Tong Keat has an M.A. in Violin Performance from MTSU, TN. He is the founder of Just Violin—a free resources site for violinists.
What Is Intonation?
Intonation refers to the accuracy of pitch, where notes can sound higher or lower than expected if the performers are not well-trained. Most violin students spend much of the effort on intonation in their practice routine.
Bad intonation can dampen the tone quality of the instrument and weaken the harmonic effect of the whole ensemble. The audience will feel uncomfortable or less impressed with a performance with poor intonation.
According to Carl Flesch, a famous violin pedagogue, good intonation is about having good ears and sensitive fingers to adapt quickly within a split second as the note is played. Bayla Keyes, violin professor at the Boston University, said that good intonation is both an acoustic reality and a kind of societal compromise, where people are already accustomed to hearing certain kinds of sound.
By knowing the three systems of intonation, we will understand why sometimes the best-sounding note might not be at the right pitch. Besides that, we will learn about how sympathetic vibration and a good left-hand technique can help us to play the violin with more accuracy.
The Three Systems of Intonation
- Equal Temperament
This is how a piano is tuned. In the equal temperament system, an octave is divided into twelve parts, and every semitone is “tempered” so that they are all the same distance apart. Whenever the violinist is playing in a unison passage with the piano, it is best to use the equal temperament tuning.
- Just Intonation (modeled after the Pythagorean system)
This is an intonation system based on the pure sonorities of the intervals, like how violinists tune their open-strings to the interval of fifths. The best-sounding fifths that gives a nice "ring" will be slightly larger than the fifths found in the equal temperament system.
The intervals of thirds and sixths will create a “third” tone, which makes them a pleasant sound to the performers and listeners. Just intonation is mainly used in double-stops, chordal passages, and to a certain extent, in ensemble playing.
- Expressive Intonation
This intonation system is suitable to be used for solo repertoire. Sharp notes are played higher and flat notes lower, resulting in, for example, G-sharp being higher than A-flat. Semitones are usually played very close together to get the "maximum" expression. In a piece of music in G major, a very high F-sharp will increase the tendency for it to resolve upwards to G; hence it raises the tension and the emotional effect of the music. The same thing applies to a descending semitone.
Finding Sympathetic Vibration
For students at the early stages, learning to play in tune is mainly about finding that extra resonance created by sympathetic vibration. It happens when a fingered note has the same letter-name with an open-string that is not being played. The open-string will vibrate along when the note of the same letter-name is played at the right pitch, assuming that the violin is tuned correctly. We can see the vibrations of the open string clearly in most cases, but it is much more helpful to be able to hear or feel that resonance.
When the notes that will create sympathetic vibration are in tune, we can use them as a guide to find the other notes in many ways. Intervals such as perfect consonances (fourths, fifths, octaves), imperfect consonances (thirds, sixths), and semitones are all very useful tools, but they do not guarantee to give us the best-sounding pitch, because we need first to understand the role of each note within the tonal hierarchy and the different intonation systems that we need to adapt to in different cases.
Developing Left Hand Technique
Apart from having good hearings, violinists rely heavily on muscle memory to get good intonation.
In the Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, Ivan Galamian relates our left hand to blind people who guide themselves through their paths by touching on objects. He spoke of the importance of having a “double contact” in the left hand, namely the base joint of the index finger and the thumb, to feel the changing width of the violin’s neck. The double contact occurs between the thumb and the palm against the shoulder of the violin on the higher positions. This allows our left hand to have a sense of which position we are playing in. Such contact need not be constant, especially in expressive passages that require much vibrato.
The other equally important aspect to good intonation is the frame of the left hand. A nice hand shape with proper finger height, a relaxed wrist, and a good arm level provide a framework in which our fingers can identify with various finger patterns. Practicing double-stops scales in thirds or octaves train your left hand to maintain that frame in different intervals and positions. A good hand shape also allows better finger independence – the ability for one finger to move flexibly without affecting the others.
© 2017 Goh Tong Keat