sep 5

No, you’re out of tune

This post originally appeared on the ‘’ blog. It’s here for archival purposes only.


One of the cruxes for all violinists is playing in tune. Careful practice to refine the ear is the obvious first step. However, today I made some very important discoveries regarding how the instrument contributes to this age-old challenge.

I have come to marvel the playability of Strads and del Gesus: their response time, even sound among the four strings. Best of all, it’s hard to play out of tune on them! In talking with a modern maker (who prides his work for also having this attribute), Howard Needham, it seems that violins indeed can be built to gravitate to the correct pitch. Remarkably, a good fiddle has a propensity for playing in tune. But in my experience a good violin can even do more: when one goes only 90% a fine violin will go the other 10. I don’t know how it can perform such magic but the feedback from those who play on the great violins seem to confirm it (ergo; Strad’s and del Gesu’s allure to their players).

To counter this, my Ernst Heinrich Roth violin is a challenge to play. I have to be alert ad tedium; constantly having to hedge for something terrible to come careening out of her. Perfect intonation is nearly impossible. It fights me in all kinds of ways. But this is not news. Here is what is news: this fiddle outputs two different intonations when given the same input. In an example instance, if I have a third interval (perfectly in tune) and move one finger to create a new interval (say, a 4th) even if that new finger is placed perfectly, the old finger which remained behind must move slightly in order for this new interval to ring true. It’s nonsensical to a point which boils my blood. However, it gets worse. It seems that suplemental adjustments are variable between trials! I have to adjust differently for each trial to yield an in-tune 4th! It’s like pitch is a black box whereby I input a dollar and at times it outputs three quarters, sometimes a frog, and other times a bag of potatoes.

Dealing with something which is so chaotic is not only frustrating but ultimately cruel. And, I don’t even think my Roth is a poor fiddle — I know there is a world of violins which are inferior and more problematic. But now that I am able to define this shortcoming, I must say it’s just not right to deal with something where logic is rejected and thrown to the curb. Moreover, every modern maker should take Needham’s modus operandi for their own.