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One might say with an instructor, but how about when not in the presence of their instructor?

How did beginning students practice hitting the right notes?

For example, there were no electronic tuners, no audio recordings back in the day.


Edit: To be more thorough, I'm new to violin and I don't have an instructor. Some tips I've seen here and searching in general is:

  • Use a tuner attached to the scroll to check if the note you played is correct.
  • Playback recordings of scales to check your intonation.
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    I wouldn’t think practicing would be the hard part. I think it would be consuming enough music to know what is good and what was not. What music was supposed to sound like. If you only heard music once a week would it be hard to remember what it was going to sound like when you sat down by yourself to learn to play without YouTube and spotify and a CD player. Is that what you’re getting at? – b3ko Jan 3 at 21:13
  • @b3ko Interesting also, but not what I was thinking. I was thinking more from a beginner perspective. If you were a complete beginner in the year 1800, how would you know, for example, if you were hitting the right notes on the fingerboard? – Al Jebr Jan 3 at 21:25
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    Watching my 10 year old learn the cello and she has no idea she is sharp or flat. She may not know she is hitting the wrong note completely sometimes if she doesn’t know the song. It comes with years of training and practice. The larger issues are worked out during lessons. She uses no electronics at all. I don’t think anything she does is different than they did in the 1800’s other than take her cello to school on the bus. – b3ko Jan 3 at 21:29
  • Summing up the answers so far: nobody knows. :-) – Dogweather Jan 5 at 3:16
  • @Dogweather it's more like everybody knows, they didn't use electronics back then and they don't now. – ojs Jan 6 at 12:48
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Your question assumes that the current standard is to use electronics as an aid. They can be helpful but a musician must be able to hear the correct tones. This takes time and practice to get right and there are exercises and techniques for achieving very good relative pitch. Relying on electronics to do this is actually detrimental to a musician's development.

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    So much exactly this. – Carl Witthoft Jan 4 at 15:05
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    nice answer. What are some of those exercises, by the way? – danmcb Jan 5 at 15:01
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    some mark the note locations on the fret board (they start with a fairly cheap violin and can do this without worrying about damaging the wood) – RishiNandha_M Jan 12 at 12:47
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    When I learned violin there were no electronic aids available either. We used tuning forks, or compared with a reference such as a stable piano – Doktor Mayhem Jan 12 at 13:07
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You are missing the difference in society between 1800 and today. In 1800, people learning the violin would usually either be the children of professional or amateur musicians, or members of the upper class who employed private tutors for every aspect of their childrens' education, including music.

So the student would be learning in an environment where there were tutors and/or experienced players around every day, not just for a 30-minute weekly music lesson.

A violin was an expensive hand-made object, not something made using machine tools in a Chinese factory. I don't know any data for the price of violins at that time, but in 1800 a basic quality piano cost around half a year's wages for a "middle class" artisan like a teacher or a shopkeeper. Consider what music education might be like today in the first world, if the cheapest available new violin for a beginner cost say $10,000 rather than $100.

Modern aids such as tuners and recordings are useless unless the student learns how to listen. Any music teacher knows examples of students who "listen" to something and "copy" it, but produce something completely different from the original, and don't realize there is any difference.

  • Fiddles have been popular in folk music all around the world, so they must have been relatively affordable. The point about parents, relatives and neighbors as tutors is still good. – ojs Jan 5 at 14:37
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What's this about the 1800s? I learnt playing the violin using my hearing (how do you imagine children start singing? With tuners in their hand?) and a tuning fork for tuning the A string. You tune via beatings from there. Tuning with a TET-12 tuner is tuning your violing wrong and makes it bad at playing drone notes and other double stops. Practising to recordings is of little usefulness and mostly a distraction since recordings cannot be easily changed in speed (and keeping up with speed is something you work towards and do not start out with when working on a piece) and do not change musically.

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I don't see electronics as much help for practice in general. The pitch reference was most likely a piano or a decent flute/recorder: the ability to compare pitches even for different tone colors had so to be trained earlier, which is a definitive advantage.

Not only for hitting the correct pitch (which is far from being the only useful ability improved by practice, but apparently your main concern) playing with other musicians can't be overestimated.

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Same way they mostly do now. There's not much use of electronic aids.

  • There are tuners now. There's playing back recordings. – Al Jebr Jan 3 at 20:53
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    @AlJebr Can you explain more? How are these devices used, where? From what I can see, tuners are only used for tuning the violins and recordings aren’t used at all, for teaching beginner violinists. I don’t know what kind of use of tuners and recordings you’re referring to. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jan 3 at 23:11
  • I'm new to violin and I don't have an instructor. Some tips I've seen here and searching in general is: Use a tuner attached to the scroll to check if the note you played is correct. Playback recordings of scales to check your intonation. – Al Jebr Jan 4 at 1:04
  • I think you should include a description of that "same way". – awe lotta Jan 4 at 16:13
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How did beginning students practice hitting the right notes?

One doesn't need an electronic tuner or recording to check their intonation. When the violin, a tuning fork or a wind instrument, or even a piano, could be used, though the piano would go out of tune with time, though relatively slowly.

When one is playing, one can listen to the interference / beating in order to determine if an interval is in tune, because consonant intervals can be represented as a relatively simple ratio between the frequencies of the notes. So a perfect fifth for example can be represented by the frequency ratio of 3/2, i.e. one note is vibrating 1.5 times faster than the other note. If the note is slightly off, there will be an interference, and it will sound noisy or wobbly.

no audio recordings back in the day

As guest said, it's likely that a person learning violin or any instrument for that manner would have had access to music and music instruction. Though seeing as music is prevalent in many cultures, I think there would have been many opportunities to hear music regardless of social status, though I don't know what form this would come in.

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It's not strictly necessary to use an electronic tuner to tune a violin! In fact, getting all strings in tune with each other is quite enough, even in the early stages - provided the strings aren't too loose or tight!

And that can be a good way to start listening to the notes it produces - the P5 sound.

Playing violin needs concentration on the sound produced - not looking at the lights on a tuner. But, yes, listening to a recording and trying to hit those same notes can be a useful tool.

Obviously not available in the 19thC - and half of the 20thC, but earlier, those wealthy enough to own a violin would have more access to other musicians than the 30 mins lesson a week/fortnight these days. Likely, if there was a violin in the family, there would be more than one player, too. And pianos were far more popular then, too. A source for tuning.

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I doubt anyone played the violin without an instructor. At that times, music was more of a job than a luxury. Some, such as the nobility class could do so, but they had the ability to hire a good tutor. The middle class could hardly afford it, a reason why the clavichord, a cheaper version of the keyboard instruments was invented. Plus, they didn't play music in the more experienced level, it was more for entertainment, and the sheet music was often simplified for the general people to use as it became more available after the invention of the printing press. Most people learnt the violin for employment purposes in churches or courts of kings. So, most musicians came from the same family, passed down or had enough money to hire a tutor. Mozart himself learnt piano from his father. Paganism had his own tutor, who was also his father's teacher. Beethoven had multiple teacher, first his father, then other tutors, as he father was dead set on making him come out as a child prodigy like Mozart. Most romantic and classical musicians had a teacher or an instructor and basics were mostly taught to you. After that, you could figure out your own style. Liszt became the pianist he is because he aspired to be a famous pianist and self taught himself rigorously and developed a unique style. This is looking from a historic perspective.

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Your concern seems to really be about sensing correct pitch.

That isn't a specific violin problem, but it happens to be the case you are learning to play violin.

...before electronics, say, in the 1800s? ...not in the presence of their instructor ...check your intonation

I think it's very good to look into historical sources, but you may be conflating before electronics and without instructor in a way that isn't helpful.

I did a very cursory review of some violin treatises - including Leopold Mozart's - and they don't seem to address intonation. I found these passages that touch on in briefly...

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...the author's are Mozart 1700's, Auer 1921, and Eichberg 1879 respectively. The point is that none of them actually explain how to hear if intonation is good. You can compare your pitch to a monochord ...but how will you know it's right? Nevertheless, there are some tips: compare pitch to some other instrument, don't avoid problems with vibrato, use good finger position.

If the historic research doesn't provide more than that, you might just switch to looking for ways to improve intonation as a self-taught student.


Two suggestions from a non-violinist who owns and occasionally abuses the instrument :-)

  • Do simple singing exercises with a fixed pitch instrument, sing up and down the scale and basic triads, the point isn't to become a singer, but it trains your ear
  • Play intervals against the open strings, something like an A fingered on the D string forming a unison with the open A string, play down the scale on the D string while playing open A simultaneously, the open string can help guide your intonation of the other intervals played on the D string. Reverse the direction and play up on the D string until you get the unison against the open A string.

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