Practicing intonation using a tuner

Edited: September 28, 2018, 9:51 PM · My sister is deaf in one ear and her other ear has 70% hearing. I am teaching her how to play the violin. She is a out of tune and the way I suggested her practicing is with a tuner. So she plays the scale slowly and makes sure that each note is in tune 100%. Is this a good way to teach intonation? Any other suggestions? Is there hope that she can play in tune without hearing the notes properly?
Thank you.

Replies (11)

Edited: September 28, 2018, 10:01 PM · I have felt that learning intonation from the familiar songs of childhood* is a proper introduction to intonation on the violin. The finger spacings for the songs are pretty much the same ones for playing scales in tune. That's why I have liked the Suzuki approach.

Of course, if one's mother sang out of tune you may be out of luck. Using "drones" may be a better way to develop a sense of intonation in that case.

Most tuners are slow to react and the frequency distribution of mechanical drones can confuse hearing - especially if there is any pathology.

September 28, 2018, 10:10 PM · Andy nailed it as usual. My teacher will stop a student -- even an advanced student -- whose intonation is not correct and have them play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or whatever ditty might be appropriate to the context. If you can play C#-B-A-B-C# on the violin and it sounds like "Mary" then you know it's right. In the end a lot of violin intonation is just about calibrating yourself to hear whole steps and half steps correctly.
Edited: September 29, 2018, 10:48 AM · This is excellent advice. I would add that it might be a good idea for her to learn to play without a shoulder rest, so she can more easily learn to FEEL the vibrations, rather than try to depend on a visual signal from a tuner. This would perhaps help to compensate for her hearing impairment.
September 29, 2018, 6:33 PM · The violin is all about your ear and being able to hear the relations between the notes. If your sister has a serious hearing impairment, it's gonna be a tough road. There's no such thing as muscle memory when it comes to intonation.

As an aside, I find the tuner never helps, for various reasons.

Edited: September 29, 2018, 9:31 PM · All the reasons people give for why a "tuner never helps" have never spent much time using a tuner. It doesn't work for them. Their teacher didn't use one, whatever, etc. A reliable cheap chromatic tuner that you can put on your music stand has only been around for a few decades, and it isn't surprising that they didn't learn with it, so they cannot see the value. A Korg CA-1 is a fine tool, used properly.

The process of learning the precise positions for good intonation is extremely complicated. It can be learned entirely by ear, of course. The suggestions give thus far, to which I would add playing the music on a piano, matching it, matching a record, super-slow, playing with open strings as drones for reference, etc. etc.--all good. Hearing impairment is obviously an obstacle, but these are vibrations, and you can indeed feel them in your bones if not your ears. Extreme patience is required, and you have to love the feeling of being in tune.

But you are not just learning the sounds--you are learning a feeling of how the notes are laid out on a violin fingerboard. While we have learned that there are but five senses, this myth is based on the senses that ancients perceived that humans have, and recent research has shown that there are several senses not noticed by classical philosophers. Among them is a sense of location in space, and I am convinced that there is a powerful element of this in learning the bowed strings. We don't (well, I don't...) watch our left hand--it is all sound and sensation. You know where the notes are, and I do believe that learning this aspect of the violin can indeed be aided by a tuner. You get the feel of where that C# is up there, and then you listen to the sound of it, how it relates to the other notes, open strings, etc. When you can hear the difference between an equal-tempered major third and the pure interval, you can make the adjustment, but if you aren't getting close to that precision, you need all the help you can get to arrive close enough.

Someone will come on and correct me with this standard test--play a b on the a string until it's in tune with the open e. Now listen to the open d. Yep, now it's sharp. So what, it's close. Over time you can learn to lock that b lower if you're playing in G major--because (otherwise the experiment above wouldn't work) you'll hear it. But getting close is part of the journey. If you use a tuner that's giving you equal-tempered pitch, it will at least give you an option that is close to ideal, and training the fingers to deliver that result is better than hitting a D instead of that C#. Constant practice will dial it in closer and closer, but the visual feedback on the Korg is also information you (or she) can use. Eventually you can look over when you play that b in G major and say to yourself, oh yeah, that needs to be 2-3 cents flat to really lock in. You'll be fine.

I have a tuner on my stand when I practice. Korg CA-1, of course. If something sounds suddenly weird, I consult it. Usually I can glance at it and understand what mistake my brain or ear made. Now, everyone can yell at me, but I think using a tuner could help your sister, as long as she is working as hard as she can with her ears.

Edited: September 29, 2018, 9:41 PM · I haven't been alive long enough to know a world without electronic tuners.
I have, however, practised with them enough to know that they're a completely unhelpful distraction that gets in the way of ear training.
Playing with the piano is good adivce, though.
September 29, 2018, 11:10 PM · For YOU, they are a distraction. OK, don't use them. "Your experience may vary."

Some folks don't like matching pitches on the piano because the piano is equal-tempered (hm, just like a tuner...). Different things work for different people. A tuner sounds like it would be a very useful tool to the sister of the OP. In my opinion, of course.

Edited: September 30, 2018, 11:24 PM · I'm a neophyte in ability, but have been trying to learn for years. To me, the tuner is just a logistical impedance. Creates too much distraction away from the instrument, like I'm having to use my sight to know if I'm right, and it's a channel I should not be using at the moment.

One thing that helped me, and I bet I'll get panned for this, was one of those D'Addario fingerboard appliques, which actually puts frets on the violin. This was my beater violin, but I just left it lying around so it was the one I'd pick up whenever I was going to practice. I was leery at first since I thought the frets were a crutch. It was not. What it did was train my ear. Had nothing to do with muscle memory (I agree intonation has very little to do with muscle memory), and my main instruments did not have the applique on it, so I was not relying on it to hit the right notes.

It might be a consideration. But not being able to hear the intonation well is a huge hurdle. Does she have hearing aids? If those are too expensive, there is a free app I have on my iPhone, which is called EarMachine. Acts like an adjustable hearing aid, and each ear can have separate settings.

I might add that I've found trying to hear intonation through an electronic device (at least the less expensive ones) can confuse the issue. Results might not sound clean enough, and frequencies might spread out or overlap in an unnatural way.

September 29, 2018, 11:40 PM · I returned to violin over two years ago. I initially used Intonia, a phone app, to help re-establish my ear. It helped tremendously. It reads almost instantly and is easy to see from the corner of your eye while your playing. After awhile I could obviously see and hear that I didn't need it and stopped using it.

In your case, I don't see what you have to lose in giving it a try. The other thing to keep in mind are the ringy notes. Fingers that find them quickly can guide the others once spacing has been learned.

Many violinist use ear plugs, so they aren't relying on 100% of their hearing.

Edited: September 30, 2018, 1:13 AM · An earplug will make the sound softer and change it somewhat by suppressing the highest frequencies (they are the ones who do the damage to the ear); it does not alter the frequency, i.e. the pitch. It should not affect intonation training.

I am one of the oldies who spent more than half his violinist's life with no tuners available. When I bought a tuner I thought I could use it to check my intonation. But I never succeeded in making it work, so I gave up on it. Tuning is a whole lot easier though than with a tuning fork. (I used to keep the fork between my teeth to hear the A in my head until someone correctly pointed out that this will damage my teeth. After that I always wished to have a third hand to hold the tuning fork while I used the other two to tune the instrument...)

One thing that I was taught but that hasn't appeared in any of the intonation threads I have read was this: You have to "hear" the note before playing it. In other words you anticipate the pitch and then compare your actual pitch with the anticipated pitch. The children's song method mentioned above is based on the same idea.

I don't think absolute spatial memory is crucial: We correct automatically when the instrument goes out of tune. I remember a performance of one of Mozart's flute quartets in a very warm hall: The heat caused he flute to rise by almost a half tone and the three of us only realized how far we were off when a chord involving open strings appeared...

September 30, 2018, 11:46 AM · "She is a out of tune and the way I suggested her practicing is with a tuner. So she plays the scale slowly and makes sure that each note is in tune 100%. Is this a good way to teach intonation?"

Not really. Intonation must be heard in the head first, and not be a mechanical exercise of matching a device's reading or a specific place on the instrument.

Where a device can help is to identify the target pitch if you have no other reference. But afterwards, once the correct pitch or interval has been heard, that should be used instead of the device.

"Any other suggestions? Is there hope that she can play in tune without hearing the notes properly?"

Most of us in this modern age have some hearing loss, some more than others (I'm in that category myself). Your sister's doesn't seem altogether beyond normal, although we don't have enough knowledge or information to judge. I would be reluctant to assume that that hearing loss is the primary cause for her being out of tune. All beginners are out of tune (as are some very advanced players at times) which is why we generally don't start with abstract work like scales and intervals but rather songs which we might be expected to already know or recognize. Suzuki places a heavy emphasis on listening for this reason.

Have her 'sing it in her head' and try to use that as a judge for whether or not a pitch or interval is out of tune. However, when you have no sense what the target pitch should be you might believe that whatever your instrument is producing, which you might have become accustomed to over time, is the right pitch. For this, a device or some other form of pitch reference is necessary for correction; for learning what the target is.

When teaching my son to sing in tune, I would sometimes play a piano in unison with his singing. This would be done slowly, in order to hear and learn what the correct pitch is. I found that helped a lot. Others might use harmonies or drones. Another violin might also be used, although vibrato or it being not entirely in tune might be distracting.

If your sister really cannot hear the pitch well enough to have that inform her, which would be very unusual, then she would need to switch to an instrument which isn't as challenging for intonation, as the tuner will not adequately compensate. If she's going to try to do intonation mechanically, she might as well play an instrument designed for that, such as a piano.

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