Why Out-of-Tune Notes Happen and How to Fix Them

March 15, 2020, 8:10 AM · It is virtually impossible to describe what is actually happening when someone plays every note in tune on the violin, but it shouldn’t stop us from trying. There are several components, including the ear, an acute sense of space, and muscle memory. The way they interact, all the while staying interdependent with the bow arm, lies in the realm of what we think of as talent.

violin fingers left hand

Housed in our DNA makeup, talent is the foundation for musical common sense and physical coordination that is commensurate with superb athleticism. Some of us are saturated with such qualities, and others are more or less endowed with them. The ultimate gift of music is how the latter can discover the talent within them and cultivate it to an incredibly high level. The tragedy is how someone with a huge talent can stagnate and never get beyond what they were initially gifted with. 10,000 hours of work encrusts the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Talent is a double-edged sword, but there is no doubt that its worth is beyond question. It showcases the essence of both music and technique. And each of us can identify it and nurture it. The exploration will surprise us, because the results feel so good. I’ve always felt that it was significant that Suzuki established the Talent Education Research Institute. He set the standard that each individual pursues and develops the talent that is within him.

Checklist for Organic Fingers

Out-of-tune notes happen because several things may go wrong:

  1. The fingers never developed a reliable template for the few intervals in first position.
  2. The hand is cramped and not centered over the string’s plane. Fingers miss their target because the hand is askew.
  3. Lack of synchronicity with the ear. There’s a good reason why we’re told how important the ear is. The fingers are trained to follow the lead of the ear. Without the synchronicity of the ear, the rhythm, and the fingers, playing in tune would be virtually impossible. That the sequencing of this split-second, rapid firing experience of hearing the note and striking the fingerboard actually takes place thousands of times is one of the most remarkable aspects of our minds.
  4. An inaccurate assessment of how low or high the pitch is after a mistake embeds the mistake into future performances. Observe that the mistake, in each repetition, will usually happen with same degree of flatness or sharpness. This bodes well for fixing it. The less random the mistake, the better.

Finding and Fixing the Interval Template

The way we remember where to place our fingers is similar to how a quarterback throws a football. The athlete is keenly aware of slight variations between this angle or that angle. The spatial subtleties occupy a part of the brain that can catalogue very minute differences.

One of my "aha" moments took me years to figure out because it was such a vague feeling which couldn’t be easily explained: It involved muscle memory and how we perceive it. On one level I “knew” where the intervals were, but on another level I hadn’t internalized them. Until I really compared the right interval to the wrong ones, I wasn’t 100% sure. My mind needed some cataloguing.

When something vague becomes concrete, you know you’re making progress. It dawned on me that a whole step in first position is very predictable in how it feels, and becomes more and more unique as I compared it to slightly sharper and flatter variations of it. In other words, a tiny area with no physical demarcations or frets was transformed into something replete with fail-proof boundaries. Finally, the dissection of space that a pitcher or quarterback feels was within my grasp. This is what I mean by "organic fingers."

What we learn in first position stays with us the rest of our lives. When it’s done with a strong and knowledgeable confidence, it is a reliable template for all other positions. The feelings and proportions between fingers are the same in all the positions as they are in the first. The only difference is they’re a tiny bit smaller. Hence, the hand has the feel of an iron glove, which is very useful in its consistency. All we have to remember is the exact intervals. It doesn’t take much effort to move smaller distances in higher positions, because the hand, which is already too big for the fingerboard, has already learned to be smaller in first position.

What We Can Learn From the Sport of Bowling

Music is so full of soft edges, elliptical contours, and ethereal beauty that we need to remember the right angles of rhythm and the laws of the violin’s planes. When it comes to the precision of our left fingers, it all comes down to the fingers entering the fingerboard through the “slot” that’s meant for each particular finger. Like bowling pins, in which the apparatus that controls them is a well-designed machine descending from above the pins, our hand, wrist, and arm need to set up the perfect placement of the fingers.

You’ll know things are working correctly when every interval, half-step or huge, requires an adjustment of the support foundation. Elbow, wrist, knuckles and palm enter into a lovely dance to get the finger ready for its slot. Keep an eye on your ring or watch to see how much movement is taking place. The third finger, so it’s so welded to the second finger, takes the most maneuvering. No one said it was easy. But it’s elegantly doable.

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March 17, 2020 at 12:37 AM · Excellent post. I agree wholeheartedly except for point 3 on ear hand synchronicity at performance time. Once a note is played wrong it will be heard even if adjusted. The key must be to never play notes wrong. The practice ear is vital. Of course playing a note wrong once may be regrettable but playing it wrong again should inexcusable (says the inexcusable).

Even more vital than the practice ear is the pre-practice ear. We will always play more in tune if we have an image of the pitch before we play it.

March 17, 2020 at 01:31 AM · I like your idea of the pre-practice ear. Planning ahead should be the mantra for violinists.

For myself, it helps to know what pieces sound wrong in order to strengthen my ear for what sounds right. Violinists, though, have to have zero-tolerance for out of tune notes. Music takes no prisoners when it comes to bad intonation. On the other hand, we have to learn how to forgive ourselves.

March 17, 2020 at 03:25 AM · I was struggling recently with the first chord a-c-a (4-2-3) in measure 273 of the a minor fugue (BWV 1003). Then I realized that if I play the sixth c-a (2-3) on the second beat of measure 271 and then hold the third finger down until the last chord of 272, I would remember the pitch and preserve most of the hand shape for the target chord. I had practiced measure 272-273 for quite sometime before I realized this.

Of course preparing fingers is a well known technique but sometimes we think that if a finger cannot stay prepared there is no point in the prepared finger. We can also take a snapshot of an interval and hold the feel and pitch in our heads as we approach the next occasion for its use.

This gave me a quantum jump in getting comfortable with this passage and playing the target chord in tune.

March 17, 2020 at 04:43 AM · Makes sense to me! My favorite solutions are the ones created by the individual violinist. Your solution was so specific, it must have felt really good to think of it. Thanks for sharing.

March 17, 2020 at 09:55 AM · I guess some of us who have either relative or perfect pitch should feel lucky to hear the sound ahead of time. I am greatful to have and to developed relative pitch on the violin. My intonation requires very little effort.

March 17, 2020 at 12:28 PM · I have a friend who is truly a virtuoso and was a prodigy. He has many innate violinistic virtues including a big hand (almost a handicap) etc. But to me his biggest virtue is his perfect pitch. He really hears everything he plays ahead of playing it. I watched and heard him sight read the Sinding Suite one night. I attribute this ability largely to his perfect pitch. He has levered this to master the fingerboard. He never tests pitch before playing, especially high notes.

I wonder how many virtuosos with 10 plus concertos in memory etc. have perfect pitch. My suspicion is almost all of them.

March 17, 2020 at 02:34 PM · 10 + concertos memorized!! Would you include Hilary Hahn in that list?? She has been dating enough to share portions of her practice sessions on her Instagram page and has allowed us to witness her working through passages. Just following her finding the correct feelings she is trying to convey is amazing. It is inspiring.

March 17, 2020 at 07:26 PM · I am sure that Hilary Hahn has 10 plus concertos memorized. Anyone who has performed ten concertos from memory can say this even if the concerto is not active in their repertory and they would not perform in on demand.

March 17, 2020 at 09:55 PM · The question should be "How do you develop a practice or a pre practice ear? The answer is the key word "practice". Everybidy who plays the violin has to practise scales. You do them enough times, with the help of a meter, if necessary, until you have mental image of the sound you want to produce, and you can tie that image to the location of your finger on the fingerboard. Once you gave one finger placed correctly, the the spacing to the next finger is the key. If the spacing is correct, the next note is in tune. If not, then the note is either sharp or flat, and the spacing has to be adjusted. As Itzak Perlman says, you cannot just tell the person that the note is out of tune. You should say that it is sharp or flat. If sharp, the spacing is decreased, if flat then it is increased.

Playing in tune means that you remember the length of the spaces and being able to adjust them when necessary.

March 17, 2020 at 10:18 PM · I’m not sure I would agree that perfect pitch is practically universal among great violinists. It is very rare among the general population, and it doesn’t have as many benefits as excellent relative pitch has to offer. From my own inconclusive research, I don’t think one can develop perfect pitch if he’s not born with it. I’ve never met anyone who did it, nor was I able to do it. Lord knows I tried. Carrying around a pitch fork didn’t help.

On the pro side, perfect pitch helps a conductor to know immediately the name of a note when he needs to tell a musician something.

On the con side, perfect pitch doesn’t ensure that a violinist will play a note in tune with others.

The most important quality is a term called audiation, which is the ability to look at music on a page and know what it should sound like. I would like to add to that the ability to implement physically whatever is necessary to play the passage.

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