Possibility of Tone-Deafness

Edited: May 10, 2018, 11:43 AM · Since I started taking lessons at university level (around age 9), my biggest bane has been intonation. I don't think I'm so off-key that I am a quarter of a tone off or something, but it appears that at times I am a few Hz off.

As a busy graduate student in the sciences, I had not touched my violin for a while (read: years), and today I went to a professor at my university to be recommended some instructors. First criticism I got was that my playing was uncoordinated and that I am out of tune, and that my vibrato's wrist is tucked in (which no one had ever pointed out before). I generally get very tense when I am playing in front of someone, and this time was no exception.

So here are my questions.

1. Can intonation deteriorate along with lack of practice? I've heard people say "once you got it, it never goes away!" but I always felt that I was more in tune when I'd been playing for an extended period of time.

2. Can being tense mess intonation up?

3. Is there a possibility that I am tone-deaf and that I just cannot hear the difference of a few Hz?

I am very frustrated with this. If it's tenseness, there are techniques to address it, and if it's lack of practice, practising will remedy that, but if I am simply tone-deaf that's a bit beyond any repair.

Thanks in advance!

Replies (19)

May 10, 2018, 11:51 AM · Retraining will help, and try to, but you may very well be tone-deaf, I have to say.
May 10, 2018, 12:03 PM · Thats an interesting question. I have to assume that playing with good intonation is a perishable skill.

How much have scales and arpeggios been a part of your routine over the years?

May 10, 2018, 1:28 PM · Fine-grained pitch discrimination turns out to be a perishable skill. Each time I've taken a long break from the violin (a decade or so), my pitch discrimination deteriorated significantly (testable with one of those online tests) and took about a year to recover to normal.
Edited: May 10, 2018, 1:31 PM · Of course being tense and other things like technical problems can mess intonation up. Excess vibrato will also mess up intonation as well as other things such as bow control.
May 10, 2018, 1:47 PM · Thanks to everyone who's replied. Incidentally I am in a department that studies such things, but there's a stark difference of definition of "tone-deafness" between us musicians and general researchers.

Interesting thing is, I do have "perfect pitch", but nowadays I'm starting to wonder how much "wobble" one can have in the reproduction of a certain pitch before it is disqualified as "perfect pitch".

Again, thanks to everyone who's responded. And this by no means is the end of this discussion, so if you have comments, please pitch in!


Ryan: I generally begin my regimen with scales, but I've been away from persistent practice for a few years. The problem that I am facing is that most of my teachers weren't too strict with the difference of a couple of hertz (only one teacher was that strict in my life). So I'm not even certain if this has been a persistent problem that my teachers did not point out, or that it comes and goes.

Edited: May 12, 2018, 9:20 PM · There are free smart phone apps that will hear the notes you play and show you the deviation for a specific pitch. You can set the standard A pitch where you wish and the screen will show you deviation of the note you play to the nearest note within 0.1 cent (one cent=one hundredth of a semitone). The app I use is DaTuner Pro. Of course one cannot hold ones finger on the string that steadily and not likely keep the bow pressure constant enough to avoid some wiggle in that resolution.

THAT is tone deafness! As far as pitch discrimination is concerned it does vary between people and with context (i.e., scale, melody, harmony).

Many years ago, in my m1d-20s I played 2nd violin in a string quartet of of older people for some months - I think about once a week. The violist was about 45, the cellist was over 70, and the first violinist was a retired pro in her mid-80s (we were terrible!). The cellist was always out of tune. The violist, a PhD physicist at the National Bureau of Standards (where 3 of us worked or had worked) specialized in acoustics and was so curious about the cellist's intonation problem that she did a laboratory study on him and found that he could not discriminate between pitches in a least one whole octave of the cello first-position range. She actually published a journal paper (article) about the study. This was over 50 years ago and I remember no names except the cellist's last name.

Edited: May 10, 2018, 11:21 PM · The topic of intonation comes up frequently. There are three aspects of the subject; hearing, theory, and mechanical. Pitch discernment is measured in "cents", 1/100 part of the equal-tempered half-step, Not in hertz (Hz). I have read that the limit of pitch discernment is about 5 cents, 1/20 of the half-step. The musicians with the best intonation are; full-time professional quartets, some early music ensembles, acapella choirs, harpists, piano tuners, traditional musicians from cultures like Turkey, Persia, Egypt, India, which use smaller intervals and a much longer list of modes. Theoretical intonation means learning the intervals and chords and understanding the difference between equal-tempered, just (chordal), and Pythagorian (melodic) tuning. Mechanical tuning is learning how all of those intervals in all fingering combinations feel in your left hand, and correctly measuring shifting distances.
The maximum difference between chordal and melodic tuning is the "comma" about 24 cents, or 1/4 of a half-step. Vibrato can cover a multitude of sins and be as wide as 50 cents.
May 11, 2018, 4:50 AM · When I restarted, after a 25 or so year break, I couldn't play two notes in a row in tune similarly to Lydia's experience. However slowly after a while intonation improved. My first position intonation was spot on first and it took a bit longer to improve intonation in the higher positions. I believe timber in the upper positions took a little longer to decipher. But now I probably have better intonation then when I played 25 years ago. I believe this is from being more driven and more serious practice.

Like any athlete, skills will degrade when not regularly applied. You can't expect to run out onto a basketball court and nail every shot like you may have done prior to a long break. It needs to be re-built again.

Now at times, I have trouble with one note in particular. It is C6. I find it strange since the B before and the D after are super easy for me to get.

Like you, tenseness is also a problem I am working through. Never had that problem years ago, but it has been getting better now.

All in all with regular practice, proper instruction, a desire to improve, and time, things will gradually come back. In the meantime enjoy the process and don't get too over analytical or believe you will fail or just can't do it.

May 11, 2018, 6:45 AM · I'm not sure "tone deaf" is a really good description. For anything. Everyone can hear tones, or they wouldn't be able to understand music or speech in general. And I have a feeling that Momoko-san could readily pick out piano notes with out-of-tune unisons.

The violin is tuned with its overtones and resonances, so there has to be a certain sensitivity to how live or (relatively) dead a note sounds. There's no question for me that doing this with the violin under the ear and discerning intonation for another player are two different things. It's also possible that some violins have overtones that are easier to hear. Inexpensive violins are typically very bright, and subtle shifts in pitch can actually be very difficult to discriminate. Better violins can have notes that "snap" into and out of focus like a telephoto lens.

I have students who are more sensitive, or less sensitive, to being in tune. I don't know why they aren't bothered when note that should ring are choked off, like the typically flat 3rd or 4th fingers in first position. It results in an ugly tone. I guess people have varying sensitivity to all sorts of things.

May 11, 2018, 7:15 AM · 1. Yes
2. Yes
3. No

Some good comments above also. Use it or lose it applies to many things in life.

May 11, 2018, 7:55 AM · Momoko,
In addition to the phenomenon of developing ear/finger skill and losing it via lack of practice, tension can play a big role, even for someone with otherwise good intonation. Tension from playing in front of someone causes the hand to contract, and the fingers don't come down in the right place, like they did during practice. The best resolution is 1. to be conscious of this and prepare to be as relaxed as possible, and 2. to get as many performances in front of people as possible - family, friends, and neighbors count. With experience, it becomes possible to be a bit mentally nervous before a performance, but physically relaxed and in control.
Edited: May 11, 2018, 12:22 PM · Thinking back on it I've never had a student that I can recall who had major intonation issues. I don't even know exactly what I do to promote such consistently good intonation.

The only thing I can think of is that I stress how notes lead into each other, especially leading tones into the tonic. I consider the leading tone the second most important intonational note after the tonic. If the leading tone is low the tonality of the piece starts to pull apart.

I start early. In the Gossec Gavotte there is a difficult high 3/low 4 on the G string. Early on I noticed that focusing on the note in an isolated manner brings mixed results. However, when I started taking the time to make sure the students heard how the C# leads into the D the intonation became almost universally better, if not perfect in most cases. Now I stress it in every applicable case until the student starts to adapt their intonation in a proper manner on their own.

Do I still have to fix notes? Of course. But if the ear starts hearing these connections early its a much easier task.

May 12, 2018, 7:56 PM · You are definitely not tone deaf. That would mean you have amusia. Those with amusia can’t distinguish any pitch whatsoever, even several octaves apart. They can’t even tell one highly distinct tune from the next, and some report that music to them sounds like a bunch of pots and pans smashing together.
I taught one student who I thought may have had this condition. After two years, even with tapes, he was often a minor third off, couldn’t match pitch, couldn’t read music, and couldn’t distinguish the very top note on the piano from the very bottom. I ended up trying to get him to notice differences in vibration against his fingers and feet with his scroll against the wall, similar to how Evelyn Glennie trained herself as a deaf person to distinguish pitch, and he made a little bit of progress that way, but was still essentially indistinguishable after two years from someone who had only played a couple of weeks.
Edited: May 13, 2018, 10:27 AM · If we have Perfect Pitch (though I prefer Absolute Pitch, to avoid confusion with perfect intonation) we can easily lose (or not acquire) the habit of intensive listening to intervals.
Edited: May 13, 2018, 10:36 AM · @ Scott
"I have students who are more sensitive, or less sensitive, to being in tune. I don't know why they aren't bothered when note that should ring are choked off, like the typically flat 3rd or 4th fingers in first position. It results in an ugly tone. I guess people have varying sensitivity to all sorts of things."

This is an important point. In tune notes do ring, and that can help, as will testing against open strings and harmonics.

Adrian has a point there as well. I've know string players with Absolute/ Perfect pitch that have intonation problems.

May 13, 2018, 10:37 AM · No matter who you are, you need to practice to have that sense of "always playing in tune". Indeed, one can have theoretical "perfect pitch" without playing the violin for some time, and feel totally lost when you come back (some will regain it faster than others, but that doesn't mean the slower players are "tone-deaf" at all.) Some teachers lack manners and/or patience-if they stopped playing for a while they would also have intonation problems!

So no, you are fine. Keep working back to playing shape, and all will be well.

May 13, 2018, 12:31 PM · Lieschen is totally correct about tone deafness. It is not a question of missing a note by a few Hz. I had a colleague at work who was tone deaf, and I sang a 5th for her once and she could basically hear that there was some sort of difference between the notes, but she could not really hear what it was.
May 14, 2018, 12:14 PM · Tom, that's very interesting. I wonder, though, if like how a normal person improves their pitch acuity through regular practice, how far someone with such a low baseline could get with training. I bet they could probably still get pretty far, but it would require research to be sure.

I've learned over the last few years as I've rebuilt (and surpassed my previous) skills that one of the main reasons we practice scales and arpeggios every day is to train our ears and then maintain our pitch acuity.

By practicing scales every day (and attentively), you eventually both learn where every note is on the finger board, but you also learn the intervals and pitches themselves.

So, if you feel your sense of pitch is bad, don't sweat it. Just make sure to practice your scales every day, listening closely as you practice, and you'll get better.

May 14, 2018, 2:38 PM · Absolutely, the ability to play in tune comes from practice. Hours and hours and hours. Nobody's born knowing what 440 sounds like or where exactly to place the 7th on an ascending major scale. We learn that from practice.

Remember when you practice, for the most part you aren't training your fingers to do something. You're mostly training your "ears" -- but really what that means is you're training your brain.

You're teaching your brain what to listen for and how to distinguish between in-tune and out-of-tune. Absolutely it gets rusty when you don't practice. If I'm away from my violin for a week I don't hear as well when I return -- it takes a few days to really get back the sharpness.

That's why you practice scales, and arpeggios, checking notes along the way against open strings.

Ruggiero Ricci's book has just wonderful explanation and examples for people with advanced technique. Simon Fischer Basics also has good intonation exercises.

Or just google. The Web is full of good material about ear training.

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