Břetislav Novotný

”How to Play the Violin in Tune”

An analysis of intonation in violin playing: in solo, in bowed string ensembles, or in ensembles with instruments of different tuning systems

B. Novotný dedicated almost 45 years to collecting a vast range of material on this issue. The aim and purpose of his book may be aptly outlined by its INTRODUCTION, which follows here in full:

Translation: Sayaka Tanabe, Ondřej Roldán and Břetislav Novotný

Translation correction: Richard Kittrell


Indisputably, intonation is the most important component among all elements of the art of interpretation. Pure intonation enhances and significantly raises the standard of all musical performances. In contrast, false intonation devalues them, may evoke a very strong dislike and resentment in listeners. Any other defect found in interpretation will be more tolerable; the inaccuracy of intonation is by far the hardest to bear, as no-one is prepared to tolerate false sounding tones.

A glance at the term “intonation” will alone tell us that it is concerned with the relationship between the pitches of tones. The Latin word “intonare” means to resonate or to produce a tone (in tonus). In instrumental music, this word refers to the adjusting of the tone pitches in various musical situations according to their harmonic or melodic functions. Intonation can exist, therefore, only on adjustable-pitch instruments, i.e. only on string and wind instruments, which, as the only instruments, allow the players to vary or adjust the pitches of sustained tones. In this sense, intonation does not exist in fixed-pitched instruments (e.g. an organ or a piano), simply because pitches of their tones had been fixed either in the course of the construction of the instrument (organ), or in the initial general tuning process of the instrument (piano), and as a result, cannot be changed by the player during the performance.

The importance and purpose of intonation is not only confined to the choice of the appropriate pitch of tones. The influence of intonation extends to reflect upon tonal quality, and the choice of intonation also significantly affects the musical expressions of performance.

Most string players are skeptical about any theoretical reasoning on intonation, as they are convinced that the most crucial, and the only important aspect required for good intonation is to have a good musical ear. Undeniably, intonation would be unthinkable without a good ear, as it is only by hearing that we can evaluate and correct the pitch of a tone. A good ear for music is thus unquestionably a prerequisite, but is not sufficient on its own. Convincingly, P. Bazelaire1 states: "There are two ways of how to achieve purity of intonation: through the intelligence and by ear. The mistake of all beginners lies in that they rely only on the ear, thinking that it is sufficient. The intelligence of mind must first understand, and the ear then takes control"2, 3

In the field of intonation, there is still a large disproportion between the level of already existing theoretical understanding and the needs of actual musical practice. Existing theoretical and musicological studies do indeed point to the complexity of this issue, but they do not, as yet, reveal its causes clearly enough. Moreover, there is often a diametrical divergence of opinions as well as an apparent helplessness concerning the practical application of theoretical knowledge to the playing of string instruments. This is evinced by the countless examples of mutually contradictory statements made by prominent personalities in the field of musical interpretation and education. For example:

Rudolf Kolisch4 : "A too narrow distance (interval) between the leading tone and the fundamental tone of the key is usually applied in all semitone-steps, and this is without doubt harmful."5
Leopold Auer6 : „"If the semitones are not sufficiently narrow, the intonation will be always doubtful."7
Kolisch condemns the reducing of the sizes of semitones, while Auer considers the same as the prerequisite for the purity of intonation.
Johann Joachim Quantz8 : "Tones with flats must be a comma9 higher than tones with sharps."10
Pablo Casals11 : "..., in my [intonational] system the distance between D flat and C sharp12 is bigger, than for instance in a natural semitone C – D flat or C sharp – D."13

Quantz recommends to raise the tones with flats and to lower the tones with sharps, yet the practice of Casals is completely reversed: he claims that he raises C-sharp and lowers D-flat to such an extent that the distance between these two enharmonic tones leaves him with a distance that exceeds the size of a diatonic semitone of just tuning.

Josef Micka14 : "From the auditory standpoint, the tempered intonation per se suits us the least."15
Louis Spohr16 : "By pure intonation is naturally meant that of equal temperament, since in modern music no other [pure intonation] exists."17

While Micka casts doubt about the suitability of equal-tempered tuning and its applicability in the intonation of violin playing, Spohr considers it as the only one possible.

After reading those contradictory statements, we have reason enough to be discouraged. Is it at all possible to decide which of these claims is true, and which, false? Is there not, perhaps, a little grain of truth in each of them? The conclusion we shall arrive at, no matter how paradoxical it may sound, is that all of those above-quoted statements are in fact true, but each only within a limited context and in specific musical situations. The error the above-mentioned authors commit lies in declaring their statements as the only and generally applicable rules. Paramount to such claims is the remark made by Carl Flesch:18 : "We therefore have to, as regrettable as this may be, deprive the term "playing in tune" of its sanctity. To play in tune, in terms of physics, is an impossibility"19

With all due respect to C. Flesch, it is not possible to accept his skepticism: firstly, because the physics of pure intonation does not always correlate with our musical “feel”, and secondly, the imperfections of the human ear usually never demand such purity. The leitmotif of this book is to blunt Flesh’s skepticism and to unveil a path for string instrument players to approximate to pure intonation as close as possible. The book also brings explanations and analyses of the above-quoted contradictory opinions, and addresses and answers many of the questions that the existing literature on music has not answered so far.

Many gifted players are able to achieve quite satisfactory results in intonation even without any specific theoretical knowledge on intonation issues, either because of their natural talent, or thanks to their patient and persistent corrections of their own intonation; such results, however, are achieved through trial and error, or sometimes even quite accidentally. Such an approach to intonation is thus purely instinctive, unsophisticated, and therefore incomplete. Players are not usually aware of how they have accomplished their intonation, and therefore have no chance to replicate this experience in other situations of similar character. They cannot logically substantiate their method; hence they are unable to explain it or apply it when teaching others.

Only a sophisticated approach to intonation may transform this tentative groping in the dark into a well-grounded self-aware certainty, and may lead to enhancing the quality of a player’s intonation, and accelerate the development that has until now been achieved only through long and painstaking experiential learning. It also provides room for individual approaches and freedom of opinion, and facilitates the development of diverse options of how pure intonation is achieved. This is why the rationalization of proper intonation should be applied at all levels of technical maturity, starting from the beginners. Such an approach allows us to provide the student with a fundamental practical insight into intonation which should be accompanied by building and establishing the corresponding tactile finger-stopping routines.

Such an inquiry into intonation inevitably requires theoretical reflections, analyses, as well as mathematical calculations. Although the absolutely exact pitches of perfect intervals are, for all practical purposes, unachievable, such exact pitches provide us with the template to which we should very closely approximate. Likewise, the root of our perception of false intonation often has direct correlates in acoustical phenomena of physics. Therefore, if we want to discover the essence of both purity and falsity of intonation, a theoretical exploration of the intonation of tones or intervals from the perspective of Physics cannot be avoided. However, our attention will always be focused only on those physical acoustical phenomena which have an unquestionable and demonstrable influence upon our “feel” for intonation. We will find out that mathematical calculations will help us eliminate many ambiguities, inaccuracies, wrong habits, prejudices, and much misinformation. This newly acquired insights will positively influence and consolidate our own intonation, which is based on our auditive perceptions and musicality. Yet the mathematical calculations remain only as corroborative information; hence they do not appear until the end of this volume, so as not to disrupt the continuity of the reading process.

Even though the objective of this book is to elucidate problems of violin intonation, it contains, in addition to many music examples from the violin literature, also musical examples from the literatures of viola, cello, voice, chamber music, and the orchestra. Most of the solutions for violin intonation problems can also be applied to the intonation of the viola or cello, albeit with the exception of the low tonal ranges of these instruments, where their acoustics demonstrably differ from those of a violin due to the low frequency of their tones. The solutions for the violin’s intonation problems may not be applied to the double-bass, mainly because its open strings are tuned in fourths.

The intention of this book is, by no means, to convey the impression that to play on string instruments with good intonation is only possible after becoming acquainted with the contents of this book. Many outstanding players are naturally gifted in the art of pure intonation, often without any theoretical knowledge, thanks to their musical talent, intuition, or experience acquired over time. The main objective of this book is to clarify how those outstanding instrumentalists actually choose and apply a particular intonation during their performances, and where the secrets of their “in tune” lies. The book also calls attention to a variety of misconceptions and deep-rooted prejudices which make the achievement of pure intonation unnecessarily complicated. The information so acquired will be useful to all string instrumentalists, regardless of their level of technique or intonational competency, as it will help to greatly facilitate and accelerate the solutions to many of their intonation problems.

11886–1958, a French cellist and pedagogue.
2P. Bazelaire: L’Enseignement du Violoncelle en France, Chapter La Justesse, p. 9–10, Editions Salabert, Paris 1944.
3Whose originals are not in English, have been translated by the autor of this book.
41896–1978, an Austrian violinist, pedagogue and first violinist of the Kolisch Quartet.
5R. Kolisch: Religion der Streicher, Musik-Konzepte 29/30. Heinz-Klaus Metzger u. Rainer Riehn, München 1983.
61845–1930, a violinist and pedagogue of Hungarian origin.
7L. Auer: Violin Playing as I Teach It. Lippincott, New York 1960.
81697–1773, a German flutist, composer, pedagogue, and theorist.
9Comma (from Greek) in the music means a small difference between two pitches of the same tone; more see 7.5. a 7.8.
10J. J. Quantz: Versuch einer Anweisung die Floete Traversiere zu Spielen (from 1752), Chapter No. 17, Section No. 7, § 8. Editio Supraphon, Prague1990.
111876–1973, a Spanish cellist, conductor, and pedagogue.
12Casals means a very low D-flat and a very high C-sharp.
13J. Ma. Corredor: Conversations with Casals, Chapter 9., Hutchinson, London 1956.
141903-1993, a Czech violin pedagogue.
15J. Micka: Hra na housle (The Violin Playing), Chapter No. 10, Editio Supraphon, Prague 1972.
161784-1859, a German violinist, conductor, composer and pedagogue.
17L. Spohr: Violinschule, Vienna 1832.
181873-1944, a violinist and pedagogue Hungarian origin.
19C. Flesch: Die Kunst des Violinspiels, 1 Section, Chapter Left Hand - Intonation. Ries & Erler, Berlin 1923.