Introduction to Intonation

Like tone production or articulation, intonation is a constant issue in string-playing. At its most basic we can view intonation as “The act of singing or playing in tune”. (Oxford Dictionary)

As we develop reliability in the differing forms of intonation we can afford to concentrate on intonation’s “indispensable role in musical expression through the deliberate inflection of pitch to shade and colour melody, to create excitement or tension, or as a means of characterizing a particular repertory or style of performance”. (Grove’s online dictionary)

Flesch famously pointed out that “In the physical sense playing in tune is an impossibility….playing in tune is no more than an extremely rapid, skilfully carried out improvement of the originally inexactly located pitch” (Carl Flesch, The Art of Violin Playing, p. 20). This working towards the ‘illusion’ of playing in tune is so important not only for our audience’s and colleagues’ peace of mind, but for our resonance of sound. The intense listening needed for a period of earnest work on intonation often leads to a big improvement in tone production.
Intonation fundamentals
Aural awareness
We all need aural awareness, the ability to sing and hear in tune. Generally, if you cannot sing a note, then you will not play it in tune.

The development of an ‘aural map’ is helped by singing in choirs and Kodaly method classes.

Practise one-finger scales up and down a string so that each shift is controlled by your aural awareness.
Physical control
We need physical control to be able to move the finger in response to what our ear perceives. Developing the flexibility in hand and fingers in order to ‘skilfully improve’ our pitch is one of our primary tasks. Excessive gripping in the hand especially in double stops causes intonation problems since we cannot carry out that ‘improvement of the originally inexactly located pitch’ fast or cleanly enough. Practising with the thumb underneath or with harmonic touch can help here. See Shifting - Release Pressure.

Hand placement on the fingerboard is important. Many intonation issues start with the hand not being in the correct place, for example often the hand is too low when playing E major.

Physical patterns are important but if you just follow them without listening, the intonation will suffer.
The tempo of the passage matters for intonation. As Flesch reminds us, our task is to work with what the ear perceives, so that we will have different standards for holding a long note compared to each individual note in a fast run.

Gerle points out in The Art of Practising the Violin that it is imperative that we practise a fast passage in tempo as well as slowly. When we only practise a fast passage at a slow tempo, then we are missing vital aspects of the passage such as momentum in shifts. In this regard it is important when practising slowly that we make the finger fall (when to prepare fingers on the next string, how high to lift fingers) as similar as possible to that required in the performance tempo.
When we mark up a piece for the first time we need to choose fingerings that suit the performance tempo.

Become aware of how your physique affects fingering choices (players with small hands need to be wary of extensions; if you have large hands & wide fingers you need to take care in higher positions). Yampolsky’s Principles of Violin Fingering is an excellent resource.
Tuning the instrument
The way we tune our instruments changes with the performance context. We may tune slightly sharper than the orchestra when playing a concerto and when playing sonatas we need of course to tune to the piano. When we play in a small ensemble such as a string quartet we need to pay particular attention to the 5ths and make sure that they are not too wide. In particular make the open C string of cello and viola sharp enough and the open E string of the violins flat enough.
Vibrato is one of our best tools for refining intonation, so practise both with and without vibrato.

Often it’s best to start practising without vibrato so as to hear the intonation as clearly as possible. When we add vibrato we need to remember how vibrato affects pitch.
- Vibrato may push our intonation sharp when playing loudly.
- We need to narrow the vibrato in higher positions as the fingers get closer together.

Think before practising whether the passage will have vibrato or not. Baroque and Classical performance practice traditions lead us to use vibrato primarily as an ornament. Therefore there is little point practising with vibrato on every note if you are not going to have that help in performance. Vibrato often helps the intonation (and also the release of the hand) when playing chords and double stops in Romantic repertoire.

Think about tempo before you practise a passage with vibrato. Fast scale passages will use little or no vibrato whereas slow scales will use much more, especially notes that require especial emphasis. Practise these notes with the amount of vibrato that you will use in performance.
Musical context
Intonation needs to fit the musical context. Most of the time the performer’s task is to have their intonation not disturb the music. We want audiences to comment on our glowing sound or exciting articulation, not to feel uncomfortable worrying how we will cope with the next passage!

However at times engaging and interesting intonation is part of our musical story. At an advanced level, intonation (like rubato in rhythm) becomes a hallmark for each individual player. Listen to Perlman’s 4th Paganini Caprice, or the differences between for example the recordings by Szeryng, Joachim and Stern of the Adagio from Bach's Sonata No.1.
Different types of intonation
Harmonic Intonation
Harmonic intonation, used for tuning double stops or tuning notes to open strings, is often what we learn first. Because the open string or other note creates a chord or harmony, the intervals here are generally not exaggerated as in melodic intonation, that is the major 3rd is less high and the minor 3rd less low and so on. To practise double-stop intonation, one note needs to be tuned with an open string (choose either the top note or the bottom note, whichever makes the most straightforward interval with an open string). Then both notes together need to be tuned so that we can hear the combination tone.

Other ways to practise the intonation of double stops:
- Play one line and sing, whistle or hum the other line.
- Finger both lines and sound out only one with the bow.

See Violin Left Hand vol.2 for Double Stops, Tuning and Practice Techniques
Melodic Intonation
Melodic (expressive) intonation is when we exaggerate the character of an interval to enhance the melody. For example, minor 2nds, 3rds, and 7ths become narrower, major 3rds and 7ths become wider. This adds emotional intensity to the music.

When practising melodic intonation we need to primarily listen to the resonance of the sound and repeat the notes in context, for instance repeat the 7th against the tonic that it is pushing towards. It can be useful to practise with another string player (with good intonation!) playing the same passage an octave underneath.
Playing with other instruments
Intonation when working with a piano is different in that our primary point of reference is the piano, which is slightly out of tune when compared to the pure intonation of a violin. As such it is often a compromise between using the open strings of the violin and the chord on the piano. Needless to say, regular rehearsal including work on intonation is needed when preparing sonata performances.

Intonation is always an issue in small ensembles such as string quartets and it helps to practise tuning the chords. Start with tuning the tonic (often but not always this is in the cello or viola), using a relevant open string to give a reference point. Then add any perfect intervals such as the 5th, 8ve or 4th, then add the most expressive intervals such as the 3rd and 6th and followed lastly by any 7ths, 9ths and so on.
For Teachers
Sometimes there is a strong mismatch between the aural and physical skills of a student. For instance a student with an excellent ear but very tight actions presents a special challenge in that they often have learnt to switch off listening to their own playing. These students can often sing in tune and can give accurate criticisms of other players’ intonation but are shut off from what their own fingers are doing. Such students not only need remedial work to release the tightness in the hand, but exercises to reconnect their skills as a listener to their own playing. See Developing the Feel.

Play whole passages shifting on one finger, so that you shift to every note. See Flesch One-String Sequence

Listening to and discussing the differences between different artists’ intonation can stimulate a student’s interest in intonation.


Intonation – Developing the Feel
Flesch One-String Sequence
Resources – Bibliography

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