One of the most difficult things to learn on a violin is intonation. Intonation is the accuracy with which you hit the right pitch on every note.
In my 17+ years of teaching violin I have been ceaselessly seeking for ways to make learning intonation easier. If you are still playing out of tune, first of all be comforted: It isn’t you. Intonation is difficult and takes hard, consistent work.
But there is good news! It can be mastered; and like with so many things based on muscle memory, once you master it, maintaining it is much easier.
How to hit that pure intonation
- There is of course the gold standard, the combination tone. Leopold Mozart is the first who described this phenomenon in his “Violinschule”. If you play two notes perfectly in tune, they create a third, lower tone that harmonizes. This is known as the combination tone and can be used as a tool to check your intonation.
The combination tone is actually a physical phenomenon: It is the interference wave between two audible wavelengths. If they interfere with each other in good harmony, i.e. they are in tune with each other, this wave becomes completely regular, and audible.
- Left-hand posture and placement facilitates intonation. If the left hand is relaxed and assumes the same posture every time you pick up the violin, you’re helping your muscles remember where exactly that finger must hit the string. This muscle memory sees to it that we don’t have to relearn intonation every time but can retain a fairly accurate skill between practices. Of course, what builds “muscle memory”, i.e. what lays down neural pathways to our muscles? Practice and repetition…
- Keep those semitones tight! That’s a little shortcut.
- Scales are often used to practise intonation. The usefulness in this is that with a scale, you have very little else to focus on besides intonation (and bowing, possibly). They are not a “tune” per se.
- But the most important thing is development of an accurate ear. You develop an accurate ear, i.e. laying down of neural pathways, by… yes you guessed it: Practice and repetition. But not only that; while you practise, you need to focus specifically on listening for your intonation. Be strict! Your audience will be.
I think, if I could have a magic wand to improve even one aspect of my students’ play instantly (leaving the rest to hard work, as usual), it would be intonation. Even a mousy player who sounds, as a friend of mine puts it, “like a mosquito”, sounds better when playing in tune. Remove intonation as a learning difficulty on the violin and you have a much more manageable instrument.
So, kids, the one who cracks the mystery of good intonation first, wins!