Intonation in scales and arpeggios

September 10, 2019, 6:58 AM · My teacher shared with me a practice tip yesterday for working on intonation in scales: set a drone not of the tonic but of the supertonic (the 2nd of the scale, e.g., D in C major). I found this really helpful!

It made me wonder what other tips or tricks there might be out there for working on intonation in scales and arpeggios. If you have any, would you share?


Replies (21)

September 10, 2019, 7:01 AM · I sing my scales in solfage for 5-10 minutes to get the sound of the scale in my ear. I start singing the scale while playing on my instrument today which seemed to work also
September 10, 2019, 8:22 AM · curious what the rationale behind the drone was?
September 10, 2019, 8:40 AM · As well as this excellent practical advice, may I insist on attentive listening to top violinists: we must "nourish" our aural memory by hearing good intonation more than we hear our own efforts!

Supertonic drone? Come to think of it, the supertonic harmonizes with all notes except the tonic...

September 10, 2019, 9:24 AM · I have a chromatic tuner that I place on my music stand along side my Carl Flesh scale book when I do my scales and arpeggios. Sometimes, i will play my scales on my piano before I play it on my violin. But most of the time, I use my chromatic tuner.
September 10, 2019, 9:34 AM · "Supertonic drone? Come to think of it, the supertonic harmonizes with all notes except the tonic..."

No one pitch harmonizes with all notes. That is, if by "harmonize" you mean "is consonant with."

I've often recommended students use a drone, using one on tonic then one on dominant.
Listening to intonation on open-string keys is one thing, but when playing in keys with many flats or sharps,
I feel it helps them listen more closely to what they're doing.

Practicing with a drone isn't necessarily for "fine-tuning" intonation. You have to listen to timbral cues for that. What it does is get the student in the ballpark if they're "out in the parking lot," so to speak. When students first encounter keys like A flat or G flat, they tend to get disoriented, and start to drift back to the natural key. After all, they've usually been flat on the open-string keys, and their training has reinforced the principle of looking for the "open" resonance. This is what they revert to when playing flat keys.

The drone isn't for perfection. It's more like a fence: It keeps them in the right general area. I suggest teachers try it during a lesson if the scale is a disaster. First have the student play the scale with the drone, then without. The second time should be much improved. Of course, part of intonation training is learning to stop and check notes, something few students do enough of.

September 11, 2019, 1:02 AM · Irene, she didn’t say specifically why...but I find the overtones I hear are more helpful than when I use the tonic. There must be a better explanation for this, but I haven’t quite figured it out...
Edited: September 11, 2019, 10:40 AM · Tuning to a drone or open string is an intermediate step in the long learning process to improve intonation. It will give you correct just intonation of the thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths intervals relative to that drone note. Those pitches will need to be adjusted very slightly when we change to another key or chord. That is one reason why the Bach unaccompanied S & P set is so difficult. At the beginner's level I find that most intonation problems are caused by not making a clear distinction between whole steps and half-steps. The remedy should be simple; play wide whole steps and tight half steps. The fingers touch on half-steps, for whole steps there is enough room for another finger.
September 11, 2019, 10:44 AM · Ok, but how would you work on intonation in scales and arpeggios as an advanced learner on this long learning process?
September 11, 2019, 9:55 PM · @A.K.--and then for the advanced class for intonation, you find out that there is no single frequency # that is correct, perfect for all situations. Perfect pitch is relative to the musical context. When you are practicing alone on your solo you will naturally prefer Pythagorian tuning, also known as melodic, "expressive" or leading-tone intonation. When you are 2nd violin or viola in a quartet you blend your note to the chord with just or chordal tuning. Working with a piano, you naturally compromise with the piano's equal-tempered tuning. You also try to use equal-tempered tuning with highly chromatic or non-tonal musics, and when playing the ambiguous chords; diminished, augmented, the chromatic scale and whole-tone scale. Of course it is impossible to think about all that complexity while playing, so at some point you just trust your ear and fingers to do the right thing. It's a huge topic that frequently comes up on these forums. Why does the violin not have frets?-- So we can play in tune.
September 12, 2019, 4:09 AM · Anita - if you're looking for a comprehensive guide to developing intonation with scales, you could do worse than get hold of a copy of Simon Fischer's "Scales" book. It goes beyond most scales systems in its focus on helping you to play in tune.
September 12, 2019, 4:14 AM · I have that I think. Some helpful stuff in it
Edited: September 13, 2019, 7:11 AM · Thanks for the answers!

I have been reading more re. tuning and intonation based on context - interesting stuff. I had never encountered the thought before i came to this site, actually, which I find a bit surprising. But makes a lot of sense! and makes playing endlessly interesting, no? :)

Yeah, I guess what I was hoping to discover is practice tips that advanced players might use or think about when doing scales.

Like, for beginners or for people having trouble tuning in a big way, drones are suggested. And then there are arguments about whether or how much drones should be used.

But surely there are better or worse ways of practicing scales, even as an advanced player. Since I'm doing about 2 hours of scales and arpeggios a day right now, I thought I would see if there are any suggestions (besides repetition!) for making them better. Of course, to get better at scales and arpeggios, you must play scales and arpeggios. I'm just hoping to play them "smart" so that I get the most out of my hours. Time is precious.

September 13, 2019, 7:22 AM · On top of all the manual work I'd suggest just listening and dissecting recordings of players whose intonation you agree with. Listen to a phrase, stop and play it yourself, pay attention to each note. Find the same phrase against a different chord and compare etc etc. Lower the pitch of the recording and play in a flat key
September 13, 2019, 8:49 AM · Anita I think the main tip, which has been said often on this forum already, is to play your scales and arpeggio's supercritical, meaning that you stop immediately when a note is out of tune. Then focus on that part until you get it in tune. Then continue. Etc. Don't practice too slowly, as the fast habits have to be ingrained too. Practicing fast is only bad if you trash sloppily through your material. Practicing fast while still having high concentration and attention to detail, is, I think, essential and gives you things you will never achieve by practicing slowly. I think another tip is to continually pay attention to your tone too. At all times you must produce a clear and solid tone. That goes hand in hand with intonation. If you do two hours per day you can become a very good violinist I think. You use the Flesch scale system? That one has the most variation so enough material to be busy for two hours even in a single key. The Max Rostal edition of the Flesch scale system book also has an interesting introduction that gives many helpful suggestions on how to go about practicing scales systematically.
September 13, 2019, 9:53 AM · I don't do a supertonic with my scales. Gin and tonic works better.
September 13, 2019, 3:51 PM · Thanks for these additional tips! J I, it has never occurred to me to listen so specifically. Seems like it would be helpful. Important question: how does one lower the pitch of a recording??

Jean, yes! I am newly discovering the importance of practicing fast. I am also trying to pay attention to my tone - this as I am figuring out bit by bit how to use my bow. I am hoping the ability to focus on tone will come more and more. Just today, I was realizing that I am not so comfortable with string crossings...I lose a depth of contact... Yes, I am using Flesch, but to be honest, I have never really read the introduction or understood what makes his system different than other systems. I need to do that! Good reminder.

Paul, ahahaha. I like your style. I am sure a gin and tonic with scales this would make my intonation *seem* much better. :) :)

September 13, 2019, 10:16 PM · Anita, you can download Audacity and do it. Or use Garageband, put an effect(pitch adjuster) on the track which has the audio file.

September 14, 2019, 4:14 AM · @Paul Deck Good idea! I might try that. However, It very much depends on what level player you are: for beginners: definitely playing with an accompaniment (ask your teacher to accompany the scale) will help. For intermediate players: sing along in yoiur head and test frequently with open struings or double stops. Advanced players: test fingers with as many different double stops as you can find. You will discover that intonation depends very much which note you tune to: try playing B, first finger on A together with the open E string (perfect fourth). Now play that same B together with the open D string (Major 6th). How did you change the B to be in tune?
September 14, 2019, 1:57 PM · Very helpful, thank you!

I’m wondering if there are any thoughts about this observation: when I listen to professional players, there seems to be a core to their intonation that is very stable, whole, round. When I listen to recordings of amateurs (myself included here), this core is most often missing, even when the intonation can hardly be faulted. But something isn’t quite there.

Thoughts on this? What makes the difference in being able to access this very core of a tone?

September 14, 2019, 6:40 PM · Hi Anita,
That is due to the pro-level intonation being (hopefully) centred. When the relationship between the pitches is always correct, we start to get a sense of a key, as opposed to individual notes.
One thing that is key to developing this is understanding the difference between vertical intonation (what you hear when you play your scale against a drone, for example) and horizontal, melodic intonation. Although the difference is minute, it is enough that it makes something sound out of tune. When you're practicing melodic intonation, you can only vertically compare notes that form a perfect interval with your reference tone. Make sure to take a look at Kurt Sassmanhaus' videos on intonation. Those were a game-changer for me.
Edited: September 14, 2019, 8:23 PM · I like to sing WHILE I play the violin. Like, I'll sing one of the notes of the arpeggio and play over it. Like my own drone.

Plus, it's great fun to play a trio like this---two lines on the violin and one with your voice. Although anyone living with you might just try to check you in to the looney bin.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha YVN Model 3
Yamaha YVN Model 3

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases


Violin Pedagogy Symposium
Violin Pedagogy Symposium

Masterclass Al-Andalus
Masterclass Al-Andalus

Aria International Summer Academy

Meadowmount School of Music

Bobelock Cases


Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine