Improving intonation

Improving intonation

I’d like to ask all the experienced fiddlers here (in fact, any fiddler with any experience at all!) what you do to work on intonation. I’m four months into learning how to play and my progress is fine, but the accuracy of my fingers is not matching up with the accuracy of my ears and it’s making me NUTS! I can tolerate everything else—missed notes, inconsistent rhythm, messy string crossings—there’s just something about notes that are out of tune that brings out this emotional response in me and makes me despair of ever learning how to play. And then I take a deep breath and try again.

I’ve been trying all the things my teacher has told me—scales, proper form, playing two strings and checking for beats, playing slower, all that stuff. I have seen some improvement, but then some days I’ll sit down and it’s just complete torture to listen to. Any advice anyone has will be much appreciated.

And I must say, I had no idea how much patience it takes to become a musician. I guess I thought anyone who could really play an instrument had some sort of special gift that let them sit down and magically bring music out through their hands. It’s not like singing at all, where you either have a good voice or you don’t. I know better now. It’s been a comfort to read the threads on this board and know that others are going through the same struggle.

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There are times when just about everyone sits down and things don’t seem to work properly. Check that these times of torture are not occurring when you are tired after a long day, for example, and take courage if they are. And don’t practise at those times.

If your ears know when you’re out of tune, I’d say you’re going to be OK. (I’ve had students that couldn’t tell when they were out of tune, and that’s a much worse problem.) Your hands will find a way of adjusting. Sounds like you’re doing the right things.

BTW singing isn’t that simple. Many people who think they don’t have a good voice can learn to sing very well through practice and a bit of guidance from a voice teacher.

Bon courage

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just so long as the accuracy of your fingers does not match up with the accuracy your ears and it’s making you NUTS, you’l be OK. It’s when you start to think it’s fine that danger comes.

keep it up

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It’s all about finger memory, and that just takes lots and lots (and LOTS) of practise.

Scales are good for getting your fingers used to falling in the right place, even if they’re boring to listen to.

Start every practise sesson witb a few scales, and don’t forget arpeggios. As said above, if you hear when you’re out of tune, you’ll do fine.

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I agree with John. It’s the practise that improves the muscle (finger) memory. There’s no other way that I know. Depending somewhat on your age, I have known really good fiddlers (older starters) that took 5 yrs of dedicated practise before they really sounded great. And then there are those that do it in 1 qtr. time. Heh.

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Slow down. Hear every note you play. I’ve been playing for decades, and I still need to do this. What I do is play a line, a bar or a whole tune slowly to make sure that I am not allowing a single note that’s not right in tune. I typically do this once a solitary fiddle session. I suggest you play a little, warm up the fingers, and then devote a few minutes to your own slow play.

You absolutely must persist with this. You’re learning a wonderful skill that will bring you great enjoyment with the rest of your life. If nobody else applauds you, I will: >THUNDEROUS CLAPPING<.

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It’s like the old joke; “How do you get to Carnegie/The Albert Hall ?”
“Practise, kid, practise.”
But, as was said, if your ears are telling you when you are wrong, you are halfway there. Also, 4 months is no time at all, just don’t give up.
Cries of “Encore!”.

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Scales, check. Arpeggios, check. Slow, check. Every note in tune, check. I will do all these things first thing when I get home.

What nice people are here on this board. I think musicians as a bunch are pretty nice. I’ve been checking out some of the sessions where I live, and all the musicians I’ve talked to have encouraged me to join in when I’m ready and said they will play tunes I know slowly just so I can follow along. And these are some very accomplished players. It definitely gives me a reason to keep practicing.

It figures that with my ear I chose an instrument without frets. I could have picked a nice, safe, pre-tuned piano, but no, I had to play the violin. I think us beginning fiddlers would be a great anti-crime device. Who needs psychology when you can put us in a room with some guy who robbed a bank? We’d get a confession in minutes!

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I agree with Pete. If you can hear the intonation problems, that’s more than half the battle–not everybody has the ear needed for a fretless instrument.

I see that the Oot Pik waltz is in your tunebook. That one is favorite of mine, partly because those first notes run from the open D string right up the scale, slowly. It’s one of my “comfort tunes” (like “comfort food,” geddit?) Sometimes if I’m frustrated while practicing, I’ll indulge in a “comfort tune” to remind myself that I’m not completely incompetent.

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Don’t overlook the tuning. Check it often . Sometimes you’re doing everything right but because your tuning may be off a hair your intonation will be off too. Sometimes strings slip a bit while you practice too. After I started to use a good tuner adn not just comparing the strings to my piano (piano could be off) my intonation improved. Obvious- but some of us take a while to catch on.

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Two things have helped me with my intonation; 1) listening for ‘ringing tones’ and 2) practicing with a chromatic tuner.

1) The ‘ringing tones’ are the notes on the fingerboard that match other strings. Like playing a D on the A string … when it’s right in tune, you’ll hear (and see) the D string vibrate. There’s a bunch of ringing tones on your fiddle, find them! 🙂

2) Get a chromatic tuner that can tell the pitch you’re playing and shows a little needle that displays how close to the note you are. Then, pick a couple of different notes and play them, watching the tuner to see how close you are and adjusting till you get it right. Now, memorize what “right” sounds like … keep practicing until your fingers find the right spot and your ear tells you it’s right.

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Find a good cd or mpg you like (in keys you play) and run it through the Amazing SlowDowner so you can play WITH other fiddlers, in tune, and slowly. Try playing in just one key per night (just tunes in G) and really get that position drilled into your muscle memory. Then go to tunes in F or something the next week and get that pattern set in your hands. I really improve when playing with a cd or even scales put into an online program that you can play with. Eventually your fingers will ‘find’ the place automatically. What’s that violin phrase: it takes 20 years to sound bad, then you start improving…. no, it’s not quite that - I’ve only been playing for 3 years and have been making quite reasonable progress. You can do it!

Sarah

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Maybe ask your teacher to record you some scales, tunes etc. very slowly (or better yet, in digital format for your computer so you can vary the speed). Play along with that recording. Since it’s slow, you have time to correct your intonation until it matches that of your teacher’s.

Also, along the lines of the ringing tones… Whenever you play the octave above the string below (e.g. a D on the A string) check it against the string below (D string).

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Take heart, Kennedy. In a study on intonation, researchers found that even the best concert solo violinists were perfectly on pitch only 30 percent of the time. The other 60 percent of the time they’re just very quick and good at making micro-adjustments, or the pitch was “close enough” for human ears.

I disagree that good intonation is all about finger memory. That only gets you so far. For me, it’s really all about hearing an accurate target pitch in your head and then matching that on your fiddle by listening to what you’re playing.

I say this because pitch is somewhat relative–we hear the notes of the scale relative to the home note, the dominant tone of that scale. This is especially true on instruments without fixed pitched or tempered tuning.

To drive this home, instead of playing a straight scale, try playing each note of the scale alternating with the home note. For D major, it would look like this:

D2 E D F D G D A D B D c D d D

Do this very slowly. No…slower. S-l-o-w-e-r. Even s
l
o
w
e
r

Keep the home note in your ear as the point of reference and really, deeply, at the molecular level *listen* to how each note of the scale sounds in relation to that home note. You’ll find the richest tonal qualities when your pitch is spot on relative to the home note (blame it on harmonic overtones).

Do this with each relative mode as well. So after getting intimate with D major, play E Dorian (same notes, but the pitches are now played off against E as the root of the scale). Then B minor (again, same notes, but pitches are now relative to B as the home note).

Another good exercise is to laser in on the difference in pitch between, say, c natural and c sharp. This is crucial for the many tunes in this music that wander between the two.

Do the same for G major (A Dorian, Em). That covers the most common keys and modes for Irish trad and should be enough to keep you busy for another year or two. Then you can start on other keys and modes. Be patient with yourself. Everything you’re learning now is stuff you’ll continue to explore and refine for the rest of your life (or at least as long as you continue to play music).

(Why do I get the feeling that Kennedy is one of those super talented whiz kids who will soon eclipse the abilities of all of us, despite our decades of perseverance?) 🙂

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“Get a chromatic tuner… Then, pick a couple of different notes and play them, watching the tuner to see how close you are and adjusting till you get it right. Now, memorize what “right” sounds like … keep practicing until your fingers find the right spot and your ear tells you it’s right.”

I’m not very keen on this piece of advice. A chromatic tuner is designed to operate according to an equal-tempered scale. Ultimately I think this will give you problems when playing the fiddle, esp. in trad music.

Now let me say that I’ve never used a tuner to tune my fiddle, but in principle it should disagree with my ear simply for tuning the open strings, let alone anything else. I tune my strings to perfect fifths, by ear, as fiddlers and violinists have always done. Perfect fifths don’t exist in the equal-tempered scale and so won’t be found on a standard chromatic tuner.

From what Kennedy said his ears are working properly anyway so I would encourage him to perfect them without recourse to a tuner.

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Keep going. 41 years later - if you’re like me - you’ll just about be starting to think you might be getting the hang of it …

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I’m no kid, Will—I’ll be 42 in a few weeks and I’m just hoping I have enough time to get good before I’m truly old and my fingers don’t work so well any more!

It’s interesting what you say about relative pitch. One big problem I’m having lately is this reel I’m working on has the A part on the D and A strings and the B part on the A and E strings, and if I start the B part a little bit sharp, all the other notes after it creep up in pitch as well and then the whole thing is out of whack when I get back to the A part. So I think your scale exercise might help here.

I guess I’m lucky I don’t have to worry about shifting positions with Irish music…

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Steve, I understand your reservations about electronic tuners, but I can also see how working with one could be one part of a program to improve your intonation.
Just like working with a metronome can help develop steady rhythm, and by cranking up a metronome, you can train yourself to bring more complex figures and ornaments up to speed.
As long as the electronic tuner is a tool, not a crutch, it can be useful to a player.

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Oh, and kennedy, don’t worry about the age. As your 40s progress, you will get more wrinkled and grey and possibly bald, and even when you play more slowly than others, and your fingers don’t work as well, people will assume that, because of your age, your playing is more “authentic” than all these flashy youngsters.
😉

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Lol, I should’ve clarified that anyone at any age can turn out to be a “whiz kid.”

Something to bear in mind: this is dance music. Yes, intonation matters, but not near as much as a good solid rhythm, sense of pulse or lift, and strong tone. When you’re first starting out (not just the first 4 months…more like the first 4 years), your brain has a lot of things to pay attention to. Just getting the bow to run perpendicular to the strings can be overwhelming, let alone finding the arm plane for each string, letting go of tension, keeping the fiddle from falling, producing a consistent tone, producing a *pleasant* tone, keeping the beat, figuring out the difference between jigs, reels, polkas, hornpipes, slip jigs, slides, etc., following a melody, deciding when to slur notes on one bow stroke, how your left hand finds the strings. and so on. Intonation is just one more plate spinning on a wobbly stick. And it’s not the most important plate.

The fact that it bothers you when your intonation is off tells me that in a few more months, you’ll be playing well in tune nearly all the time, even if you don’t work on it very much. Your ear will guide your fingers to the right places.

So by all means don’t ignore your intonation, but really try to concentrate on getting infected with the pulse of the tunes you’re learning and the feel of caressing the strings with the hair on your bow. That’s what will pay huge dividends in the long run, and your intonation will come along.

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Bald—no no no!!! I’m a girl! Grey I can hide, and wrinkles I’m hoping to avoid for a while yet…

Plate on a wobbly stick, that’s pretty much what it feels like to balance all the elements of playing you mention. I’ll just keep hanging around this website for everyone’s good advice, and I think that will be most helpful. This is the only place I’ve ever found where anyone has even *heard* of Kevin Burke and all the other music I love. I knew right away it was the place for me!

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Listen to the album of ‘50’s - ‘60’s London Irish fiddler Martin Byrnes - his consistent not -quite-hitting the top B is part of the charm.

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I’m not a wizz kid, I have been playing for years on and off and I am still sometimes discontented with my intonation. Sometimes I don’t realise that it is intonation that is the problem, I just have a vague feeling something isn’t right. I’ve learned quite recently to check the tuning of the strings when I feel like that. To help me get in tune and feel comfortable again I try playing along with a recording of a tune I know well, getting in tune with that, then maybe try a tune on my own where I can use “droning” open strings to provide a sort of “chord” to tune to.

What whoosis said about virtuoso violinists being out of tune most of the time is interesting. It shows that it’s unrealistic for us to hope to hit the notes dead on first time, and also that it’s not necessary to be that accurate to please a listener.

So maybe the target isn’t to hit the precise note each time, the target is to correct the inevitable inacccuracies gracefully?

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Yep, classical players call that “vibrato.” 🙂

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When you can play the “trick” C (on the A-string) any time you want to or need to, then you’ve arrived 🙂. Similarly, if you can make the distinction between the E in the scale of D and the E in the scale of C (they’re two slightly different frequencies).
For those who aren’t quite certain what a “trick” C on the fiddle is, it’s a note halfway between C-nat and C# on the A-string. It occurs occasionally in a few tunes, mostly from the West of Ireland as I understand.
Pete Cooper’s book and CD of 64 Irish fiddle tunes has half a dozen or so examples of these “trick” notes, and in one tune in particular, “The pullet and the cock”, if you replace that trick C in the B-part with either a C-nat or a C# then you’ll find that those “normal” notes just don’t work in that context, and that the trick C really is an essential part of the tune.

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Hmmm, I just googled “violin intonation and hit on:

Intonation training CD:
http://www.theviolinsite.com/tuning.html

Intonation practice tips
http://www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm?ID=7385

Understanding “just” intonation (what we use on fiddle)
http://www.larastjohn.com/essays/intonation.html

And if you think trad music throws intonation puzzles at you….
http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~leonid/yampolsky_fingering.htm

Also, these thoughts from Jeremy Cohen, a jazz violinist (http://www.violinjazz.com/askjeremy.html)

Question from a Visitor to this Site – Intonation
“Hi, I play violin and I have some questions about the violin. If all of the strings are in tune isn’t it true that when you play the fourth finger on a string that it should sound exactly like the open string next to it as long as you have the correct fingering? Is it not a good idea to tune a string by trying to make it sound exactly like that same note played by the fourth finger on the previous string assuming that the fingering is correct on that string and that string is in tune? I would appreciate any feedback that you could give me. Thanks.”

Discussion
OK, It’s been a while since you asked this, but I think I am ready to tackle your question now. The answer to your question is layered and complicated, but I’ll try to simplify it as much as possible. The only absolute pitches on the violin are the open strings (provided your strings are not false). That is to say that the only pitches that will be the same every time you play them will be the open strings. There are two reasons for this:

Our fingers are made of muscle and blood, we are humans, not machines. Our fingers will not always go down precisely on the EXACT same locations (microscopically speaking). Therefore, the answer to your question is no. The pitch will vary slightly each time we put our fingers down. The only way I know to compensate tor this human flaw is to concentrate and focus on pitch intensely while playing or practicing and teach your brain to make your fingers go as close as possible to the location you are singing inside your head. The process of violin (string) playing involves developing a relationship between your inner ear and your left hand fingers (in the case of intonation). If you are singing a note in your head and your left hand finger arrives on the fingerboard out of tune, you must stop, understand what happened (i.e., flat or sharp) and focus on doing it again until you are satisfied that your left hand is responding to your internal voice and intonation. If you practice and let things slip by inaccurately, you will not be playing in tune…and we all know how painful that can be!!!
The violin is not a tempered instrument (like a piano where the pitches are pre determined and pre tuned) The notes you play will be minutely tuned to the keys and scales you are playing. For example: the key of G has an F# on the seventh tone of the scale. On a violin this pitch could be ever so slightly higher than the F# on a piano, which is adjusted (tempered) to be in tune in ALL keys. You might hear an F# from the piano which is slightly lower than you might want it played on the violin. String players intonation can be more fluid in that sense. Of course when you are playing WITH a piano, you might want to adjust your pitches TO the pitches of the piano because the notes are not flexible on the piano, and you want to sound in tune with it. You can’t beat it, so you might as well join it (provided the piano IS in tune)

And:

Questions from a Young Visitor to this Site – Open Strings and Intonation
Dear Mr. Cohen, I am learning to play the violin. Can you tell me why it sounds different to me when I play an open string and when I play the same note on a different string? Am I doing something wrong?

Discussion
Well, this is a good question. First we need to consider two things:

The violin does not have frets, so there are only four notes that will ever sound the exact same pitch and those would be the open strings G, D, A and E. Provided they are in tune, and the tuning does not change (from things such as age of the string, temperature variations or stretching from being played extensively) the open strings are the only “fixed” intonation on the violin.
Although by practicing, we can refine our intonation so that our fingers will go to the proper location for a pitch, without the pro-active help of our ears our intonation will never be accurate to the point of being “exactly” in tune. Finite variations in the placement of the fingertips will produce finite variations of every pitch. Therefore, if you are not singing the pitch inside your head and matching it to the key you are playing in, intonation will always be approximate (and possibly good) but not exact.
So, to answer your question simply: our human fingers will have slight variation in angle, pressure and amount of skin cells which come into contact with the string which will produce slight variations in pitch. So the work on intonation must be done BEFORE a pitch is played, so one can train the finger to respond to absolute pitch inside your ear. I’d also like to add that since a violin is not a “tempered” instrument (like a piano where the intonation is fixed) pitches can vary slightly according to key. For example, in the key of D the C# could be played slightly (!) higher than it would sound on the piano. This discussion could go on for a long time; I hope you get the general idea. –JC

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“Listen to the album of ‘50’s - ‘60’s London Irish fiddler Martin Byrnes - his consistent not -quite-hitting the top B is part of the charm.”

Yes it’s part of the charm but I’m quite sure he’s hitting exactly the note he wants to hit. The B you imply he should be hitting is the one on the piano, but the piano is the instrument that’s not in tune here.

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Do you have a piano or other kind of fixed-pitch keyboard handy? One thing that works for some people is to tape yourself playing slow scales and play back the tape while you play the violin. Then, go on to tunes.

Not to hijack the thread, but I’d be very grateful if all my ITM friends on this site raise a glass in memory of my Dad, a great guy, who will be buried on Friday.

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Sympathies to you and your family, Greg.

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Sorry to hear your sad news. Greg.

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Greg, my sympathies to you. I’ll raise a glass to you and your father tonight.

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a lot of good stuff here, especially the stressing that merely using your muscle memory sidleins the use of your ears. It’s vital that the ears stay the most important thing.

However, I don’t understand the advice about scales. Why play scales when you can play tunes instead? Always confused me that one.

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Hey Greg. Hijack away, in honor of your dad. Sympathies to you and your family.

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I didn’t want to be the first to mention vibrato whoosis, I have the idea us fiddlers are supposed not to acknowledge it exists.

I had a handful of “classical” violin lessons when I was a kid but mostly I’m self-taught. I have never been able to manage a “classical” vibrato, and I’ve never really wanted to anyway, but just recently I’ve noticed a small amount of vibrato creeping into my playing almost of its own accord, on “emphasised” notes where intonation might otherwise be a problem for me. And it sounds right somehow. I wonder what your teacher would say about that Kennedy?

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My teacher uses vibrato on the airs he plays. He’s classically trained, so that might influence him some, but I think he just chooses it the way he chooses a moving triplet or a bowing pattern. And don’t get me started about how beautifully he plays!

Personally, I like some vibrato here and there, but that might be because I’ve listened to more Scottish fiddling than Irish. And different fiddlers use it in differing amounts. Alaisdair Fraser, for example, uses a bit more than I personally would (like *that* will happen any time in the next few years, ha ha), but I LOVED Johnny Cunningham’s vibrato—subtle, but definitely there.

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If you didn’t think life was complicated enough, guitarists too can get away from the equal toned scale and play in all sorts of modes using a Lucy-tuned guitar. Just try to wrap your brain round some of the stuff on this site and then I suggest a nice lie down:
http://www.lucytune.com/guitars_and_frets/frets.html

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Darol Anger (not Irish, but excellent player) has some interesting thoughts about vibrato:

http://www.darolanger.com/teachingquestions.html

“Vibrato is starting to be an area of special interest to me because it appears to communicate so much about the player’s emotional state. Much vibrato signals some sort of diconnect within the player’s emotional process.

Generally, in vernacular music styles, vibrato is used as a relaxation of the note-feeling, rather than an intensification, as in romantic Italian operatic (bel canto)music. Exceptions include certain American Gospel styles and Swing “panic” vibrato, but this holds true generally all over the world.

Fiddle style vibrato almost never needs to be an arm vibrato, and is always somwhat slower than bel canto style. Fiddle vibrato may be wide, hower, as in Texas waltz playing. Vibrato usually is brought in after a note is begun rather than sustained throughout the note, and is never used on any kind of running notes.

I personally cut out all vibrato at the beginning of my career with the DGQ for about a year, and a natural vibrato gradually grew back in, something like my adult teeth. I just try to encourage students to vibrate slowly and not too widely, with the wrist, and to think about what it means when they do. Vibrato is like acting; if the audience notices you’re doing it, then it’s wrong.“

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I haven’t had an opportunity to hear the Martin Byrnes album, but this is what I think is going on when he plays a slightly flat high B. If he is playing in the key of G (quite likely) then a slightly flat B is the right note for the 3rd note of that scale in just intonation. If he were playing in A or E then I think he would tend to sharpen that B so that it is closer to or exactly on the true fifth above the E-string. Like most musicians, Martin Byrnes would have been following his ear and musical sense instinctively rather than working to a scientific explanation.
If the fiddle is exactly tuned in true fifths then the slightly flat high B will resonate with an important harmonic (a B) of the G-string. If you play a high B that is an exact fifth above the open E then you won’t get this resonance and the note won’t sing quite as much.
A good fiddle player (or violist or cellist, or a string ensemble) will make these subtle changes in intonation - there are many more of them on the list! - and it makes all the difference between a good performance and an outstanding one.
Regarding vibrato, in Irish music I think it should be treated as another ornamental device, as the baroque and early music players do, which implies it should be under the player’s complete control at all times and have some thought put into it before it is used. What I particularly dislike in some classical ensembles is an all-pervading vibrato which some players are apparently incapable of switching off - which happened in one orchestral rehearsal when our conductor wanted a whole movement played without vibrato and two guys in the violin sections found themselves unable to comply.
If a fiddle player, as an “improver”, finds that a true, relaxed vibrato is coming naturally without effort then that is good news because it shows that the left hand is now well on the way to getting the desired relaxation and mobility in playing. The player will also find that learning to use the higher positions will be that much easier. Again, learning to control the vibrato is the important thing.

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I expect Steve Jones, posted above, is right about Martin Byrne’s trying to play with the note(s) of the piano on the record he made with Reg Hall, and that he knew what he was doing. I don’t have the record any more, but remember it as a delightful one.

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In Dr.L.Subramaniums book “Euphony”
He suggests playing along with an underlying drone or root note,
that way,you have a reference for every note you play.
He is considered probably the premier fiddle player in Indian classical music,

P

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P, that’s what my little exercise above tries to get at. And to answer Michael’s query about scales, I agree that the tunes *are* our etudes in this tradition. You can learn all you need to know about technique simply by playing the tunes. But many people struggle with specific aspects of technique, and in the very beginning stages it can help them to laser focus on what needs work. A scale-based drill is one way to do that.

Not surprisingly, there are tunes that can be used to accomplish the same thing. If Kennedy (or anyone else) wants to work on sounding pitches of the scale against an open string drone note, try playing Harvest Home Hornpipe (https://thesession.org/tunes/49), Guns of the Magnificent Seven (https://thesession.org/tunes/40), Brenda Stubbert’s (https://thesession.org/tunes/727), Gravel Walks to Granie (https://thesession.org/tunes/42), The Shetland Fiddler (https://thesession.org/tunes/97), or The Sweet Flowers of Milltown (https://thesession.org/tunes/2997), for a start.

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And furthermore…

The idiosyncratic nature of the human hand, combined with the non- (and, perhaps, occasionally ill-) tempered inclinations of the violin, both lend themselves to the world of micro-tones (ie: the many, many different levels of “C”, as conventionally expressed in western musical context). Whereas it adds colour and character to your ITM (at the points before which it becomes agonizingly out of tunes), in other musical forms, it is an essential element of the structure itself… weird, eh? So. Everybody has imparted their wisdom, and I concur. Obey your ears… they seem to be on the right track.

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Nicholas, my point was that Martin Byrnes was not trying to play in tune with the piano but that he was playing the tunes exactly as he would without a piano. It is just not believable that a player of his skill is incapable of playing the pitches he intends to play.

I have one track of him playing unaccompanied, the reel Christmas Eve, and the slightly “flat” Bs (or just-intoned Bs if you prefer) are very striking - and absolutely delicious.

Listening to playing like this you can understand how players of fixed-pitch instruments (banjo and box, particularly) resort to B-flats in tunes like Paddy Fahy’s jig, or F-nats in Chief O’Neill’s hornpipe. Their major third sounds harsh and wrong (and strictly speaking of course it is), so they go for a minor third, when what is really required is a sweet and “slightly flat” major third… but that stuff could form the basis of another discussion!

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Christmas Eve is in G, so the flattened major third (the B) would be exactly right for it.

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I find this discussion fascinating, as it is something I never really thought about. Myself, I have enough trouble keeping track of the 12 semi-tones, and all this talk of notes between the notes is complicated enough to make my head hurt! I guess that is why I play guitar and accordion, where you push a button or press on a fret, and get the note you get.
😉

Re: Improving intonation

Steve Jones said, “Now let me say that I’ve never used a tuner to tune my fiddle, but in principle it should disagree with my ear simply for tuning the open strings, let alone anything else. I tune my strings to perfect fifths, by ear, as fiddlers and violinists have always done. Perfect fifths don’t exist in the equal-tempered scale and so won’t be found on a standard chromatic tuner.”

The tuner (chromatic or otherwise) is going to tell you how close to 440 your open A string is … if that disagrees with your ears, what are you normally tuning you A-string to?

While I agree that there’s room for A# and Bb being different notes; a B should be a B and an C should be an C or you’re going to sound out of tune with just about every other banjo/guitar/bozouki/accordion you play with.

The fiddle does have nearly infinitely subtle “shading” of pitch, but most of the time you’ll be playing with people who have no other options.

Re: Improving intonation

rzai - lol - how do you think countless violinists and fiddlers of the past ever managed without electronic tuners?

Since you asked, I take an A from a tuning fork, or somebody else I’m playing with, or if I’m playing by myself, just where it happens to be when I take it out of the case (not having perfect pitch). Then I tune the other strings to this note in perfect fifths - by ear. Far, far faster and easier than faffing about with a tuner - besides being more accurate.

I’m not talking about the difference between A# and B flat. I’m talking about fifths. The fifths on a piano, and hence on a tuner, are fudged to avoid the notorious “comma” problem (what I call “God’s mistake” - perfect fifths and perfect octaves will get out of tune with each other over a span of a few octaves).

If you’re a cellist playing string quartets you’ll need to worry about this to make sure your bottom string doesn’t clash with the higher strings of the fiddles. Anyway for Irish music, the range isn’t sufficient to cause a problem. Give me those perfect ringing fifths, thank you!

Re: Improving intonation

I generally use a simple A-tuning fork (no batteries, etc) for checking the A and then tune the remaining strings as perfect fifths. Except, when there is reed instrument present, in which case I’ll take my A off that (sometimes they can be slightly off 440, perhaps because of humidity or temperature.)

Re: Improving intonation

I’ve been listening to The Iron Man lately and I’ve noticed that the fiddle intonation is more, let’s say, familiar in the common keys, but becomes ever so slightly more exotic in the B flat tunes. Is that because that’s the way Tommy heard the tunes or because he very slightly missed his target intonation? I don’t claim to know the answer.

Very early in his career, Kevin Burke played some of those “trick” notes – those seventh degrees that sound in between natural and sharp. But I haven’t heard him do it for a very long time. I wonder if he decided that it was “incorrect”?

Dontcha love academic ratholes? I know I do.

In trad music, is any note ever a mistake? Is any pitch ever out of tune? Or is it all “correct” because, …well, because it’s folk music and there is no incorrect way to do it?

Is a fiddler’s intonation “incorrect” if he aims for C and hits something halfway between natural and sharp? Is it “correct” if the in-between note was what he intended?

Re: Improving intonation

If an academic talks to himself on a discussion thread, but no one is listening, does it make a sound?
🙂 Sorry, Bob, I couldn’t resist.

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Re: Improving intonation

If you do it once, it’s a mistake. If you do it twice it becomes part of a new version of the tune 🙂

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Story of my life, Will.

Re: Improving intonation

I play fretless banjo and have been most interested in reading all this thread. All the same problems exist for the fretless banjo player as the fiddle player and your advice has already helped me improve.
dock

Re: Improving intonation

Sounds like you’re on the right track Kennedy - keep at it. I made kind of a late start too, and I remember well how frustrating it is not to be able to make the sound you envision. If you keep playing by yourself, with recordings, and with other people you’ll just naturally get better. You don’t want to rely too much on one of those tuning gizmos though - or at least make an attempt to tune on your own, and then check it against a tuner. It’s more important to work on your listening skills than your ability to play every note in perfect concert pitch, but playing along with a tuner occasionally can help with both. I’ve been fascinated with how my listening awareness grows at a similar rate as my skill level (must be one of those self-preservation brain mechanisms). But it doesn’t start out that way - at first your listening abilities are much better and it’s just painful. You’ll get there though…

Oh and I’ll be raising a glass to Greg’s Dad at precisely 6:30 pm Pacific time if anyone wants to join me

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I like ‘blues stay away’ as it is. Kinda strangely whimsical.

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The tricky thing is, most of us have never really spent time with sounds that are perfectly in tune. We need something to base our pitch sense on. Something that will help us have good pitch memory. Get a Peterson tuner and run many tries at getting 1st position really in tune .

(Peterson Tuners are the best. Look it up and do the research.
All other tuners really fall short. And with strings you need to be perfectly in tune in some way… . )

It works. Also, there are two major tuning systems that violinists need to understand: Just intonation and Pythagorean. Just is when you play 2 or more notes together or play with others, and Pythagorean is when you play solo. So think about it… You have a variety of the pitch E 1st finger on the D string. One when you play with the open A and another when you play it with the open G string. More E notes are available depending on the context in the music.

It’s complicated and I’m not that good of a writer. When you play around with JST intonation and PYT it opens up the violin sound.

Also, the speed at which you correct your note or notes improves, so you can react faster to different timbres and tunings.

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Also , learning to play “in-tune” will help you to understand others playing styles, and to hear what they played. So when listening to other folk violinists play , you can hear the asymmetry or micro tones. The down dirty nitty gritty in betweens. The pitch spectrum is living. There are infinite amounts of notes. Minding your intonation is the first step in recognizing and creating constellations of notes.

Re: Improving intonation

Unfortunately, if we live in “the west” most of us have spent way too much of our time hearing the standard auto tuned output of pop.

But then again, some may be lucky enough to listen to and appreciate the idiosyncratically different tunings of the great concert piano players of our day.

And while some may be lushed by the wave of a deliberately slightly out of tune Mantovani string section (like a fiddle through a Boss chorus pedal), others may appreciate the calm communication of tight intonation adjustments of a really good string quartet. Creating constellations of notes.

And some may even be bored enough to digital tuners.

Me? I love that passing Cnat which is almost half way to Csharp. (the “almost” is what makes it so sweet).

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