Playing sharp

July 19, 2021, 7:25 PM · My tuner says I play sharp high on the E-string. When the tuner tells me I'm playing the correct pitch, however, it sounds distinctly flat to me. Is this due to inharmonicity? I am aware that stretched tuning is necessary on the piano and so I thought that violinists might need to do something similar (play sharp to sound in tune).

Replies (43)

July 19, 2021, 8:06 PM · People will get used to what they hear a lot. You have to be relentless about playing in tune so you are used to playing in tune. best way to learn to play in tune in higher positions is to play the phrase in lower position an octave lower, assuming you're in tune there, then play it in the higher position, and make sure it's the same as the lower position, just an octave higher. Playing in tune on violin has nothing to do with piano, and requires development of new skills if you're a piano player.
July 19, 2021, 8:42 PM · Your tuner is going to steer you wrong. Don't use your tuner.
Edited: July 20, 2021, 1:03 AM · Inharmonicity is one factor, especially in pianos with their short, stiff high strings.
But on any instrument, our ears only hear really in tune for two octaves either side of middle C; beyond that, higher notes sound progressively too low, and the lower notes progressively too high.
The best part is that these "distortions" vary considerably from one person to the next...
July 20, 2021, 2:37 AM · Try ear plugs. Volume sometimes affects perception of pitch.
July 20, 2021, 2:50 AM · I've heard anecdotal stories that tuners cannot be trusted. But I am curious as to the origin of this - I studied electronic engineering and I see no technical reason that tuners should be inaccurate and according to this Korg, for example, boast a precision of 0.1 cents.

I have a Korg tuner and when I check what it tells me say by playing an octave lower, it seem to be telling me the truth.

So I'd be interested to hear why tuners are believed by some to be inaccurate?

Edited: July 20, 2021, 2:59 AM · Tuners are very accurate. Except that the core quartz crystals were tuned by God, but the circuits that divide the core frequency into an Equal Temperament scale are designed by men, so I wonder if all makes of tuner actually agree with each other.

Then we violinists like to do better than Equal Temperament.

Edited: July 20, 2021, 9:25 AM · Record and play back. Which one sounds in tune? Thats the correct one.
Edited: July 20, 2021, 3:31 AM · Quartz crystals are tuned by being cut to shape and size by humans, Adrian (using human-calibrated machinery, for the pedantic). Then it's about mass production and costs.
The makers of tuners want the cheapest possible quartz crystals, so they buy whatever's cheapest off the peg.
How accurate the division etc is I can't work out. Couldn't be easier to produce a quartz watch, but tuners, I shouldn't like to guess.
There's a Wiki page of standard crystal sizes and tunings and applications. There are hundreds of them.
July 20, 2021, 6:53 AM · A couple of thoughts. Firstly many intermediate/improving violinists play slightly sharp. Playing sharp is not as 'offensive' as playing flat and sometimes it is easy to play slightly sharp for added brightness which is worth thinking about (not always a good thing)
Secondly there is a difference between harmonic intonation and melodic intonation. If you were playing a soloistic line, or perhaps by yourself, you might for example intentionally push up the leading note (say D-sharp in E major) for added brilliance. This would come out sharp on your tuner.
Third issue is the quality of the microphone of your tuner. A great tool, but of course your ears are more important.
July 20, 2021, 7:19 AM · Gordon, I spent years designing electronic items, most of which required a quartz crystal. They are ubiquitous and most are accurate to a few parts per million. I have no idea where you got the notion that tuner designers want the cheapest? Is there an online forum for tuner designers with threads called "how to save a fraction of a cent by buying cheap crystals" I missed?

I doubt very much that where accuracy is important, a designer would attempt to save literally a fraction of a cent on a crystal (and even the cheapest are VERY accurate).

Edited: July 20, 2021, 7:39 AM · +1 to James Woodrow. Just about all intermediate players drift sharp. One way you can tell is to check any "E" note (halfway up the fingerboard on the E string) against the harmonic. I don't know how much piano octaves are "stretched" (I will ask my friend who tunes my piano), but I suspect it is not nearly as much as intermediate violinists drift sharp on their E strings.

I have a comment about "human-made machinery" being intrinsically flawed: Probably not as flawed as your pitch perception. I remember reading something by a guy (name escapes me) who worked at General Electric where they make jet engines. They gave tours. At the start of the tour, they'd tell the tourists "Look at your fingernails." And at the end of the tour, they'd say "Look at your fingernails again. The amount they grew while you were on this tour is more than our machining tolerances."

Your tuner is probably more correct than you'll ever be. But as you develop as a violinist, what you realize is that what the tuner is measuring is not the same thing as violin intonation. The tuner likely measures pitches to be multiples of 440 as established by equal temperament (each half step increases in frequency by the twelfth root of 2). But as a violinist what you want to emphasize in your melodic playing (scales and scale-like passages) is a more Pythagorean tuning where whole steps are a little wider and half-steps are a little narrower.

All of this is explained brilliantly in Simon Fischer's book "The Violin Lesson" and also in the video content on which is organized by another great pedagogue, Kurt Sassmannshaus. Sassmannshaus has an excellent video clearly illustrating the difference between melodic (Pythagorean) tuning and chord/double-stop (Just) tuning for the violin. At the same time, Sassmannshaus's advice to violin soloists, when tuning to the orchestra, is to "Tune to the highest A that you hear in the orchestra." Then you will sound more brilliant. So there is something to the "brilliance" factor of being a little sharp that is intrinsic to our general perception and not necessarily to be entirely avoided.

Edited: July 20, 2021, 8:15 AM · Oh, dear, was I too effusive in responding to the suggestion that God tunes quartz crystals?

"I have no idea where you got the notion that tuner designers want the cheapest?"

Because I would, and it's an almost universal principle in manfacturing, especially something like tuners, which are basically junk - they are not exactly life-threatening medical equipment.

As you've said, crystals are accurate anyway, and there's little point in buying expensive ones for something a tone-deaf guitarist is going to step on in a gig.

If you're an expert on quartz crystals, maybe you could offer your opinion on which deity tunes them?

July 20, 2021, 11:03 AM · This is a complicated topic. To see just how complicated, search for "intonation" on this forum or any forum dedicated to non-fretted stringed instruments.

People unfamiliar with various tuning methods tend to have tuners that are setup for Equal Tempered (ET) intonation. This method is a compromise to allow the 7 octave range of the piano to sound reasonable when playing across its large range.

When playing arpeggios or an harmonic line, e.g. major chords, there is a tendency of the human ear to gravitate towards what is called Just (J) intonation. The ratios of the frequencies of successive notes tends towards integer ratios. For example, going from A to E, a fifth, sound more pleasing when the ratio of the E to the A frequency is 3:2 (A = 440, E = 660).

But a piano that is tuned to Equal Temperament will have the E set to a slightly smaller frequency. If you set your A string to 440, and tune the E until there is no beating when double stopped with the A, you will set their frequency ratio to 3:2, or Just Temperament. But your ET scale will show the E to be about 2 cents sharp.

This gets more dramatic the further up the E string you go. Similarly, notes played on the G string that is tuned to Just Temperament might sound in-tune to your ear, but your ET tuner will show them decidedly flat.

The situation gets even more complicated when playing a melodic line, as certain intervals that may display as in-tune on an ET tuner may sound odd. Examples are the leading tone (7th scale degree) leading to the scale root, or the half interval between the 3rd and 4th scale degree on a major scale. Sometimes even the 2nd scale degree can be ET in-tune but sound odd in the context of the melody being played.

Edited: July 20, 2021, 11:19 AM · There's all sorts of weird physics and brain stuff going on with very high and very low pitches, as everyone has rushed to explain...

I keep an earplug in my left side. Do the same, and follow what sounds in tune to you intuitively. Until you have to play up there in an ensemble, you only have to worry about yourself. And even when you do, the others are usually so far away from you (frequency wise) that it doesn't matter too much!

July 20, 2021, 3:55 PM · Gordon, I guess it's a good job for musicians other than tone-deaf guitarists that your professional life is not spent designing tuners.
July 20, 2021, 4:29 PM · I guess this all comes around to the classic violinist's query-- why do so many people play out of tune when it's so much easier to play sharp?
July 20, 2021, 4:29 PM · I guess this all comes around to the classic violinist's query-- why do so many people play out of tune when it's so much easier to play sharp?
July 21, 2021, 4:35 AM · Jeffrey - There's a natural tendency to go sharp on high pitches. I don't know whether it stems from the ear 'wanting' it, or the fingers not wanting to have to go so close together. However, it just happens unless you actively work to stop it.

Very likely your tuner is right, though if you're not sure - record and listen back is one option.

A non-tuner option to address this is checking your perceptions of pitch against one of the E harmonics. Play slowly with your hand anchored with a finger on an E harmonic and keep checking your intervals against the harmonic - for instance if you are trying to tune a G# then put 1 on E, then climb up 2 on F#, 3 on G#, then lift 3 and place 1 back on the E and try to sound the harmonic. You will probably find at first that the finger you have on the harmonic has slipped off the harmonic point, which is a sign that you have placed the other fingers sharp and your first finger is trying to fit with them.

July 21, 2021, 4:46 AM · Exactly as James Woodrow says, playing a note even slightly flat sounds absolutely horrid, but playing slightly sharp is somehow bearable. Strange phenomenon! Wonder if it is actually then the inverse for cellists who have to tune a bass note to 3 upper notes in the chord...
July 21, 2021, 7:28 AM · This is all rather fascinating. However, the question comes up, if playing slightly sharp in high positions is 'normal' because of just temperament, how do you prepare to play a duet with a piano? I am in just such a situation - preparing to play a sonata in a summer festival where I will get 2 or 3 rehearsals before performance. Should I try to force my high notes to the (equal temperament) tuner?

I have played with some utube recordings but I wonder if there is a better way to go...

July 21, 2021, 9:10 AM · Elise - if you're playing with a piano you basically have to be in equal temperament, no questions about it, unless you have a long unaccompanied passage.

Also I don't see how just intonation can make you more sharp up the E string? A just intonation tenth is an octave is a just intonation third, a just intonation twelfth is an octave plus a just intonation fifth. It doesn't matter what octave you're in. And just intonation wouldn't explain why anyone got an A on the E-string sharp - which happens just as much as any other note!

Edited: July 21, 2021, 3:56 PM · On the violin some notes will be too sharp compared with ET (equal temperament), some will be too flat and some will be in alignment with ET.

If the A is tuned to a piano 440 and the other strings are tuned in pure perfect fifths, then the D string is 2 cents too flat compared with ET, G is 4 cents flat and E is 2 cents sharp. Does that mean that all notes on the G string are flat and all notes on E are sharp compared with ET? No, it does not which is quite interesting.

Violinists usually learn to intonate all Gs, Ds, As and Es so they resonate with the open strings as a basic way of intonation. Thus if you play the 1st finger on G, the note A, so it resonates with the A string it should align with ET despite that the G string is flat. If you play the second finger on E, the note G, so it resonates with the G string it will be flat compared with ET despite that the E string is slightly sharp. The 3rd finger on E, the Note A should align with ET. The 4th finger in third position on E, the note D two octaves above the D string, a bit flat. The E, one octave above the open E a bit sharp.

Thus as long as you play the notes which resonates with the open strings the tuner should tell you a mixture of notes which are either flat, sharp or in alignment with ET. Interesting isn't it?

If your intonation differs from that resonance it can be quite complicated of course. But I think what I wrote above clearly demonstrates that it is a bad idea to use the tuner as a means for intonation. The result won't sound right.

July 21, 2021, 3:59 PM · @Lars - yes but that's not got much to do with the problem of everyone playing sharp in high positions. They are two separate things. Every equal temperament E is 2 cents off the just intonation E, this doesn't increase with how far up the E string you are playing, and most people who 'go sharp' do so by far more than 2 cents. How many people can really claim 2 have 2 cents accuracy on anything in the 3rd register, anyway?

The issue in high registers and positions is that people lose their aural and/or physical anchoring.

Edited: July 21, 2021, 5:14 PM · @Chris, my main concern was just to give an simple explanation on why using a tuner for intonation is a bad idea. From that explanation it should be fairly easy to see that it won't make sense to use a tuner in any other type of intonation on the violin. ET just doesn't work with violin except when playing in unison with a piano where you have to align it, but outside the unison passages you can still intonate differently like make expressive intonation, could be sharp leading notes up, flat leading notes down or whatever. Thus even when playing with a piano use the ear and not a tuner.


An extra note: I suppose their can be a different situation if you play 12-tone music and therefore probably have to tune the strings in ET if you want to make it 100% correct in that style, but I think that is an irrelevant discussion in this topic.

July 21, 2021, 5:16 PM · I think it's a question of degree. If you're reliably playing to +/- 1 cent accuracy then just vs equal temperament is an important issue and I agree you don't want to work to a tuner. And unaccompanied Bach and so on will sound weird if you play it in equal temperament.

But... who really is that accurate on the upper half of the fingerboard? The distinction between temperaments becomes pedantic and to be honest I don't know any other good way to check intonation up there other than using a tuner. Above a certain point I can't even compare pitch with a tone from another instrument or a generator.

July 21, 2021, 9:08 PM · "My tuner says I play sharp high on the E-string. When the tuner tells me I'm playing the correct pitch, however, it sounds distinctly flat to me."

How sharp does the tuner say you are? If it says you're 10-20 cents sharp or more, then I think it's not the usage of a tuner which is the problem (unless of course the tuner itself is off; you can try to eliminate this by using different devices/mics and tuner applications).

You can also try bringing the pitch down by playing the same note an octave lower and comparing the two. If the note isn't in tune when compared with the note an octave lower (or the matched octave lower note is not in tune with reference to other notes/strings in its vicinity), then the problem is not the tuner.

July 21, 2021, 11:50 PM · I also played sharp in high elevations as a student*; I still do it at times. There are two comparisons which help me anchor: The d (4th finger 3rd position on the E string) played together with the open A string (an octave plus a fourth) and the a (4th finger 7th pos.) together with the open A string (double octave). Both of these intervals are easy to tune. I try to get the other notes right by comparing with these two "anchor-pitches".

* I also heard sharp notes (in higher positions) as correct after a while and my teacher had to bring me back down.

July 22, 2021, 5:40 AM · THanks for your comment Chris - you are of course right; the justified/equal argument is really irrelevant for this particular discussion.

You also wrote: " I don't know any other good way to check intonation up there other than using a tuner. Above a certain point I can't even compare pitch with a tone from another instrument or a generator."

Perhaps you missed my earlier comment but there is a shure-fire way. Simply record it and play it back. If it sounds good it is good and if it doesn't then it isn't. Its the girl with the curl solution ;)

Edited: July 22, 2021, 6:56 AM · I think it's quite common to drift sharp, especially high on the E string. I've noticed this working professionally and it is also evident when listening to famous soloists.

That said, I do find this topic fascinating.
I remember an oboist saying that he couldn't stand listening to Heifetz, because he played sharp. One of my favourite violinists, Nathan Milstein, consistently played sharp high on the E string. You can hear it at the beginning of his Dvorak concerto recording here. Note that this is not a live recording, contrary to what the video description says. It's one of favourite recordings!

Compare that to his studio mate Elman. Elman tunes his violin sharp, but then stays in tune with his upper harmonics, such as here. Elman is quite old, but he never goes sharp above his violin's tuning.

Edited: July 22, 2021, 6:48 AM · John - but this is a perception. Would everyone agree that they were playing sharp? Or is this a view of some people and not others?

Could you perhaps direct us to a recording where you think it sounds sharp and lets see if everyone agrees?

Edited: July 22, 2021, 7:18 AM · Elise - click the two "here" words highlighted in red. I put links in them :) Edit: you may have been replying to my first, general statement, not my Elman and Milstein links. Sorry for any confusion.

I'm curious what others think. They are both some of my favourite, very individual violinists, and I've always thought of their systems of intonation as being quite different.

Off topic edit: I've discovered something fascinating about the Elman recording. The LP transfer on youtube has different splices than the commercial CD release I am used to. Compare the LP recording with the CD recording.

Edited: July 22, 2021, 7:23 AM · JI and ET are relevant to me.
I probably mostly play flat on the E string. This is because at home I try to get as many notes as possible to make other strings resonate in sympathy. E.g. the B induces the 4th overtone (5th harmonic) of the G string when it's a 5/4 JI major third, which is probably quite flat, as the G string is a fraction flat in the first place and 5/4 is flatter than ET. But since this is often played with my pinky, I feel that it is better than erring on the weak and sharp side. Above G6 my fear of dropping my violin outweighs my fear of being out of tune,lol!
July 22, 2021, 10:24 AM · I once asked a frequently-performing pro chamber violinist about changing one's intonation when playing with a piano. He said that it takes a long time to learn to do that properly because there are many small compromises that depend on the key of the piece. He said that most amateurs overcompensate. It's also not such an easy matter if you have double stops, as you might have in the violin part of an "accompanied" Bach sonata (e.g., the long sequences of sixths and thirds in BWV 1014, first movement). The general suggestion was to only worry about it for really exposed, longer notes.

I have often played the viola in orchestras and quartets. I have noticed that I very commonly struggle with whether my viola is really in tune even though when I check it, the A is perfect and so are the fifths. It happens enough to be fairly annoying. I never get the same sense when playing the violin though.

Edited: July 22, 2021, 4:50 PM · I just downloaded the following from the internet:

"Effect of Loudness Changes on Perceived Pitch

A high pitch (>2kHz) will be perceived to be getting higher if its loudness is increased, whereas a low pitch (<2kHz) will be perceived to be going lower with increased loudness. Sometimes called "Stevens's rule" after an early investigator, this psychoacoustic effect has been extensively investigated.

With an increase of sound intensity from 60 to 90 decibels, Terhardt found that the pitch of a 6kHz pure tone was perceived to rise over 30 cents. A 200 Hz tone was found to drop about 20 cents in perceived pitch over the same intensity change.

Studies with the sounds of musical instruments show less perceived pitch change with increasing intensity. Rossing reports a perceived pitch change of around 17 cents for a change from 65 dB to 95 dB. This perceived change can be upward or downward, depending upon which harmonics are predominant. For example, if the majority of the intensity comes from harmonics which are above 2 kHz, the perceived pitch shift will be upward. "

I first experienced this phenomenon when I was about 50 years old and my hearing was failing (at least, getting worse). When I attempted to tune my A string to the oboe in orchestra I could not properly distinguis the exact pitch. I finally solved the problem by blocking the loudness of my violin's sound into my left ear. But this was sometime later - after talking to the now late Stan Ricker, a member of our orchestra and a former "sound master" recording engineer.*** He told me essentially what I quoted above. Apparently I was hearing the same sound as a different pitch in each ear because of the greater sound pressure level at my left ear

This phenomenon often can lead violinists to play loud high notes flat. I have noticed it in some recordings of the French violinist Jacques Thibaud (early 20th century).

*** I have also read about this phenomenon in the book "The Physics of Musical Instruments" by Fletcher & Rossing - I just haven't been able to find the passage right now!

July 22, 2021, 5:27 PM · Oops - thanks John. I don't see some colours very well..
Edited: July 26, 2021, 12:28 AM · Stretched tuning, playing sharp on the high notes works for both piano and violin. Soloists instinctively play a little sharp so that they are better heard. If you tune to the chord (JT) the perceived loudness drops as the note gets absorbed into the overtone spectrum of the other instruments. My favorite example; the double harmonic E at the end of Scheherazade. It will sound flat compared to the rest of the orchestra. My solution was to crank the open E a little sharp right before the 4th movement.
July 24, 2021, 8:31 AM · Just to make matters worse, both distortions of perceived pitch (at high frequencies as I mentioned in the third post, and in loud tones as described by Andrew Victor) vary from person to person.
July 25, 2021, 7:40 PM · As others have pointed out, many players "hear sharp" in the upper register. None of us hear perfectly. After working with a tuner I've discovered the following patterns if left to my own devices: I play sharp at the top of the fingerboard and more so in sharp keys. I tend to hear flat in the bottom of the violin and more so in flat keys. I hear C's sharp not matter what key, and I have to be careful not play F's too low. When I know I have to play with piano, I have to work extra with the tuner to stay tempered. I spend a little bit of time with the tuner to keep my tendencies in check :) It's all part of the natural development of getting better ears over a life time.
Edited: July 26, 2021, 4:09 AM · Hmm, I think we play high notes sharp because we hear them flat?

I listened to the beginning of a Heifetz disc of the Mendelssohn concerto. The first high E is a harmonic (i.e. mathematically in tune) and sounds flat to my ears. I think Heifetz agreed because the next high E is fingered and sounds noticeably higher.

The high notes of a piano are "stretched" sharp because of the inharmonic overtones of short, stiff strings, but this seems to suit our ears anyway.

July 26, 2021, 12:14 PM · Our brain is not perfectly calibrated in the upper octaves to convert the exponential increase of frequency to a linear pitch scale. The fix is stretched tuning.
July 27, 2021, 2:07 AM · Probably I will be burned down here for my contribution in this topic, but my 5 cts:
people here tend to talk about intonation (ET or just intonation) in a manner if everybody can hear and play the perfect same tone. But my experience with playing with pro's and teachers is that a lot of them are really sure about what is perfect intonation. But there are a lot of differences in al those 'perfect' intonations. Really small detailled differences, but still differences. So my conclusion is that you really have to practice at home what the perfect intonation should be, train your ears and how to play that (with all methods: sometimes a tuner, record yourself, playing with open strings and drones, etc) But in the end you seldom play alone so you have to come out of your practice room and you just have to adjust to the other players and what they think is the perfect intonation. So my ears work hard and my high A on the E string is adjusted when I play with only a piano, and adjusted different when I play as an only string-player with a brass section, and different when I play in a folk band with an accordeon and electric guitar. And it really doesn't matter then if it is ET, or just, or just not perfect. As long as it is in tune with the others at that moment. In my opinion it is even different when I play with one orchestra or another string ensemble. Really, they all have there own timing and intonation differences. Really small differences, but there are differences. So I dont believe people any more that they all think about the perfect same 'A' when they talk about perfect intonation. It is about becoming confident about your own ears and learn how to adjust quickly.
July 27, 2021, 4:30 AM · Greetings,
just to go off at a tangent… many violinists (including some the odd great one) play sharp starting even from 3rd position. THis is, I suppose a failure to allow for decreased finger spacing to an adequate degree. Then , as one of the biggest cures the violin inflicts on us, this becomes our learned norm and is rather hard to recognize.
July 27, 2021, 11:28 AM · Buri- Right. Tight half-steps is one of the keys to good intonation. The width of the half-step in first position is about 5/8 inch. The width of my 1st,2nd, 3rd, fingers is also about 5/8. A quick look at the frets on a mandolin shows the problem.

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