By Laurie Niles | From the July-August 2020 issue of Strings magazine

I used to believe in a simple rule: If you can’t play in tune, you can’t play in tune. I believed that a person born “tone deaf” could not be taught to refine his or her sense of pitch. Once upon a time, in fact, this kind of thinking led teachers to conduct “talent” tests, requiring potential students to match pitches and show other musical proclivities before even being considered for lessons on a musical instrument.

But 25 years of teaching have taught me otherwise. 

Sometimes a person plays (or sings) out of tune due to a lack of coordination, not an inability to hear pitch correctly. And sometimes those who show an inability to hear pitch can be sensitized and taught to recognize and refine their sense of pitch. Indeed, it is possible to teach intonation and it is possible to learn to play in tune. I teach the violin, a fretless and unforgiving instrument that demands much of the player’s ears and physical coordination. The same is true for other stringed instruments, such as the viola, cello, and bass. To play in tune, one must work on both the ability to hear pitch clearly and to physically produce the note in a consistent way.

Training Your Ears: Listening

Here’s one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to help your sense of pitch and good intonation: Listen to recordings and performances of good music by excellent musicians who sing or play in tune. There is a reason why the highly successful Suzuki method explicitly requires that students listen to recordings of the pieces they are playing. If you listen to a piece of music enough times, the music becomes so familiar to you that you begin to “audiate”—that is, to “hear” the music in your head, even when you are no longer actually listening to it.

When you have music in your head, you can tell if someone else is singing or playing it “wrong.” You can identify wrong words, wrong notes, wrong rhythms. The clearer the music is in your mind, the better you can tell the degree to which any given note might be “wrong”—whether it’s out of tune, out of time, etc. And if you have listened and learned to audiate several versions of the same music, you can also begin to discern the difference between an intentional artistic decision and unintended out-of-tune singing or playing.

Generally, listening to any genre of music will help you cultivate that internal sense of correct pitch. But you can get more specific: you can listen to the actual piece you are learning. If you listen to the point where you can carry a “track” of it in your head, then you can easily tell when you stumble and play a wrong note, or an out-of-tune note. That allows you to correct it yourself, until your out-loud playing matches your internal concept.

I invite you to do some research and come up with a listening list of about five excellent musicians who play the same instrument as you, and five who sing or play other instruments. Then listen and enjoy!


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Refining Your Sense of Pitch on the Instrument: Resonant Notes

I’ve found that one of the most effective ways to get a violin student in touch with correct intonation is to make him or her aware of the instrument’s “resonant notes,” which are also sometimes called “ringing tones.” This works on any stringed instrument, but I will use the violin as a frame of reference.

First, make sure that you are starting with a well-tuned instrument. If you are unsure about your pitch, simply use a chromatic tuner. It’s better to use this aid than to struggle and fail over this first basic step!

The resonant notes on a violin are the same as its open strings: E, A, D, and G. So if you are working with a viola or cello, the resonant notes would be A, D, G, and C. If you play an open string on your instrument, it will ring more loudly and fully than a fingered note will. You can witness this phenomenon with several senses: you can hear that it sounds louder, you can actually see that it vibrates more, and if you put your hand on the back of the instrument, you can feel that the wood of the instrument resonates more.

While all notes on the violin vibrate, the open strings vibrate the most. But here is where it gets interesting: any note, anywhere on the instrument, that is an E, A, D, or G, will cause this special kind of vibration. For example, try playing the A that is located third finger on the E string in first position. If you play it perfectly in tune—and only if you play it perfectly in tune—your violin will ring in a special way. (When my students achieve this, I say, “Listen, your violin is having a party!”) If you hear the violin ring in a special way, try playing the same note slightly out-of-tune. Observe how “dead” the note sounds in comparison. You can also try playing the A that is located first finger on the G string. If you play it perfectly in tune, the A string might vibrate enough that you can actually hear that A (an octave above the one you are playing) as well.

Why does this happen? Because when you play an A anywhere on the instrument, the A string will vibrate in sympathy. You can see it, feel it, hear it.

You can explore this all over the fingerboard, with all the different resonant notes. For example, try the G that is located third finger on the D string. When it is perfectly in tune, you’ll hear and feel a rich vibration. Then try the other G: on the E string, low second finger. It will not make the earth shake in the same way as the G that was an octave closer, but it definitely will hit a groove when it’s perfectly in tune, and the violin will respond by ringing in a very clear way.

Once you become sensitive to the special vibrations that happen with these resonant notes, it’s quite addicting. You will not want to play a D anywhere without hearing and feeling the sympathetic ringing, even if you are playing fast passages. So tapping into resonant notes is very effective in helping a player to strive for “perfectly in tune.”  

Training Your Fingers

It’s one thing to train one’s ears to listen for wrong notes and hear the vibrations for right notes; it’s another to train the fingers to land with accuracy every time. But it’s just as important.

Simply put: You must hit the notes correctly many, many times to develop the manual dexterity and muscle memory that will allow you to play in tune. There is no shortcut. And no matter how well you have trained your ears, you will still need to put in the work with your fingers.

This is the reason why we play scales, études, and repetitive-pattern exercises that can be found in books such as Ševčík and Schradieck. Pick your poison, perhaps with the help of a teacher, but make this a permanent part of your practice, no matter your level. When you practice, start slowly and make sure your fingers are landing perfectly accurately. Then speed things up. The better you train your fingers, the more consistently you will be able to expect good intonation from them!