Using tuning equipment to practice note accuracy (intonation?)

Edited: May 5, 2018, 9:37 AM ·
So, i have own a violin for a year now, and out of that time i have been practicing actively for about 4 months.

Now, after about 6 months i got inspired again, bought better violin, higher quality strings(dominant), and an integrated tuner for my violin.

The tuner (as seen in the picture) is very easy to use for practicing slow tones (playing simple scale on very low tempo, really focusing on which note im playing and listening how it sounds) and i also use it when im practicing Schradieck Book #1 scales

Best thing is that the integrated tuner makes it extremely easy to see if im playing the note accurately, but i was wondering how often i should use it as guide, and how accurate i should aim to be.


Replies (25)

May 5, 2018, 10:24 AM · I'd use it once in a while, maybe. It's important to practice listening for intonation errors by ear. A tuner won't pick up wrong notes. There's threads on this site similar to this. Do some searching.
May 5, 2018, 10:27 AM · In teaching myself to play, I started out with a Snark clip-on tuner so I could tell where the notes are on my fingerboard. After a few months I didn't need it anymore as my ear and fingers got a lot better. I say use it as long as you feel you need to but take it off from time to time to see when you can play without it.
May 5, 2018, 10:50 AM · One of the main reasons Suzuki Book 1 has so many simple, easily recognized tunes is because you already know how they should sound. So when you play them, you should already have a good sense for whether you are playing in tune.
May 5, 2018, 6:51 PM · Umm... do you have a teacher?

A good teacher will tell you a tuner helps you tune your A string to a 440 or 442hz pitch. That’s it. A tuner can give you a relative idea visually if a note is in tune, but you should be trained or training to hear that. (There’s no such thing as tone deafness, only untrained ears.) it’s why we listen to what we are learning, and play scales, arpeggios, intervals, and etudes.

Also, because violins are not fixed pitched instruments, intonation is partly based on what overtones or harmonics you hear when playing intervals or in harmony. A good teacher can give you the music theory behind it, but the jist is that some notes are played slightly sharper or flatter relative to key and interval. A tuner can’t teach you this.

If you don’t have a teacher yet, I suggest you find one, for many other reasons than this. If you can’t afford one, look for a student at a local music college or the like. Good luck!

Edited: May 5, 2018, 7:49 PM · I don't quite agree. Some people just suck at identifying small intervals. Do you have tapes/markers on your violin?
May 5, 2018, 9:22 PM · I agree with Jane, and I discourage my students from using a tuner beyond tuning their "A" strings.

Here's a simple test to demonstrate why. Play a first finger E on the D string. Now bow the open A with it, so you are playing the interval of a 4th (E-A). Adjust the first finger until the 4th sounds completely clean and open--in other words, find the E that will make the fourth in tune. Got it? Good. Now, *without* moving your first finger, play the same E together with the open G string, a major 6th. It will sound terrible--you will find that the E is suddenly too high. Adjust your first finger again until the fingered E sounds in tune with the open G string. When you have it, again *without* moving your first finger, play that E together with the open A again and listen to how flat it is.

So how does the tuner know which E is the right one? Answer: it doesn't. Far better to develop your ear.

Edited: May 5, 2018, 10:58 PM · Mary Ellen is spot on! Listen to the professionals. I've been saying this for years. the only way to know if you are in tune is frequent testing against an open string (as long as it's also tuned perfectly). That's why using an open string as a drone works for ear training as also playing one finger scales up each string. Putting a finger down only makes you THINK you are in tune! You have to test to hear if that's the case. Later when you get proficient you then learn scales in fifths, which are hard to get in tune. All of this sharpens your ear. Music is an aural art, not a visual one, as some people will wrongly tell you.
Edited: May 6, 2018, 1:10 AM · @Ella Yu
I currently dont use tapes or markers on my violin, but i can hit the right notes fairly accurately, at least if you ask the tuner

@Jane Klingsten
I think i'll be leaving a flyer on my local music schools board (professional level school). The last time i tried to contact one of the teachers there, stating that if there is private lessons or if students need experience at teaching, i could even pay for lessons, but answer was "you can apply to our school before next semester"

@Mary Ellen Goree
Best answer so far! I tried your advice and was amazed how much difference a millimeter on your finger placement can have, and how "wrong" playing the E on D string can sound when i was comparing it to open A and G string until i found the sweetspot, where both would sound good.
I can see that training by this method will have much more effect on my intonation than blankly staring at a tuner

I think i'll be dropping the tuner

May 6, 2018, 3:21 AM ·

The problem isn't so much the tuner, but the concept: pitch matching techniques are very, very slow processes. The concept of having a reference, and first listening to that tone, and THEN play the note, now this helps you learn quickly.
If you are having trouble finding a note, then use the tuner to get it close, and then repeat the note 3 times without the tuner( drop your left hand to your waist then back up).
General rule: listen first, play second.

May 6, 2018, 8:38 AM · For violin playing, it's hard to argue against something which helps you play more in tune. The argument of the differences of a few cents here or there in a given context might make is valid to a point, but the pitch reference of a tuner is likely to be much closer to "ideal" than what a beginner or even a more advanced player is likely to guess. (When someone has perfect pitch or a good pitch reference, it's no longer guessing.)

That said, playing in tune is more about hearing the target pitch in your head and trying to hit it than to adjusting according to what a machine shows after the fact.

May 6, 2018, 11:50 AM · I use a combination of both tuner and ear, keep in mind I’ve only been playing for 3 months. I do have a teacher now (thankfully). She was unavailable when I first started. She also teaches to only find open A by using a tuner, or playing A on piano.

It is vital to train your ear. For the first month or so of playing I did tune every string with my tuner to hear the open strings tuned individually, also I didn’t have a teacher yet to show me how to properly tune your instrument.

You should tune to your instrument, not the tuner. By that I mean the tuner only gives you the Hz. It doesn’t know your violin, or even that you are trying to match a pitch. But your ear can make that destinction. And you know how your violin should sound in tune.

Your ear is your most important tool for playing your violin.

May 6, 2018, 1:37 PM · The point in finding different E finger placements to go either with the open A (interval of a 4th) or the open G (interval of a 6th) is NOT to then determine the average pitch that sounds OK-ish with both! Then you have a piano, not a violin. The point is that pitch on the violin is dependent on context. An F# that is a leading tone in a G major scale is going to sound better when played higher than the F# in an A major scale. And a tuner has no way of determining context.
Edited: May 6, 2018, 8:27 PM · @Charles, J: you may want to learn some music theory to better understand. Let me see if I can explain without music theory. A tuner labels each pitch/note at a certain sound frequency. But depending on context - the key and interval, a pitch/note may be played at a different frequency from the frequency labeled by the tuner. So you maybe “in tune” with the tuner, you may be “out of tune” by ear (reality). When it’s in tune by ear, the violin resonates more freely, you will often hear and feel these vibrations on better violins. Which is also why it’s important to start on the best violin you can afford.

Fixed pitch instrument like digital pianos are like the tuner. They play an average frequency for the pitch/note that as ME says, “sounds ok-ish.”

I’ll have to disagree on the it helps get it in the ballpark. Anecdotally, I had a (not local) friend “learn to play by tuner”. Although they had a teacher, they religiously used the tuner to play the right pitch although I discouraged it. Consequently, a year after starting, the piece they played me didn’t resemble a composition. They had no idea what pitch they were playing.

The same friend that day said, if I can find the first note, I’m good for the rest. I reserved my comments and politely showed them how to find the first note to the piece in D major, a D on the A string, by listening for the resonance of the D string. It took may be a minute to understand and their sense of pitch was entirely changed without the tuner.

Close your eyes and practice fundamentals like scales and your fingers will learn where the note is by feel, your ear will tell you when you are in tune. If you still can’t tell if you are in tune, find a recording of what you are playing and will be learning, or have your teacher record it if you can’t. (Don’t be shy, if you can’t “hear” if a scale is in tune, ask that they record it.) Or switch to repetoire of songs you’ve commonly heard growing up. Even if you can’t read music, ear training is essential.

May 6, 2018, 11:21 PM · Yes, the resonating of the instrument is a good point, and ear training is essential, using scales with open string drones and one finger scales.

And don't forget that vibrato CAN blur the pitch so practise without it. David Oistrakh played through one or more of the Mozart concertos most days without any vibrato. That's why his intonation was so good. It's all discipline - without strategies and plans we do not make progress or even hold on to our level of playing.

May 6, 2018, 11:21 PM · My 2 cents...

Absolute beginner, no prior experience: use whatever to get you started.

Late beginner: match open strings or piano

Intermediate to Advance: match in context of harmony

Scholar/Nerd: understand the physics of tuning and just intonation vs. different temperament systems.

One can be a beginner and a nerd too :)

May 6, 2018, 11:53 PM · My completely unsubstantiated theory is that if you can sing it, you can play it.

I came to this conclusion when my daughter kept on singing notes to help her with intonation. Then, I started noticing that good string players are often wonderful singers or at least they can sing on pitch.

May 7, 2018, 1:06 AM · The way my teacher looks at it is that you have to have some reference point to work out whether your perception of correct intonation is actually correct. So he encourages me to hear the note I'm planning to play, play it, and then check it against something - sometimes against an internal source (e.g. open string) or more often an external source (piano, tuner, etc).

The point is that doing this some of the time develops aural awareness of intonation because you're doing it consciously, slowly and acting on the feedback from the tuner. If you don't do it consciously and slowly then it doesn't work.

Personally I find a graphic tuner way more useful than a piano, first because I can't actually distinguish narrow differences in intonation between a piano and a violin very well (particularly not at a high register), second because you can look at the graphic tuner and keep your hands free.

Obviously this method doesn't work to ensure that thirds and sixths are perfectly in tune in just intonation. But it does help in situations where e.g. I am shifting up 2 positions in a scale and mis-placing the third along the way, or attempting to tune a minor 6th in 8th position and not knowing which finger is more in the wrong place.

May 7, 2018, 1:11 AM · Like Kiki I think it is important to learn solfeggio, perhaps not in the strict sense, but just the ability to be able to sing in tune what you are supposed to play on the violin, is essential and beginners should ideally learn that in parallel, or perhaps even one year prior to, learning the violin itself. This requires an instructor, to make them aware of correct pitch and learning to recognize it and produce it. Of course with adults this is not always so easy as they may have lost their natural ability to sing. Young children still have that.
Edited: May 7, 2018, 8:27 AM · I'm a hopeless singer, and always will be... perhaps I should quit the orchestra! I play an instrument because I can't sing, and now you say I have to sing to play an instrument! I contend that those who can sing can use that ability to hone better tone recognition, but that is only one of many ways.
May 7, 2018, 10:41 AM · Has anyone used Music Wrench app? My teacher recommends it for practicing purposes
May 7, 2018, 1:27 PM · " I'm a hopeless singer, and always will be... perhaps I should quit the orchestra! I play an instrument because I can't sing, and now you say I have to sing to play an instrument! I contend that those who can sing can use that ability to hone better tone recognition, but that is only one of many ways."

Don't worry, you don't have to be able to sing to play the violin. You will develop an ear and you may find you can sing a bit better, but it's not necessary to be able to sing well to be able to play.

May 7, 2018, 2:57 PM · You can find a "violin drone" on and either listen to it on you computer, download an app or buy a CD. Beginners often find it helpful to play with a drone sounding for that key. Typically these drones will have all of the pitches in the 12-tone scale, but it is often helpful to play your notes against other pitches that have a harmonic relationship to your note. How do you know what pitch your notes harmonize with? Experiment! You should be able to tell thirds, fourths, fifths and octaves - others intervals and chords (double stops) may sound jarring - because they do. When I was in Jr. High in Maryland they still had a daily music class and listening to those chords and intervals was part of what we did (one of the less fun parts).

Hopefully your Mommy sang to you in tune so you have some idea of correct intonation in "Western" music. Many of the early Suzuki pieces are songs already familiar to children (and the rest of us from when we were children) so playing them is good guidance to starting to play in tune.

There are many reasons for not playing with a tuner. The very precise visual digital tuners are so precise that they fluctuate all the time in response to tiny natural finger movement on these string that would not be detected by most people's hearing. If one were to vibrato (making a beautiful tone) when doing these the fluctuating pitch indicated on the tuner would seem to bear no understandable relationship to that discerned by human hearing.

Tape strips attached to the fingerboard have finite width as a target for even wider fingers to aim at. The beginning player never realizes that it is not where the tape is that determines the pitch but the edge of the finger closest to the bridge. So once the tapes are fastened down the player has to learn how to relate finger placement to them and memorize the finger placement, not the tapes. Any change in hand angles will change the relationship. Any attempt to watch the fingers touch the tapes will cause errors in the way the violin is being held……….etc.

Edited: May 8, 2018, 6:39 PM · I understand the argument for being tunerless and using a drone to help finding the proper pitch, what I don’t get is that all the tone generators I have found are referencing an equal temperament frequency, not perfect fifth. So here I am, using a drone, tuning to maximum reverberation for every notes at any given Key, and surprise surprise, I am now in tune with my tuner! Then I drop the drone, listen for the instrument’s maximum resonance instead (e,g, D on A string) and again, look up at the tuner, and I am still perfectly in tune with it. Then I play a perfect 3rd/5ft double stop, and the tuner needle is still centered...! So if I get this right, my tuner, a cheap basic Korg, isn't accurate enough to differentiate between perfect and equal pitch?
May 8, 2018, 10:50 PM · Listen to some CD's of top violinists and hear how in tune they are. That's what you have to aim for.
May 10, 2018, 5:43 PM · The tricky part, which I struggle very much with is that playing in tune doesn’t mean always playing any given note at the same frequency. In tune is relative to the key (e.g. Maj vs Min), and in a group (such as a quartet) with other instruments, which involves some minute but important deviations from the “average” tonal frequency of any given note. In other words in tune is a relative term.

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