Posts Tagged ‘intonation’


Music students are under the impression that there are two kinds of intonation: 1) in tune, or 2) shameful evidence that you should have picked a different field of study. This kind of black and white approach robs the music student of an important concept: intonation as a means of expression. We do not play in tune; we play within tune.

We learn in music history classes that there are many kinds of intonation but that those systems are largely irrelevant now that we have the all-inclusive and modally magical equal temperament. Equal temperament was a fantastic invention and we should be ecstatic that we can change modes left and right and up and down and all over, but we lose something very important when we think intonation has become equal or wrong. Especially as string players, the world is our oyster when it comes to the harmonic series. We have the power to manipulate overtones, project beats and oscillations at will, and essentially function as king Triton over the waves of harmony. This seems terrifying when we can hardly hit a note in what we already consider the “center”, but is it possible that pitch is a spectrum rather than target practice? Perhaps if we open our ears to the expressive possibilities of intonation we will have the freedom to hear beyond right and wrong?

The harmonic series is powerful. It is the basis for how our ears and brains perceive sound patterns and how musical tradition has developed. This law of physics could be our ticket to expressive freedom in the concert hall and personal freedom in the practice room. Our options are not even limited to historical systems; we are not tuning a brand new instrument, we are shaping a phrase and speaking a truth. Use the tuner, but find out what happens when you bend this way or that; chances are that with intention and long-term commitment you will end up with a pitch very close to that of equal temperament, but with more character and personality in the intonation simply because you allowed yourself to explore other options of pitch.

The Tonal Energy tuning app is a great resource for hearing historical tuning systems. Start there to open your ears and your mind, but after that open up your heart by looking in your repertoire. What if that dissonant seventh is supposed to be painful and gritty, requiring the thumping, natural oscillations our instruments can produce? Or what if that third should not be equally raised to create a shimmering white noise hovering above but should ring justly, pure and true? These things become complex and messy when we play with our equally limited friends like pianists and orchestras, but it is a beautiful disaster and one we can work within. It is not worth shutting off our minds to it. We must listen harder than we play. Our fingers will never remember where the pitches are (as much as we try to convince ourselves that they will) because they are only extensions of the real pitch center that lies within us. As violists, we are blessed to feel the vibrations of our instrument deeper than our violinist friends whose frequencies barely rattle their jawbones, or our cellist and bassist friends who hold those precious resonances away from their faces and chests. Let’s capitalize on that and revel in the dirty seconds and those open fifths; allow yourself to feel like salt of the earth instead of a pristine perfectionist. Something even more basic and primitive than soil is at work in our hands; intonation is a gift.

Go and be human.