The systemic nature of tuning in music

In case you are not a musician, intonation refers to the process of playing musical tones in tune. You still may not understand what this means. It is also possible that you understand the concept of musical notes, tones, or pitches, but may not feel as though you have actually experienced, in an auditory way, musical tones being in tune or not in tune. When musicians play on an instrument or sing, they are producing organized patterns of frequencies which the human auditory system experiences as sound. When working on intonation, a musician attempts to match frequencies to create order and minimize dissonance or at least target dissonance for a specific affect. When musical tones are not in tune, the listener may have experiences that range from it sounding like something is a bit off to music sounding like fingernails on a chalkboard. When music is played in tune, it sounds very high quality and most likely you will not be thinking about whether it sounds in tune or not.

If you have watched a young child play the violin, you may have seen tapes on the neck and fingerboard of the instrument. Teachers apply these fingerboard tapes because there is nothing on the violin to indicate where fingers need to be placed in order to play notes accurately in tune. With my own students, I try to transition them to playing without fingerboard tapes as soon as possible. When studying a musical instrument, a mind-ear connection is developed rather than relying solely on sight and touch. The human brain is very capable of making this connection at any age. We live in an extremely visual society which makes us feel as though using our ears must be an inferior way to navigate the world. This is absolutely not true unless one has a hearing disorder.

The violin actually provides its own tuning system created by its four open strings which are the strings played without pressing fingers on the fingerboard. When fingers are pressed down on the fingerboard, the string length is shortened creating a different tone that is higher sounding than the open string. As long as the four violin strings are in tune, if the violinist plays a fingered note that shares the same note name as one of the open strings (E, A, D, G), the corresponding string will vibrate sympathetically. You can actually see the string vibrate and hear a deep ring inside the violin. I teach my students how to identify these ring tone notes. This is one of the earliest and easiest ways to teach relatively inexperienced students how to work on intonation independently.

As students reach a more intermediate level, we work on tuning notes through comparison to my violin, possibly a piano, and to reference recordings. Since students are now more independent in their home practicing, it is time to delve into studying scales and arpeggios which are the building blocks of all “tonal,” western music. It is the best way to establish ear training as a critical part of every practice session. Intonation should be practiced in etudes and solo pieces as well as in and of itself through scales and arpeggios in all major and minor keys.

When students become more advanced, the real creative work of intonation begins. It is at this point that students realize how complex intonation can be but also how exciting it is to make decisions about intonation in their music. Besides obviously sounding better, playing in tune creates a sense of well being. Your violin will sound like a fine and more valuable instrument. It is helpful if students have some training in music theory either by taking a course in it or through studying chord progressions in piano lessons. Through their prior violin study, students will have mostly experienced horizontal tuning. That is to say, they most likely have worked on intonation through comparing tones side by side within a musical phrase or isolating individual tones that are out of tune. If students have some understanding of the underlying harmony in a piece of music, they can start to tap into vertical tuning and tune according to the intervallic relationship between musical notes.

Ultimately, intonation is systemic. For the most part, notes are not just individually tuned. Usually by the time you become aware that your intonation is faulty, there have been intervals earlier on that were not it tune. You have to be a detective about finding the source of the intonation problem. Analyze the underlying harmony in your pieces. Make sure that you are playing in tune with your violin. Record yourself. If your repertoire includes another instrument, consider that instrument’s tuning bias. It is a complex and tedious process that can feel never ending. However, when approached from the perspective of how the notes you are playing fit in with the overall harmonic structure of the score, it can feel as though you are co-creating with the composer. You will feel deeply connected with that beautiful organization of tones we call music.

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