Time for a Tune up: Understanding intonation problems on the Violin and Viola

As an AMEB and Music Extension Recital examiner, I have often heard other musicians enquire, “Is it normal to accept a certain amount of bad intonation from string players?” or “how out of tune are they allowed to play before they are penalized?” Although perfect intonation is highly desirable, it is rare in level 1 AMEB (preliminary to grade 4). In grades 5 to 8, with the issues of shifting positions and playing in the higher registers of the instrument, other factors come into play, such as the distances between the fingers, which become closer. The fact is that achieving perfect intonation is more difficult than you might imagine. It is not simply a matter of depressing a black or white key, placing the fingers in a certain combination and blowing, or finding the space between frets to produce the desired pitch.

Even students with a “good ear” play out of tune. However, it is evident to an examiner when a student has not been taught some of the basic “tricks” that assist in enabling him or her to play in tune. Often, the student simply switches off and is just not LISTENING! It is the teacher’s duty to keep reminding the student to listen. One of my favourite tricks for younger students is to perform Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star appallingly out of tune – with a serious, virtuoso playing style, complete with swaying and eyes closed – and watch their faces when I finish. I then ask them, in a totally surprised voice: “What’s wrong?” They can always hear when OTHERS play out of tune, but they need to learn not to switch off when THEY play. What makes this difficult, particularly for a beginner, is that they have SO many things to think about. Consider the following just for a start: In the right hand, the thumb is bent, the wrist moves up and down as the arm opens and closes, the elbow stays still in the upper half and the fingers curve around the stick. The left hand is turned around the other way and the thumb is fairly straight. The wrist must not move in and out and the elbow pivots sideways, depending on which string you are on and the fingers move individually. Oh and by the way, don’t forget to stay relaxed!

In the first years, the teacher generally tunes the instrument, as the student has not yet acquired the ability to fine tune. This can also be physically difficult, due to the quality of the instrument, pegs slipping or fine tuners being too tight for a small hand to move. However, even before a student is ready or capable of tuning their own instrument, it is possible to teach them to listen for the “lack of beats” in the perfect intervals. I usually demonstrate this to a student by playing the interval of a unison slightly out of tune. (e.g., D in 3rd position on the G string, with the open D.) When it is out of tune, the beats are fast and furious. When the interval becomes “perfect” the moving note almost “hides inside” the other note. They have to say “STOP!” when it becomes perfect. I repeat this, using a perfect octave, and finally, the perfect 5th. Another exercise I use is to start in first position, then slide up the string, and ask the student to slide up and “hide inside my note”. When they reach it, I move up or down, so that they have to keep finding the perfect unison. We then swap, and I have to find the note that the student slides to. Often, I will deliberately NOT reach the note, and the student really has to stay switched on to hear the perfect unison, and cannot slide away until my note is hiding, or PERFECT.

Echo playing is another technique that I use to teach students to listen. I begin with a simple rhythm on an open string. I change the rhythm, and after a few examples, a second note is introduced, then the rhythm is changed and finally a third note is introduced. The students in my beginner class are now quite good at this. It is also a good way of introducing the use of the low 2nd finger, as they can hear that something sounds “different” if you play for example D E F# F#, then after they echo, play D E F natural.

Because the instrument is tuned in perfect 5ths, “ringing notes”, as we call them, can be used to help with intonation. These are any of the notes that have the same letter name as an open string, i.e. E, A, D, or G. There are 13 in first position alone (out of a possible 20). For example, when the D on the A string is played, the open D will “ring” if it is in tune. In the first year of playing, this method can be put to good use, as the student rarely moves out of first position in most pieces.

As I said before, it is easy for an examiner to establish that a student has not been taught various “tricks” to assist with getting the notes right. Often, a student will play a scale, with no concept of where the tones and semitones occur. This brings me to the topic of finger patterns. Due to the open string tuning, the four fingers used will fall into four main patters, of which I’m certain that most teachers are fully aware. However, I believe that many teachers do not take full advantage of teaching in patterns and simplifying the learning process. The four main patterns are as follows:

Pattern Abbreviation Finger Placements Interval
OPEN (O) 1 2 3 4 (all tones)
HIGH (H) 1 2 34 (semitone between 3 and 4)
MIDDLE (M) 1 23 4 (semitone between 2 and 3)
LOW (L) 12 3 4 (semitone between 1 and 2)


I have heard a few different ways of describing these patterns, such as “WXY and Z”, and “12, 23, and 34”. You could call them “apples, pears, oranges and bananas” for that matter, but the main concept is to teach the student a simple way of recognising that most of their pieces and scales use these 4 patterns. For example, any major scale starting on an open string is MM and any major scale starting on a first finger, is HH etc. Any scale staring on 1, 2 or 3 can “move up” into ANY position and the pattern will remain the same. This is OBVIOUS to those of us who have been playing for years, but NOT so obvious to a beginner, or even to some students who have been playing for a while! Similarly, when adding a second octave, a G Major 2 octave scale is simply MMLL, an Ab or A Major scale is HHMM. These scales can also travel up to higher positions. Harmonic minor scales introduce slight variations, but these are simply understood by placing a “+” in front of a finger. For instance, a harmonic minor scale, commencing on a first finger will be M L+3, changing the L pattern to 12 +34, (I also call a V pattern, because the fingers are shaped like a “V”).

Without getting too technical, let me just say that fast runs across four strings can then be thought of, for instance, as MLHM, rather than 16 different notes. Arpeggios, dominant and diminished 7ths can also be taught using simple tricks or patterns. Double stopped scales in 3rds and 6ths are so much easier to play in tune when the student understands the patterns. These are often the weakest scales in the technical section of an exam, but need not be so. Because the strings are tuned in perfect 5ths, a major 6th is simply a tone across the string, and a minor 6th is a semitone. The scale in 6ths ascends, using the following intervals between the fingers: For major scales – STTS STTS and for harmonic minor scales – TTST SSTT. Furthermore, the whole hand falls into a pattern. For example, a one octave Bb major scale in sixths, starting with Bb on the A string, is quite simply an “H Pattern” scale, using 2 fingers at once. Scales in 3rds can be taught in a similar fashion, with the student first being taught some basic exercises, such as placing the 1 and 3 combination, then going to a 2 and 4 combination, using the main 4 patterns.

Another important thing to understand in string playing is the relationship of fingers across the string. The ability to “crabwalk”, as I call it, is the ability to take the finger across the strings, without going forward or backward (in other words, a perfect 5th). Then the student needs to understand that going from a C natural on the A string, to an F sharp on the D string is NOT a crabwalk, but in fact a +2. This is commonly called “fingerboard geography”.

All this is probably a little difficult to understand on paper, but I try to teach my students what I call a “maintenance plan” of technical work. I have devised several sheets, which are not given at the same time. One deals with patterns and shifting exercises, which I call the Daily Exercise Workout for Fit Fingers. Another sheet deals with double stop intonation. Like most teachers, the majority of my students have a severe allergy to anything that has even a faint whiff of “technical work”. Therefore, I make this bargain with them: “This sheet contains all you need to know to get through your technical work for this exam. Your scales will be much easier to learn. Now, I could teach you the same things by giving you about 28 studies. Which would you rather? This sheet, or 28 studies?” The reply is predictable. “Well then”, I say to them, “I PROMISE not to give you 28 studies (Something I could not possibly do in the half an hour that we are given for school lessons!)

if you promise me you’ll practice this sheet.”

In 25 years of teaching, I have to say that like most teachers, many of my methods have evolved from trial and error and ideas that I have acquired from attending professional development sessions, and conferences, held by various associations around the country. In particular, I would like to acknowledge Elizabeth Morgan, Senior Examiner and String Lecturer at the Qld Conservatorium, for first opening my eyes and ears to the idea of searching for patterns and ringing notes, and to Louis Bergonzi, from the U.S.A., for his hints on teaching good intonation. My final words of wisdom to teachers would be this: NEVER stop learning, and NEVER start to think you’ve got all the ideas. Open your mind to exploring new ways of approaching your teaching and seek out ideas to inspire and keep your love of teaching alive.

Loreta Fin
Director of Strings and Instrumental Music
Somerville House