using tuners to improve intonation

August 30, 2004 at 05:43 AM · What do people think about this? I understand this is a somewhat controversial matter. I would be interested in entertaining arguments for both sides, pro and con. Seriously, would like your opinions, folks!

Replies (26)

August 30, 2004 at 06:29 AM · I have much debated this as well. I think a tuner is very beneficial when you are having intonation problems in specific instances in order for you to see where you are going wrong. Good for beginners so that they get a decent sense of pitch, and good for occaisionally practicing slow even bows. It is more, in this case, to see if your bow pressure is even and not fluctuating at the same point in bow stroke with every stroke unconsciously. The reason I say that is because with electrical tuners, the pitch "wobbles" between the green and red lights (or whatever the device might use) depending on how the string is being pulled. Ever tried to tune your violin with a tuner and noticed that only after you are done playing the note and it is ringing that the pitch on the tuner actually settles? It can help make the ear "aware" in the sense that you are watching the tuner and acutely listening, but I would not use it regularly as a guide. Also, to make things a bit more complicated, the violin is not an equaltempered instrument like the piano...or the tuner. So if you use it to tune, say a is not an exact third. It is a slight if you are having bad intonation problems, use the tuner for awhile, yes, but as a "required" instrument of everyday practice, I'd say it isn't too helpfull if all you are using it for is intonation hyperawareness.


August 30, 2004 at 10:42 AM · here's my thoughts:

If you're playing a solo violin piece then it helps to use a tuner to get the intonation. If you're playing a piece that is accompanied by a piano, you should use a piano to help with the intonation. Why? because a piano isn't tuned like a violin.

A piano has a different tuning system which is also known as "Well Tempered", it basically makes a middle ground in each note so it's not exactly in tune. On a piano an Ab is the same as a G#, but on a violin a G# is slightly higher then an Ab. When you get to the top notes on a piano they are very out of tune with the bottom notes (even if you've just had it tuned).

If you're playing with an orchestra or chamber group, use a tuner to help tune chords.

Thant's my two bob

August 30, 2004 at 01:00 PM · Using eyes is a very slow way to learn a sound/feel thing. I never found it useful one bit.

I suggest playing along with recorded music. Just anything improvised, whatever harmonizes. Let your body pick up the information on intonation.

We actually stock CDs without lead lines designed to be improvised against. These are really quite useful. Folks like them.


August 30, 2004 at 01:53 PM ·

"On a piano an Ab is the same as a G#, but on a violin a G# is slightly higher then an Ab"

Care to elaborate on that, Ben?

August 30, 2004 at 05:41 PM · It has to do with intervals and things being relative.

August 30, 2004 at 08:12 PM · yeah it has to do with what key your in, so an Fsharp is higher in A major than it is in D major becuase in A major, fsharp is the leading tone

please correct me if im wrong, im only 50% sure on that info

August 30, 2004 at 08:15 PM · I watch my tuner when I play. I'm a beginner and it helps me to be sure that I'm playing the notes correctly. But sometimes I forget that I should listen to the sound. It's a little dangerous, specially for the beginners. In that case, I think it's better to turn it off and just listen to the sound.

August 30, 2004 at 09:49 PM · the violin can be tuned to itself.

all G octaves, D octaves, A octaves, and E octaves can go against an open string.

from there, tune in 3rds and 4ths to get the violin's note. eg. you want a violin's Bb? play open D, then finger D against Bb and there you go. you'll hear the wobbles disappear when you're in tune. when you're perfectly in tune, if your ear is really good, you'll hear the subharmonic F below Bb as well but that takes practice.

August 31, 2004 at 01:05 PM · I'm still doubtful about the equally tempered thing. Yes, the piano is tempered... but so is the contemporary human ear. Eight notes fits into an octave on the violin just as it does on the piano. This is why, when you tune your violin, you need to ensure that your fifths are not too wide (soundwave-wise, your ear may want them to be). If they are, your fingered octaves will be out of tune, and - moreoever - you will not match any non-stringed instrument you play with. I believe the musical pitchings we use today are tempered, period. Not just piano. Yes, we strings (and voice) have the ability to create musical expression by sharpening our sharps in sharp keys, or flattening our flats, nudging up our leading notes etc... but the octave remains intact, and tempered.

August 31, 2004 at 03:06 AM · The tuner is useless after ten minutes. The only thing it should do is help open up your ears. Play with the tuner and realize how your intonation is doing. Do a simple scale after that play with your ears. Listen to your sound and know if it is correct or not.

August 31, 2004 at 04:19 AM · i recall being a young beginning student and struggled with intonation.

i recall the exercise my teacher went through with me to get my notes in tune.

after setting the a string tone. he made me tune my violin. then made me bow really really slow open strings. after about 4-6 months of this...i was able to start putting my fingers on the finger board the a string being the first. i think i spent the first 1 1/2 years on slow bowing and simple simple scales.

was it frustrating? you bet! i wanted to play paganini! c'mon hard is paganini? ;)

i was grateful for his slow and strict teaching. it made playing on key much easier.

i believe that is one isnt born with perfect can be taught with the right teacher and patience.

it drives me up the wall everytime my wife says that the musicians that play in our church are great because they have perfect pitch.

whoop-dee-do. ever see those advertisements in the back of 'strings' that offers that course on perfect pitch?

good tone recognition, i feel, comes from a good teacher instilling good solid practice methods.

by the rhythm sucks! everything is rubato with me! :D

August 31, 2004 at 06:55 AM · my elaboration:

when playing the violin, if you're playing in a key such as G, to emphasise the tonic (G) you can sharpen the seventh tone (F#). In G, the F# wants to go to G. However, a Gb doesn't want to go to G, instead it wants to go to F. Violinists can emphasise this by sharpening the F# or flattening the Gb.

Also, some comments on modern society being an equal tempered ear:

Bollocks (sorry). Twentieth century music, inparticular the more modern music is starting to use quarter tones more and more. We have been bred in a western music tradition which says there are 8 notes in an octave, which are seperated into large steps (tones) and small steps (semi-tones) in the order TTsTTTs for a major scale, or TsTTsTT for a natural minor scale. However we are then forgetting asian and eastern music, as well as yiddish (and there were so many violinists that were jewish).

Indian music is built around quater-tones and small intervals. They have (i think) 20 notes to their octave. The Chinese have 13 notes.

In yiddish music, you need to really sharpen the correct notes to make it sound correct.

When you sing a note, the pitch will drop unless you make the effort to raise it. When singing a scale you have to watch the semi-tones otherwise it will not be in tune. Singing is one of the best ways to improve intonation, and at uni, we're singing all the time with our teacher to improve the intonation, and we can tell that it's working.

Again, it comes down to the situation really. If you're playing with a piano, you should check it with the piano. If you're playing in a string quartet you should check it with each person and tune the chord. If playing solo, you should tune the intervals - make sure your open strings are tuned, then find the correct note.

As for perfect pitch, it can be learnt. A year ago, I couldn't sing an A for the life of me unless I had a tuning fork. Now I have it memorised. ANd slowly but surely, I'm building up a knowledge of hte notes around. If someone says sing a C, I find A and go up to C. It takes a bit of time, so I haven't got "perfect" pitch yet, but in time it will get quicker. All you need to do is work at it. It will improve your intonation as well ;)

August 31, 2004 at 01:09 PM · Hi Ben, you're entirely right; I should have specified Western classical music in my post. Spot the narrow-minded violin teacher;)

August 31, 2004 at 01:59 PM · The use of a tuner to tune a specific note in a music performance is absolutely harmful to a violinist's intonation. A full explanation would be very lenghthy, but for starters, try this: Play a double stop of open G and E on the D string. Adjust the E until it is exactly in tune with the open G. Now play that E as a double stop with open A. You will find that it is badly out of tune with the A. In order to make it in tune with the open A you will have to raise the pitch....of course this now higher E will be out of tune with the open G! Therefore, someone who has these two double stops in a composition they are playing will, if he uses the same E pitch for both double stops, be playing at least one of them badly out of tune. This is just the tip of the iceberg..only one example of the wrong path taken by anyone who operates on the false belief that all C#s, or all E naturals, or all of any pitch you can name, is the same pitch.

August 31, 2004 at 03:16 PM · "Play a double stop of open G and E on the D string. Adjust the E until it is exactly in tune with the open G. Now play that E as a double stop with open A."

That's precisely the experiment I was going to recommend. There's no better way to get an idea of pitch relativity than to actually hear it in action.

August 31, 2004 at 08:28 PM · I have to say, just use those things to tune your A string. That's it!

August 31, 2004 at 08:54 PM · Ben, the piano is equal-tempered, not well-tempered. Well tempered scale is funky, based on a scale where some notes are changed more than others. In an equal-tempered scale, all of the notes are equally out of tune with each other. It has been speculated that Bach wrote his Well Tempered Klavier to prove that equal temperament was the only way to tune a piano, because if you played the entire Well Tempered Klavier on a well-tempered instrument, it would sound wildly gross in some instances. It was kind of Bach's musical joke/statement.

September 1, 2004 at 12:18 AM · Hmm... I think I may take the opposing side of the argument here... (just for balance).

I'm actually researching this field for my psychology thesis (when I get around to it). In the mean time I have been experimenting with different methods of improving intonation, with and without tuners.

I've found that playing with a tuner in front of you is not particularly good for improving intonation. Sure it tells you when you're out of tune... but as many have pointed out.. it's the tuner which is doing the work.

However one method which I have had some initial success with is by using a tuner to analyse a RECORDING of a practice session. This way I'm forced to use my ears and internal pitch whilst I am playing. On completion, I playing the recording to a tuner. This shows me which notes I played out of tune, and if there is any sort of trend with what I'm playing out of tune.

For example.. I recently put my scale practice under this sort of treatment. I noticed in particular that I was playing 6th's and 7th's somewhat sharp on a consistent basis. Hence when practicing again, I mentally had to force myself to flatten my internal pitch on 6ths and 7ths.

I have to say, that this method has proved to be somewhat successful. Although it's still in it's early stages (about 1 week), and I still am out of tune to a degree, there is a noticable improvement.

Also, recording my playing is a wonderful excercise in pride swallowing, as I really find out how bad I can sound. Forces me to work on tone quality, rhythm and other things.

I'll probably give more info on how successful this is in the months to come.

September 1, 2004 at 04:16 AM · Gee. Guess I ought to put my tuner under the back wheel of my car and ... but then how would I find out the humidity?

Seriously, the discussion of mean tone temperament is really interesting. Ben is exactly right about non-Western music. For ex., Classical Arabic music has specific modes which involve half flats; Turkish also uses microtones. Since Klezmer was influenced by eastern European music (which also is modal) playing in these styles according to even temperament would be just plain wrong.

From that perspective, there would seem to be an inherent tension in Western Classical music between a warmer approach to pitch (voice and classical strings) as opposed to the restrictions of the even or well tempered keyboard.

If a violinist is aware of all of the above issues, and of course, all the relativity issues in double stop passages, could there be a judicious use of the tuner? (Or do I have to fire my teacher?)(just kidding...I think)

September 3, 2004 at 07:12 PM · Well, I completely agree with everything that is said about ear training here and on Buri's column, but I also do think that sometimes a violinist could get comfortable with the way a piece is sounding when it might actually be out of tune. So use of the tuner could be a way to monitor yourself.

September 3, 2004 at 10:21 PM · this isn't even worth debating. tuners use tempered intonation which is wrong, so dont use a tuner except to tune your strings. i cant imagine why you'd ever need one, if you're having to use it you're not practicing correctly.

September 3, 2004 at 10:54 PM · Here's what works for me: being able to play equal tempered or just, depending on the situation. Tempered is so unnatural that using a tuner or some other machine helps me to train it. A good piano tuner can do it by ear, but then he knows he needs a beat of 1.5/second on a particular fifth, and has the time to really hear and tune it. We string players have to do it instantly, hence I drill it in this way: I recorded a CD with scales in all major and minor keys in equal temperament. I play along with the CD for 5 minutes or so, and I really get to know where the pitches are. If I play with piano this drilling helps a lot. Added bonus, I'm used to playing in unison with what I hear, eliminating the beats. Helps in playing in a violin section, eliminating beats with the players around me.

Next thing is just intonation, which is good for playing with other adjustable pitch instruments. This is much easier to tune by ear. You just have to know what the lowest common overtone is and eliminate the beat. I use this for string quartet all the time.

Anybody interested in the whole subject of intonation can check out my article on the web:


September 4, 2004 at 01:50 AM · COOL Website! Thx!

September 5, 2004 at 05:42 AM · Thanks everyone for your opinions. I have retired my tuner. It's kindof like taking the training wheels off my bike. (It took me a long time to do that, too. I am a coward). I don't think I'll look back, though. And I've learned a LOT about intonation. rocks.

September 6, 2004 at 04:00 PM · I agree this site is good! But back to the first question about how to improve intonation..

When i first started on violin I had a terrible ear for tuning. I was hopeless, i didnt even realise i was out of tune. But you do realise, so thats good. I used to get a keyboard and play the violin part really slowly, and then put it on playback and play along to it. This helped. But i think it takes a lot of practise to develop your ear. Playing with your eyes closed helps definately, as does playing with a lot of open strings. The tempered pitch thing is also a problem, I think you have to alter your intonation very slightly depending on what key you are playing in.

That playing an E against open G and A used to drive me mad! But persevere and im sure you'll get there. I used to get really mad and think, right im giving this stupid instrument up! But im glad I didnt now because my ear has developed to be really quite good. So stick at it :-)

September 7, 2004 at 04:15 AM · Thx for the encouragement, John. I appreciate that.

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