Playing in Tune 100%

February 28, 2020, 11:18 AM · I know this is a strange question.
I play mostly in tune, with a few cents off every few notes.
Should I aim for playing 100% dead on in tune using a tuner when practising? Do professionals play 100% in tune all the time?
What I mean is, if I open a tuner while a solo violinist is playing, would it show green all the time?

Replies (35)

February 28, 2020, 11:24 AM · I don't think it would. My teacher says that people forgive slightly poor intonation if everything else is solid (rhythm etc.). I would focus on making a nice sound and making sure everything is rhythmically accurate
February 28, 2020, 11:37 AM · If someone were to play mathematically absolutely in tune - assuming that this is indeed possible in reality - the listener could be forgiven for thinking they were hearing a computer-generated performance.
Edited: February 28, 2020, 12:06 PM · In addition, notes are shaded according to whether they are leading notes, tonics, ascending, descending, etc.
February 28, 2020, 1:24 PM · Better to play in the key that piece was written in (assuming it's tonal). So if you're playing in the key of c minor, it sounds like c minor and not c minorish because your e flat is too sharp.

Amateurs and professionals due not play in tune 100 percent of the time (like a keyboard synthesizer). I think variation in pitch creates a tension in the sound that is desirable (the model being the human voice). But you should tune your instrument as accurately as possible to some reference point. That's very important.

Edited: February 28, 2020, 1:39 PM · If you play 100% in synch with an electronic tuner calibrated to equal temperment, you will be good enough most of the time, but sometimes be 10 cents away from ideal. Amazing intonation involves knowing which way to bend 1/2 steps, major and minor thirds and sixths. It all depends on the musical context. Trust your ear instead of the machine. Major league soloists can sound perfect on recordings, but are occasionally less wonderful in live performance. Our margin of error is reported to be 5 cents on melodic lines, smaller on double stops. Vibrato is our ally for this, it is wider than those small errors. Avoid what is sometimes called leading-tone intonation; always tight 1/2 steps, small minor third, long major thirds, etc. It can deceive you. Leading-tone is a harmony/theory concept, not an intonation principle.
February 28, 2020, 1:55 PM · If your intonation is bad, you're not fooling anyone. Sure, we can talk for days about how most people don't have the ear for it, or that it's too vague for anyone to be able to tell, but... Bad intonation wears on people even if they don't know why. Practise!
February 28, 2020, 2:11 PM · It really depends because tuning and equal temperment are relative. To be sure, as a goal hitting all the notes "Bang-On" is the goal, but the reality is that playing should be as close as you can manage but absolute perfection is both un-achievable and boring.

Many Decades ago a Japanese computer geek named Tomita recorded a computer playing Bach. Pitch and time were absolutely perfect - it was novel, interesting and downright boring by the second listening. He also tried creating an orchestra with all of the instruments all in perfect tune and time. It was a total bust. The reality of an ensemble is that those slight variations in pitch are what create that ensemble/orchestral sound that has depth and resonance.

Lastly, if you are playing with others, you have to adjust your pitch to each other even if one player is off - if everyone else is in tune relative to each other it will sound ok. Of course, the folks with "perfect pitch" will disagree.

What Tomita proved is that music is more art than science and it is a human expression (Mr. Data's violin playing notwithstanding.)

February 28, 2020, 2:34 PM · Being dead-on with the tuner 100% of the time is a bad thing. Unless you're playing highly chromatic or atonal music, you should generally not play in equal temperament.
February 28, 2020, 3:09 PM · How about letting your teacher determine if you are out of tune? As above, DON'T let a tuner do it. For example, if you play in a quartet you have to shade your tuning to harmonize with the other instruments. The issue is not whether it is in tune physically (that is by scientific standards) but aurally, that is simply whether it sounds good or not.
February 28, 2020, 3:09 PM · There are a few very good videos on the difference between Pythagorean and Just intonation at (Kurt Sassmannshaus's web site).
February 28, 2020, 6:46 PM · I don't know that for most players, intonation systems are a good way to understand intonation. The best way is, as Elise said, listen to your teacher's advice.

Recording yourself, and listening for sour notes is a good way too.

February 28, 2020, 6:46 PM · I aim to play in tune 110% of the time. That way if I miss a few notes, it's still ok.
February 29, 2020, 2:10 AM · Near-perfect tuning and accurate rhythm are important of course, but music is about so much more than that and should never sound "careful". Quite a few accurate players of my acquaintance seem to have lost all their pizazz, if indeed they ever had any. In general, audiences are far more tolerant of imperfect intonation than players or teachers
Edited: February 29, 2020, 4:02 AM · In disagreement with Steve.

There's a realty saying: "location, location, location."
My violin credo and paraphrase is "intonation, intonation, intonation." The problem is, intonation is subjective.

When I was most intensively learning the oboe in 1980, my teacher said, "don't let the oboe intonate for you. If you do, every note can be a few cents off and the audience won't notice, but they'll feel fatigue listening to you. Intonate every note you play on the oboe." You use a combination of lip pressure and diaphragm pressure to control loudness and intonation at the same time. Normal playing, diminuendo, crescendo, vibrato (initially when practising it slowly - when fast you can't help the pitch varying with air pressure, but that's what vibrato should be).

If it's that important on a wind instrument, it's 1000 times more important on the violin.

Edited: February 29, 2020, 10:03 AM · I'd say "expression, animation, intonation" in that order. If I go into a performance thinking "intonation", that doesn't leave enough brain bandwidth for the music. But of course while practising priorities are different, and by the time you get to the performance you hope to be able to leave intonation to the robot within.
Edited: March 2, 2020, 6:21 AM · Am I alone in such threads in insisting on hearing and listening to fine playing on a daily basis: we must "nourish" our inner ear, and fill our memory with beautiful, pure tones!
And when practicing, we should be sure to play far more notes in tune than not: slow practice 3 times for fast practice once.

Tuners & keyboards in Equal Temperament? They are a whole lot better than nothing!! But attentive listening will show us that they are only a useful starting point.

Vibrato? On a bad day it coves our (little) imprecisions; on a good day it keeps our fingers alive enough to make those tiny instantaneous corrections.

March 2, 2020, 8:33 AM · I say intonation is one of the most important things in violin playing, but at the same time, one of the most useless and less important thing in violin playing. It's like a necessary tool that you need or you can't work on anything, but at the same time it's a tool that by itself doesn't do absolutely anything. It's like a chef's hat, it's absolutely necessary to do the job correctly, but at the same time the hat is less than useless.

In my opinion, intonation must be trained just enough so it doesn't get in the way, but then it's a thousand times more important you musicality, creativity and interpretation of the piece, the how you play and sound, not if you're playing the exact frequency. No professional can play 100% in tune, I guarantee you you take any live piece of the soloist you choose, you analyze just the first 20 seconds and using a computer you can see how almost none of the notes is exactly in tune. It's impossible, besides they will be fluctuating between a range, the same note will give you 440.04 Hz during the first quarter of its duration, then it will go down to 439.8 Hz, etc... A violin does not produce "tuned" notes, it produces ranges of notes. If you pluck one string then it would be a little bit more precise, but again, plucking is also imperfect as it follows a pattern, it will go flatter as the time goes by, of course, you don't notice. I believe the oboe will give you the most steady notes.

So, to sum up. If you are good, you know when you are in tune, and that's enough. If you feel you are in tune, fantastic, stop thinking about intonation and focus on all the other thousand things. If you feel you are out of tune, fix it.
If you are not very good, and can't really tell if you are in tune in "hard" passages, then I suggest the use of a tuner, but that will be only temporary, a violinist can't rely on a tuner in order to know how to be in tune, that's a skill you must honey.

March 2, 2020, 8:54 AM · No tuner reacts fast enough to correctly capture a player on a constant basis. And no tuner can be constantly reset for the correct temperament, which requires us to adjust where the pitch is based on the harmonic content of the chord. And then we compromise in a ton of different ways, including adjusting to what we hear from the piano / other instruments (which can be contradictory).

We are never 100% mathematically in tune, but we should strive to have intonation that is good as possible. In other words, intonation that is precise enough not to bother other violinists in the audience. :-)

March 2, 2020, 11:55 AM · "...the goal is to play in tune enough where your instrument resonates..."

Why do so many not get this? It doesn't matter if you are mathematically in tune, or matching some tuner. The violin must resonate with itself, and in a pitch-specific way, to sound beautifully in tune.

Playing in tune=playing in timbre

Edited: March 3, 2020, 2:37 AM · Scott - I'm one who doesn't get it. The only extra resonance my violin produces when I'm playing in tune is from other open strings. Playing on the D string I get plenty of resonance from a correctly tuned G or A, maybe a little from E but no help at all for the other notes. I fail to see how your violin itself can in some way be "tuned" to resonate at every note you play provided your fingers are in the right place.
Edited: March 3, 2020, 2:53 AM · Intonation systems are hell on Earth. Don't go there.
The simplest way to put it is, JI only works over one octave*, like any other mode. If you don't believe that, it's probably because the ET multi-octave system has tricked you.

Resonances extend pretty far. G, B, D on the E string, B, D, G on the A string get sympathy from the G string. D, A, F# from the D string, C# from the A string, and so on.

*You work out a JI octave from two tetrachords, but they are "assymetric": add a third tetrachord and there are already some intervals in tune and some not.

Edited: March 3, 2020, 5:33 AM · I guess Scott was not talking about the actual physical term of resonance. Violins have a note that make them actually resonate, but this note doesn't have to be in tune, indeed, it's better if it's not, because that would be a problem, you would play louder the Gs or the As, that's not good. These are the wolves, and they interfere.

Playing in tune in the violin actually means playing in relative tune with others, unless you are playing solo. If you are playing solo, then you can play "mathematically", which is impossible, but in theory you could just hit every note at the exact spot. Change the key of a piece, even for a few moments, and good luck with the new spots you have to hit to perfectly be in tune. It's impossible.

However, when we don't play alone, if we want to play in tune we shouldn't play in perfect tune, we should listen to the others and play accordingly, that is, relative tuning. If you play with a piano, you actually play "out of tune" slightly so you can match the piano keys.

Edited: March 3, 2020, 5:35 AM ·
Edited: March 3, 2020, 5:38 AM · We have to construct our "system" in pure fifths & fourths, bur "indulge" in pure sixths and thirds when we can (sometimes at the expense of a fifth or two!)
March 3, 2020, 10:36 AM · "I guess Scott was not talking about the actual physical term of resonance"

Paul, that's exactly what I was talking about. Not all notes produce the same amount of resonance--every pitch varies, and varies depending on the violin. Obviously, E-flat provokes a different resonance than E. But we have to memorize what that particular dulled resonance should sound like. Some violins are better than others. Many older, fine instruments seem to snap into tonal focus, which may be why people judge them easier to play. Many inexpensive or overly bright violins don't have much timbral variation. They can be difficult to judge and disorienting. It can also be disorienting to use a different tuning because the timber can change.

Anyone who has taught knows what it sounds like when a student plays a leading tone, especially F# or C#, too low (which they often are): you don't have to hear anything else. You don't need to assess it against a tuner or any other relative pitch. It just sounds "sour." Granted, C# and F# don't produce the same resonance as D or G. But they produce a very specific timbre an it can't be too dull (low) or too high (bright).

March 3, 2020, 10:46 AM · Steve, on most strings, in most keys that don't have a ton of flats and sharps, you can find an notes that correspond to the open strings (GDAE) - These are anchors and are non-negotiable - As you check them with their corresponding open strings as double stops, or sometimes as the 4th or 5th of an open string, you build a framework for the other notes to fit in. Not only that, but when you actually play those notes, they resonate more with the open strings. Even notes like b natural on the a-string should be checked with open e.
March 3, 2020, 11:46 AM · Ah, the intonation discussion returns. I sometimes do this as a class demonstration: Tune first finger E as a double stop with open G. Leave that finger down. Next tune second finger F with the open A. Leave that finger down. Now take a look at the half-step E-F. It is extra wide (1 1/2 commas ?). If you played that half-step as part of melody it would sound out of tune. Some non-western traditional music will use that interval. A Turkish string instrument (Tar?) has two close frets for each half-step; low and high. I saw a drawing in an old French Violin technical book that showed two spots for each half-step, low and high. Our equal-tempered half-steps will be a compromise, half way between those spots. Playing in tune is a real challenge, otherwise anybody could play violin. We really encounter the problem when we tackle the double stops in the Bach S.&P. set.
March 3, 2020, 12:07 PM · Scott - I'm still sceptical that the "dulled resonance" of an in-tune Eb is reliably distinguishable from the (even more dulled?) resonance of a flat Eb. And you're saying that the resonance is brighter for a sharp Eb? So the in-tune Eb has a resonance that isn't too dull or too bright but just the right degree of dull? And then a low leading note sounds "sour". I guess this makes sense to those with a highly trained ear, but I seriously doubt that it's communicable to a relative novice, or a superannuated amateur.
March 3, 2020, 2:09 PM · Thank you all good people for your input. My teacher says I play 90% in tune and 10% borderline. I am trying to fix that 10% borderline.
March 5, 2020, 4:49 AM · I agree with both Steve and Scott.

A fingered E will set the open E vibrating.

An Eb will not excite any open strings, but will resonate in the wood in a way we have have memorised through careful, repeated practice.

Well "nourished" memory. Again.

March 5, 2020, 10:25 AM · If so, it happens without my conscious awareness and the possibility of tuning by timbre has never even occurred to me. But in future I think I'll stick to evaluating my pitch in relation to whatever else is going on in the music, rather than my timbre which is also independently affected by certain factors to do with the bow!
March 5, 2020, 4:55 PM · Steve,
Don't close off the possibility.

An interesting phenomenon: After teaching and listening for so long, I can tell when any single note a student plays is out of tune, even when it's just one note by itself, and especially high notes. No context, just timbre. I'll bet most experienced teachers can hear this. I think of it like looking through a camera with a telephoto lens: the image "snaps into focus."

March 6, 2020, 2:09 AM · Can you also tell what note it is that they're playing out of tune? To be able to tell when a single note is out of tune, free of any context, must surely be a definition of "absolute pitch" which most of us just don't have. Your "especially high notes" I find particularly incomprehensible - no way do I find they "snap into focus". Explaining this to me seems like explaining green to a deuteranope.

One final "but" - for me "pitch" and "timbre" vary independently of one another so what would I do if the one sounded right and the other not? The perceived pitch isn't just a function of the fundamental frequency, the upper partials also have an influence. A pure sine-wave tone will sound flatter than a tone rich in the higher harmonics. So if you can enrich a tone for example by increasing the bow pressure the pitch will rise.

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