Perceived intonation

Perceived intonation

After reading the "Common fiddle scales" thread, I noticed something odd.

I’ve been playing fiddle (and no other instrument) for quite some time now. Today, I tinkled out a few tunes from various books, using a small piano keyboard, and I was surprised at just how much some of the notes seemed slightly out-of-tune. I understand the whole thing about equal temperament etc, but it still sounded quite "off", compared to how I intonate on fiddle.

Does anyone else who plays a piano or related instrument find a similar thing, when listening to a fiddle played in tune, by a decent player? Mainly the major 3rds (on fiddle) being slightly narrower than piano major 3rds.

For me, maybe it’s got something to do with not being exposed to real instruments, what with lockdowns, etc.

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I find equal temperament major thirds excruciating at times. The dissonance can be masked somewhat as part of a larger chord on piano.
On guitar I tend to tune my B string (and consequently E string also) slightly flat of concert to try to make the G string/B string major third more acceptable.
On mandolin I tune the A to concert and then the other strings in perfect fifths which means the E is slightly sharp and the D and G a bit flat. I daren’t play chords on the thing.

It’s a constant struggle with fretted instruments.

To answer your question, Jim, I don’t notice the slightly flat (of ET) thirds played by a good fiddler - I notice the sharp thirds of ET instruments.

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I think it is very context specific. A lot of the first electronic bagpipe models were tuned in equal temperament, and when I listen to them the thirds and (minor) seventh sounded desperate. Yet I’ve heard the same instruments used in a band context and while I can hear the tuning, it’s nothing like as offensive.

One thing that’s interesting is that often fixed-pitch players will inflect pitch when they are able to, usually when singing or whistling. It’s quite common to hear GHB players sharpen the top G when they sing a tune, for example.

I quite agree with Donald about bare thirds on a piano - of course it gets masked slightly in real playing but it really sets my teeth on edge, and I’m normally quite relaxed about tuning and intonation.

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Jim, when you are playing with other instruments, don’t you just automatically adjust pitch as you play? As a flute player, I cannot play amplified if I cannot hear myself. My pitch is all over the map. To such as we, equal temperament don’t mean a thing. You plays it as you hears it, unless you have a fixed-tuning frame of reference.

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Jim, pipers are usually very aware of the same thing.

You tune your strings so that they resonate or ring with each other, pipers tune their drones ditto.

Both you on fiddle and the piper can hear how each note they finger only sounds exactly right when it rings perfectly true against the background resonance.

That’s Just Intonation.

The more a trad musician becomes accustomed to hearing the way each note rings true, the more out-of-tune an Equal Temperament instrument sounds.

And it’s not just trad musicians! "Classical" violinists hear the same resonance and play the notes "just" when playing solo. Just watch and you might see a violinist hitting a three-note chord, the moment it sounds you might see one finger moving a tad down the fingerboard, it’s the violinist hearing the sharp ET Major 3rd and moving it down a hair so it’s Just. (Not that they’re consciously going through this process necessarily, it’s their ear guiding their intonation.)

In like manner you might hear an acapella choir or acapella brass ensemble hit a chord and the Major 3rd can often be heard micro-adjusting, quickly and deftly. An old friend who is a professional Tuba player told me that the moment the player hits that ET Major 3rd it starts adjusting down, as he said not consciously but the musicianship responding to what the ear is hearing.

It’s a shocking demonstration by the way to tune a Highland pipe’s chanter to strict Equal Temperament, then play up the scale and hear how not a single note is quite in tune. The 4th and 5th are very close but not exact. The 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th are horrendous.

I had to do it for a studio gig, they wanted the sound of Highland pipes in a big orchestrated Anthem thing, quite dramatic, but the pipes had to be in ET to blend with the orchestra and keyboards. When we listened to playback it sounded perfect to the composer but ghastly to me. (I wish I had a tape of that! It was a very nice piece all told and the pipes sounded great in it.

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I admit this conversation is a bit over my head. First, I don’t understand the issue with ET and why it would ever sound wrong. Secondly, how can a fiddler play with piano accompaniment?

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ET is a compromise and fundamentally dissonant compared to Just intonation. You really notice it if you have a Just intonation (root of D) based instrument like Uilleann pipes playing with a ET instrument like piano accordion.

Some notes, like the G will sound consonant, but in particular, the F# and B on the pipes will sound considerably flatter than the accordion.

Then to make things worse, the musette reed on LMM accordions is often tuned higher than the primary ET tuned reed, so now you have an even more out of tune sharp note against the pipes on F# and B. There are other differences for each note in the scale, but most noticeable on these two notes.

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What constitutes the compromise? That word indicates that what should exist does not, so adjustments must be made for the scale to work. From that premise, I infer that ET is inherently flawed, but I don’t understand the basis of the flaw.

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Thank you, Michael! Stuff I never knew and never knew I didn’t know. However, if I understand the second video (I’ll be honest and confess I really could not hear the difference in the first), ALL tunings are a compromise in that none preserve the correct overtones from one scale to another. What differs are the scales and the degree of outofwhackness. Equal temperament seems to do the best job (according to the speaker), so that’s what we use. So I now understand the compromise, but I still don’t get Jim’s problem.

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"Jim’s problem" was that, after only hearing his fiddle for quite a while, when he heard the equal temperament of a piano some notes sounded "out of tune".

Equal temperament means that fixed pitch instruments like keyboards can play "acceptably" in all keys. D, for example, has the same pitch whichever key you play in. But, in truth, the D in G major is not quite the same as the D in B minor or the D in A major.

Occasionally, I tune the B string on my guitar so it plays a just major third with the G string. Then I’ll play the two strings together, sit back, and marvel in the beauty of the sound.

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@DonaldK - have you tried the "sweetened tuning" as pioneered by James Taylor? It involves detuning all 6 strings by a few cents, a different amount for each string. It seems not only to correct (or at least improve) the issue of thirds on the B and G, but also intonation problems all over the neck. It’s as if it "averages" everything out so that chords and intervals sound great everywhere. Peterson strobe tuners now have Taylor’s cent offsets as a setting, and I swear by it. I play all over the neck, including a lot of combining open strings with high fretted notes, and it’s the only way I can make everything sound acceptable without being horribly pained by the sound of one particular part of the fretboard.

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I confess I haven’t tried James Taylor’s sweetened tuning. Maybe investigate and give it a go.

I usually tune my D string to concert then tune the A and G a perfect 4th either side. I then check the B and two Es against octaves on the A, D and G strings (e.g., open D against 3rd fret B string). In practice it means the B and both E strings are slightly flat of concert.

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> ALL tunings are a compromise in that none preserve the correct overtones from one scale to another

That’s exactly correct. All the different types of temperament are basically moving the "bad" intervals around from one key to another, and you can either spread the bad news evenly (equal temperament is the extreme example of this) or you can "dump" the worst into the obscure keys while keeping some of them sweet, which is what the sweetened tunings mentioned above do - it works so well on guitar because everything on the guitar neck is based around the CAGED system, so the sweetened systems target 0-4 sharps.

I suspect, Ailin, since like any flute player you’re so used to controlling your intonation, that you don’t notice it as much as you’re always adjusting to what’s going on around you. For all that ET really gets on some people’s nerves, it’s worked well for musicians for a long time now, and we can get overly wound up about the imagined "problems" it has.

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Where is the flaw, you ask? Well I am fond of saying that the first and biggest mistake is God’s, namely the fact that perfect octaves (frequency ratio 2:1) and perfect fifths (frequency ratio 3:2) are not compatible. This is known as Pythagoras’ "comma" - the discrepancy between the two perfect intervals that quickly emerges over a few octaves. Temperament problems begin with that.

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Yes, if you do a complete cycle of perfect fifths from A, by the time you get to Gx (=A in ET) you’ll be 23 cents or so sharp of A.

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Technical question: Doesn’t Just intonation reference the root note of a scale, let’s say D?

Tuning to Just intonation in D, means the intonation of other keys are worse. So, haven’t you just screwed yourself the moment you change to G or A?

I’m curious about the comment regarding sweetened tuning working for sharp keys from C through E.

I have one flute that sound extraordinarily sweet in tone. Firstly, it is a very fine flute, but secondly I wonder if that is due to how well it is "intonated".

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Yes.

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If you want to go deep on this subject there’s a great book by Ross Duffin called ‘How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)’.

It obviously has to get pretty technical but is an entertaining read and endlessly fascinating

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James Taylor’s "sweetened" guitar tuning is to do with more than just intonation vs equal temperament. It’s also to do with the tendency for lower pitched strings to go sharp when plucked hard and the effect of putting a capo on the neck which increases string tension. From low to high he tunes his strings 12, 10, 8, 4, 6 and 3 cents flat of concert (ET) pitch.

I tried it. Not sure what to make of it. It does sound different. It seems to work very well for JT style finger-picky stuff in C, G, D and A. Not quite so sure when I try more jazzy tenth chords. Maybe my ear needs to adjust.

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FWIW, one of the things to remember about just intonation is that even within one scale, it’s not stable. If you keep cycling around a piece of music, over time, the tonic and all the other pitches will wander around. When singing, a choir can adjust to this a bit as long as you don’t repeat too much. (If the song repeats many times, the pitch drift becomes very noticeable.) But on instruments, after a while, you simply can’t keep to just intonation even after a few repeats because you can’t stop and tune your D string up or down to accommodate the pitch drift.

There’s a really nice and incredibly entertaining treatment of this on YouTube here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhY_7LT8eTw


It’s a pain, but Western music is a compromise, and we can’t avoid it. I’m a pianist, so I’m fine with ET, but when I was messing around on viola, it did make the piano sound less nice to my ears. I also adjust for intonation while I play the flute, and of course vibrato is great for hiding commas, which is why I suspect we use it.

However, I’m happy to make the adjustment to ET because it allows me to modulate to any key I want in the same piece. To me, that’s the main freedom it gives — not being able to play a piece in CM and one in Ebm without returning, but being able to swing back and forth between those keys in the middle of one piece. It frees you up to modulate anywhere you want to your heart’s content.

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"FWIW, one of the things to remember about just intonation is that even within one scale, it’s not stable. If you keep cycling around a piece of music, over time, the tonic and all the other pitches will wander around. When singing, a choir can adjust to this a bit as long as you don’t repeat too much. (If the song repeats many times, the pitch drift becomes very noticeable.) But on instruments, after a while, you simply can’t keep to just intonation even after a few repeats because you can’t stop and tune your D string up or down to accommodate the pitch drift."

I have no idea what you are talking about. I tried playing a tune 100 times on my set of Uilleann pipes and the pitch was still dead stable. 🙂

Pitch doesn’t just magically drift and tonics don’t just wander around on all instruments.

Are you saying that on instruments with arbitrary pitch for most notes (fiddle, voice, to some extent with flute) that the perception of pitch by the player will shift and have to be accommodated for over time?

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No, I’m saying that if you want to play something with perfect just intonation, there is no way to do it precisely because instruments have fixed pitches. Being perfectly just requires that the pitch center drifts — only the voice can do this, and after a while it becomes noticeable to listeners. Watch the video I linked to — it’s very clear and very entertaining; it explains what is sometimes called a "comma pump" and how perfect just intonation is basically not possible with anything but a voice, and only where you are willing to accommodate pitch drift.

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So, just so I understand, are you saying that only on voice are you able to adapt the root of the just intonation to the scales present in the tune?

I can see that, since essentially all other instruments either have fixed pitches on some notes (unless you never use open strings on the fiddle), or are tuned fundamentally in a single just intonation scale, like the Uilleann pipes.

Some, like the flute, probably have more leeway since the player can get considerably pitch adjustment depending on how they blow and finger the notes.

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Two statements:

"All tunings are a compromise in that none preserve the correct overtones from one scale to another. What differs are the scales and the degree of outofwhackness."

"All temperaments are a compromise in that none preserve the correct overtones from one scale to another. What differs are the scales and the degree of outofwhackness."

The second statement is true, while the first statement makes the false assumption that the purpose of all tuning methods is to have the same measured intervals when various degrees of the scale are chosen as the theoretical tonic.

Pipers don’t tune with that in mind. They tune every note of the chanter to be a beatless consonant with their fixed drone note. It’s Just Intonation, which is not a temperament. (All temperaments are methods of tuning, but not all methods of tuning are temperaments.)

Because the piper wants to hear every note in tune against the drones. He cares little which note a listener might conceive of as the Tonic of a particular melody.

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Thank you, Richard. I meant temperament when I said tuning. At that point in the discussion, I was looking for clarification of how compromise, as a way to define equal temperament, was being used. The distinction you make to tuning each note to the drone is ideal and not a compromise. We should make clear, however, that Highland pipes have only nine notes and the drones, only one, so as a practical matter, this system of tuning is the only one that makes sense for that instrument. I do wonder how one individually tunes the notes of the chanter.

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Tempered tuning is a method of tuning but not all tuning is temperamental. Or is it?

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Actually, with the drones locked in and functioning correctly, you have all the harmonics as well. This makes your tuning scheme a form of the Pythagorean tuning ideal. Shell-backs like Fr. Henebry,S.J., maintained that any other other form of temperament brought over to Irish music from western art music world were anathema and damaging to the modal nature of the music. That’s sort of why some prefer the piper/fiddler’s thirds and c##.

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All tuning starts from a specific note (e.g. A440). From there you’ve two building blocks, octave jumps and perfect fifths. The problem arises because 2^7 = 128 (the octave jumps) isn’t the same as (3/2)^12 = 129.75 (the perfect 5th jumps). Once you’ve travelled up with ‘prefect’ fifths… the octaves go out of whack. It is mathematically impossible to reconcile the two (perfectly). It’s where you go from there that leads you down the JI v 12TET rabbit hole. Some people never return 🙂

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May I ask those of you with a strong feeling for just intonation, did you consciously learn it and do you purposefully learn to put your fingers in different positions, or is it more that you just do it automatically when playing?

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@jamesa I wouldn’t call what I do on fiddle as a concern or strong feeling for "just intonation". I just (haha) want to hear certain notes in certain tunes sound a certain way - mostly F#s and B naturals that are flat of equal temperament, and sometimes C naturals that are sharp. Since it depends on the tune (and if not playing solo, who I might be playing with) and a desire for a particular effect, it’s very much a conscious, or if you like purposeful, decision for me about where I put my finger down. The ould fellas probably didn’t think about it.

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There’s a very good series of tutorials on intonation here:

Just intonation
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfnfXnlKJ5I


Pythagorean intonation:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buZOs-czOUg&t=13s


Equal temperament
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yes9jU3oN2Y


Expressive intonation:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1FInAUOhP0


More expressive intonation:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylSwwirV59A


What system to use when:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QaYOwIIvgHg&t=15s


Intonation master class: String Quartet:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7yMAAGeAS4


Each vid is just 1-3 minutes, and well worth the effort for anyone who doesn’t have a fixed-pitch instrument.

But yes, playing with a piper is very different from playing with a piano player or accordionist, and any fiddler needs to be alert to these intonation issues and adjust.

In the trad context, there’s another layer of complexity, because those Uilleann pipers have, like, three or four different low E’s they can choose from!

It’s also not unusual for trad fiddlers — especially older ones — to play a 7th that’s somewhere between the flat 7th and major 7th, and if you’re playing with one of them, you’ll want to be alert to that, too, and match it.

I’m not the greatest at it, and would never qualify as a member of the Pitch Police, but on fiddle, recognizing and making these intonation adjustments on the fly, based on what’s happening around me, is part of the fun!

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Ya know, I’ve managed to play music for half a century without equal temperament ever having been mentioned by anyone. And I consider myself to be a fine musician. I guess I’ve just been missing out all these years. For which I am most grateful. To me, there are few non-issues that compete with this one.

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That’s what comes from playing an instrument that can only play one note at a time.
For players of instruments that can play two or more notes simultaneously it’s very much not a "non-issue".

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Just intonation vs. equal temperament have been mentioned on the forum as long as I can remember.
Here’s one reply (posted by Richard C.) to a thread I distinctly remember .
https://thesession.org/discussions/35216#comment745900

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It’s a non-issue because that’s what we all use. If it makes a difference, I’m not sure who it affects, but it’s what we all use, so there doesn’t appear to be much to say about it, does there? I mean, it all sounds fine to me and I’ve got a good ear. I listen to orchestral music all day and now I’m to believe it’s all out of tune? Really?

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"..that’s what we all use." Em, what is it we all use?

I’ve also got a reasonable ear and it doesn’t always sound fine to me.
Surely you can hear the difference between a just major third and one in equal temperament? Or maybe you can’t. But to me there’s a world of difference between two notes with pitches in the ratio 5:4 and two notes with pitches in the ratio 12599:10000.

I would have thought that if you have no interest in a topic for discussion then you don’t bother to comment. However it’s nice of you to let us know what you think of this discussion. I shall treasure you input.

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Part one was answering the op’s question, which we did. Part two was enlightening me, which we did. Part three was a general discussion about equal temperament, which interests me from the standpoint that, if all the fixed-tuning instruments of the orchestra are so tuned, fretting over it seems pointless. Richard did the best job of explaining relative to pipes, but he has yet to explain how one individually tunes the notes on a chanter. So I hang in in hopes of learning something that lends value to disparaging equal temperament when no viable alternative appears to exist.

You’re welcome 🙂.

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Really interesting. I wonder if that’s why in some tunes in G, my open E string sounds dull. I just always thought damn my e string is always out of tune - but actually on other tunes it sounds fine… Now time to tell me that it has nothing to do with it!

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Dunno what part it was AB but I thought the issue FirexAir introduced about just tuning and harmony was interesting.

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"I listen to orchestral music all day and now I’m to believe it’s all out of tune? Really?"

There are still differences. One of the reasons the string quartet format is so valued in Classical music isn’t just the nice spread of pitch, but the way the players will instinctively lock up together in a non-12TET intonation. Because they can! A full orchestra can’t do that, but a string quartet can. You might be appreciating this intonation difference while listening to a great string quartet, and not realize why it sounds so good.

There are many things at work in Irish trad that blur the intonation issue. We have diatonic instruments like flute with a quirky scale (slightly sharp cross-fingered Cnat, typically flat F# and so on), as well as culturally embedded preferences some players have, like preferring that Piper’s C or C Supernatural just because they’ve heard it so often.

When I mostly played mandolin, I stopped using the occasional Cmaj chord embedded within the melody line on Dmix tunes, because it clashed with a session group’s sharper Cnat. You probably won’t notice these things if you’re playing a single note melody instrument like flute. You’re used to your flute’s diatonic scale, and the way it blends naturally with (most) other ITM players in a session.

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I don’t know, I think these two statements are diametrically opposed:
"I mean, it all sounds fine to me and I’ve got a good ear."
vs
"I’ll be honest and confess I really could not hear the difference in the first"
As far as I’m aware, people with a good ear can hear the difference.

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To be fair to Ailin, the sound quality in the referenced video was so poor that I couldn’t hear much difference either. It didn’t help that the notes were from a test oscillator, so lacking overtones (which make the discrepancies much more noticeable). I thought it all sounded awful. But on a guitar if I tune the B string so that it is a just major third above the G string and then play the B string at the third fret to get a D, the fifth produced (with the G string) is as flat as a pancake.

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"Surely you can hear the difference between a just major third and one in equal temperament? Or maybe you can’t."

If I can butt in here 😀 …

I couldn’t pick up on it consciously until I started to mess around on viola. Then, the thirds on pianos started to sound crunchy to me. I distinctly remember when I was playing a beginner piece on viola that modulated from G to D Major, and it went something like, G-A-B-A-D’, where the last note was the modulation to D Major. It drove me bats that my index finger hadn’t moved from the A and yet the very same note sounded in tune the first time I played it and sharp the second time. It wasn’t until I realized that I had modulated and that the note that used to be a perfectly good ii was now a sharp V of V that I grasped what had happened. Since I’m a pianist, my teacher was surprised I could hear it, but I could hear it, I just had no clue what was going on. From then on, I just acceded to having to remember to tweak things so they sounded good on the viola.

So there’s an example of someone who could hear it but hadn’t realized what I was actually hearing. And not only that, but when I got off the viola (neck and shoulder problems), the piano now sounds fine to me again. (My flute playing doesn’t seem to trigger the same issue.) Instead of hearing the thirds on the piano as super-sharp, I just hear them as having that same glittery gloss to them that I always knew they had before, but which I didn’t realize came as a result of being wide.

So I can definitely grasp that sometimes you can’t tell the difference, sometimes you can but aren’t sure what it is you’re hearing, and sometimes you can tell and do know what you’re hearing. And it depends on the instrument. On the viola, I could hear it — and on the flute as well, and in the voice. At the piano, I just interpret the sharpness as the typical glittery, pleasantly "citrus" pianistic third.

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//Jim, when you are playing with other instruments, don’t you just automatically adjust pitch as you play?//

@Ailin, yes I do, but I’m not aware that I do it. How do I know this?

I once made a home recording, me on fiddle, and a guy playing mandolin, and another guy on guitar. Key of A.

When I played it back, mandolin was in left channel, and fiddle in right. Every C# was in perfect unison, but if I were playing on my own, the C# would be slightly flat of the C# on the mandolin.

If I do any simple piano accomp to fiddle, I instinctively miss out 3rds so they don’t clash.

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"If I do any simple piano accomp to fiddle, I instinctively miss out 3rds so they don’t clash."
That says it all, Jim. It’s not just adjustments to different intonation but also what you are describing right there.
Re: accordion basses……
https://thesession.org/discussions/18230#comment380069

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Update : since posting the OP, I’ve been doing some more piano playing, playing and recording tunes. I then listen back, while playing along on fiddle. Yes, I do adjust the pitch in major 3rds, to match the piano, and since I’ve not played with anyone else for a while, the little discord is just a niggle, and I’ll get used to it all again when we can play face to face again.

Someone mentioned perfect 5ths above, and here’s something else I noticed, or should I say was reminded of. In a session, obviously everyone tuning to the same reference pitch is good form, but it doesn’t always happen, and it’s not always possible. I used to get an A from someone, get my A spot on, then tune the fiddle by ear. However, I was sometimes tuning the 5ths fractionally wide, with the result the the bottom G was flat compared to other instruments.

So now, my best option is to get an accurate A (I’ll take it from a dry accordion/melodeon if there is one), then offer a rolling 5th of open D+open A to everyone else who hasn’t yet tuned. It seems to work quite well.

After all is said and done about adjusting / matching 3rds etc, isn’t is the microtonal pitch difference between notes on different instrument that gives the tune its "characteristic sound" ?

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Modern instruments aren’t always tuned to equal temperament. Flute-maker Tony Millyard gives you the choice: ET if you’re going to be playing a lot with fixed pitch instruments but otherwise Werkmeister 3, a historical tuning:
http://tonymillyard.com/flutes/a%cf%89-traditional-simple-system-flutes/pitch-and-tuning/

Cajun-style one-row melodeons are tuned to something like just intonation, as explained here:
https://accordion-doctor.com/repairs/cajun-accordion-tuning/
With flattened thirds, you can really hear the difference in right-hand chords.

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"To be fair to Ailin, the sound quality in the referenced video was so poor that I couldn’t hear much difference either. It didn’t help that the notes were from a test oscillator, so lacking overtones." Posted by DonaldK

DonaldK & Ailin, I agree 100%. The YouTube’s sound quality was set too low for fair comparisons.
Personally I think anyone with a good ear would have a hard time getting through the whole demonstration.

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Also, meant to say this earlier, and guitarists will be familiar with this : my 5-string banjo had a compensated bridge, meaning different scale lengths for different strings, and this helped to improve the intonation problems (inherent in a fretted instrument) reasonably well.