Muscle Memory, Ear Training, and Intonation

As string teachers are well aware, sound intonation does not happen overnight. However, Charlene Dell, assistant professor of music education at the University of Oklahoma, maintains that a few simple insights into what produces good intonation can offer tremendous help to educators. “Intonation,” she says, “is a combination of what the player hears in his head and the muscle memory that he attributes to that sound.” From this fact, it follows logically that students who consistently have intonation trouble are experiencing a disconnection between what they are hearing and what their muscle memory is producing in their fingers: “The weaker the intonation, the weaker the connection between what you want to hear and knowing the finger spacing that will bring you that sound.”

Teachers can further students’ knowledge of that spacing by encouraging them to play the same notes in a variety of positions. Interestingly, Dell advocates the use of singing as a way to helping students become aware of intonation. “Singing is a concrete way to know how and what a person is audiating. So the more we get our kids to sing, the more we are training their ears to hear, and the better model we are providing for them to hear the note before they play it – a necessity for good intonation.” Dell also recommends helping students to play in tune by asking them to listen to the way notes fit into a chord.

This article has been adapted from an article of the same name by author Cynthia Darling from the August 2009 issue of Teaching Music. Read the entire article on page 49.

— Nicole Springer. August 5, 2009. © National Association for Music Education.