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Confirmed! Hitting the right note on the fiddle is impossible.

Posted by jonno on Friday, March 26, 2010

Can’t sleep. Before turning out my light, I read a passage written by a violinist over 90 years ago that explains how it is impossible for your finger fall on the right note. Since I’m awake now, I’ll paraphrase what I read and hope it doesn’t keep you awake.

What is the distance between the 1st and 2nd fingers on the A string – notes B and C? Let’s say it’s about ½” between these two notes. The difference in the pitches of these notes is about 30 vibrations of the string. (That is to say, when we play a B note on the A string, it vibrates just over 493 times a second (or 493 Hertz). The next semitone up, note C, sounds when the string vibrates at 523 Hz. In other words, the difference in pitch is: 523 minus 493, or 30 vibrations of the string. 
In order to land our index finger at exactly the right spot to play note B (i.e., make the string to vibrate exactly 493 times a second), we’d have to be accurate within about 1/64th of an inch. That’s the width of about five strands of hair placed tightly side by side. (Some rulers have lines showing 1/32th of an inch, but 1/64” is so small that the lines blur together.) 
To help you keep track of the numbers, here’s a summary:
  • The distance between notes B and C on the A string is ½”. 
  • The difference between notes B and C on the A string is 30 vibrations per second. 
  • These 30 vibrations represent a pitch difference of one semitone.
  • On the violin fingerboard, moving our finger 1/64th of an inch will cause the pitch to go up or down by 1 vibration. 
  • By the way, one semitone = 100 cents, so each of these vibrations is about 3 cents.  
Fortunately, pitch perception is not so exacting. Our ears are a little more forgiving when we perceive a note. The regular person on the street needs to hear a change of at least 6 vibrations (Hz) or 18 cents in order to perceive a change in pitch for these notes.  (Musicians can often hear differences as little as 1.5 Hz and some people have hearing so accurate that they can hear differences of less than 1 Hz, but for this example, I’ll be lenient and go with the “normal” range of 6 Hz.) 
(To check your perception try this test: I could distinguish tones 1.125 vibrations apart, with headphones and a lot of concentration.)
Still with me? So, I’m thinking that a normal person will hear a note as sharp if the string vibrates 499 times a second or more (+ 6 Hz) and will hear it as flat if the string vibrates at 487 Hz or less (-6 Hz). If I can make the string vibrate anywhere from 488 to 498, I have a shot at sounding in tune. 
This means my landing area on the finger board to play the note B has to be within 1/16th of an inch of the exact spot or else it will sound sharp or flat. The note will sound even better if I am much closer to the perfect spot. 
Okay. So each note has a tiny landing strip on the fingerboard. There are a couple more problems with trying to play the right note.
1)      We press the string down with large squishy fingertips, which makes pinpoint accuracy is even more of a challenge.
2)      The “perfect spot” to sound the note actually changes, depending on the scale or the temperament. I’ll keep this short, and just say that if our note B is the 3rd tone (say, in a G chord), the perfect spot will be closer to the scroll than if our note B is the 7th or leading tone (say in a C chord). 
In short, we have a tiny spot to land, our fingertips are oversized, and the perfect spot for each note moves around
In conclusion (I’ll quote from Carl Flesch here) “to play in tune in terms of physics is an impossibility.
Here’s the amazing part. He goes on to explain that the key to sounding good on the violin is not to become a master at finger placement, but to develop your ears so you instantly and automatically adjust your finger placement as soon as you hear the note. He says we play in tune by making tiny adjustments of our fingers on the fingerboard within the first ½ second of playing each note. (Here’s another reason for developing a light touch.) I’ll end this entry with more of his own words – they strike me as profound.
There are however a number of violinists who create the impression that they play in tune. How can one explain this contradiction? Simply by the fact that those violinists, even though they do not strike these notes totally accurately, correct them within a fraction of a second, either by changing the finger location or by shading the vibrato in the direction of the correct intonation. All this happens, given the necessary dexterity, so rapidly that the listener has the impression that the note was in tune from the very beginning even though it happened only after an infinitesimally short time. “Playing in tune” is therefore nothing but an extremely rapid and cleverly executed correction of the initially imprecise pitch.  
The Art of Violin Playing, Book One. Page 8. Carl Flesch, Translated and edited by Eric Rosenblith.
Back to bed.

16 comments on “Confirmed! Hitting the right note on the fiddle is impossible.”

Friday, March 26, 2010 @3:56:25 AM

"If you've already done six impossible things today, then how about breakfast at Milaways- the Restaurant at the end of the Universe."

aj Says:
Friday, March 26, 2010 @4:28:01 AM

The explains SO much.

musekatcher Says:
Friday, March 26, 2010 @5:17:50 AM're giving away trade secrets.....

I like your analysis. Two notes, requiring 1/64" precision (probably even less) from a squishy, 1/2" wide finger tip. Plus, you forgot the pitch influence of the bow speed and pressure. And you forgot the changing location of the string at contact, when stopping from a B to C, the string is a different hieght than stopping from an open A to a C, etc. That's why I love fiddling - it defies analysis and quantitative digamaclectic theory. Its humbling for the most intellectual, and available to the least educated. Good fiddling is some of the most human activity there is.

jonno Says:
Friday, March 26, 2010 @6:16:54 AM

Well said! I love a paradox.

bj Says:
Friday, March 26, 2010 @6:32:04 AM

Thank the Big Kahuna for things that don't fit in a Pigeonhole!

But jonno, I have to admit I'm really worried about you. First, classical lessons, then playing with a symphony orchestra, now reading academic treatises written in archaic geekspeak about violin music and vibrato . . . what's next? Suits and ties? ;-)

Goodbye and thanks for all the fish . . .

fiddlerdi Says:
Friday, March 26, 2010 @6:55:54 AM

No wonder you were wide awake. That article is over thinking to the 3rd degree isn't it? It was interesting but
I think I already figured it out ....the part about not ever playing in perfectly in tune. Never has happened for me anyway. I guess now I have an excuse, an official one. I could print that out and put in my fiddle case for the intonation police. Thanks for explaining that for us.

farmerjones Says:
Friday, March 26, 2010 @8:04:33 AM

There's a t-shirt out there that says, "if you're not having fun, lower your standards." I think about that some.
One time i was worried so i got a trial version of Intonia software. What it told me was, while my intonation wasn't perfect, it war "relative." Meaning, if i picked up a fiddle that was tuned half a step down, the tune is going to come out half a step down. I play with pickers that use capos, so that's good enough for me. Maybe look into watchmaking. : )

jonno Says:
Friday, March 26, 2010 @8:11:16 AM

For all these years, I've been blaming my out-of-tune notes on my fingers and their faulty landings. With this new perspective, I'm going to focus more on listening. When I listen back to a recording of my playing, it is easier for me to hear a out-of-tune. While I'm playing, I'm much less perceptive. I can't wait to pull out my fiddle and crank up "Intonia" to see if making mini-adjustments improves my intonation.

bj - you're worred?!? well, bless your heart and thank you for the kindness! Suits and ties do come with my day job, so I usually look more formal than my photo shows. I think this stroll through the classical world is watering my traditional fiddling roots, not poisoning them. In fact, I'm surprised at how many folks I've met in the classical crowd who are down-to-earth fiddlers at heart, in attitude, and in practice. What's next? I'd love to be able to play and improvise swing, jazz and blues standards (Darol Anger, Tim Kilphuis). I signed up for the Mark O'Connor String Camp in NYC this summer and it will be great to dive into fulltime fiddling for an entire week!

fiddlerdi - Yeah, I suppose I'm over thinking things, but I like it when there is a new way to look at things. I think my teacher agrees with you - he often warns me not to fixate on any one aspect of playing. The infinate number of tips and techniques that go into being a fiddler and a musician are like ingredients that go into a crock pot. At first you wash, peel, and chop 'em, but then you have to put them into the pot and let them stew with everything else. Eventually the ingredients are transformed and the music you serve up is the flavor of the day.

jonno Says:
Friday, March 26, 2010 @8:28:43 AM

Wooliver - I use Intonia and love it, but you are right about everything being relative. When I first got it a few years ago, I opened some mp3s of professional classical violinists (Heifitz, Perlman) and watched as Intonia mapped out their intonation. Red and blues all over the place! The non-musical perfectionist would say those colors represented out-of-tune notes (In Intonia, notes on pitch are white, above pitch are red, and below pitch are blue) But when you listen to the the passages, the music is gorgeous. I like the concept of being in the groove rather than the impossible goal of being pitch-perfect on every note.

I need to find one of those t-shirts. Great words to live by. I used to jam with friends a lot, and my focus was learning more and more tunes. This past winter three of us (2 guitars a fiddle, and voices) began playing every Friday night and actually working on tunes (Old Crow Medicine Show, Yonder Mtn String Band, and the like). Talk about both fun and low standards! We have a great time and we also are sounding better - we're finding the groove more and more. It's a blast!

tsaimichael Says:
Friday, March 26, 2010 @8:57:28 AM

I bet you are a world class researcher! Thank you for sharing your insight. When I was a wee lad I took some lessons one fine summer from the concertmaster of the Portland Symphony. He observed that I tended to play "in tune" but slightly flat in spots. His advice was that I should try to "land" on the sharp side rather than the flat side. He said it would always sound better to the audience that way. Back then I was working on Max Bruch 's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26.

Now if I understand, your "midnight genius" insight indicates that it is ok to land short or long, it just depends on the temperament. Thank you for lengthening my landing strip!


Fiddlin Dixie Says:
Friday, March 26, 2010 @9:34:17 AM

Wow, that was so deep I had to skip to the punch line. Then I was amazed cuz it is so true. No wonder I do lots of slides. I'm poppin some of those notes into tune and exaggerating some. Ever notice that the best playing happens when you let your instrument flow with the pattern of the music around you. When I'm INTO it, I'm amazed at what that fiddle plays. It almost plays itself.

jonno Says:
Friday, March 26, 2010 @9:49:28 AM

tasmichael - Interesting! The same book I quoted from also says that the listener's ear is more tolerant to pitches that are on the sharp side, rather than flat. I've noticed this too with my teacher, he is more likely to speak up when I'm flat and to let my sharps go.

Fiddlin Dixie - Exactly! That's the groove, the pocket that we seek. It is like the difference between dancing unself-consciously and moving as one with the rhythm vs. counting the beats and moving your feet in the prescribed pattern (in a past life while living in Kansas I taught basic ballroom dance). If your brain is actively instructing your feet when and where to go, you may be almost perfectly on the beat, but the difference is obvious to your partner and everyone watching the dance floor. When you do find the dance groove, that's when dancing feels like you're dancing on air (especially waltzing!)

mudbug Says:
Friday, March 26, 2010 @10:51:54 AM

Actually, I've been thinking about this very thing lately in my practicing. How if I don't land precisely right, I will micro-adjust by rolling my finger. I though it was just me. But, then again, bumblebees shouldn't fly.

farmerjones Says:
Friday, March 26, 2010 @12:19:51 PM

About "sharp good, flat bad:" Listen to Alison Krause. If you want your solo to step out and sound urgent, sharp it up a little. That's the thing with double stops too. Ne're are they presicely in tune, but that's what makes them sound so gooooood.

jonno Says:
Friday, March 26, 2010 @12:23:30 PM

Funny you should mention Alison. She plays a nice, but short fiddle break when Dan Tyminski and the rest of Union Station play Man of Constant Sorrow. I'm planning to start working on that over the weekend (if I can squeeze time in around the mountain of spring chores).

carkins Says:
Sunday, April 4, 2010 @10:10:52 PM

its all in the ears read them all .. if your drivin at 55 miles per hour and you wanna go to 60 you gotta pass through 56 7 and 8 and 9... fast well thats fiddlin for ya hit 60 fast

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