7 Tips for Improving and Perfecting Violin Intonation
Intonation is a blessing and a curse for fretless stringed instrument players.
If you have good intonation, you're rewarded with an emotion-evoking sound guaranteed to turn some heads. However, the wrong intonation can affect the overall impact and accuracy of your performance.
While achieving correct intonation may seem daunting, it's easily achievable with proper instruction and practice. Lucky for you, Trala teachers are well-versed in violin intonation and can help improve your pitch accuracy.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's look deeper at what violin intonation is, why it's challenging to master, and how you can perfect it.
What is violin intonation?
Violin intonation is the accuracy of pitch when playing the instrument. Intonation within music is the relationship or distance from note to note. It's one of the most vital elements in violin playing because it directly impacts sound quality.
Proper intonation results in clear, pleasant, and harmonious melodies, improving the overall quality of a performance. It enhances musical expression by accurately conveying a performance's intended message.
Why mastering violin intonation is challenging
Perfecting the intonation of your playing might require several attempts, as is the case with any valuable skill. Knowing what makes the process difficult can let you know what to focus on during your practice sessions.
Here's why mastering intonation is challenging:
The fingerboard is one of the most vital components of a violin — it's the surface on which a violinist places their fingers to achieve specific pitches. Unlike other string instruments like guitars, violins are fretless — they don't have metal strips (frets) around their neck to help define pitch.
So, how does that make mastering intonation difficult?
Since there are no frets, a player must rely on their muscle memory and ears to achieve the perfect intonation. It takes a lot of practice, an in-depth understanding of proper finger placement, and attentive listening. Even the most experienced virtuosos have to work on their intonation constantly.
But it gets easier with time. So, keep going if you're just getting started.
A violinist must be adaptable to achieve good intonation in all musical contexts, which can be daunting.
Take an orchestral or concerto setting, for example. You must contend with numerous chord changes and varying harmonies from other instruments and violin players. Maintaining a unified pitch throughout a performance can be difficult. It takes a lot of practice to coordinate effectively with other musicians.
Muscular control and complex finger movement
The violin is an incredibly sensitive instrument. Sometimes, something as simple as touching the wrong string with your fingertip can affect your intonation.
You need tremendous muscular control to press down on your strings with enough force and keep your hand stable during your performance.
Precise finger movements are also necessary, as you must place your fingers on just the right spots to achieve your desired pitch. Intonation practice is vital to proper muscular control and intricate finger movements.
7 best practices for perfecting violin intonation
While mastering violin intonation can be challenging, it can also be rewarding and extremely satisfying.
Trust that the extra practice sessions will be worthwhile when you master proper intonation. To help you, we've compiled a list of tips that can help you:
1. Ensure proper tuning
Violins are often susceptible to temperature and humidity changes, affecting their sound. Regular tuning allows you to maintain your instrument's pitch accuracy.
To ensure proper tuning, you must understand the instrument's strings and intended sound. This way, you'll know when the pitch is off so you can tune it. A violin has four open strings. Their order from left to right is:
- G string: It's supposed to produce the lowest pitch.
- D string: It should make a warm, mellow sound.
- A string: It typically has a bright, vibrant sound.
- E string: It's supposed to produce the highest pitch.
Test your violin’s open strings every time you play to ensure they are in tune. If not, use your tuning pegs or fine tuners to achieve the intended pitch. Tuning pegs are suitable for significant adjustments, while fine tuners are ideal for minor adjustments.
Violinists can apply the following tuning systems to improve sound quality:
- Pythagorean intonation: This system is based on perfect fifths. You achieve higher notes by stacking fifths in the 3:2 ratio from your original note. The downside to Pythagorean intonation is that perfect fifths don't result in a perfect circle of fifths — this is known as the Pythagorean comma.
- Just intonation: This system is based on the overtone or harmonic series. Under this system, tones are based on a fundamental pitch — each frequency is derived using whole number ratios and is a multiple of the first note. A key difference between this system and the Pythagorean system is that just intonation doesn't rely solely on perfect fifths.
- Equal temperament: This system is preferred for complex compositions and performances involving various instruments. It solves the Pythagorean comma issue by narrowing each perfect fifth by 1/12, allowing players to return to the original pitch.
Violinists typically tune arpeggios and scales with Pythagorean intonation, chords, and double stops using just intonation and non-tonal repertoire with equal temperament.
Tuning may initially be overwhelming for beginners, but it becomes easier with expert instruction.
2. Master finger placement techniques
A well-tuned violin will only produce the correct pitch with proper finger placement. This is why many of your violin lessons will focus on finger placement techniques.
The double contact point method is one of the best techniques. It calls for violin players to maintain two points of contact between their instruments and hands instead of just one.
For example, when playing the first position, you can position your thumb and the base of your index finger against the fingerboard to improve intonation. Be sure to keep all points of contact flexible for greater control. Be aware that this technique is not suitable for vibrato, as it may hinder the ability to maintain consistent sound.
Anchor fingers are also vital in violin playing. These are the fingers that maintain contact with the instrument without necessarily playing. They enhance control over intonation and increase a player's stability when shifting notes. The first finger is often used as the anchor finger.
3. Ear training exercises
Listening to yourself is one of the best ways to determine if you're playing in tune. But, you may not realize when you're playing out of tune if you don't know what to listen for. That's where ear training comes into play. This is the process of learning how to identify musical elements. Here are some ear-training exercises to try:
- Play along to recordings of your favorite musical pieces.
- Try to identify chord progressions on your favorite songs.
- Consider practicing scales and arpeggios from a sustained note.
- Transcribe simple musical pieces by ear and build up to complex ones.
Students who undergo ear training can identify and reproduce sounds accurately. You'll know when your notes are off-pitch so you can make the necessary changes to improve your sound.
4. Record yourself
You may only sometimes hear when your intonation is off during practice sessions. This is why recording yourself is essential.
Take video and audio recordings of your practice sessions. This way, you can evaluate your pitch accuracy and observe your finger placement throughout your practice. One way to improve your violin skills is to be able to first identify what can be improved.
5. Practice with a tuner
A tuner can make all the difference in violin playing. They provide real-time feedback during intonation practice, making it easier for you to tune your instrument. If you're a beginner, find an easy-to-use tuner. You can use a physical tuner or a digital tuner, like the one available in the free Trala app for iOS and Android.
For the best results, combine the tool with ear-training exercises, but be careful to avoid becoming overly reliant on it.
6. Play with others
Playing in ensembles is vital for several reasons. First, it makes it easier for one to identify intonation discrepancies. When playing with others, you can determine when you're playing out of tune, as you'll also be listening to other players' pitches.
Playing with others can also be a form of ear training. You learn how to identify subtle pitch variations when playing in groups. This skill can improve your ability to play in tune, even during solo intonation practice sessions.
7. Seek feedback from an experienced violinist
Professional guidance can go a long way in improving intonation. Find a reliable violin teacher to help you perfect your skills. Ideally, you should work with someone with experience, as they can easily identify discrepancies in intonation and offer valuable tips.
Trala gives you access to violin experts who can guide you on everything from proper bowing technique to intonation. Our teachers will guide you on tuning your instrument, providing insights into the best finger placement techniques, and schedule regular intonation practice sessions to help you move forward.
Perfect your violin intonation with a Trala instructor
Achieving perfect intonation can be challenging. It may be very frustrating during your initial violin-playing sessions. But nothing is impossible with patience, practice, and proper instruction.
Trala offers one-on-one online lessons geared toward helping students become better violinists. Our lessons are led by experienced teachers who continually help students master their violin intonation and produce better musical pieces. You'll surely notice a significant improvement in intonation when you keep up with your classes.
Sign up for your first lesson today to get on the path to perfecting your intonation!