Intonation is like math

No one wants to hear a violin played out of tune. As a professional violinist I have a tendency to assume everyone understands how much time and energy is dedicated to working on intonation. It has been surprising to me when it is clear that another, non-string player, professional musician doesn’t understand how big an issue it is. Amateur adult violinists in particular have a hard time with their expectations surrounding playing in tune.

The discovery
It is an epiphany when the systemic nature of intonation is discovered. When put into practice, one’s violin playing rises up to a new, more advanced level. However, doing so requires studying and understanding the intervallic relationships between notes. It is helpful to study music theory and harmony. Taking piano lessons or studying jazz can be helpful too.

Tuning to your open strings
An early step in improving one’s intonation is verifying that the notes E, A, D, and G, when fingered, match the intonation of the corresponding open string. One can go back and forth between the open string and the fingered note or play the two notes as a double stop, tuning the octave. There are also “ring tones” which occur when an open string vibrates sympathetically with a same-name fingered note played in tune.

Consistent tuning
All notes, no matter the range, within a phrase need to be in agreement with each other. For instance, if there is a G natural that occurs in different octaves within an eight measure phrase, the intonation for all have to match. When they do not match, the violinist and the listener will have the experience of something being kind of off.

When an open string sounds out of tune but isn’t
When an open string suddenly sounds out of tune but shows being in tune with a tuner, the detective work needs to begin. Very often by the time the problem is detected, the intonation problem has been going on for a while. It is essential to back track to find the place where the issue began. As the text on this card states: “Sometimes the note that sounds out of tune isn’t the source of the problem.”

Common tuning problems
Many years ago I discovered in my own practicing that when the intonation in a passage isn’t settling in, there is an underlying perfect 4th that hasn’t been addressed. But this is just a theory! Another issue I have come across is treating all half steps like leading tones. For instance, there might be the tendency for the F# in D major to be too high. Practicing arpeggios is helpful in identifying this issue.

What is the system?
The system in systemic intonation is the underlying harmonic progression and the intervals being employed. Once the harmony is analyzed, it becomes easier to understand the various intervals between notes that are in play. However, even before the harmony is fully uncovered, just understanding major vs. minor intervals can greatly improve one’s intonation.

The role of technique
At some point, intermediate and advanced students need to take responsibility for intonation within their technical studies. Developing strength, facility, and speed is all for naught if they are not playing in tune. This step is frequently forgotten by students who are eager to impress those around them or move onto the next piece.

Like math
Working on intonation is definitely not sexy but neither is playing out of tune. Over the years I have said to many students that violinists who play in tune literally earn more money than those who do not. Like math, there is no gray area. You are either in tune or out of tune. There is no almost. I frequently say to students: “If the outcome in math was supposed to be 3.0, is 3.1 ok?”

The Inspiration For Violinists card deck This “intonation” card is part of a 50 card deck. Every card has a unique image and text inspiring musicianship, mindfulness and spirituality.

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