Intonation and "hearing" the pitch

October 29, 2018, 4:17 PM · I've been learning violin for about 2 years now. Got a teacher last year. At this point, I'm starting to play in 3rd position and struggling with intonation.

In discussions on this site, I'm reading that you're supposed to hear a pitch in your mind before you play it. The scary thing is, I don't really know what that means. Perhaps I'm overestimating what it means to hear a note in one's mind, but I think that's too optimistic a view.

I have spent quite a bit of money on this hobby up till now, and I do enjoy it, but I don't want to fall prey to the sunken cost fallacy.

So how exactly is it to 'hear' a pitch in your mind? Can you sustain it for 10 seconds? How clear of a thing is that? Is there even any hope in developing this skill? How does it compare to actually hearing the pitch?

Replies (49)

October 29, 2018, 4:42 PM · Can you sing a song in your head? For instance, can you hear "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" without singing it out loud?
October 29, 2018, 4:43 PM · Try listening to something very well known - Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for example. After the first couple of measures mute the sound, but keep the sense of where you are in the music. After a couple more bars turn the sound back on. You may or may not have "heard" the music when it was muted, but you probably had an impression of what the sound would be. 'Hearing' the music in your head is called audiation, and some people are very good at it. It's a lot like visualization. If you ask me to close my eyes and pictures a basketball I can give you details about what my brain knows a basketball looks like, but I don't actually see anything.
October 29, 2018, 4:58 PM · Sing, sing, sing, sing...

Everybody start to sing...

Edited: October 29, 2018, 5:17 PM · Urban Kristan, I think it's about hearing the relation between pitches rather hitting than specific pitches per se, unless it concerns absolute pitch. And I think that it is a skill that can be improved on.
You seem to be asking the question in the context of learning a new position. If you were able to improve your intonation in first position, there is no reason to think that you can't improve in in third or other positions. It seems like there is little reference when in a new position but you will develop a better feel for it do not worry. At least that is what I observe.

And in my humble non expert opinion,I question the idea that you have to have a fully formed idea of the pitch from the get go. I think it's a bit more complicated than that for us beginners, intonation ..relationship between a skill that is learnt and developed.

October 29, 2018, 5:19 PM · @Lydia
Well, that depends on what you mean by sing. I can have an idea of what it would sound like, but I wouldn't say that I can actually hear it. When I try it, I begin at least subtly physically reproducing the tune. If there's text, it's hard to tell if I'm just imagining the text or also the notes.

If it's a tune I know, I can imagine what it will sound like. A Seitz concerto that I played for quite a while, I can recite in my head. I can also do the exercise that you proposed with that piece. The question is, how accurately do I recite it? I reckon that less accurately than I play it. But the frustrating part is, that I can't really know how accurately I'm reciting it since to know would mean to recite it accurately in the first place.

Interesting example with the basketball. I can make an image of a basketball flash in my mind, but I don't think I can 'hear' a sound to the same degree. I don't know if that's true for everybody.

I don't hear an imagined sound in the some way that I don't feel the sensation of hot water if I imagine it.

October 29, 2018, 5:28 PM · @Cotton Mather
Singing is scary, but probably a good idea to do anyway. Thing is, I can get myself to play the violin in earshot of other, but assailing them with my singing is a whole different level.

I appreciate the view of another beginner! (Also appreciate all the other replies!) I didn't really think about having a fully formed idea of a pitch either. But reading discussions about intonation here always seems to lead back to audiation.

It does stand to reason that 3rd position should be learnable if I learned the 1st. Another issue is that sometimes I think the third finger is a stretch from the first while other times I think it's tight. And getting that pinky on the precise spot is a frustrating exercise as well.

October 29, 2018, 6:25 PM · Scale. That's the most effective way for you to hear the pitch in your head and nail the intonation. Include at least 15 mins of just playing scale in your daily practice. Slow 1 note per bow then 2,4,6,8, and so on. It's boring but it will help tremendously.

Play the scale in first position then same scale in third position. My teacher got me do this with C major when I learned 3rd position.

Edited: October 29, 2018, 9:16 PM · Singing is a very good way of "internalising" melodies, intervals, scales etc -- or, at least, good, accurate singing is.

Sing. It is very helpful.

But the application of this internalised knowledge is a different matter, I suggest. In singing a pitch accurately, or a series of pitches, you also concern yourself with producing the note. I am not so good at that.

Play a note on your instrument that you can check for accuracy (against an open string, fifth, octave, harmonic, etc), and while holding that note, sing a note "nearby" (in the tetra chord along the string, for example), then play that note.

Do you need to adjust the pitch you played?

Work slowly. Use any part of any scale, intervals, arppegios, well-known songs, etc. Even use an electronic tuner to help you monitor your pitch on the notes you play (for some of the time, for just a few months, at most).

If you are constantly adjusting the pitch you play, then slow, deliberate practice is necessary.

Surely, if you have advances as far as playing in 3rd position, you are facing more a "lack of confidence" than any debilitating weakness. That is, be careful, deliberate and purposeful, and in a few months your teacher will give you the best of feedback.

October 29, 2018, 9:48 PM · Is there an example of a piece you're trying to play, that has third position in it?

Do you use Suzuki books?

October 29, 2018, 11:30 PM · I am a beginner as well. Singing, yes, you will find your self singing in the shower, all helps. I find a reference note of an open string helps. I also have a strobe tuning ap, which I use when I can hear the note is off, I start from an open string, play a scale up to the note I am having trouble with and listen if it sounds right, then glance down at the tuning ap — did I reach the target? Oops not quite, try again a few more times without looking at the ap, and then recheck the ap. The aps are either free or cost a few dollars. Perosnally I like the ones with a round dial simulating the analogue stroboscopes. Playing along with a friend that plays an instrument where intonation is not a problem for them (for instance my dad playing the harmonica) helps to remind me which notes I am not hitting right.
October 30, 2018, 1:02 AM · I wouldn't get hung up on what exactly it means to hear a pitch in one's head. We can't be sure that all who hear pitches in their heads have the same experience.

The point is this: To expect the pitch before it sounds.

And yes, singing is a good way to get there--or humming or any other way of producing pitches with your voice.

The other point to keep in mind: Intonation is an ongoing struggle for most, it not all of us. Don't get discouraged; you will make progress.

October 30, 2018, 1:57 AM · I think you're just overthinking it. Hearing the pitch in your head means different things to different people, in all likelihood.
October 30, 2018, 9:41 AM · Singing is all intervals, Tom.
October 30, 2018, 1:05 PM · Dunno what you're rambling on about, but it's an irrefutable fact that singing is instrumental in becoming a complete musician.
October 30, 2018, 1:18 PM · Tom, the point of singing is that you can concentrate on copying pitch without a complicated technique getting in the way.

(Not everyone can sing in tune though, even those with a good ear.)

So who's the "idiot"?

October 30, 2018, 1:34 PM · Thank you for all the replies! Many useful tips.

I'm sure learning to sing would help, but it is true that I sing less in tune than I play. So I would first have to get my singing to the level of my playing. And what do you do with very high notes? Sing an octave below I suppose.

I think I might also have to work on my hand frame. The thing is, a third finger feels different up the string than it does down a string. From first finger to thrid feels different than from second to thrid. When fourth is down, all intervals feel different.

October 30, 2018, 2:29 PM · I've been playing for 12 years since I restarted and I still have trouble with this concept of hearing pitch in my head. As someone said above, everyone struggles with intonation so welcome to the club. It probably means you are improving and your ear is getting more sophisticated.

I'm also like you in that I'm not a particularly good or experienced singer. My singling range is limited to about an octave and a half, unless I use my "chest voice" (which is apparently a no-no) or I go into a really irritating falsetto that no one in their right mind would want to listen to.

But I think singing is still useful in the moment for specific trouble spots or a specific interval that you might be having trouble getting in tune. So for example if there's a note that's always or often out of tune and you want to fix it, try stopping playing and singing that note instead and see if you sing it the way you play it, or, more likely, if you have no idea how to sing it and are wildly off in pitch (that's me anyway). If you then practice singing that note or few notes on correct pitch a few times, I think you'll be more likely to be able to hear it in your head the next time it comes around.

I'm going to go out on a limb now and suggest an electronic tuner or tuner app. I don't suggest it for everything and I don't suggest relying on it to tune your instrument, execpt to tune your A to the right frequency. Where I find it helpful is to check intonation that sounds "off" to me but that I can't define what's wrong.

So I'll hear a passage and think "ugh, that sounded bad" but I won't know why, whether it was flat or sharp or by how much. I might be able to check it against an open string, and if I can I will, but if I'm in a key with a lot of flats or sharps that doesn't work very well. So I will stop on different notes and check them with the tuner and see what the tuner says about their intonation.

I now know from experience what notes and finger patterns of mine are more likely to be sharp or flat (usually sharp in my case) but every now and then the tuner still surprises me and points out a problem that I didn't realize was there because I hadn't heard it or had learned to hear it incorrectly.

I think the experience of hearing music in your head is not too different from having an earworm, at least for me. The trick is to practice enough to kick the advertising jingles out of your brain and replace them with something more enjoyable and useful. For me also, the experience of hearing music in my head is more related to tembre than pitch. I hear tone first and pitch only as a secondary or even tertiary quality of a sound. So working on intonation usually does involve playing and listening slowly, especially at first, so I can listen more deeply.

October 30, 2018, 4:29 PM ·
October 30, 2018, 5:31 PM · I guess I should insert my 2 cents regarding singing/intervals.

I've taught some students who were very handicapped in identifying pitches and intervals. It was with these students, over the years, that I truly found the "least-common-denominator" when it comes to fixing this problem. Anyways:

In order from the easiest to the hardest, these are how interval recognition must be trained, in my experience:

1) Piano/keyboard

2) Kazoo/humming/whistling (whichever is most intuitive to the student)

3) Single-string scales, played with only the 1st finger (1 octave only) WHILE LISTENING TO THE RELEVANT DRONE (D for D major, etc...)

4) Normal major scales, 1 octave, easy scales first (G, D, A) (I recommend using 4s instead of opens, if reasonable to do so) ALSO WHILE LISTENING TO DRONE

5) Harder scales, but make sure they can play the scale on the piano first, then work through every other step (1-4) before actually playing the scale on the violin. STILL LISTENING TO DRONE!

6) Eventually, try the scales without the drone.

I don't recommend using an electronic tuner, since that never really fixes the problem, in my experience. The drone will replace the tuner as an external source of reference, while still allowing you to build your intuitive sense of correction. The tuner tells us where to go, but once the tuner is gone, the correction is gone. The drone eventually goes away, but the tone stays in our subconscious, acting like a tuner that goes everywhere we go and always stays on.

The main thing, though, is making sure that the piano option is there, for those whom music was never a major part of their early life. I grew up singing from a young age and just being exposed to different sorts of music, so intervals and pitches, in our Western Scale System, always made sense to me.

But because some people were never exposed to music early on, the Western intervals don't make any more sense to them than any other interval system, so a 1/4 step makes as much sense as a 1/2 step. Thus, the piano connects the dots for them because it *limits* them to only being able to play 1/2 steps at the very least. In addition, the visual and linear aspect of the piano really makes things "click" that otherwise wouldn't have.

I'd like to add: except in cases of those with severe learning disabilities, I never found much of a problem teaching children intervals/pitches, but many adults who weren't exposed to music can have serious problems. The steps above have been very useful in helping these adult students.

PS: I also think a Theremin would be a useful tool as a supplement to the steps above, for bridging the step between playing a scale on the piano and being able to hum it or play a one-string scale. Some people just can't sing/whistle/hum period (not referring to being in tune, but referring to the inability to make any useful sound at all). For them, the Theremin would be a great way of easily producing pitches without forced intervals.

October 30, 2018, 5:55 PM · I disagree that when the tuner is gone the correction is gone. The tuner can be useful in the early stages when you are learning what something is supposed to sound like. It can also be useful in identifying when you've learned to hear something incorrect as correct. This happens to me somewhat frequently that I'll learn something sharp or flat and it will sound just fine to me. I won't even recognize that it's out of tune unless someone or something else tells me. Slowing it down won't help, "listening carefully" won't help. Playing with an open string might or might not help because there might not be an appropriate open string if it's in a key with a lot of sharps or flats.

If I see from the tuner that something is wrong and what, and then play what the tuner tells me is right, then somehow my ears are "opened" and I can hear the difference once I have been alerted to it. Then the correct pitch will replace the incorrect pitch in my memory. I remember the new pitch even after the tuner is turned off and goes away. But I can't correct it if I'm not alerted to it in the first place.

October 30, 2018, 8:19 PM · Karen, by "drone" I don't mean droning an open string: I mean finding the relevant drone note on YouTube (or getting a drone CD). Search for "cello drones" to find the best ones.

I think the tuner method might work for somewhat experienced players that just need a bit of adjustment, but for beginners, they haven't been useful in my experience.

October 30, 2018, 10:03 PM · I was in a very similar situation. Had an instructor who taught solfège to improve my intonation. It's amassing what a couple of months of serious doremi can do. Now when I'm trying to hit a note I'll actually sing it to see if I've hit it. I would bet have had t confidence begore,

Others have said this, I'll echo as well... Sing, sing, sing. The brain learns something much faster if you force it to learn in different ways.

Edited: October 30, 2018, 10:47 PM · A fascinating subject that would make an interesting scientific documentary episode. On the comment "it's an irrefutable fact that singing is instrumental in becoming a complete musician" that would imply that mute people can not be complete musicians, whatever that means. It never occured to me that someone could be incapable of humming a song in their head, how interesting. I like most struggle with intonation. I am not tone deft and capable of discerning differing tones, but don't ask me to name a tone out of context with no reference point. I probably can tell with some assurance an A440 by now, but don't try me with an E flat, or a G sharp. I probably could benefit in playing a "guess what note that is" kind of game. Part of my difficulty is that I am learning to play violin as an adult in a world of CDEFGAB notation, which was foreign to me, whereas I learned intonation as a child as Do,Ré,Mi,Fa,Sol,La,Si aka solfège. It may sound silly, but when I hear an intonation, I can recognize a Ré for e.g. but not a D! I automatically pronounce all the letter notes in a monotone voice, they are just letters, in other words there is no tonal association with these letters in my brain, but have to make a conscious effort in pronouncing solfège notes out of tune! The problem I struggle with is that I've learned where a G is on the staff and the finger board, and not where Sol is! Funny how that is.
October 31, 2018, 5:00 AM · I'm glad that my haphazardly throw together post has prompted so many insightful ones!

It seems to me that Erik's and Karen's views of using tuners are not so much at odds at all. I suppose the key is just not to use it as a replacement for the ears. That is, when the tuner shows you the correct note, you should listen to it and try to reproduce it without the tuner. Just playing a game where you try to make the tuner go green without any attention to why is probably the main issue of tuner usage.

As Erik says, being exposed to a lot of this kind of music in one's youth must be extremely useful. I'm still kicking myself for not paying more attention it then. I have an electric piano at home, so I'm going to try to use it as a reference for intonation. I'll try solfege as well.

Another thing:

Much like drones, is it useful to try to play along with a music notation program?

"It's amassing what a couple of months of serious doremi can do."

Shankha, can you describe what the serious doremi consisted of? :)

October 31, 2018, 8:13 AM · Singing has helped my singing, but it hasn't helped my fiddling.

I play flat on the fiddle, as I always hear notes as sharper than they are. So I'm reacclimatising myself by playing as many open strings as possible.

Edited: October 31, 2018, 8:28 AM · In fact I have a general question about using overtone sympathetic resonances for intonation. It's obviously OK with octaves and fifths, but the 5th overtone is a flat major third, and the 7th overtone is a very flat minor seventh, so I don't see how they can be useful.
Edited: October 31, 2018, 4:30 PM · Andrew, try reducing the sound level of the violin into your left ear with a simple ear plug. For starters just roll up a bit of Kleenex tissue to see if it works.

It is a known fact that overdriving the ears raises the apparent pitch inducing some violinists to play flat. I tried the experiment with an entire orchestra violin section and lo and behold, they started to play in tune - not so flat anymore. That was about 30 years ago. I bought the simple wax ear plugs at the local drug store and let them keep them, of course!

October 31, 2018, 9:23 AM · Thanks, Andrew!
October 31, 2018, 9:45 AM · Andrew (F!) - I'm intrigued as to how you know you're hearing sharp and what the cause might be. I presume your violin sounds sharp in relation to the rest of the orchestra? Do your open strings also sound sharp, but you trust them to be correct? In which case, how do you tune up?! Does the violin sound sharp only when it's under your chin, or also at a distance?

I once knew a professional trumpeter who discovered he was starting to hear everything sharp (not just his own instrument) because he had absolute pitch. The rest of us probably wouldn't notice it.

Edited: October 31, 2018, 10:12 AM · I trust my open strings to be correct (they are indeed in tune). I play an E on the A string and find that it's very flat compared with the open E string. I play the A major scale from A to E. I suppose every interval is slightly flat and the effect is cumulative.
But it's improving with practice. I'm hitting the B on the A string with more confidence, as I can feel it coming to life with the sympathetic vibrations. Except that they are, in theory, flat, lol! Part of the problem is the cheaper fiddle had a higher nut, so the fingerings all had to be closer to the nut. Vinceró, as the fat man sings.
October 31, 2018, 10:42 AM · Andrew V, that is really interesting! I have also found that hearing my own intonation improves with a simple foam ear plug in my left ear. It cuts out weird overtones and buzzing and somehow makes the pitch more pure-sounding so that I can concentrate on pitch rather than other distractions in the sound. I started wearing the earplug when I practiced just to protect the hearing in my left ear, but hearing pitch better turned out to be an added bonus.
Edited: October 31, 2018, 10:54 AM · Erik, the other instance when a tuner was helpful to me was with my daughter when she was about 8 and was doing some simple arpeggios. The third she played was really flat--so flat that even I could hear it--and I mentioned it. She responded, "no it's not." She was practicing these arpeggios and learning them incorrectly. I don't know, but I can imagine from my own experience that she'd just played and heard it enough that way that it now sounded right to her. She was not interested in taking correction from me, and kept arguing with me. No, she was not flat, she was in tune! That was her reality: she was right and I was wrong.

The tuner was a neutral third party that provided a frame of reference. There was no arguing with it and no matter of opinion. It showed her she was flat and by how much. Telling her to play with a drone, or my playing it for her correctly, wouldn't have had the same impact.

October 31, 2018, 1:01 PM · "Karen Allendoerfer
October 31, 2018, 10:42 AM · ... I have also found that hearing my own intonation improves with a
simple foam ear plug in my left ear. It cuts out weird overtones and buzzing and somehow makes the
pitch more pure-sounding..."

That is an interesting and useful tidbit of experience. I was erroneously assuming the contrary. I had been wearing an "Earraser" on the left side because it definitely made my beginner squeaks more palatable. It also enabled me to be braver with my bowing. But I've stopped wearing it in the last few weeks thinking I shouldn't be masking my squeaks but dealing with my technique!

Go figure... back in goes the ear plug!

October 31, 2018, 2:27 PM · Whilst we are on the subject of to use a tuner or not. Tuners are typically set to equal intonation, but who is to say that equal intonation is correct for a particular melody line, whether the melody line is correct when played over a harmonisation, is the harmonisation played by an equal tempered instrument or sung, where any sutable temperament can be chosen? I am a beginner violin player, but have been doing some reading on this, or maybe I just know enough to hang my self ... ok jokes aside. I do know that certain temperaments are more appropriate under certain circumstances, so my thought is in practice it comes down to developing the skill to listen to the tuning in the context of the surrounding notes — I suspect an electronic tuner of equal temperament is not going to help here. Is this perhaps why some say to dispense with the tuner device as soon as possible? Some comments from experienced string players on the choice of temperament would be appreciated (or perhaps new thread on it’s own?).
October 31, 2018, 2:57 PM · @Norman

There are tuners with other types of temperament. Search for Intonia.

Edited: October 31, 2018, 7:28 PM · I use tuners for guitars (with tweaks to counter poor intonation) and bass guitars, but I find tuning forks easier for ukes and the violin. I've got forks in C, A and E, and I've got some pitch pipes too, including chromatic ones. And my harmonicas are also useful. For fingered notes, I can see why you might use a tuner out of curiosity, but I prefer trying to train my ears.
October 31, 2018, 7:41 PM · This thread seems to have gone in the completely wrong direction - from developing intonation skills to picking the best tuner. I use a tuner, and I can stop any time I want. Except when I can't figure out what the pitch should be, which tends to happen a lot more when I'm at a lesson and don't have a tuner, oddly. I blame the teacher.
October 31, 2018, 9:10 PM · At some point the concept on interval came up in the discussion. For instance I can play an entire piece with the right intervals... 1/4 tone sharp or flat and never have a clue that I did because... the intervals were correct, just off by 1/4 tone throughout! But... intervals is what allows one to play with a base note A=445 and not feel out of tune, whereas some how if I play an A=445 when the intended base A=440 it should feel out of tune, but that is only relative to the other intervals. So, how does playing in tune defined? Playing the right intervals relative to the set base A?
November 1, 2018, 5:44 AM · But Roger if you had open string notes then melodically it would be obvious. Also if you had fourths, fifths, octaves from the open string the lack of resonance would be indicative.
November 1, 2018, 5:54 AM · Roger - you express it well; like most of us you have a good sense of relative pitch but not absolute or "perfect" pitch. Ensemble tuning is always with relation to an arbitrary standard A that may be 440Hz in Los Angeles, 445Hz in Marsh Gibbon (determined by the church organ?). Those "blessed" with an absolute pitch sense that tells them the A should be sharper or flatter just have to grit their teeth and adapt!
Edited: November 1, 2018, 7:00 AM · If the intervals are in tune with open strings (which are 1/4 off relative to a fixed abstract A) that are relatively in tune with each other (I'm aware there is more complexity here), then the performance is in tune. The À is an agreed upon convention, thus Roger would be in tune anyway. Just that the reference point has moved.

If however it is 1/4 note off tune relative to open strings, then it is out of tune.

Perfect pitch is like photographic memory, it doesn't make the object of that memory more true than another. Just that some people are luckier than others in having that ability. I wonder whether people who have perfect pitch can memorize pitch in terms of cents or small increments of cents?

At least that is my understanding so far

November 1, 2018, 4:50 PM · Developing a sense of pitch is a process, give it time. The example of singers is valid; some of them have excellent intonation and there are no mechanical/physical impediments to fine-tuning their notes. They have the other problem of finding the right notes(!). You don't have to take singing lessons, but hearing the music in your memory is a huge advantage to memorization and intonation. Besides Solfegio, singers also do interval study, to get a feel for the tonal distance between the notes. Violinists can do the same thing; There are 24 melodic intervals and 5 fingerings for each = about 120 different combinations of two notes. That sounds like a lot, but it fits on 2 pages. Tuning to open strings is a good start, but only works for chords that contain those two notes. Tuning to the piano or the electronic tuner gives you equal-tempered tuning, close enough most of the time. At some point learn about Pythagorian versus Just tuning, to learn why and how to bend some notes. Our margin of error is about 5 cents (1/20 of a half-step!) and the most we need to bend a note away from piano tuning is about 10 cents.
November 6, 2018, 3:52 PM · I just wanted to share what I do:

I play the first note on piano. I sing it. Then I hear the next note in my head and then I sing it and hold it, and then hit the key on the piano and check my pitch. I adjust my singing pitch as necessary until in tune. Then I hear the next note, sing the next note and hold it, and just keep repeating the process. This has helped me quite a bit. I do not have great intonation and this process is time-consuming and takes a lot of work. But when I'm having trouble I go through it and it really helps. Especially in 3rd position.

After a while we can hear the pitch in our head. If I really focus then I can do it while playing, but I have to really focus. It's not effortless. And when I focus on hearing it, other things go astray. ;)

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