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Many instruments have fixed notes tuned according to equal temperament, but some don't. The most common examples are the violin family, the trombone, and the human voice, but one can also find fretless guitars and bass guitars and I'm sure there are even more examples of non-fixed-note instruments.

Yesterday I had a debate with my guitar teacher about the role of muscle memory vs ear-based micro-adjustments in non-fixed-note instruments. He is inclined to think that well-trained players can hit the right note instantly, based solely on muscle memory. I am more inclined to think that ear-based micro-adjustments after the note is first hit are crucial, even if the player may be unaware that they are doing this (e.g., on a violin, the pitch can be changed just by a subtle rolling of the finger, or even by pressing slightly softer/harder to change the tension on the string).

This question could be answered scientifically by having well-trained musicians perform a melody with and without being able to hear themselves, and comparing the results. Is anyone aware of any such studies? I would also be interested in the perspective of musicians who play such instruments.

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    If I had to guess, I'd guess both mechanisms are important. Certainly it is possible to sing without being able to hear oneself and have reasonable intonation, so I don't think we can totally discount muscle memory in any case. Also when singing, I've personally experienced making instinctive intonation adjustments based on the accompaniment and/or harmony vocal intonation. – Todd Wilcox May 24 '16 at 21:02
  • ^ I'd agree - remember that non-fixed note players will not tend to just want to "hit the note", they'll want to intone it to sound the sweetest according to what other notes are playing at the time (i.e. to sound better than equal temperament - or whatever - would sound). It's hard to believe that many players could do that using muscle memory alone. – topo Reinstate Monica May 24 '16 at 21:17
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    There's a reason that string players retune their instruments so frequently. It's because they go out of tune very quickly while playing. Logically, there is no way you can compensate for that only by muscle memory - you must be using your hearing to close the feedback loop. But for a good player the process is almost automatic, unless a string goes grossly out of tune (e.g. by a quarter-tone) in which case you start to be conscious of it - and maybe even re-finger the music to avoid that string where possible. – user19146 May 25 '16 at 0:34
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    This thread on violinist.com asks the same question; there are 94 replies, none of which I have read :) – AakashM May 25 '16 at 11:09
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    without muscle memory, every time you start a new note, it'll be out of tune and you'd have to slide onto pitch. – Carl Witthoft May 25 '16 at 13:25
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Like the comments said, it's a combination of both. As a trombone player, we have the muscle memory to hit notes at what should be in tune, but what is in tune may also vary. You tune the notes based on what is in tune in context (surrounding ensemble/accompanist), the tuning will not always be A = 440, so you need to have the ability to hear tuning and micro adjust after hitting the note. You can then remember where that note is in tune and use that memory while you are in the same context.

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For the violin it is a combination of both muscle memory and micro-adjustments. The violinist is always adjusting as she plays.

To the great virtuoso Jascha Heifetz is attributed the following quote: "I play as many wrong notes as anyone, but I fix them before most people can hear them."

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