Checking high-register intonation with a tuner

August 19, 2018, 5:03 PM · I have recently started checking my intonation with a tuner and I notice that, high up on the E-string, I seem to hear that I'm in tune while the tuner says I'm sharp by about 25 cents. I'm wondering if I should trust my ear or the tuner. (Piano tuners use stretch tuning [Railsback curve] where the upper register is tuned sharp to compensate for inharmonicity. A short steel E-string would be expected to exhibit inharmonicity.)

Replies (14)

August 19, 2018, 5:46 PM · I have had the same experience with the old fashioned method of comparing to open strings (somehow I can't get any value out of the tuner for intonation purposes, only for tuning). It seems one tends to play sharp up there unless one corrects oneself.
August 19, 2018, 9:42 PM · Tuners are inherently inexact for the same reason that pianos are always very slightly out of tune on every note.

Here's a little experiment: play a first finger "E" on the D string and tune it with the open A so that the fourth is perfectly in tune. When you're satisfied that your E is in exactly the right place, try playing it with your open G string. Sounds terrible, right? Sharp? Now adjust that same E so that the sixth with the G string sounds in tune. When you're satisfied that it sounds in tune when played with the G string, play that E with the open A. Now it's flat to the A. How does the tuner know which E is the correct one? Answer: it doesn't.

Use your ear, not the tuner.

August 20, 2018, 12:18 AM · Jeffrey, the inharmonicity that requires stretch tuning on a piano only applies to freely vibrating strings. On a bowed string, all the partials are harmonic.

I recognize your problem, though: my intonation on the E string also tends to be systematically too high, and by much more than the +/-15 cents that you need to get the thirds and sixths in tune. I blame it on being less used to high pitches. I think it's easier for a soprano than for a bass like me. :-)

August 20, 2018, 12:31 AM · Thanks for that clarification, Han. This explains why I observe that bowed natural harmonics are in tune according to the tuner.

Is there perhaps another explanation that would explain high pitches sounding flatter than they are? For example, might the ear be less sensitive to the overtone series in the highest register? Or might there be some nonlinearity in the cochlea? I suppose I'm looking for an excuse to believe my ear instead of the tuner, because it's hard for me to accept what the tuner tells me.

Edited: August 20, 2018, 12:42 AM · If you want to believe your ears, just listen for the waves in the intonation. Even if you hit a D on the E string on the tuner in-tune but the rest of your strings have gone flat, you're still "out of tune" where it counts - with yourself.

And by waves in the intonation, I meant to specify while playing with another open string as reference, in this case the A string.

Edited: August 20, 2018, 3:08 AM · In all my psycho-acoustical readings, it is found by experiment that on average our ears are only "linear" over the middle range, e.g. for notes in the treble and bass clefs (plus a couple of ledger-lines). Higher notes sound progressively flatter than they "should", and lower ones sound sharper.

BUT we don't all agree on the extent of this apparent distortion, so lively arguments are common, if not actually fun.

Added to this is the fact that pitch perception varies with loudness, to an extent which will also depend on the individual. Often the same sound will seem to lower in pitch as it gets louder, but some folks find the opposite..

The solution? Friendly cooperation, or overbearing authority.

August 20, 2018, 12:32 PM · Our brains have a marvelous analog computer that converts the exponential frequency curve into a linear perceived pitch function. But it is not perfect. So we don't tune to the electronic tuner for the high notes.
August 20, 2018, 2:10 PM · I've been playing around with it. I notice that if a higher octave follows a lower octave, the higher octave typically sounds a bit flat. But if I play them together, they sound good. If I sharpen the higher octave, it sounds better following the lower octave, but terrible if played together with the lower octave. From this, I conclude that in most cases (especially playing with others), the tuner should be followed more than the ear.
August 20, 2018, 2:24 PM · another experiment-- Tune your open E to the same E on the piano. Then compare the double-octave harmonic E with the same note on the piano. That double-harmonic E at the very end of Schaherezadhe will sound flat. The last time I did that solo, I tuned my E string sharp before starting the 4th movement.
August 20, 2018, 8:29 PM · Joel,
How do you know the high treble on your piano is in tune? Besides, the audience doesn't have a piano to compare during the solo.

You are overthinking inharmonicity and making a comparison to pianos that may not be valid. Inharmonicity on the violin is not an issue. What you SHOULD be comparing when listening for intonation is your own open strings. Not a tuner.

August 20, 2018, 9:50 PM · I don't think it is the tuner. Comparing with open strings is a time honored and still valid way to check yourself. When you play "solo" in the high register I don't see a reason why it should be different from when the lower octave goes along (or any other note to complement the chord). If you play an A-Major scale and the A at the top (in 7th position if you want to count) is not a perfect double octave higher than the open A string you are playing too sharp and your hearing may be off as well.

Most of the time you play that high you are not going to be alone (except when you practice scales of course...). Somebody else will play second violin, viola, cello etc. and your high notes need to harmonize with the ensemble "below".

August 20, 2018, 10:30 PM · "... I observe that bowed natural harmonics are in tune according to the tuner."

Actually, anharmonicity could show up there. Bowed strings have harmonic partials counting from the fundamental that you hear., not counting from the open string. If you play D5 as a natural harmonic on the D4 string, then the partials D5, D6, A6, D7 are a harmonic series. In my limited experience, you can wiggle the intonation of that bowed D5 by quite a bit.

August 20, 2018, 11:16 PM · Inharmonicity gets worse with higher-numbered partials. It's a more of a problem on low strings because they are capable of producing lots of high partials. Higher-pitch strings like an E string are probably not producing many of these higher partials.

If harmonics sound out of tune with the open string, I have to wonder whether inharmonicity is really the issue. I would suspect simple falseness of the string, especially one that has lots of rosin on it or finger oil or has otherwise been used a while.

August 21, 2018, 12:50 AM · If you're playing for an audience of electronic tuners, I recommend practicing with a tuner.

If playing for an audience of people, I recommend listening.

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