Expressive Intonation: Relating to Open Strings

June 11th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 01: Sounds | Goal 02: Intonation | Practicing

Expressive intonation when used on the violin takes utmost advantage of the sympathetic vibrations of our open strings. We should as a matter of course tune 4ths, 5ths, and 8vs to our open strings whenever possible; this makes the violin ring beautifully, enriching our sounds and giving us a sense of ease as we play. However, in addition to checking constantly for agreement with open strings, we can go further and begin to hear the relationships between groups of notes.  Basing these groups on 4ths and 5ths will make for consistency in intonation and a more expressive and powerful sound. It will also give us smaller half steps, wider major intervals, and smaller minor intervals; these are all hallmarks of expressive intonation, wherein we intensify and exaggerate functional harmony.

Perfect consonances such as 4ths and 5ths can be divided by their relationship to the open strings into two categories: Dark, building in 4ths up from the G string, and Bright, building in 4ths down from the E string.

Dark Side

G, C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, all flats

Bright Side

E, B, F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, all sharps

You may have noticed that music in keys such as D, A, E, and G is often easier to make sound; this is because it is naturally using the ring of the open strings contained in the key. You may have conversely noticed more difficulty in works written in flat keys such as Eb, Ab, and Db. Not only do these keys contain fewer of our open strings, they also require us to relate in 4ths to the open G string – the “Dark Side” — which we might prefer to ignore. Even a movement in C Major such as the Bach C Major Fugue will be full of opportunities for mistuning C major chords with the G string, because we will try to tune them “up” to the E string. This is particularly difficult if we tune our fifths perfectly open.


Here is the tuning I recommend instead:

Keyes Compromise Tuning

E: Tuner at A=442

A: Tuner at A=441

D: Tuner at A=441

G: Tuner at A=440


This results in:

Dark Side

G, C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db: Tuner at A=440

Bright Side

E, B, F#, C#, G#, D#, A#: Tuner at A=442

All flats are lowered and all sharps are raised, leading to narrow half steps and widened whole steps in both major and minor scales. In major scales, the 3rd, 6th and 7th steps are high. In harmonic minor scales, the 3rd and 6th steps are low; the 7th is high. The distance from C to C# is greater than that from C to Db. These narrow half steps greatly intensify our emotional expression.



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