I wonder the extent to which string quartets or a cappella choirs are non-ET. They are often cited as examples of the tendency towards just intonation when not using fixed-frequency instruments but I'd be interested to know if that's demonstrably true in certain recordings, etc.

  • Actually I recently read that violinists play closer to equal temperament than just, but this surprised the author and was supposed to be from accompanying pianos too much. I'll post the reference if I stumble across it again.
    – endolith
    Jul 23, 2012 at 17:52
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    I just came across this paper, which does an analysis of deviations from 12-edo in violin performance – but only in a solo melody context, so it's hardly just intonation. Apr 1, 2014 at 22:55

1 Answer 1


I'm temped to say that all professional strings, winds, and choirs do this to some extent--you'll just be able to hear it with more clarity in small ensembles like a string quartet. A string quartet that played out of tune simply wouldn't be considered at a professional level. My trombone quartet, for example, worked on this to great extent just as an undergraduate ensemble at a music school.

If you're looking to make comparisons, you'd have to judge a professional string quartet recording with a MIDI version. And of course, the music is still all written with temperament in mind--everything is going to be grounded in contemporary methods of tuning; it's just that professionals can use their ears to eliminate beats from any given chord.

There is only one composer I'm familiar with who writes in Just Intonation. Toby Twining has released three albums, each 10 years apart, all using extended vocal techniques and alternate tuning systems. I HIGHLY recommend the Chrysalid Requiem to anyone interested in Just Intonation. (Hear previews on iTunes)

There are probably other composers, but this work in particular I find especially approachable by ears that have been steeped in traditional tonality. It is an a cappella choral masterwork incorporating Tuvan throat singing and justly tuned microtones that are so challenging to perform that the already incredibly talented singers require a synthesizer track in their ear to tune to as they sing. I see it as the most important musical work of our era (but I'm admittedly a little strange). Check it out.

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    I'll check out the Chrysalid Requiem but what I'm more interested in is academic research into whether (as is often stated anecdotally) string players will naturally tend towards just intonation without even being aware they are doing so. Jun 5, 2011 at 5:37
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    @James As a trombonist, I will say that refining chord tuning is something that we work on continuously as we gain experience. Typically in college we learn simple rules like lowering 3rds and raising 5ths, but as the ear becomes more refined, we get better at hearing and eliminating the small dissonances inherent in equal temperament. To reiterate: when you listen for beats, everything in equal temperament (except octaves) sounds out of tune. When you tune intervals so that there are no beats, that means you are lining up frequencies in even ratios, AKA, Just Intonation.
    – NReilingh
    Jun 5, 2011 at 5:53
  • very interesting; let me ask another question rather than continue to chat here (as I want to know more!) Jun 5, 2011 at 6:00

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