Practicing with a Mute

Edited: September 18, 2023, 6:47 PM · I've been playing and practicing the violin for 49 years without a practice mute. I just found out yesterday that Dylana Jenson, a great artist-teacher, has been practicing with a mute since she was 13. I also believe that Aaron Rosand practiced a with mute, but I forgot where I read it. I may start to do the same to preserve my hearing as I get older. Any thoughts "worth hearing" from my friends on on this issue?

Replies (27)

September 15, 2023, 11:24 AM · I hate practicing with a mute, and fortunately I don't have to. I suspect this is going to end up being one of those things where there are a few special people who practiced with mutes throughout their entire development as students and were apparently unharmed, whereas I suspect for most people it just doesn't work because without the full tone of the instrument it's difficult even to assess intonation.
September 15, 2023, 11:51 AM · Wish I could practice with a mute, it would make life a lot easier, unfortunately it seems to affect my intonation, and I think if you start hearing something wrong it could become a habit, each to their own though
Edited: September 15, 2023, 12:10 PM · I find that after practicing with a mute, the tone of my violin sounds unpleasantly harsh for a while. Not sure whether this is just an auditory illusion, or if the mute has temporarily affected the response of the instrument. Perhaps a bit of both. For this reason I try to avoid it unless absolutely necessary. There was a thread about this phenomenon a few years ago, and a number of people reported the same experience.
September 15, 2023, 2:28 PM · It could be that your technique changes with the mute on. That can be a bit alarming afterwards, but useful from time to time for focusing your attention and getting maximum clarity from the instrument. Sort of like Demosthenes improving diction by putting pebbles in his mouth while shouting toward the ocean.
Edited: September 16, 2023, 2:14 AM · I do most of my practicing with a mute. That unpleasant harshness of tone right after taking the mute off is partly in the brain, changing its analysis of the sound environment. A similar thing happens when I change settings on my hearing aids. A heavy mute probably does dampen the response of the instrument, but it only takes a minutes of playing, "breaking in", to recover.
I recommend some form of ear protection in the left ear for all violinists. The sound in the right ear is closer to what the audience hears.I suspect that one reason young students can be shy about playing at full volume is that their young, undamaged ears are really sensitive to the noise component of the tone of their cheap instruments, all the way up to 20,000 Hz.
Edited: September 15, 2023, 11:20 PM · I have to practice with a mute most days (I work full time and practice very early in the mornings), and I found the wmutes- set to work best for me.
I thought, if I had to use a mute most of the time, I could as well buy a good one.

My violin is not very loud (I like it that way, since I play just for myself), but on louder instruments I do prefer a hearing protection in the left ear, otherwise it hurts.

September 16, 2023, 5:26 AM · I measured the sound level of my viola at 4 inches distance: 90 -100 dB!
And for many hours at a stretch...
The health & safety people would shut down violin & viola playing if they found out!
September 16, 2023, 5:52 AM · I do practice with a mute and for just the reason you state, to preserve my hearing.
I'll use an ear plug in my left ear at times as well, though without the mute.
September 16, 2023, 6:03 AM · I do practice with a mute and for just the reason you state, to preserve my hearing.
I'll use an ear plug in my left ear at times as well, though without the mute.
Edited: September 16, 2023, 10:34 AM · As recently as last month the mute point came up incidentally in discussion of the desirability of wearing earplugs while practising. In spite of some evidence that violinists are prone to degradation of their hearing, I'm inclined to think that the risk is an acceptable one. I certainly wouldn't want to handicap myself when playing in ensembles, and when I practise I want to hear the sound I make in full glory!
September 16, 2023, 11:54 AM · Paul wrote "whereas I suspect for most people it just doesn't work because without the full tone of the instrument it's difficult even to assess intonation."
If that is true then perhaps you are learning intonation wrong? It should be the frequency of the note, not its tonal qualities. Indeed, I would suggest that if you have this difficulty ONLY practice with a mute until you master it.

Besides what are you going to do in he 'con sordino' passeges? Leave it off and play quietly (that does not work)'

September 16, 2023, 12:12 PM · This topic raises a mute point.
September 16, 2023, 12:24 PM · Certainly, when you know how hard you're working while playing, it is easy to ignore your deficiencies-- even if you could easily spot them in others. Some recommend taping yourself to hear how you really sound, but finding a way to push the noise away from your ear might also address part of this problem.
Edited: September 18, 2023, 7:05 AM · After a neighbor threatened to kill him (for being able to hear him practicing in our New York apartment) my father always practiced his violin every evening after work with a really heavy metal practice mute on his Stefano Scarampela violin. I was 12 when we moved from NY to Maryland, to a house literally in the center of our 27 acres and the mute came off - forever.

I had quit violin lessons before I was 12 and only practiced a few times before I resumed (forever) at age 13. But I did practice a few times in that era with a mute (even Dad's old heavy mute) and I liked that I could really hear my intonation. But a mute kills a lot of the higher overtones and so eliminates much of the audible contributions of vibrato. So, in my opinion it can be helpful for some aspects of left-hand playing but it is more like hearing the sound coming from behind a closed door.

Edited: September 16, 2023, 2:39 PM · Intonation, yes. But also clarity and evenness in the right hand. Drop-outs in fast legato passages become much more obvious, for example, and will invite correction.
Edited: September 16, 2023, 3:49 PM · I have to insist that a ball of cotton or a dedicated plug in the ear do not act like a mute. They allow all frequencies to be heard, but as others hear them. They will help you, not your neighbours!

The medical world knows that violinists progressively destroy their left ears. Violists too: violas are louder, even if they "project" less, and they may also be just in front of the brass..

September 18, 2023, 2:27 AM · yes it is true that Dylana Jenson practice (mostly) with a mute.
She uses the 'tourte' orchestral mute, I know as I know her and I speak to her (well...over the internet) and only recently I asked her what she thought about practicing with ear plugs.

She discourages heavily practicing with earplugs and she told me if the violin is 'too loud' to my ears (ie it starts to make me feel like my ears are hurting) then to practice with the tourte mute on.

She uses the mute 'mostly' but not 'always' she told me, and yes from a very young age. She said Milstein used it too.

I really do not think the tourte mute can hinder your intonation learning/skills as others have said.

So I practice with no mute, but have done on the odd occasion and on her advice I use the tourte mute when I do.

Edited: September 18, 2023, 3:27 AM · Damaged hair-cells in the cochlea will certainly reduce our fine pitch discrimination. And others will notice this before we do!
September 18, 2023, 7:01 AM · @Adrian. The "tuning" of cochlear hair cells isn't at all precise, many of them responding to pure tunes over a range of an octave or more. What is critical in the pitch discrimination of spectrally complex tones like those of the violin is the temporal envelope of hair cell responses across the whole frequency bandwidth of each tone.

Consequently I wouldn't expect impaired pitch discrimination to be among the first symptoms of cochlear hair cell loss which predominantly affects the cells that are selectively responsive to higher frequencies.

September 22, 2023, 10:23 AM · Steven, I bow to your expert knowledge, but I observe degradation in pitch accuracy in ageing violinists and opera singers (who make a terrific din inside their skulls!), even allowing for ageing fingers and larynxes.
September 22, 2023, 11:25 AM · hi Jo, just curious, what's Dylana's reason to be against practicing with earplugs?
September 22, 2023, 11:43 AM · Inspired by this topic I tried practicing with a mute - its a real relief on my ears and dulls the sound less than earplugs do. Indeed, my violin is rather nice muted!
September 22, 2023, 12:41 PM · Adrian - are you becoming more tolerant (i.e. less aware) of poor intonation in others as your hair turns progressively whiter (sorry, that's intended to be metaphorical)? I don't believe I am and I've never made the slightest effort to protect my ears from violin or high-level orchestral sounds. Audiometric tests show that I do have some high-frequency loss on the left but I'm not aware of it in daily experience, even when I try left/right comparison e.g. by reversing earphones.
September 22, 2023, 12:55 PM · While practicing with a mute is beneficial for hearing protection, it is also a necessity for some violinists because family members and/or neighbors complain.
September 22, 2023, 2:20 PM · Steve, I am still highly aware of poor intonation at 74yo, but I have used cotton balls, and then musicians plugs, for around 35 years, due to hyperacousies. I have the usual age-related descending slope above 2 kHz, but a lot less severe than many musicians.
Is not the phenomenon of recruitment linked to deadened cells flattening the "Bell curve" pitch acuity?

I'm not sure exactly how loud sounds damage hair cells, but I have the strong impression that such damage affect pitch acuity.

Edited: September 23, 2023, 5:07 AM · Adrian - I can't claim to be familiar with the literature but have just come across a study of psychoacoustic deficits of auditory neuropathy (i.e. not the hair cells of the cochlea) published in a book series called The Senses: A Comprehensive Reference in 2008 (the first author is an old friend and sparring partner of mine!). I've excerpted two statements
1. "the auditory neuropathy subjects showed significantly impaired frequency discrimination at low frequencies (125 Hz to 4 kHz)
2. "These results are unique because cochlear or sensory hearing ("loss" seems to be a missing word here) typically affects intensity related percepts (e.g., loudness recruitment) but not temporally related percepts as long as the intensity impairment is taken into account."
Musical pitch perception is primarily a temporal percept. It may possibly be affected by severe hair cell loss but is definitely not one of the commonly observed functional defects.
Edited: September 23, 2023, 7:27 AM · Hi Jean, I can't recollect exactly I 'think' it is down to how it affects intonation, HOWEVER please do not take this as an answer I may be totally wrong as my memory sometimes fails me miserably.

I do remember she gave a very determined NO to the ear plugs, and again I don't know if she would say this to anyone or if she thought it was not a good idea for me as I am intermediate in my playing, would it be the same to an advanced player? I assume so as she never uses them herself and seemed to oppose to them even for her own playing.

I will speak to her tomorrow and make a point of asking her again so I'll come back here and let you know :)

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

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

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

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