smoothe connectedness I wish to have for that piece. In being harsh, my intonation suffers because depending on how hard the string is pulled, the intonation changes. Have you ever tuned to a digital tuner? Even as you pull the bow and then let it ring, the lights go crazy between green and red. Hm. So I think for the chords, the same thing happens. We must be very steady and concise with our bow pressure in order to play in tune. Also, make sure that your hand is not slipping up. That has been happening to me with this partita for some reason. My hand gets a little sharp and then I play an open string (ugh...ow!). EM tends to push our hands up if you have small hands because you feel like you are reaching for that G sharp. (and D, but that isn't in such a crucial position). Anyhow. Good luck. You can do it.


July 27, 2004 at 06:37 PM · Yes. Practice scales and etudes and things like that. But also, practice the Preludio pianissimo (sometimes playing forte alters pitch, especially open E's) and without vibrato. =)

July 27, 2004 at 10:33 PM · I met Yuri Mazurkevich backstage at a concert and he asked what I was playing; I told him Bach Partitas--the E Major preludium--and *he* laughed and said, "Nothing harder! Just keep at it."

My teacher had me work with an electronic tuner that shows whether you are sharp or flat (red light for sharp, yellow light for flat, green light for in tune). There is also a needle that shows if you are high or low or dead on. (Two brands exactly the same are Meisel or Intelli; Shar carries them. They have metronomes and A 440 blasters built in). They also give you the temperature and the humidity but not the time.

I have to say, though, I really like alot the idea of doubling and I am going to go back to the Bach E major and try that. Thanks!

July 28, 2004 at 02:49 AM · The E Major Preludio is the most difficult Bach to get in tune. It's true. I don't know why - it just is.

July 28, 2004 at 07:33 AM · This is comforting to hear all these shared burdens of the Bach Partita #3, having worked on it the entire spring only to gag at the sound of my own intonation.

September 3, 2004 at 04:17 AM · I played the Preludio a long time ago, but I agree that it is incredibly hard to play in tune, esp. the bariolage part, because with the open E string, the other intervals need to be EXTRA in tune. My suggestion would be to practice the D and A strings (G and D in the corresponding passage later). Also, practice chords if there is a rising/descending line alternated with a pedal tone, so that the notes "ring." This piece should be beacon of light for the rest of the movement to follow. You also don't need to play it fast for the joy to resound (trust Henryk Szeryng on that one). Happy practicing!


September 3, 2004 at 04:34 AM · Whenever playing solo Bach and intonation is the problem, I usually think of the parts in chords. Hear the bass line in your mind. That should help considerably.

September 3, 2004 at 03:17 PM · Buri's post is full of knowledge, as always! this knowledge appears to be too great for us amateurs....*sigh*

Why is the Bach E major preludio so hard to play? Because it's in E major! Not because sharps are hard (I personally find e major a delightful key to play! It fits under the hand a little nicer) but because the key is extremely bright and responsive. The Preludio, to come of well, does have to be well in tune and have that ringing brilliance because it's such a bright key. Ways of acheiving this are to A) just really listen to every note. Play it incrediably slow and see if you can hear all those overtones B) the chord suggestion by Fernando Flores is a good one C) Practice in double stops! Whenever you can play a double stop in the piece as it is written, do it! It helps so much!

This piece is a blast to play and when you are really comfortable with it it's a great deal of fun to perform. :) Just have fun with it and above all else, listen to what you are playing even when you are going at this painfully slow speed, really listen to see if everything is ringing.

November 15, 2004 at 01:16 AM · What I think you should do is go awfully slow, I'dont mean largo, I mean as slow as you can get! Listen to what your playing, and keep playing that note until it's right. I'know that this piece is hard!! But you'l get it, unless you're still in level 7 or something, then just pick it up later.

November 15, 2004 at 02:27 AM · Greetings,

you know a really good way to sharpen your hearing is to play intervals you dont like...

So,scales in fourths, seconds and sevsnths with cosnatnt checking of nbotes with open strings really does work wonders.

There is also an exercsie in Basics in which one practices moving increasing ly smaller intervals frm a quarter tone dowmward sinto the micro realm. I seme to recall it is in the vibrato section near the end. Can anyone cite the page or number?



November 16, 2004 at 04:20 PM · The question of intonation is always a good one. For me, you have to identify first of all why you are playing "out of tune."

1-can you hear in tune?

2-is the fault in your practicing (too fast)?

3- is the fault having planned how your left hand moves on the violin?

4- is the fault in your bowing (i.e. pressing distorts the sound and vibrations of the strings and affects intonation)?

I feel that once you identify these things and find the cause of your intonation problems, you will be in a far better place to improve your intonation in Bach or any work of music for that matter.

November 16, 2004 at 06:30 PM · For me, the way is to work out the tonal centre of the phrase that I am having trouble with, and compare the notes of the phrase with that.


December 11, 2004 at 01:32 AM · I'm working on the first Sonata in G minor b Bach right now. I agree that all of Bach's Solo Violin stuf is very hard. I've notcied that I am out of tune on the many chords because I am applying too much pressure on the string. Another problem I have had is staying intune while I do vibrato on a chord. You have to do short, quick vibrato and not long or slow vibrato; plus, you must make sure that all of your fingers are vibrating at the same speed and the same time. sometimes you second finger while start vibrato before you first finger and then the pitch might be of a 1/16-1/8 of a step off. I hope that this helps.

December 11, 2004 at 02:48 AM · Greetings,

now that"s an interesting post,



December 11, 2004 at 01:27 PM · Charlie,

WOW! What Buri, times 2! Thanks!

December 11, 2004 at 06:14 PM · I think part of the reason why this movement is so hard to play in tune is because you need to switch back and forth between pythagorean intonation and just intonation for things to sound good. For instance, in the first bariolage section, if you play the G# as in the pythagorean E scale, it'll sound a bit edgy. If it bariolage is played in just intonation, things sound quite a bit sweeter.


December 11, 2004 at 06:42 PM · Kevin's spot-on, I think: check out the explanation of tuning systems on (which is the only place I've ever seen it described comprehensively, and from a string-player's perspective). Btw, someone suggested using a tuner earlier (like several months ago...): this may help you keep to an equally-tempered scale, but since we violinists use this tuning system comparatively rarely, you will be missing much of what Bach (and music per se) is all about. Slow practice is the answer - and I mean s-l-o-w! - and always be aware of your key/tonic.

December 11, 2004 at 10:45 PM · Greetings,

Sue I am not convinced we use this tuning system rarely. It is how a lot of kids are taught (via an out of tune paino...) and a the moment you put violi and paino together you are faced with the decision of being out of tune with that isntrument or not. Most players choose to be in tune where necessary,



December 12, 2004 at 01:14 AM · To clarify, I meant at a certain level of playing - and where these unaccompanied works are concerned, I still think it's more often than not the case. Problems with piano can arise, yes, but usually when both instruments are playing the same pitch for an extended period.

December 14, 2004 at 04:12 AM · Hi,

Just a very odd thought here... I was once given a very not PC answer once to the question "is it more in tune?" that was very thought provoking nonetheless... here it is:

"Intonation is like being pregnant. Either you are or you aren't. You are not more pregnant or less pregnant."

Food for thought... Cheers!

December 14, 2004 at 05:21 AM · LOL!!! Great quote!

December 14, 2004 at 05:42 AM · Greetings,

I think a lot of women might get mad about that as they get closer and closer to term though...



December 14, 2004 at 12:59 PM · Hi,


And of course, Buri is right, yet again... Thanks.


December 14, 2004 at 03:40 PM · Christian,

As someone who is both pregnant and completely unable to play Bach in tune, I can vouch for the accuracy of that quote. Not sure about Buri's perspective though!


December 14, 2004 at 08:38 PM · i do not agree at all. you can play out of tune, there is no arguing about that, but obviously to be exactly mathmatically correct is impossible, and not always what we want, sometimes it is a good idea to raise thirds and leading tones for musical reasons. I've heard things that sound in tune, and then i've heard people play with such gorgeous intonation that it adds another element so i dont think thats really right at all.

December 15, 2004 at 01:14 AM · "in tune" according to what criteria?

The piano? That isn't even "equal temperament"!

Should a violinist use "just" or "Pythagorean"? "stretched", or adjust with each new tonal centre?

Some intervals (those we call "perfect") must be spot on wrt the overtone series of the note before, or the root note played simultaneously.

Others (leading tones, whole tones, semitones) are entirely dependent on personal preference.


December 15, 2004 at 02:35 AM · I agree with Owen. I believe there is certainly a grey area regarding intonation.

December 15, 2004 at 02:36 AM · Greetings,

Just my opinion, but I think the moment we start talking about systems that are absolute we get into difficulty. The most satisfactory approach I have found for me personally is the one described in Basics and Practice which is actually handed down from Casals and various other people. It is `a system` but it allows for flexibilty where approrpiate and give the musician a solid foundation to work freely from.

In this appraoch the follwoing are fairly standard*

1) Notes of the same name at different octaves should sound the same.

2) Notes with the same name as open strings should be practice against those open strings.

3) 4ths, 5ths and octaves should be spot on and invariant.

4) Where the seventh and third is placed is up to you but then the 2nd and 6th must reflect that placing by being halway between the adjacent fingers.

6) My point- playing with the piano cannot be tempered intonation because it is approximate and most of them are out of tune anyway. Thus one makes decisoins and uses the ears.

7) My point- Playing in a quartet or othee ensemble one makes choices according to the priority of either the vertical or the horizontal line and what sound best as a result of trial and error. The ears.

Yes. I think it is mostly about listening in the end...



December 15, 2004 at 11:25 AM · Of course when playing solo pieces, as in the original post, intonation is not compared with an accompanying instrument.

So the problem is a different one.

That is why I think in terms of localised tonal centres.

It is a carry-over from the jazzer's habit of listening to the bass. I infer what the bass would be, and try to tune to that imagined root.

At least, that is the ideal!


December 17, 2004 at 07:24 PM · no, i agree with you absolutely buri, that is the system that all violinists use in the end anyway. I was just saying there is decent intonation and then there is brilliantly great intonation. there is an edge that great chamber groups have where its so perfect, cleveland comes to mind.

December 19, 2004 at 05:50 PM · With fretless instruments like the violin, there is indeed a lot of flexibility on intonation. At least, violinists don't have to lock themselves into a particular tuning when playing Bach as keyboardists have to do.

But then, the way the violin is tuned also causes some difficulties at times. For instance, when I first learned the Sarabande of the B minor Partita, I could never make the first four chords sound "in tune". (That's before I knew that one does NOT have to play chords in just intonation all the time.) That the fourth chord is D major with the bottom note played on the open D forces one to play the F# on top a little low. But if the F# is played as a pure third above the D on the A string, it will simply sound too low for the melody. The best I can do is to play F# as high as possible without making the D chord sounding dissonant. Decisions like this have to made in many of the passages of the Bach S&P. I guess that's why one has to have good ears to make Bach sound good.

December 20, 2004 at 12:05 AM · one just has to listen, i still think almost everybody can tell when it sounds really in tune and resonant. They might not know why..but they can tell.

December 20, 2004 at 12:09 AM · Andrew:

I think most of what is being said is correct. I would practice the Partita this way:

1. practice EM scales and arpeggios very slowly with lots of bow listening for the resonance in your violin.

2. practice the Partita the same way as if it is a scale practice.

3. Analyze the Partita and find the "melody" and the "bass."

4. Practice the bass line (either fingering the melody silently, or just playing as much of the bass line as you can analyze).

5. Same as above with the melody - finger the bass line, but do not play it - only play the melody.

6. Use the speed rhythms in the Galamian technique book, playing the long note very slowly (holding until your hand and mind are relaxed and you can hear in your mind what the next long pitch will be), then playing the fast notes as fast as possible, just this side of not hearing them clearly, and then the long note slowly again. Change up the speed rhythms each practice session and always practice them in their reverse pattern.

7. Take away all the notes and practice the partita for bow arm levels and string crossings at a fast speed. If your string crossings are not precise, you will become frustrated and your intonation will suffer.

8. Start as slowly on the metronome as you need in order to play the partita through (at least in big sections) in tune and gradually work up notch by notch on the metronome, never going ahead until you can play it in tune at that particular speed.

The act of fingering either the melody or the bass silently while playing the other teaches your ear to hear them as separate parts (that is what makes the solo sonatas so hard - we've got all the jobs to do). You will learn to listen differently to the intonation for each of the jobs. The bass line intonation will be more "tempered" or in tune with your open strings and fourths and fifths, etc. like Buri mentioned. The melody line will be more melodic intonation, with satisfyingly high thirds, etc. As you begin to "hear" the difference, your fingers will go where you want. If you listen to great performers play Bach (my two personal favorites are Milstein and Glenn Gould) you can ALWAYS differentiate the bass from the melody (on violin, one way we can make this differentiation is with intonation). By playing one silently, you focus your ear on what you are concentrating on and you force your fingers to play all the notes and come accurately to the spot you are listening for. (Well, Winston Churchill ended his sentences with prepositions too! lol)

All good practicing is with a performance in mind. So often, we excuse little things in practice that we would be horrified with if they happened in performance. So all the above exercises are designed to be done accurately the FIRST time. If you play several notes silently and then sound a bass note (for instance), that base note must be accurate, or you need to go back and practice the passage again. Don't adjust your finger and hope that it will land correctly when you tape it. Practice for accuracy.

That is what the speed rhythms are good for. Getting more speed is obvious, but I find speed rhythms really excellent for intonation. If I hold a long note and then play six fast to the next long note, then my goal, while holding the first, is to HEAR the next long note in my head and to hit it accurately after the six fast notes. If I don't hit it accurately, then my fingers are not practiced in the spacings necessary for accuracy. (I hope this makes sense, it is much easier to demonstrate.)

So, if I took my suggestions out of the realm of specific practicing technique, I would say you need to:

1. Be able to hear the scale and land on any of the scale's notes in tune anywhere in the piece.

2. You can only do this at a speed at which you can HEAR it in your head. If your internal ear is slower than your fingers, you will not play it in tune. So the slow practice in the formats I mentioned is for this purpose mainly.

You might think, "those suggestions will take forever!" but you will be amazed how practice like this multiplies into exponential results.

Lastly, something I learned from Milstein... Ugliness in consciously controlled places can contribute to extreme beauty. Your intonation can be "ugly" in spots (where, for instance, the conflict between melodic and harmonic intonation is unresolvable on the violin in Bach) but when it resolves to the resonance that is primarily available in EM it will contribute to overall beauty. Of course, it goes without saying that this is something you have to do consciously and not "by accident!" LOL

Good luck on your practicing!


December 20, 2004 at 06:04 AM · wow

December 20, 2004 at 11:01 PM · Hi,

Lisa: really interesting post! Cheers!

December 21, 2004 at 12:20 AM · Christian:

I've very much enjoyed all your comments as well! Hey, just for your information, and because I was curious as well (having just come to the site this weekend - got nothing else done too!!), if you pass your cursor over the Violin Discussion link on the right side there will be a list of subjects. If you click on the Life in General subject and scroll waaayyyyy down (Oct. 29th) there is a thread on the stars and x's called Moderation System. It is actually a very interesting discussion on how to moderate a community as a community and I find it really relates to dealing with behavioral issues as a teacher too.

Kudos to the team that runs this board. I'm used to far less helpful and more violent ones. It is a breath of fresh air to see such a nice interaction on the internet!!


PS Well, once you understand the star system, see if it guides your posts! LOL

December 21, 2004 at 01:45 AM · if you like i can try to make you feel more at home with some random insults.

seriously though this has got to be the most civilized board on the internet by far.

December 21, 2004 at 01:51 AM · Okey dokey! But you'll get those x's!! LOLL

I agree.


December 21, 2004 at 04:46 PM · I’ve decided to go back to this piece as well… I’ve been meaning to work the Bach S&P’s back into my regular practice routine and I just learned that my first violin teacher is coming to the end her life. The 3rd Partita was the first of the S&P’s that she had me play.

For the Preludio, I would second the recommendations to play slow with extra attention to intervals as well using double-stops to fine tune them. Given the gazillion string-crossings, this is also a great piece for working on right-arm level and wrist & forearm motion.

January 17, 2005 at 08:08 PM · For solidity in intonation, you really have to go back to the physics. An interval is out of tune when its overtones beat. That’s how we all tune open strings; the problem comes with thirds and sixths. Wide major intervals and narrow minor intervals can be expressive, but they are essentially embellishments; their width a matter of personal taste.

If you play slowly and practice beatless intervals (especially thirds and sixths) at every opportunity, you will also hear difference tones (lower than the range of the instrument). These two tests are objective, a solid basis for intonation. When the beats disappear, the interval doesn’t just sound nice, the overtones are lined up. If you aren’t used to playing this way, you will find that in the lower positions, half steps are surprisingly far apart. You also have to make some choices: the first finger e on the d string is much lower as a major sixth against the open g than as a fourth below the a string.

I have found that this approach really clears things up, especially in the fugues. Now, you may not want to use this approach everywhere, and you may want to transcend it (I liked the comment on “deliberately ugly intonation”). But it provides a firm basis and I would recommend applying it religiously for a while to anyone who is fishing about for notes.

January 17, 2005 at 09:32 PM · Christopher:

This is a good approach, but it is important to remember that music is horizontal movement more than/as well as vertical. By practicing the intervals (which I totally agree with), without being aware of where the line is going harmonically and melodically, you could conceivably practice wrong intonation in terms of the scale that the passage is in. Does that make sense? (That is important in Schenkerian analysis.)

Also, Milstein didn't mean that statement to mean ugly intonation, although there are places in unaccompanied Bach that can be that way momentarily due to the tuning of the violin and how we have to adjust pitch melodically. But he meant it more in terms of not always playing "beautifully" as we are all taught to do. He would say to the violinists in the master classes, "you sound BEAUTIFUL" (with a disparaging emphasis on beautiful) and mean that as: your playing is so beautiful all the time that it becomes boring.

I thought about that statement a lot and decided that it was realistic. If our life were great everyday then we would have no sense of sublime joy in the moments that far exceed the norm or agony in the moments that go way below it. Our playing should reflect that as well. I tend to really love those moments in artists' playing now. Somehow it makes the beauty that much more in the other passages. ;-)


January 19, 2005 at 01:00 AM · Hi Lisa,

I realy like your thoughtfullnes.

The approach that I outline is really a starting point, going back to the physical basis of intonation. This does, of course, result in a totally vertical approach, and you are absolutely right that there has to be a correct balance (that varies from piece to piece, and interpreter to interpreter) between vertical and horizontal. (Am I reading your mind too much? lol). Far to few violinist receive any guidance at all in finding the physical signs of pure intonation, and rely entirely on impression. Since there are varying, and conflicting, ways to interpert intonation, those of us that lack great instincts will fish about.

In particular, if one has always been told to raise leading tones, it is totally puzzling why major cords sound out of tune. Unless you know there is a conflict, you can't deal with it. (I am being autobiographical, here). Once I discovered how to tune a pure major third like I tune my strings to pure fifths, a whole world opened up.

Why are so few violinists taught musical acoustics? It would be such a help.

P.S. I understand that your statement about "beautiful" playing goes way beyond intonation. We classical musicians spend sooo much time on beauty and perfect that there is a danger of missing that cutting edge upon which (for example) flamenco singers live. The best, of course, do both: beautiful and excruciating.

January 19, 2005 at 10:56 PM · :0)))

Do you know the movies of Carlos Saura? I first saw his Carmen years ago (and many times since) and saw the Flamenco when it came out. Beautiful! What an apt metaphor!!


January 20, 2005 at 12:23 AM · I know the Carmen film. It's great. I love flamenco. I was actually the concertmaster of the Seville orchestra, and years later, Jose Greco taught at the school where my wife is a professor of dance.

Also, just played Fallas Tres Picos. Do you know the English Horn solo in the 2nd movement? Well our soloist played it beautifully. Too beautifully. It's supposed to sound like one of those Canto Jondo guys whose has destroyed his larynx with cigarettes!

Are we, like, way off topic?

January 20, 2005 at 12:58 AM · Seeing what Christopher and Lisa wrote: Yesterday I was browsing the Violimasterclass section on pythagorean vs. just intonation. It's above anything I'm doing so I just looked at it to get the general gist for now. However, there is also a demonstration of what to use when (the horizontal and vertical sense of the music) and a small passage played using either system of intonation to make the point. The sample passage may be a good way of illustrating what you seem to be saying in different ways, Christopher and Lisa. Does it help bring your ideas across by way of illustration, either of you?

January 20, 2005 at 01:14 AM · Inge,

Could you post a link to that site on pythagorean vs. just intonation?

I once tuned an electic organ to just intonation and played the first prelude from the W.T. Clavier, retuning as I went. I wound up considerably lower than when I started. Which makes sense when you figure that chords tend to progress downward by fifths.

January 20, 2005 at 01:34 AM · Gladly, Christopher:

Of interest in your/Lisa's explanation are:

definitions > pythagorean

> just

> which system to use when

> expressive intonation -- this is where the excerpt is played two different ways and the effects are explained.

Listening to the "which system" example, I wonder if some people simply adjust instinctively because one way 'sounds better' than the other. Knowledge, however, is a powerful tool.

I'm wondering ... I'm just beginning double stop scales. They sound, of course, like two scales going up consecutively, and a scale according to what Professor S is saying, would have pythagorean intonation and in this way each scale would sound the most correct when listened to separately even when played together. But those double stop scales are also a vertical study in thirds, sixths etc. and the just intonation would make the harmonies more pleasant to the ear. Which then would one use (assuming the player's control and ear has become fine enough)? Would you play one of the scales considered the main one (the bottom one?) in pythagorean intonation and consider the other note on top, not as a scale, but as a harmony in sixths etc. and tune them to the lower note in just intonation? Without having absorbed the theory as such or being able to state off the bat which system uses wide 2nds or narrow seconds, my ear readily hears which kind of interval sounds more 'pleasant' (just intonation) and I could see myself adjusting my intonation to it, but it can also hear when the "other scale" sounds like a slightly off scale and would want to adjust to that (just) -- in that sense I'm probably already unconsciously adjusting my pitch as I practise.

January 20, 2005 at 02:11 AM · I just spent several hours entranced by that site. I wish I could study with this guy. I wish I had studied with him when I was a child!

No one ever, ever, ever explained intonation to me. I had to discover the theory when I was in my early twenties! And he explained it in two minutes as clear as a bell.

January 20, 2005 at 03:19 AM · Hi Inge and Christopher:

Well, that was interesting. I guess you could say that I am a proponent of the expressive intonation category at the end. But, and I almost hate to say this for fear of the onslaught to come, I thought all the examples were out of tune (some drastically).

I play very differently than whoever was demonstrating those videos. I find that playing on the tips of the fingers that way does not produce the depth of sound needed to really hear whether you are "in tune" or not. And the lack of depth and legato in the bow arm also contributed to the inaccurate intonation, in my opinion.

So I would practice intonation with a very different left hand technical approach and a different sound and that would produce a very different result than those players got. Sorry! (she says tensing up her shoulders and wrinkling her brow...)

Also, I don't agree that one has to switch back and forth from expressive to just for double stops, chords, or string quartet playing (of which I did much and studied with some great string quartet players). Maybe in some cases, but not always. For instance, I found the B flat of the first chord in the played example of the Bach Gm to be very sharp. I would not adjust it that much for "just" intonation. An audience member can hear the difference and will know (without knowing intellectually) that the B flats did not match (especially since they immediately follow each other!!).

I learned that thirds and sixths do not have a "perfect" spot to be in tune but rather a range. I do agree that in that certain spot (which I guess Kurt is calling "just" intonation) the resonance of the interval produces a resultant harmonic. Technically it is in that spot that it is in tune. BUT, that is not always possible or wanted, in my opinion. It totally depends on the circumstances of those double stops (which relates to my posts above). So I don't find the B flat-G interval to be "out of tune" with the low B flat in the first chord of the Bach Gm. In fact I prefer it (and would have played it lower than either of the played examples), and when I hear it played the way it was in the example, I cringed.

OK, I'm going to be getting on thin ice here, but I think you don't hear that Bach as a verticle chord, then melody (second beat), then vertical chord (third beat), then melody, etc. But that is how it was played in the example.

If you use a Schenkerian analysis model (which I wasn't great at in college but would like to believe I've understood more through time!) you hear this big shape in the first bar and a half: G, F#, G. The rhythmic impulse has to lead you to those main notes (one reason I consider Milstein to be a genius in terms of interpretation - listen to his recordings, he always does this). This overarching structure affects the intonation in the passage.

Underneath the main structure is another big structure: B flat, C, B flat. Then under that is a smaller structure: B flat, A, G, F, E, D. The intonation in the passage has to make all three of those things happen at once on top of the bass: G, A, D, G. I just don't think there is any other way to make this structure come alive except with expressive intonation and the "just" intervals that get stretched or contracted (in a minor way) in that process are not as noticed by the ear as they would be noticed if the expressive intonation were absent. That's what I meant by momentary ugliness I suppose.

Anyway, too hard to explain in print and very complicated!


January 20, 2005 at 04:09 AM · Yes,


January 20, 2005 at 04:26 AM · At least it is a "departure point" (is that English?) from which to start thinking about these things and for some of us, hearing notes in a new and more interesting way. Whether Professor S's analysis is the one and only way to interpret things, I think it allows many students to start considering notes in tones beyond the way the ubiquitious piano models them for us.

January 20, 2005 at 05:54 AM · What's the penalty if we "just" tune our fifths a little flat and use equal temprement? To hell with Pythagoras.

January 20, 2005 at 06:11 AM · Jim:

The penalty is no satisfaction. No forward movement. No tension or resolution. No life.

That's the penalty.

The ability to stretch even Pythagorean theory to the extreme in expressive intonation is the reason we play the violin and not the piano.


January 20, 2005 at 06:22 AM · Greetings,

another reason is that carrying a piano on yer back shortens life expectancy.

Sysiphallean rather than Monty Pythagorean.



January 20, 2005 at 06:25 AM · ROFL!

I wish I had a star to give!

I LOVE Monty Pythagorean!

Run away!


January 20, 2005 at 06:33 AM · Get with the times people.

January 20, 2005 at 06:50 AM · Greetings,

what do you mean by `get with the times?`



January 20, 2005 at 06:57 AM · We're old. LOL

You referred to Ancient Greece and movies that are equally ancient.



January 20, 2005 at 06:59 AM · Greetings,

I prefer to see myself as dignified and timeless,



January 20, 2005 at 07:02 AM · Laughing so hard I'm choking and wheezing.


January 20, 2005 at 07:01 AM · I knew Pythagoras and Le Bal was the last movie I saw before I went blind from old age*

*I'm older than both of you combined.

January 20, 2005 at 07:21 AM · LOL!

I'm surprised you're not dead!

Lisa :0)))

January 20, 2005 at 07:27 AM · maybe tonight if I'm lucky.

January 21, 2005 at 12:47 AM · You simply can't hear equal temperament. The convenient thing about equal temperment is that, for thirds and sixths, it falls in between just and pythagorian intonation. Playing with a piano, you just match pitches occassionally.

Regarding how to play Bach (just, pythogorian, both)A certain amount is taste, of course. Now that I have been practicing Bach for a while focusing on just intonation, I finally feel that I have some solid basis for intonation. And the recordings of the great expressive intonation players like Heifitz and Casals set my teeth on edge (when they play Bach).

And back when I was a student it puzzled me completely when I could never get a chord in tune with raised thirds and leading tones. It seems to me that if you have clear ideas you can make clear choices.

January 21, 2005 at 02:02 AM · Question: Which tuning system do those with perfect pitch identify with? I mean are pitch-perfect people bothered by Pythagorean tuning?

January 21, 2005 at 03:40 AM · Maybe we can't hear equal temprement or maybe it just sounds wrong. I use an equal temprement tuner to tune my acoustic guitar. I never tried that without a tuner.

I think people with perfect pitch don't hear notes in a harmonic context immediately. I'm sure they could deal with any tuning system.

January 21, 2005 at 03:49 AM · thats basically right. i have perfect pitch, not as ridiculous as some peoples but i can almost always identify the pitch. I think the only kind of tuning that would bother ANYBODY after a while is tempered, although people assure me that if you hear it enough not matter how perfect your pitch is you get used to it. although if you listen to some beethoven quartets or something it will "reset" you and it might irritate you when you play a major chord on the piano and hear dissonance.

January 21, 2005 at 06:43 AM · Well, I'd be curious how people define perfect pitch. I looked at a past thread on perfect pitch where a link was posted to a UC study. Reading the study's description, I could not find a definition of what they call "pure" pitch. They had a term "piano" pitch, which I assume means tempered, although they did not define that either.


January 21, 2005 at 07:15 AM · My impression has been it's just a popular term that roughly translates to the popular term "musical genius."

I think in reality it means being able to recall a pitch the way someone might recall something visual. At the extreme there are probably people who can hear every note in a thick piano piece and write it all down. There are people who have what I've heard called "relative" pitch, meaning they can't recall pitches out of the air, but have the sound of intervals down cold. One of my teachers could do that to an amazing degree. Very useful in jazz. I think there was a period where I could recall an "A" but I never really tested it.

January 21, 2005 at 02:27 PM · I have what most people call "perfect pitch"--the ability to recognize a pitch without any reference. However, my ability is somewhat instrument-dependent. If you play a note on a piano or a violin, I can immediately tell you what the note name is (provided the A is tuned reasonably close to 440). On wind instruments, I tend to need a little more time. On voice, I almost always cannot tell. But it depends on the timbre of the voice. I don't know why that's the case.

Pythagorean doesn't bother me. ET doesn't botter me. Even some historical temperaments don't bother me. I just need some time to get used to them. But what really bothers (in fact irritates) me is a leading note that is played too sharp. If that's the effect that so-called "expressive intonation" is aimed to achieve, then I must say it is not the kind of expression I would desire to hear at all.

January 21, 2005 at 11:43 PM · Just wanted to address the perfect pitch thing. I don't have it - I have relative pitch and I wonder if that might even be more useful for the violin than "perfect" since you're always relating one note to the next in succession or in a chord as has been pointed out here. I AM starting to be able to produce a given tone by relating it to something else: imagining an orchestra tuning to A, hearing it in my mind, and if I sing A and check with an instrument, there's the A, things like that. But I don't think that's perfect pitch.

There is a relative in my family who does have perfect pitch. He recognizes the notes the way we recognize colours and shades: we all can tell the difference between red and pink without thinking about it. We were at a concert together and during the pre-performance part where everyone is practising his own difficult passage in a cacaphony of sound he got really antsy. I was surprised because he's used to that kind of thing. In the melee he was hearing one violinist. She didn't sound out of tune to me and she wasn't, in terms of relative pitch. But apparently her instrument wasn't tuned to 440 and his brain was constantly trying to bring all the notes up a titch despite trying to ignore this melody among many melodies. When he was a relative beginner he would tend to be in tune, but once with the violin tuned down for a baroque instrument there was a real struggle going on to stay in tune as the "inner pitch" battled with an instrument tuned down a quarter tone. These kinds of things give me a bit of insight into what 'perfect pitch' might be like. Apparently it can be head-ache inducing.

It's not the associative thing. I do think it has something to do with the colour or feel of a pitch but with much clearer vision than yours truly will ever possess. It seems to be like seeing with the ears. (huh?)

January 21, 2005 at 11:37 PM · It seems like "expressive intonation" might be safer, at least for playing alone. For example, if you aim for a sharp leading tone you can miss on either side and still be in tune, but if you aim for a just leading tone and you're flat it's out of tune. Yes? No?

Kevin, I think the leading tone is all about irritation and its resolution.

January 21, 2005 at 10:55 PM · But the irritation is too much for me.

January 21, 2005 at 10:58 PM · wow, seventh chords must kill you then.

January 22, 2005 at 12:20 AM · Inge,

I think you have a point there in what you're saying about pitch recognition. You now can remember an A in your head because you envision the orchestra tuning to it. This is a degree of pitch memory that some would claim is perfect pitch. I came into remembering pitches by remembering tuning notes, middle C on the piano, the beginnings of familiar pieces, and so on. If I worked at it, I could remember the entire scale, but it is not as natural for me as it is for some people. I mostly notice when pieces are in the incorrect key. I always sing melodies in the proper key in my head, and if I made a conscious effort to have names associated with the notes, I would be quicker with pitch recognition. But alas, I don't think about their names much. TO me, this pitch awareness is a form of perfect pitch, but kind of a "class B" type, that is not as readily connected as those who know note names without a second thought.

January 22, 2005 at 01:17 AM · Try living with someone in the house who has perfect pitch and hears you practising --- and you KNOW he hears EVERYTHING! It makes playing in front of an audience a breeze. ;-)

January 22, 2005 at 01:21 PM · "seventh chords must kill you then"

Nope. Seventh, ninth, eleventh, thirteenth, half diminished, dim flat 5 etc chords don't kill me unless they are played with irritating intervals. What kills me is a leading note played too sharp. (Depending on the ratios, a major seventh chord can sound hauntingly sweet or downright irritating.)

January 22, 2005 at 04:35 PM · Hey all! Holy cr@p...I started this discussion board months ago out of desperation, but I have learned soooo much from your all's posts! I would have responded long ago, but I was busy PLAYING BACH and noticing all the millions of subttle desicions i had to make between Pythagorean and just intonation. I went back to the G minor Fuga and now I am playing it like never before. It sounds sooooo much better to my ear. NO KIDDING YOU GUYS ALL ROCK! It's amazing how you have to play one F# on a cord, then the very next second, play the same F# in a scale but MOVING your finger...NO one ever told me that! I freaking stoked about how much better my intonation is all around, even in easy pieces. I wish someone had told me this stuff a long time ago. To quote Napoleon Dynamite: "Sweet!"

January 22, 2005 at 05:57 PM · The Internet is changing the world. Years ago we'd all be struggling with things by ourselves, lucky if we happened upon the right person or the right teacher at the right time. Similar things are happening with me. "Why didn't anybody ever tell me...." etc. How nice to read such good news.

January 22, 2005 at 06:07 PM · Well, I asked the question about perfect pitch to see the responses. It seems like I could assume that perfect pitch is commonly used to identify the ability a person has who can call out the letter name of the note when they hear it. The speed at which they can call it out seems to matter in terms of how the "perfect" pitch is classified.

To my mind, that is all relative. One needs to learn to associate pitch names with the pitches - it is not something one is born with. Then depending on the strength of memory or association, the speed of recognition would be faster or slower. So to me, that is good pitch memory, not perfect pitch. I was just curious whether anyone would offer a different explanation than that.

Also, since the discussion was about intonation and the varieties thereof, I was additionally curious to see if anyone could tell me what a "perfect"/"pure" pitch was, so it could be recognized. But there aren't any pure pitches are there? And especially not on a melodic instrument, such as the violin, where everything is relative to the open strings, which are tuned relative to the person's preference for an "A" setting.

I think the ability to call out a letter name when a pitch is heard has nothing to do with the ability to play notes in tune.

Andrew: I would advise you to tape yourself now that you have been experimenting with just and expressive intonation. Make sure you are not adjusting those F#s so much that they are audible to a listener. Audience members are not as dumb as they sometimes seem and they can hear intonation variances in a melody even if they can't tell you what it is they are hearing.

That was one of the points in my original post - to make sure all the same notes in a phrase have the same intonation. That is easily distinguishable to an untrained ear. Just play Twinkle for someone who is not a musician and you'll find that out fast (be sure you ask them to close their eyes so they are not distracted by any movement you might make). Pick a note that happens several times in the melody and play it a little differently everytime. Then play it again with consistent intonation on that note. Ask your helper which they liked better. They'll pick the one with consistent intonation (provided everything else remained stable). Try another experiment with a simple piece. Play it with the three intonations mentioned in that link. Which did your audience member like the best? I'd venture a guess that they will pick expressive intonation everytime. It is the most satisfying to listen to.


January 22, 2005 at 07:36 PM · If someone has the ability to identify within 0.01 second the base frequency of a note accurate to within 0.1 Hz, I suppose that person can be said to have perfect pitch. No?

Now, is it pitch memory? Well, of course memory has to come into the picture. Without memory, such identification is simply impossible. If 440Hz is not somehow encoded in your brain, how can you say something has frequencey 440Hz?

January 22, 2005 at 11:36 PM · Lisa, have you done the experiment in your last paragraph?

What do you think of what I said about expressive being safer?

January 22, 2005 at 11:18 PM · Sviatoslav Richter claimed that by the end of his life, his 'perfect pitch' had got an entire tone flat - he could always identify notes, but he always heard them a tone sharper than he thought they should be. This suggests that perfect pitch is something that you develop very early on and the pitches stay 'in your head' forever more.

However, that doesn't really explain Richter's problem, as I can't imagine that the whole world's pitches rose by a tone over 60 years. Evidently, something happened to Richter's hearing/sense of pitch - and it became so bad that apparently concerts became somewhat of a nightmare for him at one point, and while playing to himself he would transpose whatever he was playing down a tone.


January 23, 2005 at 12:03 AM · "To my mind, that is all relative. One needs to learn to associate pitch names with the pitches - it is not something one is born with. Then depending on the strength of memory or association, the speed of recognition would be faster or slower. So to me, that is good pitch memory, not perfect pitch. I was just curious whether anyone would offer a different explanation than that."

Lisa, I don't know about the nature nurture question. I have relative pitch and solfege names to notes because that is the training I received as a child in one grade in public school and it stuck. I wasn't exposed to the notion of pitch and that didn't stick and I'm developing it now. However, others who had more musical education than I had of the same kind don't instantly recognize relative pitch so there is something innate about it too. Regarding perfect pitch and recognizing A = 440 etc., obviously that has to have a background in our musical culture. The same person who winces at the sounds of an instrument tuned down to baroque tuning, had he lived in baroque times would have been inwardly tuned to a scale tuned to a lower pitch. And then there is the fact that at a certain time every city had its own idea of pitch so it was relative from area to area, but probably consistant within a given city or orchestra. What did our person with perfect pitch do back then?

I have a feeling that it does have to do with innate perceptiveness and recognition. The perception comes first: our perfect pitch person can from the outset perceive a difference between red, pink, blue, and powder blue while the rest of us start with the idea that there is something different about those flowers and maybe we can tell red from blue. But the one who perceives the colours with clarity only needs to be given the name - the perception has always been there, while the rest of us have to grope our way into the concept of "redness" or in the musical world, "A-ness". It's not a party game trick of how fast the pitch can be recognized: the answer is just "there" just like if you ask me the colour of the dress you are wearing I would say "It is red." without pondering first what colour it might be. I'm too exposed this on a daily basis to know it does exist. And it can't help but make a person play in tune for the simple reason that he will know when he is not in tune, and out of tuneness is too unpleasant.

I remember a small toddler about two years old brought to a high school concert when it was past his bedtime and falling asleep. Not when the music became louder or softer, but at the moment of each key modulation he would pull himself awake and listen with surprise, so obviously that people across the aisle began watching the baby more than the concert. That to me speaks of an innate awareness. My son did no music whatsoever until he was 13 years old so it's not even a question of early training.

January 22, 2005 at 11:35 PM · Carl:

Wow. That sounds hellish.

I sincerely am asking these questions because I really don't get the concept of perfect pitch. That is why I said I think it is a memory thing. I can sing/hear an A (442) and "feel" like it is really centered. If I hear an A (440) I think it is flat. I recognize it is 440, but I don't prefer it and I keep wanting to make it higher. I think that is because I am so acclimated to A at 442.

That is why I asked what is a "pure" pitch? Because we set pitch differently all the time depending on whether we are using baroque instruments, or playing in an orchestra in LA, NY, or Berlin.

And I was even wondering if people with "perfect pitch" hear a D# or an E flat. Are they the same or different?

In terms of intonation, the whole issue seems moot. I hear intonation in terms of singing. I guess I've been teaching solfeggio scales to little violin students for so many years that it is ingrained in me to hear the mi-fa; ti-do relationship as very dynamic. If I don't clearly hear the function of the notes, then I hear it as out of tune. (By function, I mean the leading function in the scale.)


Yes I have done that experiment with my students a lot. I use it to help them learn to hear how the same note needs to stay at the same pitch for the listener to stay comfortable.

I had a student working on a small Mozart piece last recital. It was her first time doing the work I put in my first post above in terms of fingering a passage, but only playing all the C's, for instance. (It was in CM) She was amazed the first time how different all her C's were and you could see a big lightbulb going off in her mind.

I don't know if it is me as a skilled listener, but when I first heard her play the piece for me, all I could hear were those different C's each time she hit one. (And other notes too, but that is just an example.) It was very disconcerting as a listener and I think it is one of the things that violinists don't spend enough time on. (By the way, I was taught this exercise by a quartet player! It is painful enough to do on your own - can you imagine four people working hours on this!)

We, as violinists, get caught up in moment by moment difficulty and we often don't hear the continuity of intonation because we are only concentrating on where we are at the moment. But a listener doesn't have to deal with that and hears the notes continuously and remembers them (whether consciously or not).

As for the experiment for the listener to choose the most satisfying version (and I usually don't tell them that I am changing the intonation - just that I want them to pick the version they like the best), I usually just compare expressive intonation with tempered. (I never knew all the terms that are on Kurt's site, I just knew tempered pitch as opposed to melodic pitch, which according to that site is the extreme version of pythagorean, or expressive.)

I think I have always thought of intonation in terms of singers. The singers I like the best use intonation to create tension and resolution and I think I just imitated that. Later in my studies, I started understanding it more after going to the Milstein classes - he used intonation in the same way and sometimes talked briefly about it in class.

I find that using the speed rhythms (Galamian) really helps my intonation in terms of getting from one pitch to another same pitch fast and ending up matching the first. It helps your ear to get disciplined enough to notice the continuity of pitch throughout a passage.

As for "safe" intonation... hehe... I think the only safe intonation is to play in tune!! I don't think expressive intonation gives you a margin of error, because if you are hearing the notes in terms of their function in the scale then there is only really one right place for them. A too high seventh is too high, not within the margin of error. ;-)

If you go back to the Bach Gm example (first bar and a half) and really listen to the function of a scale that has been established with G, F#, G (relating to your G string of course) and then add B flat, A, G, F, E, D underneath that, you come out with a very low B flat and a very high F# to create a tritone of maximum tension. Those are the pitches for the whole movement - established in the first bar. In a way, they are both "just" and "expressive" because they function vertically and horizontally because of that tritone.


January 23, 2005 at 12:55 AM · I pulled this piece out just now and going over the first couple measures, I find the hand position that gives the freest vibrato is more unstable intonation-wise.

January 23, 2005 at 01:27 AM · Inge:

I didn't see your post because I was writing as you were posting.

I was asking for people to define their terms. I still don't really know what you mean when you say relative pitch and perfect pitch.

Your point about what we assign A to is the same as mine. But in my mind that lends weight to the notion that there is no such thing as perfect pitch. It is learned and memorized.

I am also unclear about your metaphor relating to colors. It seems like you are saying that only "perfect" pitch people recognize the difference between notes in the beginning...?

I think what you are discussing here is the amount of time it takes someone to "remember" what the pitch is. That is a different issue though, than what perfect pitch is. (I think it is anyway.)

I think the site you posted (Kurt's site on intonation) has only shown that there is no such thing as a pure pitch. Pitch is all relative to the system being used for tuning. So the only way a note could be out of tune, then, is to be out of the structure of that particular type of tuning. That point also mitigates against the concept of perfect pitch.

I think people become uncomfortable with pitch when they are thoroughly indoctrinated in a system of tuning/listening that has nothing to do with perfect pitch. Just because I know an A is 442 doesn't mean I will play in tune, or that my discomfort with A 441 or 445 will mean that I recognize out of tuneness. I can only do that when I hear how A 442 relates to all the other pitches in the system (key) in which I'm playing. This, of course, is only relevant in the scale system we use in "Western" music. If I played according to the frequency numbers assigned to letter names, I would not be playing relationally. Every pitch would be a separate entity unto itself and render the key system meaningless.


Be careful that your technique doesn't govern the demands of the music! ;-) Figure out another way to vibrate. Playing in tune is more important.


January 23, 2005 at 01:28 AM · Lisa,

I know exactly what you are talking about i do have a tendency towards a 442 tuning whereas (pardon brag) when i started playing the violin my ear was normal but i was still able to make calls on anything/ones intonation that my teachers still couldnt hear. Does anyone know how to prevent this? I hope that I get used to sharpness and not be able to change.

January 23, 2005 at 01:46 AM · LOL


The point of my posts is there is no normal. It is culturally and historically determined.


PS Probably should have said it in those few words in the beginning. ;-)

January 23, 2005 at 01:47 AM · My vibrato is better than my intonation. Maybe I should keep the vib and figure out a different way to play in tune.

January 23, 2005 at 02:06 AM · Hi Lisa,

As a linguist I should know the primary rule is to first define terms before discussing them. Otherwise people can argue in circles when either they're talking about different things or they're agreeing but don't know it.

First of all, I don't want to relate any of my perceptions to the discussion here, i.e. playing Bach, choosing pythagorean over just intonation depending on scales or chords or any of that --- I'm far below any such level. I'm not going any further than perfect pitch.

So first of all, we're discussing a person's perception of pitch, rather than if a particular pitch itself is "perfect" (only A = 440 is the 'perfect pitch' for A; that's not what we mean).

The relative pitch and perfect pitch is something that was discussed here a while back, so I was referring to that. I lived and breathed relative do solfege and that's all I knew for decades so my conceptualization of melody and harmony was all within that framework -- the notes relative to each other within a diatonic scale. Do-mi-sol is the same relatively speaking in movable do solfege whether the actually pitches are CEG, GF#A, or FAC. Until recently I could blatantly sing or play a melody in any key and not have a clue what key I was in, or that I was playing it in one key on one particular day, and in another on another particular day. I was "pitch-blind" or "pitch-depth" in the sense of not telling an A from an F, but I was always in tune, relatively speaking. The A was the tonic in A major and I would always find my way back to that A because I'd started with that A, but my world consisted of notes relative to each other dancing around tonics, dominants etc. For me, the recognition of pitch had to develop. An innate sense of harmony and disharmony, the ugly rubbing vibrational feeling of seconds or sevenths and the silvery pulse of 6ths which attracted me from childhood on has always been there. So innately I was born with a sense of relative pitch that could be nurtured and taught, as it was, because first of all I was able to recognize something. Enough about relative pitch.

The debate went on about perfect pitch for a while - whether some people are born to recognize pitches the way we can recognize a colour or a shape, or whether everyone needs to be taught, and some simply learn faster than others. The "innate" people were thought to be the ones with 'perfect pitch' (if I remember this right).

So I'm looking at this from two extremes. In my case, I'm metaphorically like a legally blind person groping my way around pitches. I'm starting to recognize that certain keys have a colour or a mood, and I can associate a pitch with an experience, and sometimes the colour of the experience but there is nothing direct about it. Of course if I had started longer than three years ago it would have developed to a much greater extent, but the operative word is "developed". I'd be one of the "faster" people to name that pitch, in your terms.

However my son tells me that for as long as he remembers, pitches were clear and distinct for him with their own personalities and attributes, just as colour perception is to us. (I'm using the colour metaphor because most of us perceive colour and have done so since infancy). Later on he found it kind of nice to know that these things had names, but the perception of each pitch as a distinct entity was there from the very beginning. In contrast, my only perception was that notes are higher, lower, have certain qualities (thin, rich, dark) and harmonize well or not so well with each other. I never, ever would have naturally perceived A to have a particular attribute -- it was just lower than the C above it, and so on. And I'm not sure that I would be able to perceive that my teacher's piano seems to be tuned to A = 338 while the one at school is tuned to A = 442 --- although now that such things are pointed out I'll recognize a brighter or duller sound to the music and associate.

Of course that 338 and 442 first had to be learned, but to learn it had to be perceived. I.e. the perception of the "colour" of the pitch is already there, a name is supplied, and voila, with a good memory there forever. Others first have to learn how to perceive that tone in a non-relative way. I have no idea how others perceive their pitches: I'm going by the contrast of these two experiences. And also that some ears are finer than others, just like some eyes are better at perceiving balances and nuances that translate into fine visual art.

In the final analysis I still think that relative pitch serves me very well in learning the violin, because once the instrument is tuned properly, it is all mostly relative.

January 23, 2005 at 02:47 AM · This is a really interesting thread. My own concerns about perfect pitch centre around the issue of tuning to perfect fifths, in which case G will be a flatter G than that on a piano. A former teacher of mine used to complain that my D and G were 'flat' because of this, and I'm wondering if a student with perfect pitch would be bothered by this aspect of tuning to perfect fifths also.

I must say this discussion has been an utter education for me, since although I practice just/Pythagorean/expressive intonation myself and have done for many years, I didn't realise until last summer that it's actually a recognised aspect of violin playing. I remember my own 'light bulb' as Lisa describes it: I was fifteen and working on the second movement of the Bruch, and my teacher said, 'Okay, now listen carefully to the accompanying chord and make that opening G lovely and flat.' *Ding!* Intonation was never the same again.

Tell me, is there a way to explain this concept to the average student?

January 23, 2005 at 05:48 AM · Ah Inge:

I'm understanding you better. But I think you are defining your terms only in terms of your experience - a dangerous thing when discussing concepts.

I would submit to you that your pitch is as good as your son's (he got it from somewhere after all). :0)

I think you just learned a different system from him from the beginning. For some reason, when you learned the relational aspect of a scale you didn't learn the color/tonal differences between the different scales. I also recognize pitch in terms of color or feeling, but I learned note names from the beginning.

That is one reason I like the Violinland series for kids. It has fun games from the very first lessons about color for the strings: G is low and deep, D is nice and mellow, A is bright and cheerful, E is high and chirpy. Children are taught high and low and inbetweens. They learn to pick a color for each string. There is a cute song about different bouncing balls and choosing a string for each kind of bouncy sound, and several pages for selecting strings for voices in a story. That kind of creative association starts children listening to tonal qualities in the violin right from the beginning.

If you combine that with note relationships in a scale then the scales are heard the same and differently at the same time. The structure of the major scale is the same and the note functions in the scale are established, but the tonal qualities of the different scales are different. I think you just learned one half of that equation and are now learning the other. (Tone/timbre is different than pitch.)

But had you learned note names (or that other half) from the beginning you would be thinking you had perfect pitch now! I am sure you will develop that as time goes on. The more vivid those associations are in your mind, the quicker you will recognize the pitches.

LOL Jim: Vibrato is based in intonation! You'd better get more creative about your technique! Practice, practice!

Sue: In quartet playing they tune in "tight" fifths so the C of the cello can be brought a little higher and the E of the violins a little lower. This brings the major third closer in terms of open strings and helps to make the intervals slightly more tempered to make the vertical tuning easier. It is all so complicated....

I usually explain the difference between expressive (what I call melodic) and tempered pitch by first teaching open string one octave scales in the solfeggio system so the student learns the functions of the notes in a scale and how to tune them relationally on the violin. As the student progresses and needs to learn other keys, then I have a lesson about tempered pitch where we discuss how to tune a piano - first octaves then a fifth, then another fifth, etc. They quickly realize that by the time you get individual notes on the piano they have no scale relationship. This helps them to understand that pitch is determined by key rather than objective (non-relational) pitch. (That is when I usually play the example of tempered or expressive intonation on an easy piece.)

Then it gets complicated because they have to realize that in different scales the open strings play different roles and one has to adjust other pitches to the function of the open string in that scale. But this can only really be understood when the solfeggio scale is used. Pitch names don't help with the hearing of this at all.

I think this is when color comes in as well in terms of pitch recognition. You would play a D flat lower than a C# in each of their respective scales and even in CM I hear the C as deeper or more round than in a GM scale. This is an easier concept to grasp too if you are used to singing the scale and intervals because if you sing slowly and carefully you will make the same depth and roundness with your voice on certain notes in the scale. Usually that is key when a student starts to learn this kind of hearing. If they are already used to singing scales, they can find these relationships themselves and then realize that they've put their fingers in slightly different places than another scale.

Geez. This is way too hard to explain.


Here's my edit:

PS. I think we could use some "Brevity." ;-)

January 23, 2005 at 06:19 AM · No, my analysis is not as shallow as that. I have a background in learning disability training and know from there that people can actually perceive things from entirely different perspectives and senses, and I've read things here and there on the subject but was using my experience as a concrete example. I have rather good pitch but it is not as good or THE SAME as my son's and that is only partially due to training. I had to learn that there was such a thing as tone colour - he always knew it. It's the same as in other cases things that I take for granted musically some other people have to slog and work for. It's as if some people are hardwired at birth to know things that others acquire. Generally speaking however the word "educate" comes from "educare" meaning to bring out of someone, the idea being that what you are doing is allowing a seed to germinate and grow through the right stimulus. If your students didn't have it in them to feel the "colour" of the notes, they wouldn't be able to associate with the idea no matter how much you worked at it. Something has to be there from the onset.

Oh, I wanted to write more but it's later than I thought, and there's a gray rabbit nibbling at my socks. I'm not sure what note his tone colour represents.

I like the complete-person encompassing approach of the violin system you use, Lisa.

January 23, 2005 at 06:04 AM · Hi Inge:

Oh I hope I didn't give you the impression I thought your ideas were shallow!! (Cause I don't.)

I agree we all have differences in our talents. I liken it to someone who can look at something for a few seconds and then tell you everything they saw. Not everyone can do that, BUT everyone can learn to (some faster than others).

I think it involves a perspective thing (like you said). We all have a preference for the type of perspective that comes natural to us. I looked it up in Nideffer's book. He sites four perspectives that athletes tend to use: broad-internal focus, broad-external focus, narrow-internal focus, and narrow-external focus. Depending on the focus you are most familiar with, that is how you will function in a task. The other focuses (foci? lol) can be learned, but don't come "natural."

(Broad-internal is analysis. You can attend to a lot of things and the focus is internal because that is where information processing takes place. Broad-external is an assessment skill. You can take in a broad area outside of you and assess it quickly - choosing which external details are task relevant. Narrow-internal is rehearsing: systematically going through something internally before we engage in it. Narrow-external is the focus needed to react or perform. You can focus your attention on a detail outside you to perform an action.

Nideffer talks about how we use all these types of focus in learning how to execute a skill. He says that being in the "zone" is when you become immersed in an internal or external focus. I think you have a different focus than your son, and he enters his quicker and easier than you do. This can be learned.)

You are right. Not every student can associate color easily with the strings. Usually the ones that THINK too much can't do it easily. I have to provide them with some cognitive dissonance to turn their brains off and get them to just experience hearing the sound. The kids that associate color (universal colors too) with the strings the fastest are my "learning disabled" kids. I had a boy with Ausbergers (sp?) last week give me colors in seconds without any thought at all. Some kids I spend a couple of weeks or more on the concept. But I don't let them give up even if it isn't initially easy, because that is the beginning of developing that skill.

The more a person practices their weaknesses the better they become. I think that is the mark of a truly successful person - the one who addresses his/her weakest areas and makes them their strongest. Learning to shift attention is just a matter of practice.


January 23, 2005 at 06:27 AM · I remember thinking once wow that guy tried to analyze us in terms of a bunch of jocks. Maybe it was Nideffer.

January 23, 2005 at 06:34 AM · LOL We ARE a bunch of jocks - just nerdy ones. (micromovement jocks)


January 23, 2005 at 03:31 PM · Just have to say that I know that the B flat/F# interval I was talking about above in the Bach is not a tritone. I woke up this morning and that was the first thought on my mind.

What I should have said, going back to an even earlier post was that the big reduction of the G, F#, G and the B flat, C, B flat dictates intonation from the tritone there (C, F#) and then when you add the scale down (B flat, A, G, F, E, D) the augmented fifth between the B flat and F# reinforces that intonation. Both resolve back to the G and the intonation has to show that.

Whew. This thread is too hard. Now I can go back to sleep. That was disturbing my dreams. ;-)


January 23, 2005 at 04:28 PM · I looked up the word "pitch" on and found the following three definitions for pitch in music:

a. The distinctive quality of a sound, dependent primarily on the frequency of the sound waves produced by its source.

b.The relative position of a tone within a range of musical sounds, as determined by this quality.

c. Any of various standards for this quality associating each tone with a particular frequency

Definition a. doesn't say much in the context of this discussion. And I think it is clear that definition b. can be used to define relative pitch. Now, definition c. can be used to define perfect pitch. I'd rather call it "absolute pitch". So if someone uses the standard A = 440 Hz and can tell you the note of a name and say if it's sharp or flat with respect to this standard without any other aid, then that person can be considered to have absolute pitch. But as I said, anything that requires reference requires memory. Such a reference must be learned somehow. So if one must insist that this is just really good pitch memory, then I'm not going to counter. The fact that some can identify frequencies with robotic speed and accuracy while many others can't suggests that such an ability cannot be acquired by everyone--just as not everybody can play like Heifetz. There is something there that is innate.

Can I here a difference between C# and Db? Well, you have to first tell me with respect to which tuning you're talking about other than what A is. Depending on the tuning, a Db can be HIGHER than a C#.

I think the discussion on intonation on is a good starting point. But it is also incomplete. It is because Pythagorean is pretty well-defined but just intonation is not. Just intonation refers to a family of tunings that use small ratios. The problem with Western music is that by using note names instead of ratios in specifying notes, there is an inherent ambiguity in how they should be played unless one considers which tuning the composer intended the piece to be played in. But even then, one is not bound to one particular tuning.

January 23, 2005 at 07:42 PM · Understandable. I saw B and F and automatically saw diminished 5th myself.

January 27, 2005 at 02:33 AM · How old does a post have to be before you can't edit it?

Anyway, if the only open strings we can now use to check intonation are ones which form a perfect interval what are your thoughts about that, if there is no open string perfect relationship to a note you'd like to check?

January 27, 2005 at 04:51 AM · I've learned a lot from reading this thread. I tried, but I'm hampered because I don't have broadband Internet service. I can read the text just fine, but getting the video to play is prohibitively slow. If I could get rid of the visual part of the video and just go for the audio part, I'd be a happier and more informed violinist. Do any of you techies have any advice for me, other than upgrading my Internet service?

January 27, 2005 at 05:19 AM · I'm rereading the thread, and I'd like some clarification from Christopher, who brought this up, or anyone else. What is this about overtones "beating" and "beatless intervals"?

BTW, I agree with the person who said that this must be the most civilized and civil discussion group on the Web.

January 27, 2005 at 05:37 AM · You know when you tune your violin and listen for the tone to smooth out and become even? The waving back and forth sound that tells you it's not in tune is the beat. To the degree of out of tuneness, it will change speeds. Someone correct me, but I believe one beat per second is 1 hz off. The further out of tune you are, the more beats per second you hear. Fourths, fifths, and octaves all have the ability to be tuned perfectly so that there are no beats.

January 27, 2005 at 11:45 AM · Beat frequency only applies to an interval that deviates slightly from unison. It is an amplitude variation caused by phase interference. If you play two notes that are a hair away from unison you will hear a periodic volume variation. This is the beat. The phase cancellation and reinforcement necessary to make beats isn't possible in notes farther apart than that. A 1 Hz difference per beat like you said sounds right to me.

When you tune your strings you are hearing something else. Two frequences with a whole number relationship give a repeating pattern on a scope, but it would also happen with some microtonal intervals. However, maybe you are hearing that pattern begin when you hit a fifth because the interval in the last creak before you hit the fifth doesn't give a repeating pattern because of the non-whole number relationship in that interval.

Anybody have some oral tradition type things, or else done previous brainstorming about what I brought up about checking non-perfect intervals?

January 27, 2005 at 10:42 AM · I used G for the open string scale. I found that the perfect intervals were easy to match including singing from the open G to C in the C scale, and the other intervals were maybe not as certain. Is this what you expected?

Are you saying match the pitches to singing? I assume there isn't some absolute external point of reference for the the 2nd 3rd 6th and 7th?

January 27, 2005 at 11:47 AM · nah, that post was stupid. (I mean mine - the long one I just erased. Not Jim's preceding mine.) Woke 4:00 from fire alarm going off & power going off in 2 rooms for some reason. Brain in sleep mode. It was something about the necessity of being able to sing in tune if you want to sing your violin into tune. I do, but sometimes I tune my voice through the violin - they are complementary instruments, aren't they, and women have an advantage there. Guys need cellos so they can sing to them.

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