Violin Tuners & Intonation

Updated: March 22, 2017

Intonation and Using a Violin Tuner as a Practice Aid

A common question asked by non-violinists is, “How do you know where to play the notes when you have no frets?”

Violin intonation is one aspect of playing that is challenging for players of every level. Beginners often start learning with stickers over the fingerboard to help with finger placement, but these marker points are generally approximate and can slide around if the glue softens, and the practise of looking at the fingers while playing can impede music reading and impact on posture.

Paradoxically, many teachers use this visual aid without explaining its temporary status, then have to implore their students not to watch the fingers. The ideal is for the student to be able to hear whether the intonation is good. It can take time to develop the ear and some people initially really struggle to trust whether or not they are playing in tune.

The dilemma of good intonation has many students reaching for the chromatic tuner, but the idea of practising with a tuner raises heated debate among students and teachers. A violin tuner – there are many models that clip onto the instrument – a digital tuning device or a tuning app from the app store is useful for tuning the strings of the violin, predominantly the A string.

Using a tuner, it is easy to settle the violin at a desired pitch, whether that be A440, A442 or otherwise. Tuning each of the four strings with a tuner would do no significant harm, but although you might consider this would make the violin perfectly in tune, it in fact will not be in tune with itself.

In her blog, The Ideal Violinist, concert violinist and Associate Professor at Boston University College of Fine Arts, Bayla Keyes writes:

“Good intonation is both an acoustic reality, with notes “agreeing” (i.e., creating overtones or undertones) with other notes being sounded simultaneously, and a kind of societal compromise, with musicians and audiences growing accustomed to and agreeing upon a certain delineation of pitches. Professional musicians must have finely tuned ears and accurate fingers, so that they can adapt to the intonation system being used by the players with whom they are playing; but true artists must understand functional harmony as well, at times choosing to shade a note up or down to create a certain tension or relaxation.”

Equal Temperament

The system of tuning most in use today is called equal temperament. This system uses the octave, a frequency with a 2:1 ratio, discovered by Pythagoras in around 530 B.C.E. In equal temperament the octave is divided into 12 equal half-steps or semitones. This system is ideal for keyboards, atonal music and modulation. Its development in the 16th century made the progress of western classical music possible.

The problem with this system for violinists is that it does not take advantage of the acoustical properties of the instrument. Keyes explains:

“The violin will not ring. The sound will be bland; intervals will seem indistinguishable and lack personality. Sharps will seem low, flats will seem high, and in general intervals will not be expressive enough.  Half-steps will seem lazy, especially at fast tempos. Fifths and fourths will be slightly too small to ring. Major thirds and minor sixths will be slightly too wide to get a third tone, minor thirds and major sixths slightly too narrow. Only the octaves will be pure, and you will most definitely match the piano.”

With the four strings of the violin tuned to equal temperament, the instrument will be in tune with the piano but its acoustic properties will be compromised. The sound will not ring with sympathetic vibrations.

There are two other systems of tuning common on the violin – just intonation and expressive intonation.

Just Intonation

The Pythagorean theory of intervals creates a situation where open fifths and octaves sound correct, but in a scale built solely on Pythagoras’ ratios, intervals such as thirds and sixths might sound ‘out of tune.’ In just intonation, the ratio of the third and sixth is adjusted. Thirds and sixths will have a ‘third tone,’ a tone underneath the played notes. This acoustic phenomenon enhances the sound of the violin, making it ring.

Intervals/double stopped notes that are really in tune have no beats. When intervals are out of tune you will hear a beating sound that will speed up or slow down as the intonation is adjusted. When absolutely in tune, thirds and sixths will produce an audible overtone. This method too requires certain adjustments, probably most noticeable within a string quartet. If the intervals are absolutely adhered to, the bottom C string of the cello will be wildly out of tune with the violin E strings. A compromise must be found, which in this example means the musicians of the quartet will tune their lower and upper strings respectively to narrow fifths.

Tuned using open fifths, the violin will ring beautifully, but the G-string in particular will be flat with the piano and the E will sound sharp. Generally violinists use a compromise tuning, where the G will be slightly flat to the piano and the E slightly sharp. This compromise will bring the instruments in more or less in line intonation-wise whilst allowing for the violin’s natural acoustical properties and a ringing sound. This difference in tuning will not be noticeable enough to trouble the listener.

Keyes goes as far as suggesting the following solution, which could be achieved with a chromatic tuner:

Open Fifths (Pythagorean)     Compromise Tuning (Keyes)  Equal Temperament (Piano)

E: tuner at A = 443                    E: tuner at A = 442                           E: tuner at A = 441

A: tuner at A = 441                   A: tuner at A = 441                            A: tuner at A = 441

D: tuner at A = 440-439         D: tuner at A = 441                            D: tuner at A = 441

G: tuner at A = 439-438         G: tuner at A = 440                           G: tuner at A = 441

Expressive Intonation

Expressive intonation is a tool of the concert violinist. It is soloistic tuning and exploits the violin’s ability to play in the gaps between tempered intervals. Sharps are raised and flats lowered to give the maximum expressive effect. One positive aspect of this method is that notes are more often in tune with the open strings, giving rise to plenty of sympathetic vibrations that produce a real richness of tone. Giving a push to expressive notes such as leading notes deepens the tonal palette, just as mixing different tones of the same colour paint gives much more richness to an artwork, and this kind of intonation makes the solo line easily audible over a whole orchestra.

Some intonation practice tips:

  • Begin by tuning your violin strings to a tuner. Unless you are an advanced student and want to explore subtleties of intonation, it’s ok to tune all four strings with the tuner. You can’t tune your violin using perfect fifths until you have developed the ability to hear a perfect fifth.
  • Notice that the open strings ring more than any stopped note. Begin to study sympathetic vibrations by playing any other E, A, D or G on the instrument. For example, if you play a G with the third finger on the D string and you play it perfectly in tune, you will see the G-string vibrate in sympathy, although the bow is not touching the string. Your violin will respond by ringing very clearly. Start by listening for these octaves to identify the ringing tone your violin will produce when it is played in tune. Much violin music is written in the keys of G, D or A to take advantage of this natural acoustic property of the instrument.
  • Intonation is relative. When playing in an ensemble, care must be taken to blend with the others in the group. You may find yourself playing a certain note at an unaccustomed pitch to fit with a chord or harmonic progression. No one person in an ensemble can ever say, “Well, I’m in tune!”
  • Practise using an open string drone. This will help develop the ear.
  • Spend time with double stopped intervals, playing slowly, listening for and identifying the overtones.
  • A chromatic tuner can help identify the note where a student really struggles. There is the argument that using a tuner can help develop good habits, helping to learn pitch by muscle memory, until the ear can hear what is and isn’t in tune. But the issue of an undeveloped ear needs to be addressed for intonation to improve. The tuner is one tool that can be used to help learn listening and adjusting, but as with any prop it should not be overused. As with any other method there are no absolutes. Listen to music, practise exercises such as hearing the note in your head first then pitching it on the instrument, or playing a note on the piano and learning to sing the correct pitch. Once the student is more advanced, the use of the tuner to check intonation should be redundant and only needed to check the pitch of the A string.
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