Does playing the violin really improve your hearing?

November 5, 2017, 10:55 AM · Hi,

after a few years playing the violin, I'm starting to get more sensible to notes that are not in tune (or that's what I feel like). Sometimes I play the guitar and I constantly notice that chords are all wrong tuned (since the guitar frets are not in tune, just like a piano). Also when I hear a piano, I sometimes see that some notes are a little off.

The problem is, I'm a very skeptic person, and most of the time I don't believe these kind of "magic" powers, including mines. My inner voice is telling me that it's just placebo effect and that I have not evolved my hearing or improved it in any way.

In the other hand, playing the violin constantly train us violinists to find the exact note, so I know that we have a heavy training there. The thing is, I don't know if that actually trains our ears to be much more sensible to the tuning of any given piece or notes.

Do you guys feel or have felt this?
Do you think that violinists (or cellists, etc... I guess) are better than any other musician at detecting these things?

Thank you

Replies (34)

November 5, 2017, 11:55 AM · Pitch discrimination isn't magic; it's a learned skill and you are learning it. Congratulations!

BTW when I was taking the entrance placement exams for my master's at Indiana, the professors giving the sightsinging test looked down at my sheet, said, "Oh, you're a violinist, you'll be fine. String players are always good," and indeed I was.

November 5, 2017, 11:56 AM · You mean intonation?

I think singers and string players are most careful with this, since we have to first "make" our notes and then play/sing it. Whereas you can just directly play a note on the piano, pressing it down.
When I hit an out of tune double stop I can't directly point out which note is out of tune. Still training on it though :P

November 5, 2017, 12:02 PM · Lillian, it took me awhile to be able to pinpoint which note in a double stop was out of tune and in which direction--as a student, I could hear that the interval wasn't right, but not exactly how. It's immediately obvious to me now but there are a lot of years of experience built into that. My students still struggle.
Edited: November 5, 2017, 1:53 PM · Mary Ellen, regarding double stops, I want to thank you for recommending the Scales for Advanced Violinists by Barbara Barber! I've got all the scale books (Flesch, Galamian, Skelton, Fischer, etc.), except Barber's until I read your comment on the other thread. What I particularly like about that book is the way of practicing double stops. It makes a lot of sense in breaking down the steps and connecting double stops tightly with single stops scale (lateral) and arpeggio (vertical) practice.

Tim, intonation is a life-long learning process for string players. As we become more discriminating about the pitches, we'll find more out of tune moments as we practice or perform. I find this is a never-ending efforts. Is it possible to play perfectly in tune? My teacher says yes, if you hate out of tune playing enough.

I don't remember who said that intonation is a moral issue. I tend to agree with it: it's a matter of integrity that we first have to care about it, then we have to examine it all the time and find ways to improve it. As we can't be perfectly moral but the process of trying to act morally makes us a better person, the efforts we keep putting into intonation should make us better players.

November 5, 2017, 1:30 PM · Tim, playing the violin doesn't improve your physical hearing. It improves the brain training associated with the perception of "musical" sounds, as well as brain training in the "math" region, to some extent.
November 5, 2017, 1:39 PM · Pitch discrimination is a learned skill. You are essentially training your brain to pay more attention to the audio data that is coming into your brain.

Intonation is as much a mental skill as it is a physical one.

Edited: November 5, 2017, 3:13 PM · So is it a fact, can you really train "pitch discrimination" by playing the violin?

You know, it seems one of those things that yeah, are easy to explain, but I don't see how or why playing the violin could help you do that. I can see how can you improve at fingering speed, "weird" chords that need a trained hand to be able to put the fingers in a unusual shape... but pitch discrimination sounds as if it was not learn-able.

I don't know, may be it's just me, but I'm a little surprised that you can improve or learn these kind of things.

So basically becoming a string player is like awakening from a world where everything is in tune and suddenly realize that everything is actually out of tune?

That's not cool.

November 5, 2017, 4:19 PM · It's similar with other skills and experiences like tasting and seeing. Ie I get exposed to a lot of tasty food then later on some of my previous favorite food seem not so great anymore. I upgraded from CRT to LCD 720p to HD to 4K and now it's hard for me to watch "low resolution".

"So basically becoming a string player is like awakening from a world where everything is in tune and suddenly realize that everything is actually out of tune? That's not cool."

It's a balance of appreciating both "low" and "high" quality stuff in life. I think eventually you get used to this "awakening". You'll notice imperfections here and there, recognize it, but not let it bother you.

November 5, 2017, 4:39 PM · If a note is played out of tune on the violin the likelihood is that the resonance won't sound quite right (I'm talking about the first three octaves). If a string is out of tune that immediately affects the resonance, and that is a more noticeable effect. Listening to the reverberation helps you to learn good intonation. That's the basic reason a good teacher will take time and effort to teach a beginner how to tune the instrument, then the developing tuning skill will be further enhanced by listening to fingered notes, under the teacher's guidance of course. It follows that "learning" to play in tune by looking at a needle or numbers on a screen is an absolute no-no as far as I am concerned.

Tuning of a guitar, like the piano, is inherently always an approximation (the reasons are too complex to discuss here), the only difference being that the guitarist does have some sort of control over it. Years ago, when I played classical guitar I would very slightly alter the tuning of one (sometimes two) strings (properly "courses") to accommodate the particular key the piece was in. There again, resonances came into it.

November 5, 2017, 5:56 PM · Tim, basically yes. Normally your brain throws away information that it doesn't think it needs. Violinists need the distinction, so bit by bit, your brain becomes more sensitivity. You can lose the ability to pitch-discriminate as well if you stop playing. (Each time I stopped playing, it took about a year before I could properly pitch-discriminate again, even though my initial pitch discrimination was still better than the average person.)

This is a well-studied phenomenon, if you want to read some academic papers to reassure yourself it's real. :-)

November 6, 2017, 1:58 AM · Nothing that involves brain processing is immutable, not even the senses which we tend to assume are hard-wired. It's almost a century since Carl Seashore devised his Musical Aptitude Test. The test demonstrates striking differences in auditory discriminative ability between musically trained and untrained subjects in quite basic parameters such as pitch, loudness, tempo, timbre, and rhythm. How much of this is nurture and how much nature is perhaps still debatable but if you can train the motor system, why not the sensory systems also?
November 6, 2017, 2:44 AM · If you ability to discern pitches didn't improve, neither would your intonation.

Otherwise it would be complete guess work. Even with muscle memory small changes in several things can affect where the pitch actually is on the fingerboard.

Edited: November 6, 2017, 7:05 AM · I'd like to know whether the pitch discrimination skills being discussed here are about individual notes (edit: intervals between successive notes), like when playing a scale, or strictly about tones in harmony with other tones that are played at the same time (same instrument or not).

When I'm in my choir, I do hear that e.g. chords of especially major and minor thirds sound very different when sung correctly than when played on the piano (difference between equal and just temper is about 15 cents). But I really don't notice 15 cents in a broken/successive major-third chord.

November 6, 2017, 4:59 AM · I'll answer Tim's question slightly differently. If one's hearing does not improve with playing the violin then one's violin playing is unlikely to improve. This will doubtless be noticed as time goes on and will be drawn to one's attention by one's loved ones, friends and others.
November 6, 2017, 5:36 AM · Han - I believe the discrimination that improves with training mainly concerns the harmonic relationships between notes, experienced simultaneously or sequentially. Absolute pitch identification ("perfect pitch") seems not to improve - indeed some have suggested it may actually be a faculty that most of us "unlearn" thanks to being exposed to a continuum of frequencies.
Edited: November 6, 2017, 5:46 AM · OK, by "pitch discrimination" I obviously mean pitch comparison in a chord or a bunch of notes. I'm not talking at all about absolute pitch, I've never listened to an isolated note or a single note and thought "oh, that A is 442.6Hz, a little sharp". That would be magic, literally, hahaha. Indeed, I don't know how much precision absolute pitchers do have. Do they recognize an A without doubting about its tuning if you play A443.2?

Anyway, as I've said, I've noticed improvement (or that's what I want to believe) when listening to chords or successive notes, or actually a bunch of notes could be as well, they don't have to be successive.

Edited: November 6, 2017, 5:51 AM · I think Michael McGrath nailed it. I would only add that one should be thoughtful of the distinction between sense and perception. The physical apparatus of your hearing (tiny bones moving around inside your ear, or whatever) might not improve, but that is different from what happens to the nerve signals once they enter your brain.
Edited: November 6, 2017, 10:58 AM · Any individual's experience of "perfect pitch" is bound to be limited by their own ability or that of the few other individuals they may know. A late friend of mine, (musician and retired "tone-master" recording engineer) could not only name the note but tell you the frequency of (tuning) A in its harmonic scale. In his few stints as conductor he was the only one I every saw tune a quartet of wind players without having them play their notes individually. On the road he could tell a vehicle's speed by the sound of the tires.

Certainly hearing with excellent pitch discrimination helps one become a better violinist. Players of fixed-pitch instruments are totally dependent on the skill of those who tune their instruments. Violin study experience will certainly improve a person's pitch discrimination --up to the physical limitations of their hearing apparatus.

November 6, 2017, 9:36 AM · A pet hobbyhorse of mine is how much and what kind of pitch perception is due to the spectral analysis performed by the cochlea and how much to the temporal pattern of acoustic nerve impulses arriving at the brain. The cochlea isn't in fact physically "calibrated" to represent the harmonic relationships between frequencies, not even the octave. Our sense of harmony (simultaneous and sequential) must therefore be a function of the brain analysing the neuronal temporal pattern and it is this, I believe, that is capable of and highly influenced by ear training. The cochlea seems to be a pretty crude organ which is only responsible for a rather vague sense of pitch "height" and timbre through its portrayal of the overall spectral distribution.
November 6, 2017, 12:02 PM · The rate of nerve impulses does not encode frequency, but rather volume. Indeed, the cochlea itself does not have an intrinsic octave recognition mechanism, but hair cells corresponding to different frequencies are connected to different neurons. The auditory cortex does get trained in early childhood by incoming signals from different harmonics and somehow learns the cyclic octave relation.

Why we learn to perceive cyclic octaves and not cyclic twelfths (octave+fifth, factor 3 in frequency) seems to be not understood. (I just googled this topic and was surprised that there was no simple explanation.)

Edited: November 6, 2017, 12:43 PM · A possible and simple explanation might be that the human voice harmonic series basically operates in simple multiples of the fundamental, and voice recognition and speech recognition may have had a lot to do with survival.

So we may naturally favor, or have a "survival investment" in these tonal relationships, which happen to coincide closely with what we mostly use in our musical tonal systems.

Edited: November 6, 2017, 12:56 PM · I'm not sure what you mean by "multiples of two of the fundamental". If I sing a tone and look at the frequency spectrum, I see harmonics of all poditive integer multiples (f, 2f, 3f, 4f, ...).
November 6, 2017, 12:57 PM · No, playing violin does not improve your hearing.
It improves your listening.
November 6, 2017, 1:07 PM · Han, I believe impulses in acoustic nerve fibres do indeed encode the frequency or periodicity of the sound, not so much by the rate of response but by showing phase-locking to the envelope. The phenomenon of periodicity pitch indicates that energy of a certain frequency is not necessary for a complex tone to be perceived as possessing a pitch equivalent to that frequency. I know very well from my own experiments that short snippets of white noise repeated at intervals of say 10 msec are very strongly perceived as possessing a pitch equivalent to 100Hz.

The tuning of cochlear hair cells and their associated nerve fibres cells to frequency is very approximate, so that although a given cell will show it maximal response at a given frequency, it might also respond sub-optimally to adjacent frequencies over a range as wide as an octave.

November 6, 2017, 1:23 PM · Steve, aren't you just saying that sine waves, short peaks of sound, and square waves at 100Hz are all perceived strongly as a pitch of 100 Hz?
Edited: November 6, 2017, 1:33 PM · Steve, could you clarify what you mean by "by showing phase-locking to the envelope."?

Your experiment with repeated snippets of white noise: if it's exactly the same snippet being repeated, I can assure you that a Fourier transform will show sharp frequency spikes at multiples of 100 Hz and nothing in between, so the fact that you perceive that signal as a 100 Hz tone wouldn't prove anything.

Edited: November 6, 2017, 7:13 PM · Congratulations! You are becoming a musician and better at discerning the notes! What if I tell you as you get really good there will come a time when you realize how out of tune you are once more! And then again...

Am I right everyone?

Edited: November 7, 2017, 2:57 AM · Andrew and Han - you are both right, that periodicity pitch can in principle be explained by Fourier transformation, in which any cyclic waveform (sine wave, square wave, white noise, sequence of clicks) will show a spike at the fundamental frequency. But FT is a theoretical mathematical formulation - is that actually what the cochlea does when it transforms the waveform into nerve impulses? I once raised this point with researchers far more knowledgeable than myself. I believe their conclusion was that the process is more like wavelet transformation but it is of course a physiological process and not a mathematical one that can be precisely formulated.

At this point I have to produce an "argument from personal ignorance", which is that I'm not aware of any neurophysiological study showing that, for example, a repeated snippet of high-pass filtered white noise causes activation of acoustic nerve neurons that show their peak response to sine waves of the same wavelength as the noise repeat interval.

Han - by phase-locking I mean frequency-sensitive neurons (which may have a narrow or wide frequency response area) which don't just respond to the optimal frequency with a disorganized burst of action potentials but in which the APs tend to occur at the same point in the cycle every time. A simple or complex tone can therefore be represented in two ways; first by which neurons are firing and second by the intervals between those firings. There is evidence that separate (although adjacent) areas of the brain's auditory cortex may be involved in the former (the conventional mapping of frequency by place, timing information being largely sacrificed) and the latter in which which temporal patterns are analysed.

Sorry if this isn't terribly clear - it's all dredged up from 10 or so years ago!

November 7, 2017, 4:08 AM · About the phase locking: as far as I can tell from 5 minutes of Googling (I'm not a neurologist), neurons are limited in firing rate to about 800 per second, so I find it unlikely that firing of neurons will be able to follow the periodicity of an acoustic wave except for the fundamental frequencies of lower notes. Also, in the hypothetical scenario where neurons fire in lock-step with the waveform, it would be impossible to encode the amplitude (loudness) of the wave.

About Fourier and other transforms: of course, a FT amplitude spectrum does not show temporal information; the fact that our hearing system can easily discern the start and end of notes proves that it's not a pure FT amplitude spectrum. I don't think you should compare it to a wavelet transform, since there are many types of wavelet transforms that have properties that make them more or less suitable for particular signal-processing applications. I'd say that how the cochlea works is mathematically best described as a spectrogram (Fourier amplitude spectrum with a moving window), with a window width somewhere around 15 ms. The spectrum is blurred by the fact that hair cells also respond to some extent to nearby frequencies. Blurring of the frequency spectrum can be due to this effect as well as due to a narrow moving-window width; mathematically they are almost equivalent.

I've been reading a bit about the human hearing system over the past days (triggered by this thread); apparently, the cochlea is an active system, where the hair cells, when triggered, will actively move - the ear can actually produce sound. That type of effects cannot be captured mathematically in terms of Fourier transforms. I didn't the fine details of this active mechanism, but I think it is mostly relevant for the detection of very quiet sounds, not for the intonation of a 90 dBA violin under your ear.

November 7, 2017, 6:10 AM · Just a quick reply to your first point which I think can be explained by the multiplicity of neurons. Not all need respond to every peak in the envelope as long as every peak elicits a response in some of them! Sound amplitude within each spectral band can also be represented by the number of neurons responding.

I'd also say that the window of the physiological spectrogram would need to be much, much narrower than 15ms. When click are presented through headphones subjects can resolve interaural delays of as little as 30 microseconds by a lateral shift in the sound image. This proves that fine temporal information must be retained at least as far as the second synapse in the brainstem auditory pathway, the superior olivary nuclei. Using sinusoids you can show that this doesn't work for frequencies above about 1.5 kHz when it become unclear which is the leading side.

Edited: November 7, 2017, 9:51 AM · You're proposing an auditory system that uses the multiplicity of neurons to encode amplitude over 100 dB of dynamic range, which each neuron firing at close to the maximum rate that is physiologically possible (rapidly depleting neurotransmitters in the process). On the receiving side, an enormous amount of brain capacity would be needed to process all that redundant data. That would be pretty bad engineering if there was an intelligent designer involved in that.

Regarding the time window of the spectrogram: a 15 ms window does not necessarily mean that there is 15 ms uncertainty in timing information. The windowing function could be something like a single-sided exponentially decaying function, which will preserve the onset time of a click-like sound input. It would be quite a bit worse for detecting the end time of a burst-like sound. As far as I know, indeed, pre-echo artifacts in lossy sound encoding (mp3 etc.) are much more problematic than post-echos.

Edited: November 7, 2017, 11:42 AM · Han - in my argument I do my best to stick to verifiable facts and my theorising doesn't depart radically from established thinking in this field. On the other hand I'm afraid your critique is highly speculative, particularly as regards "each neuron firing at close to the maximum rate that is physiologically possible" (did I propose that?) and neurotransmitter depletion. I'm sure the "intelligent designer" (was there one?) wouldn't have used a purely linear process to encode sound amplitude over this range, particularly at the upper extreme. What exactly is "brain capacity" and how would you define its limits? Unlike economically designed systems, evolved brain processes appear to be massively parallel and therefore a lot of information can be considered "redundant".
November 7, 2017, 12:19 PM · quote: "in which the APs tend to occur at the same point in the cycle every time."

A typical action potential has a duration of a millisecond or so. If I google for plots of measured neuron firing rates, I don't see any above 1 kHz and only rarely above 500 Hz (hence, the 800 Hz that I mentioned).

If a 1 kHz tone results in one firing per wave cycle, you're at the maximum firing rate. So, your proposed mechanism of hearing might work for low tones (e.g. A-440 and below) but cannot work for higher pitches (C5 and above).

Also: we don't perceive the individual oscillations of medium to high pitches in any way. At least, I don't. Below somewhere in the 50-100 Hz range, I start to hear the individual wave periods, in particular if there are a lot of overtones (think 60 Hz AC hum sounds). So, if you were thinking about that kind of frequencies, I'll agree with you.

As for neurotransmittet depletion: " caused by a temporary depletion of synaptic vesicles that house neurotransmitters in the synapse, generally produced by persistent high frequency neuronal stimulation."

November 7, 2017, 1:02 PM · I really don't see that my argument depends on neuronal firing rates in excess of 1kHz (or whatever limit applies in the auditory pathway). As I said before, it is only required for some neurons (not the same ones every time) to preferentially fire at the peak or trough of the waveform.

I believe you're right to suggest that there must be an upper frequency limit for period-based pitch perception. We would therefore expect to find it progressively harder to identify the musical pitch of a tone above a certain level, although not as low as 1kHz thanks to the redundancy described above.

I'm not sure I understand your third point. In my model (hardly mine at all!) neuronal firing encodes the overall period of the envelope, not necessarily each constituent oscillation except at low frequencies. This wouldn't be perceived as a "wobble" but as the presence of higher harmonics, i.e. greater richness of the tone. The richest tone I have ever heard is a snippet of white noise repeating, say, every 5 msec.

Of course I'm aware of what neurotransmitter depletion is, just not when it's likely to occur. Once again the high level of redundancy in the system means the function isn't dependent on every synapse being fully recovered.

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