Intonation and Reliability

Edited: January 2, 2019, 12:20 PM · Recently there was a thread in which one of us linked a YouTube video and asked members of violinist.com to critique his playing. The individual was severely upbraided for his intonation, and even I could hear that his playing was significantly flawed in this regard.

In another thread, there has been discussion of repetition in practicing, and one of us wrote that reliability (reproducibility) is one of the critical aspects lacking in amateur violin playing, which seems correct and possibly even definitive (at least in part) of amateur playing.

If I shared a YouTube for y'all to critique, which one day I might do, I'm 100% sure someone would immediately say that I need to slow down and improve the intonation. But the plain truth is that I have a limited ability to just put my fingers in the same place every time. So there will be *some* finite variability in my intonation regardless of tempo or the level of the piece.

Now, obviously the reliability of my intonation (and of other aspects of my playing) is better than it used to be, because I'm improving, but it's still audible. (After all, I'm an amateur.)

For this reason I personally feel that it's maybe just a little too easy to automatically say "your intonation is off, practice slowly" unless (a) there are systematic kinds of errors such as certain pitches that are consistently too high or too low, that suggest the player is not hearing himself/herself correctly, or (b) the overall frequency and magnitude of the random types of errors forces one to conclude that the piece is entirely out of reach given the player's current level of reliability.

We should also understand that one does not improve his or her playing by choosing pieces and studies that we can play as well as Heifetz with, say, three hours of practice. I'm not sure I'd ever get past Suzuki Book 1 otherwise.

So, is there some middle-ground here?

Replies (72)

January 2, 2019, 12:40 PM · hi Paul, you are asking where is the line between acceptably and unacceptably being out of tune. the proof of the pudding is in the eating. every piece you play or prepare has an intended audience. this audience may be yourself, and you have certain expectations of it. there the question is easily settled by yourself. the audience may be different people than yourself: one or two members of the family, some close friends, or perhaps a friendly group of people, or an audience at a free podium, up to paying audiences. they all may set the bar at certain levels, some lower, some higher. I would say, in general, when your intended audience is, on average, satisfied, then you did not play too much out of tune!

at the same time I really think playing in tune is related to clear and precise things you did, or did not, practice enough. the basics like finger patterns, intervals, shifts, etc. I do not mean only practicing in the piece itself, but around it, while doing scales, technical exercises etc. so I do not think playing in tune is something fundamentally unachievable, like you seem to suggest.

January 2, 2019, 12:44 PM · Great question Paul! Looking forward to seeing others' responses, as I too am the (unreliable) amateur who is slowly improving in this regard.

I was unable to clearly hear in-tune intonation with my previous instrument, it was challenging to get the intonation juuuust right - not just hearing, but physically just right. I swear switching to a different instrument (yay!) did something magical to my playing/practice and I am more reliable. I am not saying that new equipment solves problems (far from it! now my mistakes are so obvious) but having equipment that helps vs hinders definitely makes things easier and more enjoy to practice (and hear).

I'd like to know if there is a middle ground for us who play for the love of it...

January 2, 2019, 12:46 PM · Jean thanks for that! I didn't mean to imply that it's fundamentally unachievable, only that I'm not there yet, and my approach thereto seems rather depressingly asymptotic.
January 2, 2019, 12:46 PM · Jean - audience satisfaction, what a concept!
January 2, 2019, 1:25 PM · I think there are multiple aspects to good intonation:

(1) Hearing the correct pitch in your head
(2) Finger going down where you were aiming for
(3) Rapidly assessing whether the finger landed accurately, sharp, or flat
(4) Possibly rapidly and nigh-imperceptibly adjusting the pitch of the finger
(5) Using the information from the above to correctly aim the next note

Step 5 is much of what allows you to accurately place your fingers even when your string is out of tune and/or you are playing on a differently-sized (perhaps subtly differently-sized) violin. Or for that matter, to make a large relative string length adjustment like going from violin to viola.

You develop a kind of sixth sense for the relative distances of the notes on the fingerboard and that sixth sense is apparently some kind of mathematical ratio judgment because it's measured in proportional distance and not exact distances.

To develop consistency of aim, do a lot of Schradieck op. 1 book 1 first exercise. A teacher in my teens told me to do that exercise with the five pitches exactly identical for the whole two pages, and to be relentlessly self-critical about it. (One of the ways that I can tell how good a shape I'm in, technically, is whether or not I can manage that and how badly that deteriorates with speed.) It taught me to really be aware of the control involved in dropping the fingers precisely. (It's effectively a pathway myelination exercise.)

January 2, 2019, 1:52 PM · Paul, this blog by Dr Noa Kageyama is a useful read,
https://bulletproofmusician.com/how-perfect-does-your-intonation-have-to-be/
On another thread on a related topic I mentioned that even the greatest string players throughout their careers treat good intonation as continuous work-in-progress. We are not alone! The danger every player should watch out for is when they think they no long have to work on intonation – that is a sure sign that they need to.
Edited: January 2, 2019, 9:33 PM · Hello Paul D. I found it helpful to thoroughly learn the intervals on the instrument; all 24 melodic intervals in all finger combinations- it's not as big as it looks, it fits on one page. Instead of trying to land on the right spot every time, learn how the intervals BETWEEN the notes feel in the hand. A similar concept is to shift positions by interval distance. A lot of players, when moving, say, between 2nd and 4th position, don't know know if they moving a minor or major third. Adjusting the pitch after the note starts is usually too late. When asked why the the violin does not have frets, my first answer is, "so we can play in tune".
January 2, 2019, 2:15 PM · I try not to get too complacent with my intonation, but I think that it comes down to a lot of just not getting to it, where I kind of assume it will get better as part of my practice in general, and it seems like I'm starting to see the limits of that attitude as I'm working on Rode Caprices.

I'm doing more and more checking of notes with open strings, and checking perfect intervals, and slow practice, and a lot of stuff with greater focus on intonation. I think it's getting better, but it's frustrating. I just don't want to get to the end of Rode and be playing with inconsistent intonation, and I'm about to start on the Mendelssohn Concerto, so I just need to get really serious about the ongoing issues I have in my playing.

Even this last etude I've been working on has revealed a number of issues with my detache. But on the other hand, intonation demands go up with the difficulty of music, and I went back to some Kreutzer detache etudes recently and they actually seemed to be sounding better than they ever did when I was studying them.

Edited: January 2, 2019, 2:41 PM · I feel your pain, Paul. I'm at the sixth month mark as a returnee. It seems to me that I make a lot of intonation errors that are just fumbling (in addition to the ones I don't hear and the ones due to lack of familiarity with the piece). I hear the note is wrong, but I can't correct it fast enough. I can go back and repeat the phrase in which the offending note is embedded a bunch of times (and there is a decay after about 3 repetitions), but it's a toss up whether or not I'll get it right when I back up half a page.

Then there are passages where I know something is wrong, but don't know what is wrong or how to correct it. Repetition doesn't seem to help. It may be there are two or more notes that are slightly off so the pitches are wrong and the interval right, or the interval is wrong and only one pitch off, or the interval is wrong and both pitches off.

January 2, 2019, 2:22 PM · +1 to Lydia.

Inconsistency in any of those five steps will affect consistency of intonation. It's occurred to me that, since I play viola about 99% of the time, Step 2 is what's missing every time I pick up the violin. My intonation is still pretty close on violin in the first few minutes after picking it up, and improves rapidly over the first hour or so (thanks to Step 5) -- but even after a week of practicing only violin, I'm nowhere near the level of consistency I have on viola.

Like Pamela, I think equipment matters; my intonation in higher positions instantly got much more consistent when I had my fingerboard replaned last month. I could have sworn I found it easier to tell whether I was out of tune (Step 3), too. I'm not sure you can entirely separate muscle memory from auditory memory, because each (at least if you're paying attention) feeds back on the other.

I think what especially separates us amateurs from the pros is Steps 2-4. Step 1 can be developed unconsciously to a fairly high level by listening to a lot of music; Step 5 seems to be mostly a matter of listening to ourselves. For Step 2, there is no substitute for repetition, and for Steps 3-4, it takes a lot of practice to be able to accomplish them at speed.

There's also a sixth factor: confidence. I find that my intonation paradoxically gets worse in "easy" passages, or when entering after a long rest when I've had plenty of time to prepare a finger, because I second-guess my finger placement on every note. Almost invariably, when I second-guess and "correct" my finger placement, it moves farther away from being in tune. I would assume it gets much more automatic with correct repetition.

January 2, 2019, 2:24 PM · Pamela, do you understand why your intonation was worse on the lesser quality instrument? Was it something about a lack of resonance, or unpleasant timbre when the note was in tune? I ask because I'd love for my problem to be my instrument--and not me!
Edited: January 2, 2019, 3:51 PM · Jocelyn - my instrument **under the ear** resonated whether I was in tune or not on certain notes (for first position examples, G on the D string resonated wildly - if I was in tune with the G string, the resonation was not all that different than the G being slightly sharp or flat) or not at all on others (an in tune B on the E string, or an in tune E on the D string). Yet, when I would listen to a recording I could clearly hear all of my intonation mistakes. My teacher always said it sounded like I was fishing around for the right intonation - and they were right! I could not hear if the note I was playing was in tune no matter how hard I tried. This is not to say that my oldie was a poor quality instrument, it's a good German violin - just a very finicky one ;) I grew out of this instrument, and happened to luck into an upgrade that did not cost an arm and a leg, and sounds wonderful quite soon into my search for a new violin.

But, 6 months into returning, the issue was that my ears were not necessarily up to snuff, and I was not ready for an upgrade until recently. And, I still have a ways to go regarding consistent intonation - now I feel like I can actually play in tune the majority of the time. ;)

Re: Lydia's and Joel's statement - my teacher is trying to get me to work more with those proportional assessments/shift assessments as an automatic thing. It feels like a whole new mental ballgame, but I have to say - the more I practice it the better my intonation reliability seems to become. Pretty cool! Yay practice!

Andrew - oh yeah, the confidence issue. I often have to tell myself: you've practiced this umpteenine times, you KNOW where your fingers go, trust yourself in knowing what to do. It's brutal. For the easy stuff that "should be" automatic, I attribute it to laziness/unpreparedness...

January 2, 2019, 3:54 PM · Paul, et al.,

I'll throw in the bio-mechanical element - stamina. Like any other physical activity, playing the violin (or any string instrument) not only requires dexterity and precision but over time you have to have the stamina to maintain the correct bio-mechanical position for playing in tune.

I've discovered that my stamina is slowly decreasing. I can play very well for about 30 minutes. Then I either need to rest of put the violin to bed. Pushing on simply results in diminishing tune and tone. When I push way too long I can even get hand/finger cramps that bring the session to a dramatic halt.

Age and the result of multiple muscular-skeletal injuries combine to make extended playing all but impossible. I now there are fellow violinist older than I am who don't have this loss of stamina. However, it is a factor to be considered.

January 2, 2019, 4:06 PM · Christian, I'm not sure that I agree with your assertion that the intonation demands go up with the difficulty of the music. I think that more difficult music often requires bigger jumps and whatnot that might require better fingerboard knowledge, but the intonation demands (in terms of precision requirements) don't ever change. Our tolerance level for what constitutes "good enough" intonation should gradually get narrower over time (the brain has to be forced to pay attention to the difference, at the very least) but that likely only takes a year or two.

Jocelyn, a note that is out of tune on a recurring basis is a note that your brain is thinking about in the wrong way. Often it's because there's an anticipation -- for instance, a lower or higher note in the passage that causes our brain to want to aim an earlier note that way, too. So if you just become aware of the anticipation and actively correct for it, it will fix itself.

Fingerboard issues can affect intonation because we depend on the tactile sensation of finger on string to help measure the distance. Small bits that are not totally even/smooth can really throw off that sense. And ring/resonance make a significant difference in helping us hear the mesh of intervals in the chord, so a richer, more complex sound is often helpful for intonation.

January 2, 2019, 4:26 PM · Trill studies helped a lot with my intonation. I do them in positions in addition to as written. One issue I had was that I could always hit the notes with resonance, but c's and f's were inconsistent. I found that to be the case with my students as well. When I would play a passage, my brain would focus on the resonant notes, then sort of skip over the non resonant ones. Discovering anchor fingers also dramatically improved my overall intonation. Listening to my own recordings helped me hear that while I played, I wasn't really, really listening. Improper hand position and tension also contributes to intonation issues. It's almost impossible to hit the same note twice when your hand is tight. I think it's many little things added together that incrementally improve overall intonation.

For me, it's not so much an issue of playing slowly as it is listening critically, getting my hand in the right place, staying loose, and using efficient movements that helped me play consistently in tune. Of course those things are impossible to develop when you're playing so fast you can't even think about whether your hitting your shifts or not...

January 2, 2019, 5:43 PM · Great stuff so far! I think part of the issue for me is that ever since I learned about "expressive" intonation, it's hard to know what's really right. (Was that C-sharp good? Too high?)

But +1 to whoever suggested that this is one of the reasons to listen to music a lot. I probably could stand to listen more. And I unfortunately have not yet developed the discipline to record myself often enough.

January 2, 2019, 6:22 PM · Simon Fischer's take on Lydia's points 3 and 4:

‘Part of the art of playing in tune is adjusting notes that are fractionally out of tune so quickly that nobody else notices. This makes it possible to give an impression of playing in tune. Sometimes this instinctive, instant adjustment – which occurs at the very start of the tone – is hidden in the vibrato, which may be wider than the pitch correction anyway. Sometimes the adjustment is made by fractionally altering the exact angle at which the finger leans into the string – again at the very start of the note, as the fingertip first begins to touch the string.’
Simon Fischer, The Strad, July 2008

I agree with Julie that lack of tension contributes to good intonation-- probably because it facilitates these fine adjustments that Lydia and Simon talk about.

January 2, 2019, 7:19 PM · Ah! So vibrato hides bad intonation after all! *grin*
January 3, 2019, 7:59 AM · Paul, perhaps vibrato means the hand is alive and supple enough to correct more quickly.

A vital point: when a finger adjustment has "found" the right pitch, the corrected placement must be repeated many times, otherwise the faulty placement will win!

Edited: January 3, 2019, 12:50 PM · Well I have to chime in as intonation is all I am working on right now; this is how I am working on it:
1) It is necessary to have a way to know when you are right on pitch. I am using a Snark (clip-on tuner); It tells me when I am right on or acceptably close. A couple cents off is OK.
2) Wiggling my playing finger back and forth on the string to find the perfect pitch causes my violin teacher to have an apoplectic fit. He insists that I remove my hand from the fingerboard and try again. He is right; training your hand to land on the correct pitch is the goal, not finding it...eventually!
3) Once you land on the correct pitch, hold your hand in that position and make careful proprioceptive observations: what is the angle of your finger to the fingerboard, what is the relationship of the playing finger to the nearby fingers: (touching, pressing, far away) to help you replicate the correct hnnd position on your next try
4) Using the same hand shape, play the correct pitch consistently, many times to burn it into muscle memory. This is tough because at the same time you are extinguishing old patterns of inaccurate intonation already in muscle memory behavior. As an earlier poster wrote, this takes a lot of STAMINA STAMINA STAMINA. You can't even verify your improvement until the next day, because the brain takes time to permanently re-wire. Once the elementary hand frame is established, one works on interpretive intonation, but first things must come first....
I wish everyone the best of luck and even more, stamina!
January 3, 2019, 11:44 AM · Hmm, Lydia, I guess I mean that good intonation is more difficult the more actions you are doing at once. Comparing Rode 10, which I'm doing right now, with Kreutzer 2, the intonation is more difficult in Rode 10, because there are more extensions and contractions, there is more needing to set fingers across two strings at once, the bowing is more complicated, the key has more sharps. It's just less comfortable, so it's harder to play in tune. Not that Kreutzer 2 is simple to play in tune.
January 3, 2019, 12:14 PM · Actually K2 is not in the most violin-friendly of keys (C major). From the outset you need to land a nice clean "C" and the intonation of the rest of the study depends mightily on the awareness of local harmony.
January 3, 2019, 1:43 PM · Yeah, I'm reminded of that when I pick C as a scale and it doesn't go how I thought. C at least has the advantage of having 4 of it's pitches rooted to open strings and C being a perfect 4th with G, so you can always go back and check.

Another thing with pieces and intonation I notice is that the more I internalize a piece, the better I hear the pitches. Of course, that's arguably sloppiness on my part for not paying enough attention early in learning, but maybe it's also a function of splitting my attention on technical matters.

Edited: January 3, 2019, 4:20 PM · I think the first point Lydia made has been and always will be THE most important of all. You have to hear the pitches first and continue to listen while you're playing to the relative intonation in order for your left hand to adjust to the proper position.

For someone who has major issues with listening critically to relative pitch (like the gentleman in the other discussion), this might seem a little unorthodox, but I suggest studying the piano as well. I think playing the piano is very beneficial for string players! Get a piano, have it expertly tuned and burn those intervals into your system. It will give you a certain level of ear training you wouldn't normally get as a string player. I, of course, am not an advocate for using equal temperament tuning (which an 'in tune' piano is tuned to) when playing a string instrument - although it can be a good demarcation point. A violin, in my opinion, can be played *more* in tune than a well-tuned Steinway. Jascha Heifetz and Lisa Batiashvili at their best have done this.

Edited: January 3, 2019, 4:21 PM · A lot of major conservatories require functional piano studies alongside the main instrument (not just for improving your pitch, but it's one of the reasons).
January 3, 2019, 4:44 PM · As Nate notes, one should definitely be aware of the dangers of equal temperament, whether you're using a piano or using a tuner gadget.

I find that between my perfect pitch and childhood piano (and plenty of fights as a Suzuki kid with my parents over the pitch in my head vs the "correct" one from an electronic tuner), I am more likely to have an equal-temperament pitch in my head than the proper just-temperament tuning, especially when the harmonic structure isn't clear in my head and therefore I'm pre-hearing the wrong pitch.

Christian, I think that weird keys have two distinct problems. First, they are less familiar and therefore there's more of a brain delay in pre-hearing the right pitch, and they are not as automatic in the left hand as more familiar keys. Second, they generally don't take advantage of the natural resonance of the instrument in the same way, so the overtones are less of a guide to whether or not you are really in tune. (Although Rode #10 is in E major, which ought to be a familiar key, and it's fairly resonant.)

Edited: January 3, 2019, 4:48 PM · @Nate I hope what you say is true because I've also played the piano as long as I have the violin. Even more because I didn't give it up entirely for 25 years. I'm keenly aware of the difference between equal temperament and "violin intonation" though. I'm kind of a Sassmanshaus disciple on that point.
January 3, 2019, 4:48 PM · Being that I teach a LOT of beginners, I've thought about this point quite a bit. "At what point is a student's intonation deemed to be acceptable enough to move on the next piece of music"?

My personal approach has evolved into simply adapting my expectations based on the natural ability of the student. Every single week, I put significant mental effort into balancing "should I push this particular student on this particular song to be within a tighter range of consistency?" Otherwise, as you noted, a great number of students would be stuck in Suzuki book 1 for way too long, and they would get bored before they ever got anywhere with their playing. And we all know that boredom quickly becomes the end of progress.

I guess I think of it like choosing a tolerance for a machine. If it's a very fine machine that I eventually expect will need to accomplish a very fine task, I'm going to be extra picky from day 1 about how tight its tolerances are. On the other hand, if it's a machine that only needs to throw balls at the batting cages, I can let its tolerance be pretty wobbly just with the hopes that it'll keep on pitchin' those balls. With this approach, bad players eventually become OK players, and good players eventually become great ones. However, an approach to make a naturally bad player into a great one simply doesn't exist. We simply decide to make the best of each individual given their natural talents, but we also accept the limits of worse players, because telling them "ANYONE can become as good as anyone else" or "talent is just an idea" is actually a cruel lie that will make them blame themselves for their comparative lack of progress.


Also, perhaps more relevant to to the other "3 hour paganini" thread, I will say this: people are generally going to be far more critical of intonation problems on a high-level piece than a lower-level one. When you play something like Paganini, it's almost like you're saying "hold my beer and watch THIS". And you have to be able to back up that level of bragging.

And as much as it is far too easy to say "practice slow and listen more carefully," MAN it is good advice.

Edited: January 3, 2019, 6:48 PM · Paul - I think your background with the piano can only enhance your violinistic skills and musical understanding of the score when you play a concerto, sonata, or showpiece.

To answer your earlier question about what the 'acceptable' level of intonation is, there is, of course, some gray area. I think, had the gentleman who posted his recording on the other discussion, played the piece with 'perfect' equal temperament tuning (where the perfect intervals are more or less pleasing to the ear), people probably would've not taken as much exception to his intonation (even though ideally you don't want to use piano intonation as a violinist especially when playing unaccompanied).

Since we're not machines, we all miss - even the greatest players play out of tune. A great violinist, like a great baseball pitcher, I think will know how to miss convincingly. For instance, you'd hardly ever hear Nathan Milstein play Bb sharp, in G minor, and you wouldn't really ever see Greg Maddux throw to the inside corner of the plate if the catcher was set up on the outside corner.

January 4, 2019, 5:01 AM · Anyone who seems to have perfect intonation 100% of the time, has probably mastered the art of changing pitch so quickly that nobody notices.
Edited: January 4, 2019, 3:05 PM · Yes I think you’re right Kate. Great players can make adjustments very quickly. They all know about vertical & horizontal intonation as well. A pretty famous 1st violinist of a string quartet said to me playing quartets really opened up his ears to vertical intonation.
January 4, 2019, 3:31 PM · Just to clarify: "vertical" intonation refers to just-intonation or harmony, whereas "horizontal" intonation refers to tuning a line or phrase by essentially tempering the notes in a way that offers the least amount of compromises?

For example, in the opening of the adagio g-minor Bach sonata, the first chord is concerned with vertical intonation, whereas the notes immediately following that chord would be concerned with horizontal intonation?

Edited: January 4, 2019, 4:22 PM · Yes Erik, that was essentially what I was referring to. As I said earlier, I personally try to avoid using equal temperament tuning in unaccompanied violin music.
January 4, 2019, 7:34 PM · This thread is a keeper, closing in on the classics of the past.

Also, Simon Fischer has a great discussion on different levels of Intonation and increasing degrees of consistency that mark each level in his Scales book.

Edited: January 5, 2019, 12:09 PM · Julie wrote, "Trill studies helped a lot with my intonation." Okay, like what? I just opened my trusty Kreutzer volume to No. 16 and played through that, but I'm not sure it challenged my intonation any more than any other study.

On the other hand, I can see trills as being useful because you've got to execute them across all the possible positions. So, Julie, what kind of trill studies were most helpful?

@Nate yes I really enjoy sonatas for that reason -- because I take just as much interest in (and feel just as much fealty to) the piano part as I do my own part. It's just a pity that most of the sonata literature is beyond my technical skill -- on either instrument. I'm very much the stereotypical two-instrument player who will spend the rest of his life wondering whether it would have been better to study only one.

January 5, 2019, 9:00 PM · I'm guessing Sevcik op. 7? If you haven't done those, you may find them useful. I
Edited: January 5, 2019, 10:15 PM · Yes all right, I'll look into that Lydia.

Coming back to my central point, let's say I'm working on a short piece that has, say, 10 places where I'd need to really groove the intonation. And let's say I get each spot to the point where my chance of landing my fingers in the right spots is 80%. For an amateur playing a piece near the frontier of one's ability, that's an ambitious average. Even at that rate of 80% per event, my overall chance of playing the piece with all of the spots correct is 10% if they are statistically independent. Therefore the chance is 90% that I'm going to end up with a least one YouTube comment like "at 1:32 you've got a note out of tune. Just saying." And the overall comment would be, "Nice playing but you should work on your intonation."

January 5, 2019, 11:29 PM · Paul- Yes the Sevcik trill studies:

http://ks.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/7/7f/IMSLP19130-PMLP45133-sevcik_op_7_part_1.pdf

I also make little trill studies like Sevcik when I fumble over notes in a passage.

January 6, 2019, 1:13 PM · Paul, maybe you could preempt receiving a list of your intonation problems by pointing them out when you post the video? Something like, "There is a note out-of-tune at 1:32 that I miss about 20 percent of the time." It might even steer the discussion towards creative ways to address intonation errors, besides the usual "practice slowly." I don't know--just a thought.
January 6, 2019, 2:08 PM · Paul, are those problem spots exclusively in higher positions and/or shortly before or after a shift?
January 6, 2019, 2:31 PM · Paul another classical trick is to slow down just a tiny amount at those passages, probably imperceptible to the audience but just enough to give you a little bit more confidence.
Edited: January 6, 2019, 8:28 PM · Lydia: Of course they're more likely there, yes. But to my eternal chagrin, not exclusively.

Jean: Nifty trick. That would raise yet another question of how much one can get away with, which would take us immediately to your answer at the start of this thread! :)

January 6, 2019, 11:28 PM · If you read the music, can you hear the notes accurately in your head? And then, away from the violin, do you have a kinesthetic sense of what it feels like to play those notes? If you pause while playing and imagine the kinesthetic feeling of hitting the next note before actually doing so, can you accurately play the pitch?
January 7, 2019, 6:25 AM · Q: If you read the music, can you hear the notes accurately in your head?
A: Well, I think so. But how can I (or anyone else) really be sure?

Q: Away from the violin, do you have a kinesthetic sense ...?
A: Yes.

Q: If you pause while playing and imagine the kinesthetic feeling of hitting the next note before actually doing so, can you accurately play the pitch?

A: Most of the time. In first through fifth positions relatively likely. Above that less so.


January 7, 2019, 12:06 PM · Paul, you may find Simon Fischer's intonation and shifting exercises in "Basics" to be really useful, especially the finger patterns in all positions / keys exercise in the intonation section. (I cannot seem to find where my Basics has gone in my disorganized sheet-music piles at the moment, or I'd give you the number.)

Try playing the exercise in the first five positions, "feeling" the next note in your head before placing it. I found that exercise to be incredibly useful in recovering my accurate finger placement after a long time away from the violin. I think I needed to get my brain to retrieve the note feeling faster, so that it happened without hesitation.

Edited: January 7, 2019, 12:21 PM · Lydia I think that's No. 285 or such. I know exactly the one you're talking about. Anyway I totally agree, that's a great exercise and I should do it more.

And I forgot to thank Jocelyn for a useful practical suggestion.

January 8, 2019, 1:09 AM · I've always wondering about intonation system. Over the years I've come down to 2 important aspects of getting intonation right:

1. Knowing the intonation system that you play.

2. Hearing the note before you play it.


The intonation that works very well in most situation is the equal temperament. Exception is that you can play more liberally in unaccompanied works, but most of the time we play with other instrument, particularly piano which is tune to equal temperament (mostly).

The real difficulty of this system is that it doesn't sound natural to our brain, or simply put, out of tune. So deliberately playing "out of tune" isn't very pleasant at all and one need to get accustomed to listening to the system, and then, hearing it before playing the note.

January 8, 2019, 4:46 AM · All the above advice is valid, but can I insist on nourishing our "inner ear" by listening daily to well played violin music, especially when it goes way outside our vocal range. If we only hear ourselves, how can we improve?
January 18, 2019, 1:14 PM · Returning to this thread after Lydia's posts in the Pag 16 - biking thread...

What is deemed "acceptable" re: intonation?

January 18, 2019, 2:10 PM · There's an interesting Wikipedia article here: LINK -- see the section called Human Perception.

So you can probably be up to 12 cents in deviation without bothering the average person.

Edited: January 18, 2019, 3:09 PM · I remember my daughter was playing something and later I asked her teacher about her intonation and he said "it's fine." What he meant was, don't worry, it'll improve, she's working on it, but it's not going to happen overnight. And by and by, it has improved -- a lot.

If we've learned anything over the past few days on this forum, it's that if you listen very carefully you can find intonation errors even in the performances of advanced, serious amateurs. Playing the violin is hard. We've trained ourselves not only to hear it, but we've trained ourselves to actively listen specifically for those kinds of mistakes -- somehow especially intonation, because in the end, isn't that still the hardest thing to do on the violin -- to play in tune to the satisfaction of another violinist? So when we listen to others, we can't help ourselves -- we find their mistakes too. We're just conditioned to do that.

Does anyone else have the experience that fourths are the hardest interval to get in tune? Even octaves sound more forgiving to me.

January 18, 2019, 4:41 PM · Reliabilty? Tolerance?
The amateurs I play with have intonation lapses due to lack of practice rather than lack of "ear". Professionals will be playing as many hours per day as most amateurs manage in a week.(Reliability!) And then the amateur's day will not be as jammed full of notes as the professional's (Tolerance?)

But even a non player music "gourmet" may listen with great discernment.

January 18, 2019, 5:16 PM · Paul: yes, the perfect 4th is probably the single hardest interval for me to tune. One of the most difficult things I've had to play on the viola this year was the lower line of a "2 violas soli" passage in parallel 4ths. Even though the passage was steady quarter notes in slow tempo, it was challenging because it was so hard to hear the correct interval in my head.
January 18, 2019, 8:01 PM · I would guess that many amateurs (and some lower-level pros) also have intonation lapses because their brains are working hard enough at playing the instrument that there's not enough cognitive power left to fully pay attention to intonation and rapid correction.

My teacher says that he can also tell when it's an intonation slip vs. the ear/brain losing track of what the pitch should be (for instance, when a note is played sharp and then the subsequent notes are in tune relative to that note but then the whole sequence is sharp), because he can hear the immediate attempt to correct the slip.

Edited: January 20, 2019, 3:57 PM · I've been thinking a bit about what causes instability and inconsistency, and the question of how out of tune I really am, and what the deviance is from occasion to occasion, and how it affects the performance impression.

I took three videos of myself playing the Strauss sonata in three different performances in this past year. The first was in May, on about 9 hours of practice time. Then I did it again a month later in June for a student recital, though just the first movement (spent 20 minutes of practice time on it, then ran it through twice with piano). And then finally I performed it in November (total practice time of 15 hours accumulated, with most of the added 6 hours in the immediate weeks pre-performance, so it was dropped between June and October).

The first and third performances were both on local free chamber music series -- public performances. The third one got great attendance and lots of compliments, including from regular concertgoers and other violinists -- even though I assume you and they can hear the flaws, apparently they walked away with an overall positive impression, i.e. intonation overall within tolerance thresholds. But it's not really within *my* desired tolerance thresholds.

So, just posting the first movements for convenience of comparison:

I have the general sense that the roots of instability are always there, but that the degree to which that instability manifests itself in performance varies significantly. I was pretty calm on performance #1, moderately nervous on performance #2, and somewhat more nervous on performance #3, and performance had the added problems of strings that really should have been changed, cold hands, construction noise, a radio loudly playing music for the outside construction crew, and a super distracting audience.

I consider the intonation of #3 to be more obviously unstable, especially at the beginning before I can get my frozen fingers to move again. I am unsure, however, how much is really the cold fingers, versus how much the environmental distractions prevented faster detection and correction of intonation issues.

I'm considering what the best corrective actions are. More technical drill? More work on the pieces I'm performing so they're more reliable? More time listening to music?

January 20, 2019, 4:30 PM · What I do to check my intonation is to play the treble or alto part of one of the Bach Chorales ("371 Harmonized Chorales and 60 Chorale Melodies", publ. Schirmer). Simple music played at no quicker than hymn singing speed, and so ideal for spotting tuning errors and learning to utilize the resonances of the instrument. I argue that, since slow practice is ideal for improving playing, so it should be for listening to and checking one's tuning. If you can't play in tune slowly and accurately what hope do you have of doing it fast and accurately!

Some background about Bach's Harmonized Chorales (4-part harmony). They were recommended to me many years ago when I was having harmony lessons, and I have been in love with them ever since. Some of them occasionally don't lie comfortably under the hands when played on the piano (this is where the pedal keyboard is useful when played on the organ), for the simple reason that they are 100% vocal compositions. I sometimes think they would be ideal for musicians new to quartet playing to learn what good intonation is all about.

January 20, 2019, 4:40 PM · Lydia, I enjoyed all three performances. You play very elegantly. And the intonation issues weren't not noticeable, but neither were they distracting from the overall performances. Definitely more good than bad. I liked your quote: "But it's not really within *my* desired tolerance thresholds."

I know that when I was in high school and college, I played *with people* every day, which I think definitely kept my intonation more consistent. Now it's down to playing with people a couple of times a week, with longer breaks over holidays, and occasional busy work periods where there's no playing at all.

January 20, 2019, 5:23 PM · Trevor, for the dictation test of my GCE A-level Music exam, we had to write down the four parts of a Bach chorale...which was only played three times!
Pass 1: I concentrated on the base line, and grabbed the fairly familiar melody;
Pass 2: As many middle notes as I could catch;
Pass 3: Check for wrong notes, and catch a few more.
Then half an hour to write it up neatly, using our knowledge of the style to make the voices convincing.

This why I refuse studies (and pieces) with poor harmony!

Edited: January 20, 2019, 6:50 PM · Lydia, I really enjoyed listening to your video performances. I'm not at your level - I am a recent 'returner' - but I have been thinking alot about the question you ask about what to do to remedy issues, as I relearn to practice. It would seem perhaps helpful to consider, as you probably already have, under what circumstances your intonation is at its best, and also, when it is at its best, is it within your tolerance threshold, and that this then would lead to remedy tactics. That is, if when you are not nervous at all you are satisfied with your intonation, then dealing with how to deal with nerves, and/or performing more or recreating performance like circumstances more might be useful, or if when you play slower you are satisfied then that leads to practice with increasing speed and so on.
January 20, 2019, 6:45 PM · Man, that brought a flashback to my college theory class. :-)

Julie, that's an interesting thought. I often think of playing with people other than pianists to be destabilizing. In a community orchestra, the pitch center can waver (and the winds/brass go gradually sharp through the rehearsal). In even a very good amateur quartet, intonation isn't always 100% pure, and probably more specifically, sometimes people are in "good enough" tune for their own line, but the relative intonation for the chord isn't exactly what it should be.

Edited: January 20, 2019, 7:21 PM · I enjoyed all three and honestly I liked No. 1 the best. In the first section that went high, you totally nailed it, and I was sold for the rest of the movement. Yeah there were intonation slips, sure. But if I were in the audience and then later I heard you'd be playing again, I'd be marking my calendar for it. I agree with Julie that your playing is very elegant. What you lack in technical perfection you make up with musicality. To me, that's a good bargain.

If you were nervous for the other two I couldn't tell. That sure looks like a hard piece and it's in a really hard key -- E flat. How do you adjust your practicing -- if at all -- when you open up the score and *gulp* there's that key signature staring back at you?

PS that's some serious piano playing.

Edited: January 20, 2019, 7:42 PM · The musicality is really more about good teaching than about me, definitely. My teacher has a really good sense of what an audience is drawn to, and while he doesn't demand that his students play like him, he's superb at noting what is convincing and what isn't. (It is fairly common for audience members to ask me when else I'll be playing this season, which I take as a good sign even when I don't feel I've played well.)

The Strauss is widely considered the most difficult violin sonata in the mainstream repertoire, and it's more difficult for piano than violin. The pianist in #1 is a local piano teacher (who learned the work for the first time), and the pianists in #2 and #3 have performing careers (and have played this sonata a zillion times).

Interestingly, my teacher recommends this sonata for use in violin testing and when doing an adjustment with a luthier, due to the key. I did Fischer finger patterns in Eb when I first started the work. The really tough bit is a highly chromatic passage in the fourth movement, though, where it's both syncopated and extremely easy to lose track of what notes come next.

January 21, 2019, 5:47 AM · Maybe its just a matter of adjusting your own sense of acceptable range for intonation!
Edited: January 21, 2019, 9:45 AM · "Fourth movement"? Good grief ... three more such movements? That'a s long sonata. I can see why that's considered one of the hardest.

By the way I'm having a new understanding of your playing of the Elgar "Salut d'Amour" now that it's been on my own stand for less than three hours LOL (previously I have never played it). Remember I said that I had a different conception of the intervals in the opening theme. Right out of the gate there is a "personal" question: How high should the first G# be? My feeling is it should be very high. And then should the B between the two G#'s be tuned like a double-stop (sixth) or should it be lower? I think lower so that it contrasts better with the B# in the next phrase.

Edited: January 21, 2019, 10:06 AM · Er, third movement. The whole sonata (three movements) is in the third video -- the whole thing is almost 30 minutes. The third movement is the hardest by a decent margin.

The first G# should be in tune wth the piano. :-)

Edited: January 21, 2019, 12:55 PM · I think playing with a group forces me to listen and adjust, and for me, having to do that on the conductor's time makes me quicker at it. When I'm playing by myself, sometimes I miss out of tune notes until I listen to a playback, but in a section, there's no hiding that my c's aren't right. The orchestra I'm currently playing with is really good- much better than the last one- so that could be helping as well. Playing with students probably screws up my ear more tbh. I have to work really, really hard not to automatically adjust my correct intonation to their incorrect intonation.

Paul, I think you're overthinking this whole expressive intonation business. Maybe a general rule should be only 1 expressively intoned note per section? I mean you're starting in the guts of an E major arpeggio; it's pretty simple.

Edited: January 23, 2019, 2:36 PM · Unfortunately faulty intonation is a malady which many string players are afflicted with. I agree with Lydia that most important is being able to hear the note. In addition you should train yourself to play finger groups and positions. This also ties in to your practice of scales (in every key and mode). Heifetz told his students when they didn't quite hit a note spot on "No Compromises". He's actually correct because there is no almost or just about. The note is either in tune or out of tune. When you practice never allow yourself to continue playing when you hit a wrong note. You need to fix it immediately. This will train your ear to be so sensitive to pitch that it won't allow you to play a bad note. If you just gloss by the passage during your practice then you will be training your ear not to recognize when a note is out of tune. This is another good reason for slow practice to allow you to examine each note for trueness of pitch. Poor intonation will also affect your sound production because the overtones produced by the note itself will not match and the result is a difference in the tone. To learn a piece well you not only have to learn it in your head but your fingers need to learn as well. Most of the time notes are part of a scale or part of a chord which is why you need to look at groups. The way you set up your hand will result in how the fingers come down on the fingerboard. It is very rare when we just play individual fingers. I would suggest that you play without vibrato when first learning a piece because vibrato can hide faulty intonation. It's interesting that when Heifetz was asked about his perfection of playing he answered "It's not that I play more perfect than other violinists I just fix it faster." Who knows he may have been only joking or maybe he was telling the truth.
January 21, 2019, 3:24 PM · "The first G# should be in tune wth the piano." Yeah I didn't consider that because I haven't looked at the score yet. The not-so-subtle reminder to do so is warmly appreciated. :)
January 23, 2019, 9:40 AM · Trevor - wow, I just downloaded and printed the Chorales from IMSLP, these look fantastic! And they are short enough that I won't get lost (time-wise) in this type of tuning practice, and possibly headache-free.

This thread has inspired me to pay ever more careful attention to my intonation inconsistencies and I hope that in the few days that I've been working on it more carefully my intonation has improved. My violin certainly seems much more resonant and happy! (And the bonus is that I am more confident that my fingers know where to go from the get-go, vs making quick adjustments.)

I think time spent with the violin must improve accuracy, I've been practicing 2+ hours a day for the past four weeks and I swear I've made more progress in these handful of weeks than I did in October or November with "efficient" practice... My practice videos are certainly much less "cringe-y" than they used to be. Still not anywhere near where I want to be, but an improvement.

Paul - hmmm... I've asked my teachers about improving my intonation more and they gave me an answer similar to your daughter's teacher's.

January 24, 2019, 9:31 AM · I did a well-controlled experiment (changed nothing else) recently that suggested, with an otherwise good instrument, having the string afterlength tuned to exactly two octaves and a fifth up from the strings' fundamentals for G,D and A makes a quite radical difference in my ability to hear subtle differences in intonation.

While I strongly advise against anyone who is not a luthier trying to adjust afterlength themselves, anyone who has trouble hearing fine gradations of intonation (especially if they can hear it better with other instruments) might consider checking their afterlength tuning (by plucking the note). On my main instrument, it was originally about a minor third below the target two octaves and fifth. My backup instrument came with a tuned afterlength and was always more sensitive to intonation.

After it was tweaked, I can suddenly hear fine gradations of intonation much more clearly on the instrument (seemingly even on notes other than the afterlength fundamentals). The only difference between my last two videos on the caprice 16 thread was the afterlength tuning (almost no additional practice) and to my ear it sounds like a marked improvement - though still far from perfect. That Caprice is murder for me on intonation, definitely no silver bullet. But an interesting result nonetheless.

January 24, 2019, 5:55 PM · How do you tune the afterlength of one string without affecting the others?
January 24, 2019, 6:47 PM · Paul, you don't, of course! :-) The reason I listed the bottom 3 strings is that my E string is on a fine tuner, and in this case it has a ball end string I couldn't get the ball out of, so it is hung on a little metal bracket, shortening the E string afterlength even more, so its afterlength is a good half a cm or more shorter than the other 3.

I'm tempted at some point to take out the tuner and see if the fourth string makes any more difference - but in this weather, the fine tuner is definitely helpful.

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