How has intonation gotten better over time?

April 5, 2019, 6:34 PM · In general, with some notable exceptions, I find that violin intonation in recordings has gotten significantly better over time, such that some previously-regarded performances by classic, acclaimed performers would, I think, not meet the current expectations for professional performers, let alone the most acclaimed.

In the early days some of the blame on intonation could be placed on the recording equipment of the time - if the recording or playback equipment had unstable speed, then the pitch would be unstable. But I think we can go forward from the very early days and still find that intonation has improved since.

I suppose having recordings to scrutinize has facilitated a greater awareness and undesirable persistence of intonation errors. And electronic devices to check pitch, some very sophisticated ones which might be used professionally, and more pitch-stable companion instruments (including electronic ones), would also have facilitated greater accuracy.

So would it be fair to conclude that technology has largely facilitated the apparently higher levels of achievement and expectation in pitch accuracy over time?

Replies (44)

April 5, 2019, 6:47 PM · I think the skill ceiling has risen overall.
Edited: April 5, 2019, 6:54 PM · I agree with cotton above. The amount of people in the world has multiplied, and with it the amount of violinists and, as a result, the level of competition and standards have gone up. As in most sports, records steadily keep getting broken and humans keep getting better as the field of stellar competitors gets bigger and more specialized, as people start younger and focus their lives around their profession. Just my 2 cents :)
April 5, 2019, 6:59 PM · Actually I think the number of professional violin players is going down over time, not up, the music is becoming less and less popular.
April 5, 2019, 7:09 PM · Nobody said anything about the number of professional violinists, Lyndon, or the popularity of the music.
April 5, 2019, 7:23 PM · Auer said that Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto was unplayable. Now, it is used regularly to audition into conservatory. So to me, it seems likely abilities have increased. If this is the case, intonation would also improve.
April 5, 2019, 7:40 PM · Editing has also gotten better. Listen to Kreisler. His takes had to be recorded non-stop. Each take was a significant investment. Listen to Perlman. His takes could be edited. Each take was less of an investment. Listen to Perlman's live performances and you'll notice things are (sometimes) a bit different.
I suspect that technique v interpretation's changed over time, cult of personality plays a smaller role with greater access to a wider range of performers (instead of those with good managers), but still, technology also has a role.
That, and in keeping with Jayne, skill level's likely increased. Possibly because the field's gotten smaller, possibly because students are expected to be perfect *before* they get to top-notch competitions. However, contra Jayne, the standard in the 1800s was often the orchestra player. And few praised their command of technique.
April 5, 2019, 8:17 PM · Life of old people were so much easier. Same in my workplace.
April 5, 2019, 8:30 PM · I suspect Horace is just kidding but he might actually be right. Standards have gone up in just about every professional livelihood. At the same time, in most arenas the tools have improved too. Okay so maybe violins and bows are the same -- but as others have suggested editing techniques are better for recordings. Still, when I have heard top violinists live (Gil Shaham, Josh Bell, Perlman) they sounded pretty darned good to me.
April 5, 2019, 9:23 PM · The number of professional violinists has gone up. There may be fewer professional orchestras in Europe now, but few American cities had a professional orchestra before 1900 (many mid-sized cities' orchestras were amateur as recently as the 1960s), and there were none in Asia before the 1920s. New frontiers are still being opened. The entire Arabian Peninsula did not even have an amateur orchestra until the 1980s, and still only has two professional orchestras with the first being founded in 1989. India got its first professional orchestra in the 2000s.

That said, the number of people competing for orchestral positions has increased far faster than the number of seats available.

April 5, 2019, 11:26 PM · It's not just intonation, it's technique overall. Technical standards for recording musicians are so much higher than 20-30 years ago.

As for technology, it's had a huge impact. You can definitely learn some things about intonation with a digital tuner. But it's also just having 40 or 50 recordings the Bach S&P available on Spotify. All the performance videos and instructional videos on YouTube. Most of the canon downloadable from IMSLP. And sites like this one.

April 6, 2019, 12:15 AM · Intonation has not improved for the top solists (just listen to Prihoda, Heifetz, Kreisler, Ysaye etc)

And please stop repeating the misunderstanding that Auer thought that the Tchaikovsky concerto was unplayable from a technical standpoint, since that is false. His edits are a lot harder than the original passages.
He thought it was unplayable from a musical standpoints, especially concerning all the repeats.

The average standard of playing for violinists has gone up, but it is very doubtful in the top tier.

April 6, 2019, 12:18 AM · Shoulder rests.
April 6, 2019, 12:41 AM · Matthias Eklund is right. Auer thought the Tschaikovsky concerto "unviolinistic" and unplayable not in technical but in musical terms. He performed it many times (his cuts and changes donto the score don't make it any easier) and regularly assigned it to his pupils. There is no evidence whatsoever that Auer should have been incapable of pulling it off, on the contrary.
Edited: April 6, 2019, 1:12 AM · The equipment has changed in some ways.

Modern violinists and violists have many more shoulder rest and chinrest options than before. Even though many top players still play without a shoulder rest, there is really no question that shoulder rests have at least enabled many young players to develop left hand agility much more quickly. Shoulder rests have also expanded the pool of potential violinists and violists by allowing people with a wider range of body types to play. The wider range of chinrest options has similarly both freed up the left hand and enabled more people to play at a high level.

Strings might matter too. Modern strings, whether synthetic, steel, or gut, are more stable and produced to much finer tolerances than the strings of the past.

Finally, violins smaller than 1/2 size did not become widespread until the mid-20th century; smaller fractional violins have enabled children to start learning at younger ages than before.

April 6, 2019, 2:27 AM · My intonation has just got (sic) worse. But then so has my high jump
April 6, 2019, 3:01 AM · The technical level has definitely gone up for tutti players.
The other thing, maybe, is that there is a constant influx of young players, both orchestra musicians (most top orchestras are much younger (and female) than used to be) and soloists.
We don't listen as much to eighty-year old violinist heroes as we used to do, and intonation goes out the window first with age. Listen to Szigeti's Mozart sonatas recordings for an example.
April 6, 2019, 5:56 AM · "Intonation has not improved for the top solists (just listen to Prihoda, Heifetz, Kreisler, Ysaye etc)"

I mentioned exceptions in my first sentence in this thread, so it is not necessary, as it is not pleasant, to denigrate individual performers. So I won't get into specifics in that regard, but I dispute the above assertion - I was listening to a recording of one of those revered violinists when the thought arose to ask this question. In general, I believe that the intonation expectations for 'top' soloists has also increased over time, and there are exceptions to this as well in the other direction - not all modern 'top' soloists have been able to achieve and maintain superior intonation.

April 6, 2019, 7:06 AM · J Ray - just because you found one recording, probably live or atleast unspliced, perhaps even of a soloist past his peak, you can't say that the overall standard has increased in the top segment.
April 6, 2019, 7:22 AM · Mattias, with respect, I think you're not getting me, and that we might be hearing things differently. I do say that the overall standard has improved in the top segment, in general, and there are numerous recorded examples of this, not just one or another instance of that. In the counter-example I have in mind for supposed perfection of historic recordings, I'm not just referring to one or two notes here or there, but substantive departures to the point where I think that I don't really enjoy listening to it because I hear intonation issues.

We could be listening to different performances and recording of the same artists. Perhaps in some other performances copious wide vibrato would be enough to say that there are no apparent intonation issues. Perhaps you don't mind what intonation issues there are, and I am overly critical, or wrong. That's 'fine' as such - we can disagree for subjective reasons.

April 6, 2019, 7:24 AM · @Herman West "The technical level has definitely gone up for tutti players."

From my personal experience I agree with that. In my local symphony orchestras we are coping well with, for example, Dvorak 6 and Bruckner 4, and last night in my chamber orchestra concert the Suk Serenade for strings (which has its own "interesting" moments!). These are works which in my younger days would not have been in the local repertoires. I think this is because of an influx of retired and part-time pros, and other non-pros who have gone to Associate level in one of the London colleges of music. This has a knock-on effect across the board. For instance, one of my orchestras has 4 players who can, and do, play concertos with it and other orchestras. Speaking for myself, I am now playing the violin better in all areas at the age of 81 than when I moved from the cello to violin 20 years ago, which I put down to an effective teacher, playing in orchestras alongside the ex-pros, and the knowledge and wisdom I've gleaned from V.com.

We mustn't forget the conductors. In my area the major ensembles all have professionally trained conductors, most of them instrumentalists at a professional level in their own right.

April 6, 2019, 7:30 AM · The other factor is pedagogy. What improvements in pedagogy have done is to improve the "bench depth" of violin players worldwide. Good pedagogy keeps kids motivated.

As far as digital tuners helping folks with their intonation, my impression is that only adult beginners use them. With tiny children you might see fingerboard tapes. Leopold Auer didn't recommend vinyl electrical tape for his students because vinyl tape hadn't been invented yet.

Edited: April 6, 2019, 8:11 AM · "As far as digital tuners helping folks with their intonation, my impression is that only adult beginners use them"

I would agree with such an impression as a generalization - that adult beginners tend to rely on them, sometimes much more than they should. However, I do not believe that they are not used professionally, at least at times in specific contexts, though not in a manner an amateur and especially beginner might use one. I recall someone on this board mentioning their usage in a professional context. But I leave that for the professionals to comment on if they wish, and I would expect that there be varying degrees of reluctance to use such devices, and probably the high expectation that the devices not be relied upon in most cases, as they cannot be used, but would be surprised if they would be entirely disregarded and not used for accurate determination in some cases.

Edit: That said, we're all beginners once, and a good part of intonation is knowing the target pitch, and it's easy to become accustomed to the wrong pitch and take it to be right, which can also happen as one listens to incorrect recordings. So if a device which was previously unavailable can be used at times to help learn what the correct pitch is, either directly or indirectly by tuning a device which is then used as a pitch reference, has it not helped?

Edited: April 6, 2019, 8:20 AM · It is definitely true that there are old recordings with less than perfect intonation around, even from top players. There is (or was) for example a recording of a Haydn quartet with the Budapest quartet on youtube which is in fact pretty bad as far as intonation goes (and I am not supercritical about intonation). You won't find any modern recordings like that.

It is of course no coincidence that it is Haydn's music that suffers from this. The Budapest's Beethoven has no such weakness (at least none that strikes me) and IMO can still be seen as standard setting. The habit of disrespecting Haydn survives to this day, only nowadays quartets disrespect him in perfect intonation.

As to the reason for the improved technical ability I'd say progress in teaching methods has to be credited most. But there is also the fact that the world's population increases and the population with access to classical music increases even faster than that. So there is a much larger reservoir of talent leading to more and more competition, forcing students to up their technique far beyond what e.g a serious orchestra musician or even a quartet player really needs.

April 6, 2019, 9:15 AM · I'd comment on Haydn being overused by quartets as warm-up pieces, but that might be disrespectful. It is great however that quartet intonation has improved, as that genre can be more accessible and fluid than say symphonies or concertos, and can be more appreciated as intonation issues are lessened.

Greater quantities of players and resultant competition doesn't strike me as a significant factor in itself, as the differences seem to be qualitative and not quantitative. Violin playing is still far from common, and there are many more things to captivate us these days. It's an extraordinary leap to choose to subject ourselves to violin learning; perhaps the rising standard and accomplishments of those in the past both inspiring us and informing our notions of good playing and music including correct intonation have helped progress our aspirations and the accomplishments of some.

April 6, 2019, 1:34 PM · Trevor mentioned the level of amateur and semi-pro orchestras going up, and I can agree with that. Two orchestras canceled planned performances of Schubert's 9th Symphony during his lifetime because they found it too difficult in rehearsals. Even after Mendelssohn's Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra performed it in 1839, other orchestras continued to struggle enough with it to cancel performances after attempting to rehearse it. The high-level community orchestra I play in -- pro first-desk string players and principal wind/brass players, but otherwise amateurs -- performed it comfortably on five rehearsals. That's possible because there are so many amateurs out there with excellent musical training. I am the only regular member of that orchestra's viola section who does not have at least a bachelor's degree in music, and I would guess the other sections are of similar composition.
April 6, 2019, 7:39 PM · While is true the general playing level is very high, I think too much is made of this. People have always liked to play and listen to music in tune. Heifetz alone didn't bring with him the idea of technical perfection. More people than ever play at a "high level", but "high level" has always been "high level".

I have seen many modern top level recitals, and rarely are there performances with machine-like perfection. Very few are "perfect". Accidents happen live. Strings whistle, shifts end up being slightly high. These performers can mostly hide these "errors" live, which matter little regardless, as the important thing is the musical message amd total experience, not if there was too much pressure here or there, if an harmonic did not come through clearly, etc.

All I mean to say is that today's level is high, but that I doubt older high level playing has ever an intentionally sloppy affair. I cannot imagine Paganini "happily" playing out of tune. Bad playing has always been deemed bad.

In short, I give more credit to these older players that some do, especially as aforementioned, edits were much more scarce. Often, the only mistakes in modern recordings are those of the sound editor (I have witnessed horrible editing, where short passages out of tune make it to the final pressing, or where sometimes they skip measure beats!!!) But even if most modern recordings are technically "perfect", don't think that means the old masters were less technically able-at least not necessarily.

For instance, I find it ridiculous to listen to an old Joachim/Auer/Sarasate/et. al. recording and think the playing level of that era must have been "low". IMHO, we really have no evidence that playing was always worse yesterday than it is today-and I am not even going into musicianship/artistic choices issues.

No argument intended.

Edited: April 7, 2019, 2:40 AM · "All I mean to say is that today's level is high, but that I doubt older high level playing has ever an intentionally sloppy affair. I cannot imagine Paganini "happily" playing out of tune. Bad playing has always been deemed bad."

Just listen to Szigeti playing the Mozart sonatas with Horszowski and Szell. That was deemed acceptable for release.

April 7, 2019, 7:05 AM · You really mean this, Mr. West? What's the problem with these recordings? Does the vibrato or the style bother you?

This is not a "good example" of "not up to snuff" playing vs modern. I mentioned the old Sarasate etc. recordings as these are often used as "evidence" of how "bad" violin playing was-the Szigeti is worlds apart in comparison.

All of these artists sounded even better in person. We are all too influenced by modern recordings. If I heard this "bad" Szigeti Mozart Sonata I have on the background on a recital today, it would be fine.

I love ***many*** modern performers, but "our" modern fixation on "modern is always the best" is a bit out of proportion, IMO.

I can find things that I do not prefer, but do not see problems with Szigeti in at least Mozart K304. Imagine how better it would have sounded with modern recording technology, and you being there in that recording room.

Ironically, often many modern soloists have a great deal more respect and appreciation for these masters than the modern audiences who prefer their "better" and more "modern" performances.

April 7, 2019, 7:21 AM · One point not yet mentioned here is recording. Spohr never heard himself play on a recording. Nowadays every player has easy access to equipment to record themselves. Recording has produced pressure on people to work harder on intonation in two ways I believe.

Firstly if you listen to a (commercial) recording repeatedly you will notice inaccuracies that you would fail to hear live (or else they would not bother you in a concert). Since everybody listens to recordings and people want to sell recordings there is added pressure.

Secondly everybody knows how shocking it can be to listen to oneself on a recording. This shock also translates into hard work in ambitious people.

It is also interesting to remember what Quantz (in his book about how to play the flute) had to say about intonation: Precise intonation was important so people could understand the harmony (meaning to recognize harmonic patterns, not to be able to analyze them). Now you can be pretty far off in your intonation and the harmony is still perfectly understandable, especially if it is as simple as Quantz usually wrote it. Quantz (I know, a long time ago, but still) did not advocate for anything like the standards of our time.

Edited: April 7, 2019, 8:57 AM · Szigeti's Mozart recordings were done in 1955. (Ref: http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=24356&album_group=14)

And in the 50's, he developed arthritis, and officially stopped performing in 1960. (Ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Szigeti)

So we should not consider the Mozart recordings to be representative of his best performances. This article has more on him and the following remark: https://www.nytimes.com/1972/10/29/archives/digging-deep-into-the-recorded-art-of-joseph-szigeti-szigeti-at-the.html

"It must be remembered that Kreisler, like McCormack, Elman and Paderewski, were the great popular entertainers of their day. They achieved that popularity by adopting a cozy familiarity with their listeners that may be impossible for any concert artist today. Kreisler dared to be sweet and full of sentiment in his music because he had enough confidence in his taste to stop short of saccharinity and sentimentality; few young musicians know where that line lies nowadays, and so they avoid going anywhere near it, to the injury of the music when it is something as ephemeral as These morsels. As Zukerman plays them, they all sound pretty, and pretty much the same."

We go to concerts for the social atmosphere, live presence and the changes that has on us, our attitude, our awareness and concentration among other reasons, and we would tend to overlook flaws and try to enjoy it, and hopefully succeed. But these are subjective elements, fine in themselves as music and much else are to be enjoyed subjectively, but still don't change facts in themselves such as the degree to which some parts were out of tune. Recordings now make it possible to check and re-check, and even quantify.

" If I heard this "bad" Szigeti Mozart Sonata I have on the background on a recital today, it would be fine."

That's remarkable and interesting. To me, it's not fine. But I'm not writing that as an authority on what's good for you or anyone else, but for myself. And we have different opinions here on the same performance. The following study, though limited and not really conclusive in my mind has a remarkable claim along that line: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.626.9059&rep=rep1&type=pdf

It studied a passage performed by some advanced/advancing students, measured the intonation, and compared the subjective valuation of intonation from its listeners. It used six listeners - two professional violinists, two keyboard players, and two "non-musicians". It observed:

"The results show that the widest deviation performance (up
to +49 cents from ET on the 7th grade) is preferred by violinists and non musicians. The others musicians consider it remarkably out of tune and put the nearly ET performance at first place, possibly caused by their music instruction (piano and accordion) based in the Equal Temperament."

So I think that the subjective element plays a much larger part than I had initially thought. That it is a matter of taste - it sounds good to someone else, or sounded good at the time relative to the tastes of the time, but doesn't here and now to me.

Edited: April 7, 2019, 10:30 AM · When I was a young violinist and music lover, I greatly misunderstood old recordings, and also had the bad habit to find technical problems in everything (live performances included), even if I was nice about it (I was never hyper critical or insulting of the performers despite my observation of their "errors"). As I grew both musically and more importantly, as a person, I soon realized the folly of trying to listen to music as a race towards perfection. Though it is also ill-advised-in my view-to use "musicality" as an excuse for poor technical command, I nevertheless prefer the less than 100% "perfect" performances that convey the better musical message.

I can still "detect" everything, but I use that "skill" to help myself be better every day, rather than to be critical of violin masters of both past and present. As I said before, rarely there are any live "perfect" performances, be it Vengerov, Hahn, Zukerman, etc. But that's clearly not the most important part of attending an evening recital, in my strong opinion, it also being a waste of time and mental effort.

April 7, 2019, 12:43 PM · my point in referring to the 1955 Szigeti recording is not to say Szigeti had lousy intonation.
I have no doubt that this was not a problem earlier in his career.
my point was that these recordings were released just the same. So apparently there was more tolerance back then for iffy intonation.
April 7, 2019, 1:17 PM · There are a few modern (and good) recordings that feature "iffy" intonation if absolute perfection is required. Won't mention samples so as not to tarnish the artists' image-especially since the "faults" are no problem, and do not affect the performance.

I agree that the general violin playing level of today is very, very high. Just disagree that the level of the old masters was necessarily low, just because the general fluency of many violinist of their day wasn't as high as it is today.

Many people think Milstein's second recording of the Solo Bach works is worse, because of intonation "problems." I believe people should care less about those silly details, and focus on the music. It's not really out of tune.

Enjoy music, as it's quite a privilege to listen to different sort of interpretations and playing styles.

(In no way am I making excuses for sloppy playing, however.)

Edited: April 7, 2019, 2:16 PM · Ah, the endless, and usually fruitless pursuit of absolute perfection. Tomita produced absolutely perfect renditions of Bach on a computer - interesting the first time, absolutely boring each time after that.

We humans aren't perfect, never will be, and while we may pursue perfection we will never achieve it because the goal posts keep moving.

Is "A" always 440 Hz? Or is it now 442, or 445, or, some other number assumed by a conductor/composer/artist. "A" isn't what it used to was, and it never will be in the future.

To be sure "Classical" music isn't as financially viable as it was but there are markets making money by playing orchestral music as well a music on "traditional" instruments that are playing to sold-out houses.

While intonation will always have pride of place, what is, and isn't "in tune" will change and our focus on technical perfection will pale in comparison to the music that speaks to the heart of the listener as well as the performer. Music, like humans from whence it grows, will never be perfection, it will only strive.

April 7, 2019, 5:56 PM · I feel compelled to note that the lack of any "Krakovich plays Paganini" commercial recording is not a sign of excessive focus on technical perfection.
Edited: April 7, 2019, 6:42 PM · This question is like asking 'how have women become more beautiful over time?' Can you really prove they have?

One thing I think we can all agree on is that technology has improved in the last century so you can sound much better on record, or appear more aesthetically pleasing to the eye in a photo after some creative editing.

There are many great examples of people that played in tune 50-100 years ago like Jascha Heifetz, Henryk Szeryng, Jan Kubelik, William Primrose (in his prime), and Emanuel Feurmann.

1 other thing, being able to play in tune has nothing to do with using the right shoulder rest or chinrest. The secret to playing in tune is listening and putting the finger in the right place.

April 7, 2019, 6:50 PM · The more I learn about intonation, the less I know what it means. Good intonation is not absolute it seems, and is very much relative to the key and context apparently. So what is good intonation?
April 7, 2019, 8:48 PM · "This question is like asking 'how have women become more beautiful over time?' Can you really prove they have?"

I like this question. Yes, my love has gotten more beautiful over time, and is more beautiful than ever. Unfortunately, it's not a person, and has something to do with intonation :)

April 7, 2019, 11:40 PM · I still havn't seen any argument that shows that intonation has improved in the top tier.
April 8, 2019, 9:22 AM · @Mattias. I suggest that in the top tier of violinists the effective physiological limit to playing in tune has long been reached. A bit like athletic, swimming and track cycling records today, a fair indication being that to identify the winner of an event it is now often necessary to time electronically down to 0.01 second, or less - the unaided eye and reflexes of the track-side official with a stopwatch are no longer sufficient.
April 8, 2019, 10:27 PM · "I still havn't seen any argument that shows that intonation has improved in the top tier."

That depends on a couple of factors at least: (1) How you define 'top tier' specifically. (2) What you consider evidence. There's evidence in this thread that the latter is evaluated subjectively to a significant degree. Of course we might measure it, but if you can't hear it in some of the performances perhaps posited as 'top tier', then we probably need not bother and could chalk it up to subjectivity.

To be honest, I don't know if I've ever heard a recording of Heifetz which seemed out of tune to me, and I'm not sure if I care to find one, and my argument was more on the general prevalence of now-historic recordings which have seemed out of tune to me, which of course happen to include mostly celebrated soloist, who I would have considered by default to be members of the 'top tier'.

April 8, 2019, 10:31 PM · Maybe you're judging intonation by an Equal Temperament standard
April 8, 2019, 10:35 PM · I probably am, but I'd like to mention that I'd have my electronic piano on Kirnberger temperament when playing Baroque because ET sounded wrong at times. How do you tune your harpsichords Lyndon?
Edited: April 9, 2019, 12:44 AM · Clavichords, Kirnberger III. C-G, G-D, D-A, A-E tuned 6?? cents flat, all other fifths perfect.

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