V.com weekend vote: How does out-of-tune playing affect you?

October 25, 2019, 5:30 PM · How do you feel, when something is out of tune?

crooked sound waves

One of the most difficult things about playing the violin is achieving accuracy with pitch. With no buttons to push, no frets to guide, it's really up to the violinist to create accurate pitch, using their ears as a guide.

The problem is that ears tend to be attached to humans, and humans are, well, just human. People play out of tune - it happens. Some play way, way out of tune. Some play just a little out of tune. Some people hit the occasional sour note but mostly play in tune. Others play nearly every note slightly flat, or slightly sharp, all of the time.

A few days ago I was listening to a student playing every single note ever-so-slightly flat (except the open strings, which marked the contrast). I was not in a position to stop this person and correct things, and even if I had, it was not likely to change the default-to-flat. After about five minutes, my throat started to hurt pretty badly, and I realized that I was internally trying to "fix" this person's pitch by pushing on my own vocal chords, as if to push up a note that I myself was singing! I tried to stop doing it, and I found that my weird reaction was reflexive and difficult to stop. As a result, this out-of-tune-playing was actually producing physical pain for me!

Suzuki used to say that bad rhythm hurts in the stomach and bad pitch hurts in the head. I didn't really know what that meant, but I think I'm beginning to understand.

Are you bothered by bad pitch? Do you notice it? Does it produce actual physical sensations for you, such as a headache or something else? Please participate in the vote, picking whatever seems closest to your experience, and then share your feelings and experiences regarding out-of-tune playing.


October 26, 2019 at 12:07 AM · I selected "I'm not sure when things are out of tune" because I play stuff that I think is pretty good but my teacher says it can be better. But this happens less frequently with time.

October 26, 2019 at 12:10 AM · Bad intonation is musical pain! - recent quote from a professional

October 26, 2019 at 12:32 AM · Varies from "I notice it but can tolerate it" to "It annoys me strongly"... it depends on how badly out-of-tune, and on the context. I can tolerate somewhat larger intonation errors in an orchestra than with a solo string instrument or a chamber ensemble. (But if an orchestral section is all over the place, it sounds awful too.)

October 26, 2019 at 01:31 AM · Fairly recently I heard a performance of Schindler's List by a student orchestra. The concertmaster had a nice sound but every single note, I mean every note, was ever so slightly sharp. I thought I was going to lose my mind by the end of the performance. There were other, smaller concertmaster solos in the same concert and they were also consistently, unremittingly sharp. I don't know what their teacher is thinking, not to address such a systemic problem.

October 26, 2019 at 02:22 AM · As mainly a Mariachi fiddler, I have had a lot of experience tolerating the poor intonation of the people next to me. To be fair, some of them are mainly solo singers, don't have decent equipment or proper training. I keep my sanity by Not playing in unison with them, but switch to the more difficult harmony parts, or pop up an octave higher.

October 26, 2019 at 03:25 AM · I once heard a (third tier conservatory-bound!)student perform Mendelssohn concerto so out of tune that I really couldn't even sit still. It physically made me squirm. But it takes an awful lot to bother me physically. It has to be really, really bad.

Both my kids, and especially the older one, fall into the "I have perfect pitch and the world is clearly dead-set against me" category. Every car horn, every hum, every single out-of-tune ambient noise bugs them.

October 26, 2019 at 03:45 AM · I cannot tolerate it yet ironically it happens to me a lot if I don’t diligently do my painstaking intonation exercises every single day. I don’t know how it’s possible to have perfect pitch and hear super well yet play out of tune ????

October 26, 2019 at 06:56 AM · Why do youth orchestras still tune to the oboe when often the oboist can't accurately hold the A? You get players who tuned off stage a few minutes earlier taking their instruments off pitch when they retune on stage and often whole sections tuning flat or sharp although of course some players will politely fake a retune and stay on pitch. Sometimes it would be better to break with tradition and tune to a different instrument.

October 26, 2019 at 01:36 PM · It depends on who is playing, and their level of experience. I can't remember attending any professional performance where that was a issue. Of course, I've never sat in an orchestra and had some player near me play out of tune. That's an experience I'd rather keep off my bucket list.

If I attend a student recital, I accept the probability that some kids will mess up the intonation. That goes with the neighborhood. However, I also expect some of them to screw up half a dozen other things as well. I'm forgiving because the situation is so loopy and unnatural. Moms and dads are there, brothers and sisters who didn't want to come at all, grandma and grandpa may be there, their teacher is watching and a bit nervous, their other students whom they barely know are watching, everyone is comparing everything to everything else, people are taking videos, photos, making recordings and treating the whole thing as if it's some sort of key moment in their life, and so on. Who wouldn't land a finger in the wrong spot in one of those situations?

Indeed, when they don't mess up - when they are in tune, they get through the song without problems, and even show a bit of pizzaz in their performance, it's a moment of celebration. After all, for a lot of these kids - and adults - in the middle of this madness, a silent mantra seems to be, "Man, I hope I don't screw this up." Performance experience seems to be the only cure for all of that. So, I'd say I'm forgiving when it comes to the students, but completely mystified if an experienced professional is out of tune.

October 26, 2019 at 02:00 PM · I voted "It annoys me strongly" -- although "I notice it but can tolerate it" also applies to me at times. Pitch is one of my strong suits -- more than one of my teachers said so -- but, still, I am never satisfied. I can always find some spots to improve.

What has really helped in spotting little things that need improvement is recording a few select portions of my evening sessions in the garage. I've so far done only tryout recordings with my phone and played them back through the computer. I use foam earplugs whenever I practice or play. So, although I'm aware of the reverb in the garage, it doesn't get in the way, for me, of critical pitch sense. In fact, it has sharpened my critical observation. When I first started playing out there in summer 2005, even before attempting basic digital recording, I noticed right away a tendency to drift a bit sharp on sul E high notes in 7th or 8th position. If anything, the reverb I could pick up with earplugs made this fault more obvious to me, and I was able to fix it fast.

There's more to pitch -- e.g., bow pressure appropriate to make and model of string. Then there's vibrato. Among other things recording and playback have taught me is the need to ease up on vibrato at the end of a note. Be careful to oscillate only downward. Don't vibrate above target pitch -- that, to me, is really annoying. I'm not alone there

And be careful in higher positions to tighten up the vibrato somewhat. The same oscillation that works well in 1st position can be too wide for high positions. This may have been part of the problem I mentioned above -- even if I hit the target pitches right. Whatever -- it's been 14+ years -- I was able to detect and fix it.

October 26, 2019 at 02:43 PM · As a classically trained fiddle player, I am always critiquing my own intonation. As a fiddle player, I play in an environment where strong beat emphasized with LOTS of double stops is number one, and intonation is a very distant second (if at all) concern. Therefore, I have learned to ignore other people's intonation and concentrate on my own. I don't do a lot of double stops, usually, and I have actually had fiddlers stand over me sawing away trying to show me how to do it 'right.' Eventually they realize that I love the music and my background improvisations make THEM sound good. I think they get sucked into the sweet sound of those 'chords' created when my intonation is right, making the strings resonate... not knowing what hit them...

October 26, 2019 at 03:34 PM · It doesn't bother me. Listen to non western music, then come back. Your tolerance will greatly increase.

Also, all Western music using equal interval is already slightly out of tune, and our violins are slightly out of tune because pianos aren't in perfect fifths. And distance and walls also drop pitch the further away you are.

I mean, I tune my violins to either perfect fifths or against a piano, but I can't do both. I'm already out of tune right there anyway.

However, when I play I always put my big screen tuner next to the sheet music stand. Everyone needs to do that. I play in perfect tune because I'm using both my ears and a reliable electronic device to nail that pitch. Dunno why electronic tuners aren't used more often during playing.

October 26, 2019 at 07:42 PM · I go between "I'm not sure when things are out of tune" and "I notice it but can tolerate it." Since restarting playing again 13 years ago this may have been one of my biggest challenges: to learn to notice it more, and correct it, when things are slightly out of tune.

I think I tend to hear it differently than other people, because for me, for the longest time, playing that was sharp in pitch sounded nasal, tinny, and whiny, but I didn't attribute that to a pitch problem. I didn't even realize it. Then one day, upon re-listening to a recording of myself, I suddenly heard it. That nasal/tinny/whiny sound was actually a pitch problem, and I was playing sharp in pitch just like my teacher was always telling me. It was sort of like those pictures where you can either see a girl or an old woman depending on how you look at it. I finally saw/heard the the other, hidden picture.

Anyway, I have gotten better at noticing it by recording myself and using a drone or electronic tuner or app, but it still takes sustained effort for me to notice, and sometimes I make the conscious decision not to bother, especially when I'm listening to student, amateur, or community orchestra performances.When I was first learning to pay more attention to and notice bad intonation I was actually afraid I might lose my ability to enjoy such performances, but that hasn't happened. It's still harder for me to turn the ability on than it is to turn it off.

October 26, 2019 at 07:46 PM · I used to have perfect pitch, but it's beccome somewhat unreliable now. I've caught myself playing the Bach E-major Prelude flat and being shown up when I play an open string. Oh dear!

October 26, 2019 at 09:11 PM · As one who teaches basics, playing out-of-tune is pretty normal and I can put up with it and, of course, work on this with my student at the time focusing on how to be sure the note is correct.

The youth orchestra is usually in tune but there are moments that aren't kind to the ear. That becomes an orchestral teaching moment particularly when dealing with accidentals.

To be sure, I do have my own days when going through my warm-up I find that I'm off a bit and I do correct myself.

Of course there are those "Jack Benny" folks who intentionally play out of tune for comic effect. There is always a person in the audience that doesn't understand why everyone else is laughing - to their ear everything is just fine. AARUGH!

October 26, 2019 at 10:52 PM · Reading the question I was wondering if the question related to the intonation I produce or the one I hear in some performance or rehearsal. My reaction to my own failures is not necessarily the same as to other's people's.

Of course how annoying incorrect intonation is depends on how far out of tune a note may be. And on the highest level intonation is a matter of taste (e.g. how sharp do you want to play leading notes?).

It has been pointed out here before: There is no such thing as perfect intonation--except in 100% diatonic music (and good luck in finding such repertoire...).

BTW it annoys me when a reviewer settles on intonation to trash a performance. It looks to me like an attempt to show off with one's fine hearing.

October 27, 2019 at 10:00 AM · As a Folk Fiddler I regularly play with people who slide notes, play blue notes, add decoration, improvise and do all sorts of things that irritate some musicians. But intonation is rarely a problem because they play 'by ear', ie without the dots. They are listening to their playing, and the musicians around them, so they hear when something is out of tune, and so do the other musicians around them! A few nights ago I played in a pub with 2 other fiddlers, a mandolin player, a guitarist, a bass player and a flautist, the intonation was excellent, the speed was breathtaking and the 'craic' was mighty! Rob G

October 27, 2019 at 02:23 PM · Good intonation is a real joy, poor intonation is a nuisance. However, I recently made a discovery about my hearing...

I am slightly hearing-impaired. I have more than one type of impairment. I noticed many years ago that I could not accurately hear pitches on either the lowest or highest octave of the piano. I also noticed that some of the high notes in the Beethoven and Brahms violin concertos sounded out of tune to me -- although I realized that anybody who could actually play those concertos was unlikely to play out of tune.

I started taking megadose B12 (sublingual) daily about 8 years ago for reasons totally unrelated to hearing. After a couple of weeks, I noticed that I could actually hear the pitches correctly on both ends of the piano. I went back and listened to some recordings of several violin concertos, and found that the high notes no longer sounded out of tune.

I wish I had known about subclinical B12 deficiently back when I was a teen -- that would have made a LOT of difference in my musical studies.

October 28, 2019 at 01:00 AM · I haven't voted on any of the options because just like many others I would say that it really depends on the circomstances, although I would also say that if someone plays an entire performance completely out of tune it is hard.

Here is a little drill you can do:

Make sure your violin is tuned in perfect fifths and not the kind of fifths that the piano has. Well, tuning in real perfect fifths is what violinists mostly do, except when they don't because sometimes they adjust to equal tuning depending on the context and music. Anyway, tune in perfect fifths.

Now play 1st finger on A, the note B. Can you play a correct B? Sure you might say, but what is a correct B when there is no context? So play a double stop, open D together with the B and intonate the B so you get a well sounding sixth. Now keep the 1st finger on that B and play it together with the E-string. It sounds terrible. You need to play a slightly sharper B in order to get a nice perfect fourth.

I think that drill should be sufficient in order to convince a violin player that you must always listen and pay attention to intonation. And you need to continue doing that no matter how skilled you become. I am sure that the great masters in violin playing pay utmost care to intonation. There is no way around.

Now, the subject of perfect pitch. Of course the person with perfect pitch can here that the B is a B, but he still needs to listen and intonate accordingly. As you can see from my litlle drill above a note isn't perfect, it is relative.

Sometimes a person with perfect pitch can be disturbed by sounds in the environment because they are out of tune according to him or her. But think about it, it actually doesn't make sense to say that a single sound of whatever pitch is out of tune if it doesn't belong to a tune (or to a context).

If you tune your violin's A to a different frequency than 440 either higher or lower and tune the other strings to that A, then in order to play in tune you play something that resonates with that tuning.

There are an umlimited number of pitches out there, you could start singing a melody from any random pitch. You are in tune if your melody is correct in relation to your starting pitch.

In other words it is extreemly important to develop relative pitch, because you are always playing something that has a relation to something else, it can be in relation to the tuning, it can be in relation to the melodic line and it can in relation to the harmonies or chords when you are playing with others.

October 28, 2019 at 02:01 AM · I started playing piano at age 3 due to intolerably discordant notes being struck on a piano at preschool by another toddler.

I pulled the chair out from under her and she toppled to the ground crying, putting an end to the dreadful cacophony.

I then got up up on the bench and picked out "Mary Had A Little Lamb". I have played, sang, and composed all my life since.

October 28, 2019 at 04:50 AM · To George Wells:

I am such a person, and you know what? i love music, I love to go to concerts, I love when my son plays.

But: it makes me sick, if the sound has scratches, whistling, if what you call "tone" is not good, if rythm is not there, and if there is no logic phrasing.

The same with singing. I sort the people around me : i like their voice or not.

I know one 8 y.o. deaf girl, she loves to sing, and I love doing her that. Her voice is like a honney and very soft. She sings what she "composes". But the others complain constantly on she sings out of tune. And I never could understand how one can say that she sings out of tune, if one never got a music to see?

October 28, 2019 at 03:43 PM · Depends. I would guess that most like hearing pre equal temprement and seeing which they prefer. As for pain two pianos a quarter tone apart gives me pain, Wyschnegradsky I think. Beginner string intonation I just think they have a lot of work ahead. Also gives me pain - jazz, yes all of it the not on the beat really gets to me.

October 28, 2019 at 09:52 PM · What perfect pitch? Only on instruments tuned to 440 or other tunings also- in which case, you probably have relative pitch.

I teach and sometimes my students play just enough out of tone to make it difficult for me to listen - can be easier if they are very out of piece. I know that some days I have problems playing with great accuracy. I work on it, but may have to let it go that day. But we keep working on it - me and them.

Beginning strings are often out of tune - go to beginning string class and support the teacher who is listening to an entire class trying to find their way. A little bit of tuning out for that day helps.

Years ago there was a concert which my son and I watched and I felt that the singer and the musicians were not in tune together - I looked at my son and he looked at me and nodded - as it was a professional performance it did cause both of us pain.


October 29, 2019 at 06:53 PM · Re ~ Weekend Vote 'How does out of tune' playing affect you? (24)

It drives me up a wall!!! On a previous violinist.com discussion re Kreutzer, I wrote a bit about my mentor, Jascha Heifetz, with a few comments on his insistence all 7 of us (in Jascha Heifetz's First Violin Master Class) were required by Mr. 'H.' to play all of Kreutzer Etudes, and when JH asked one be played ~ In this earlier violinist.com discussion many asked questions about Heifetz as a 'teacher' of which a few were challenging & during one of my Replies, I mentioned Mr. Heifetz's 'Perfect Pitch Test' administered to All 7 of us, who upon Mr. Heifetz's Question to us, "How many of you have perfect pitch?!', all 7 hands went up which motivated Heifetz to truly put each of us through exhaustive & thorough Perfect Pitch tests, alla Jascha Heifetz, folks!!

All said above, being pronounced by Heifetz as "having perfect pitch", I can truly say that hearing particularly string soloists and especially violinists, in concert violin repertoire out of tune or nearly off with tiny waver's of too sharp or too flat, & in direct context of the notes just prior or after a marked flat or sharp, I become upset due to a lifetime obsessive attention to my own aspired perfect intonation, & the extraordinary intonation 'colour's' long discussed with Nathan Milstein, (after studying with Mr. Heifetz), which one has an even greater heightened awareness of shall we say, 'colored intonation' which greatly influences the flavour & ambience of a work as Chausson's Poeme, which in our numerous conversations were likened to Van Gogh's Art, i.e., 'Church in Arles' w/many canvas varied variations of darker blue's that when offering the 'Poeme' of Ernest Chausson, one colour's a C# sharp entirely differently than a C sharp in a Handel Sonata in D Major!! Since a young child, I have seen colour's which are The Colour's of Notes in given violinistic - musical passages/emotive sections in violin repertoire ~ Not knowing Why I've seen colour's of notes since 9 -10 years of age, all I can say is that evidently science has caught on to this 'condition' or phenomenon and at our last Chicago Symphony Orchestra Annual Dinner in 2018, an across-the-table involved discussion ensued between 3 other CSO members & myself with all of us sharing our own unusual same experiences!! However, I do notice without my stated heightened awareness, just plain icky intonation producing a whiney sound - thin, and 'amateur sound' which can disturb the natural resonance of a not too good Violin ~ One Huge component not mentioned or thus far seen whilst viewing all Replies here, is the enormous influence on intonation of The Bow! A Huge Subject for future discussion, let me share my true & proven-through-numerous-pupil's-opinion that bowing technique of most, actually throws off well placed left hand fingering's on "the board" if too much rosin (whitened smoke rising in the air from far too many over rosined up bows while playing very closely to the Bridge without the slower speeds required of The Bow), to pull violin concerto soloist sounds of expansive beauty, i.e., in a glorious passage of Aram Khachaturian's Violin Concerto Third Movement when the Theme is composer handed to the Violin on a Sul G string with exotic orchestral accompaniment harmonies of Armenian Genius, Khachaturian! That long Soloist Theme climbs from its Sul G beginning, journeying Up to eventual higher register's on the E string and spine chillingly so as in David Oistrakh's original recording of the 1950's!! This, violinist.com friends, IS GREAT INTONATION! 1 other example: my mentor, Nathan Milstein's recording with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting, in the Prokofiev First Violin Concerto throughout but especially in the Second Mov't opening using the sharp's leading to next 'white' note's to imbue a Prokofievian Flavour in sound and with his famed "Milstein Sound" which was a fused 'Salade' of uncanny intonation with exquisite bowing techniques!! One Other 'Must Hear': Milstein w/Fruhbeck de Burgos, Conductor, in the 2nd Movement Opening of Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto in g minor. NM deliberately begins the 1st opening Eb w/No vibrato then wades into it & theme almost mathematically calculated (but Not so as this was Milstein's Nature) growing with more vibrato use as, (forgive this necessary analogy to illustrate the point) a new couple gently embrace, then lips meet lightly and their held in desire increases in intensity w/more impassioned expressions of love ... This analogy is what Milstein's holding back vibrato on that first opening Eb IS which gradually grows to more vibrato in Prokofiev's glorious Second Violin Concerto 2nd Mov't Theme!! And the Milstein Eb is lowered deliberately. This I know from my overThree and a Half Years private artist advanced study with Nathan Milstein, no less than 2x a week when reducing his schedule of concert touring ~

A Word: when attending a youth orchestra concert or younger children orchestra concert, as some here have mentioned, I do more or less close off acute hearing to accommodate "ruffles" which are expected in our yet young beginning littler musicians because they are just learning to play together and, of serious concern to me, lessened public school funding for orchestra's in the elementary, junior and senior high schools which has been dramatically reduced creating a major stain upon higher values & offerings from those wondrous orchestral & band conductors/directors of the past, who did actually produce some surprising results with the kids, and in so doing, inspired parents to pay for their children's Violin and string cousin's private lessons where issues of fine intonation, bowing & of all learning to play a string instrument issues were addressed ... As the daughter of US acclaimed String Music Educator with a love for fused w/ genius gifts to build young kids orchestras into unimagined levels of coordinated musical sounding fine youth orchestras, Ralph Matesky, I am more than distraught with 'things' as they have been over these past decades since Music in the Schools across the Land were once a healthy educational priority ...

Respectfully submitted by,

Elisabeth Matesky *

*I think Joel Quivey's 'formulae' to pop above Mariachi-Band?

intonation 1 octave up, avoiding in unison's, is utterly brilliant!

November 1, 2019 at 02:22 PM · It makes me sad. Because it is usually mine.

November 1, 2019 at 06:53 PM · Thanks E.M. My nerdy comment on that low Eb at the beginning of Prokofiev 2-2 would be; N.M. either deliberately or instinctively played that Eb Not as the neutral pitched root of the Eb chord, but as melodic leading tone, appogiatura, tight half step going down to the D. Non-vibrato ? Continuous vibrato is now so common that a non-vibrato note is now perceived as an expressive tool. Good singers will sometime start a long tone, without vibrato, then let it "blossom", the increased vibrato aids the crescendo. Regards~ jq

November 1, 2019 at 09:17 PM · @JQ re NM's deliberately low Eb! (27)

NM never talked about the Why of starting that low Eb on the opening single Eb note theme of the second movement of the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto! He just did it instinctively, and without explanation! Knowing him quite well it seemed an outgrowth of his human personality & rare ear for colour which greatly influences the emotions we feel upon hearing that Eb opening theme and of course, numerous others!!!

Your comment, 'continuous vibrato is now so common that a non-vibrato note is now perceived as an expressive tool ..." is a 'belated' high compliment to Nathan Milstein, whom I do know never sought out publicity or extra spotlights as he was taught early on to 'always be dignified' ~ He told me this after going 'round to study with him after about 2 years of the 3 & 1/2! Most intriguing is Milstein, a 'star' in Leopold Auer's class, and close to Heifetz, went more or less his own way, later being musically & personally influenced by Eugen Ysaye, whom he admired and met in 1926, training it from Paris to Zoot, once out of Bolshevik Russia! NM told me some truly remarkable stories of his life After fleeing his homeland ~

IMHO, Mr. Milstein was his own Man, Artist & Violinist! I totally accept & embrace the Nathan Milstein 'Sound' - with touches of occasional beginning notes in major violin concerti colored by little or no vibrato which seemed to be an integral organic part of his nature ~

With very best musical wishes,

Elisabeth 'M.'

*Hope your teaching is also going very well!!

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