Intonation Police: The Never-Ending Challenge In Live Performance

If you perform on a musical instrument that has a fixed intonation (commonly piano, guitar, mallet percussion, and electronic instruments), you rarely have to concern yourself with intonation other than noticing that the fixed notation has shifted and needs to be adjusted. For the rest of the performing music world, including vocalists, intonation is under the control of the performer and at the mercy of many variables. Exact intonation can never be taken for granted, no matter how experienced the performer is. Those performing at professional levels often reach a point where so many repetitions have occurred that intonation is all but guaranteed, but in most cases, musicians must monitor intonation at all times.

At The Service Of The Basics

Improper intonation is nearly always the result of either a lack of attention to detail by the performer, an inability to hear whether the pitch they are performing is matching other pitches (due to environmental challenges), a lapse in proper performing technique, or a combination of those elements. “The basics” of pitch and rhythm, as mentioned in a recent newsletter, are sometimes taken for granted even by seasoned performers and can experience inaccuracies. To perform at the highest levels of excellence, focused attention for the duration of the performance is a pre-requisite.

As The Wind Blows

For wind instruments (including the human voice, which has elements of both a wind and string instrument), Performing with accurate intonation is primarily a function of controlling the variables of airstream amount and pressure in combination with knowing the pitch tendencies of the instrument. All wind instruments have “bad notes” built into them due to the intonation system used in modern Western music that must be known and compensated for. Violins and violas tend to have intonation issues associated with which string is being played because the player’s left wrist is on an angle to the instrument’s neck, therefore producing a different position on the finger board as they reach across to their lowest string, combined with unbalanced bow speed or pressure. Vocalists tend to push sharp due to tension in the vocal tract or drop flat because of improper application of the air flow and vocal fold adduction.

Performers must monitor their own technique regularly, and must occasionally swallow their pride and allow an outside observer listen, watch, and critique them.

Tension Is The Enemy

Once the basics have been learned and performers understand the pitch tendencies of their instrument, the primary culprit of any drop in performance level is because of physical tension creeping into the system. Tension affects nearly every aspect of performance, including tone production, intonation, rhythmic accuracy, flexibility, and speed. Becoming aware of common ways that performers unknowingly create tension within their bodies usually requires an outside coach or instructor of some kind to intervene.

To perform at the highest levels, musicians must train their senses to become aware of all aspects of their performance at all times, must have knowledge and experience with their instrument’s tendencies, and must continue to master their craft at every opportunity. Intonation is just one aspect of this mastery, but it is one that in elemental in importance.

Thanks to Thomas J West for letting us refer to his blog! (

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