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Playing in tune?

Discussion in 'Ask Patrick Neher [Archive]' started by proviolins, Mar 23, 2009.

  1. proviolins


    Nov 28, 2007
    I am teaching a friend to play the upright bass. I don't want to pass my limitations on to her. I have terrible intonation, but pretty good at hearing harmonic structure. I am tied to looking at the dots I have placed on the side of the neck. I have tried for 20+ years to match pitches, but have found it not fruitful. Anyway, enough about me. My friend is at the point where she can play from chord charts, but is tied to the markers on the side of the neck. My question is, what technique/ exercises are used to make the transition from being able to visualize the pattern of scales, to actually playing them in tune without the visual aid of the markers on the neck?
    I appreciate any assistance from the collective experience here at Talkbass. Thanks!
  2. Try turning the lights off. Playing in the dark is one way to force yourself to use your ears for intonation.

    One thing I've noticed, if your looking at the markers on the neck all the time, then your probably not leaning the bass into properly. So that's another good reason to wean yourself off them!
  3. Bijoux


    Aug 13, 2001
    this is a great topic.
    how about this:
    as a bass player you are always in the worst possible place to actually hear the bass. an sometimes for any given reason you simply can't get enough of yourself to be able play in tune. What I try to go for is "finger memory" (if that makes any sense), but the reality is that I seems like it's still very hard to stay in tune. A lot of people comment on my good intonation, and I think that if I can hear myself well I am mostly right on. I think that most bassists experience quite often the fact that they can't hear themselves as well as they would like to, and then we end up relying on the physics of the instrument more then on the sound.
    Any thoughts on that?
    thank you.
  4. PNeher


    Mar 31, 2005
    Bellingham, WA
    Some good and interesting advice/opinions here.
    Intonation is, truly, a personal issue where each musician must work out a "scheme" for his/her self. But the past pedagogy as well as the present clearly has identified at least two points of commonality with all players that wish to play in tune: You have to be able to HEAR what is in tune or what is out of tune; and you need to be able to PHYSICALLY REPEAT motions and forms, with your hearing as the feedback, the aural support if you will, as to whether your forms and motions have accomplished the in-tune or out-of-tune goal.
    With these two points in mind, being close to your bass actually is the best way to hear it. The comment that you must be further away from your bass to hear the pitch may be true for some basses, or for where some bassists hold their heads!, but in fact, intonation accuracy IS a form and listening/hearing and physical techniques - combined. Practicing scales and arpeggios is an absolute must, and has been for centuries for all humans. The physical accuracy of motion and form must be repeatable and therefore must be physically/mentally memorized (see other posts in my forum about fingerboard mapping).
    There are plenty of scale patterns that focus on intonation accuracy through memorization of physical movements, with references to form and positions; but one that seems to help with all of my students and with me is a pattern like:
    On the G string: 0,1 (slurred), 1,4 (slurred - every two from now on), now replace the next 1 on the past 4 pitch, 1,2, again finger replace, 1,4 etc. So the pitches might be in G major: g-a, a-b, b-c, c-d, d-e, e-f#, g... etc. This finger-replacement pattern allows you to practice accuracy of motion with accuracy of form and pitch, and is one of billions of patterns that one plays to obtain pitch accuracy. All of it REQUIRES that you hear and listen well, and that you KNOW if you are in tune or not.
    Best of luck to you!
    Patrick :bassist:
  5. Something I'm finding useful is to practice intervals, scales and notes over a drone. Sometimes the drone can be one of the open strings, other times a recording from a 'play along CD' or a vamp from 'Band in a Box'

    This helps me hear the intervals harmonically so I can better place the notes.

    The main thing is you really need to know what the notes, intervals and scales are supposed to sound like. To learn this, use a piano, or a guitar, something with fixed pitches. If you don't know the intervals you can't tune yourself on a fretless instrument. A guitar or a electric keyboard is not expensive and with that you'll be able to play and hear chords, play scales over chords and do your ear training.
    Play these intervals and then sing them. Then you'll know them and be able to find them on a double bass, and then eventually even adjust the intervals to be spot on instead of tempered.
  6. Bijoux


    Aug 13, 2001
    Thank you.
    I hope I don't off the subject, but it seems like many people have ideas and advice given fact that we are able to hear ourselves.
    here is a common case scenario:
    So I am playing with a Jazz quintet. the stage is kind of small. I have piano on the right, drums on the left, and sax and trumpet in front of me.
    my amp is right behind me, and at best on a chair, but either way I am too close to hear it clearly.
    most of the time I just leave the amp on the ground because I think it might sound more natural, and I can use less volume.
    this scenario is particularly frustrating because I think that the bass amplified can actually be heard quite well by the audience and yet i feel that I am the one that happens to be the one that gets to be in the worst place to hear it.
    hearing pitches here is a real challenge, especially when the horn players are playing.
    This happens to be a very common scenario.
    Now, as a observation. let's say I was playing electric fretted bass guitar. I could play under the same circumstances and not worry about pitch...
    ...well, the pianist is not focuses on pitch either, and although the sax, and trumpet player are focused on pitch, they can hear themselves a lot better than I can hear myself.
    I would like to hear how other bassists negotiate with this sort of situation.
    thank you.
  7. Hey Bijoux,

    Your issues are quite different than the issues proviolins and his friend have.

    For you, practicing by yourself in a situation where you can hear yourself is essential in getting the physical feel of playing notes in tune on the DB. With a drone or recorded chordal vamp is excellent, as well as with a chromatic electronic tuner. Practice all your scales and arpeggios this way. Your fingers will have the feel as well as your ears.

    Now you get to the gig.

    My teacher tells me that my time feel in this situation is WAY more important than my lines or my pitch.
    It's true. You can be playing slightly flat or sharp or even lines that don't link as smoothly as you ideally want, but if your time is spot on, no one is unhappy. If you start thinking about the lines and pitches but sacrifice your time feel to get the pitches right, lots of people become unhappy.

    In short, when walking in the lower registers, no one cares is you are slightly out of tune.
    Really, if you play a whole lot of rumbly out-of-tune notes in perfect time, then you are much better off than playing perfectly-in-tune notes but with a weak time feel. (BTW, in the low register it is really hard to hear slight differences in pitch, especially in walking lines)

    The time and tempo feel of a small jazz band comes from the bass more so than the drums. So in your jazz quintet, focus only on your time and time feel. Whatever notes that come out are the notes that come out. Let em go. Open strings will help keep you in tune, use them whenever possible. And if you practice your pitch stuff at home in the right way, it will come out in the gig.

    (If you can't hear yourself on stage, you can also try placing your amp to your sides to get more distance between you and the amp. It does not have to be behind you, it could be 2 meters to your right or left, even in front of you, with another musician in between you and the amp. Eg Try it just left of the drummer's hi hat.)
  8. Bijoux


    Aug 13, 2001
    very cool.
    thank you!
  9. I was thinking of this last night, before and after I played at a just-for-fun jam where I could not hear myself well. I was playing electric bass through a tiny vocal PA shared with the singer (two 5" speakers)!

    If you really can't hear yourself, the band has to examine your sound re-enforcement situation.

    Some questions to ask:

    - Can you hear everyone else clearly?
    - Can the other band members hear you clearly?
    - Is everyone playing too loud?
    - Can you record your band and listen to it to get an idea of your sound from the audience? (simple stereo recording)
    - Can you get a musician friend to sit in the audience and listen to you to you all and give advice?
    - Do your band members notice you playing "out of tune"?
    - Is your pickup and amp combo working well? Does a good sound come out?
    - Can playing with the EQ on your amp help you hear yourself within the band context? (sometimes this means more high end to cut through the mix of sounds)
    - Is the piano acoustic or electric? Maybe the volume on that needs to be lowered?
    - Is the pianist also leaving the lower register open to you?
    - Are you all playing too much, too many notes, leaving a wash of sound where it's hard to hear specifics of music?

    During sound check, everyone has to be able to hear everyone else as well as hear themselves. Your band has to work towards that goal.

    When playing though, for a bassist, time feel, song form, and basics of chord changes are more important than micro-tonal details of pitch.
  10. Bijoux


    Aug 13, 2001
    well, yes of course, all of this would be fine in a perfect world. but the reality is that most of what you mentioned is simply not available in many working situations.
    I am pretty sure the audience can hear me quite well, I am sure the other guys in the band perceive that I am playing in tune. Us bassists hear low range a lot more accurately than most other musicians. So it mostly bothers me. I've been playing professionally all over the world since 1986, and I am aware about all the points you make.
    I mainly wanted to know how guys deal the fact that often times we are stuck in the back behind the band, standing very close to our amp. And well, if you do this full time, you will end up playing with musicians that have different levels of experience. meaning that, yes, there are guys playing too loud! But do you do the best you can with each individual situation or do you offer unwanted advice? I don't wish to comment on that, because it becomes a very tricky subject and there is too many variants.
    So, I'd like to focus only on the subject that, yes, you are stuck in a situation where the sound conditions are not very favorable to you. And i think you answer that question on your first post. I can appreciate your second post, but that is stating the obvious. I guess i was trying to imply, when none of that is possible.
    Thank you.
  11. PNeher


    Mar 31, 2005
    Bellingham, WA
    Hey all, some lively discussion here... but let's keep it oriented towards double bass -- which, without frets, is a completely different intonation and "hearing" issue. Amplification of a bass (electric, acoustic electric, or double bass) does have an affect on how one interprets the pitch, but I believe the question on this thread is about intonation (not volume, nor location, nor timbre - though that is an issue when using a bow) on the double bass. So... let's focus on the issue at hand (no pun intended)!
  12. neroantico


    Jan 23, 2004
    italy, milan
    Hi all,
    My experience is very poorer than yours.
    What i discovered to be a good cure for shaky intonation is recording a duo with a singer. Pitch expectation is a must. choosing theoretical goodnotes won't save you if you don't "know" them in your musical flow. The duo formula might force you to play more melodically, while this could be fatigue, it's helpful for intonation.
    Melodic lines can help even in crappy stages.

    Thank you for your time.
  13. The word SCALE comes from "Scala", Italian word for ladder.

    Just like the rungs of a ladder the notes of a scale, be it Major, Melodic Minor or Harmonic Minor, are at rather precise distances apart.

    I hear, and encourage my students to hear, a major scale as two groups of four notes (two "tetrachords"). Each group has the same spacings between notes. Starting from the tonic, Tone - Tone - Semitone.

    Take C Major. C D E F and G A B C. The gap between the two groups is a tone, so the whole scale reads T T ST (T) T T ST.

    No matter what form of scale or starting note (tonic) I choose I play the first four notes then pause a little before playing the next four so I hear the STRUCTURE of the scale clearly and try to PRE-HEAR the next notes coming towards me. If I am playing a two octave scale I repeat the middle octave before continuing.

    In the simple scales (few sharps or flats) there are many chances to check intonation against open strings.

    I think of scales like flights of stairs that need landings every so often so that you don't lose focus. Incidentally, scales overlap each other so that the first four notes of C Major are the same as the last four of F Major, another reason why I promote listening in groups of four.

    Another idea for helping intonation is to practice scales in intervals (3rds, 4ths, 5ths, etc. Especially 3rds). A spinoff is being so much more confident in keeping a clear mind as you move around the fingerboard locating notes.

    Hope this helps.

  14. Jeremy Darrow

    Jeremy Darrow

    Apr 6, 2007
    Nashville, TN
    Endorsing Artist: Fishman Transducers, D'Addarrio Strings, Aguilar Amplifiers
    Like longfinger mentioned, I have been practicing slurs, scales, exercises etc. with a drone played on a little electronic keyboard. I had to experiment a little to find a "voice" on the keyboard that worked well. I wound up settling on the French Horn setting. On my keyboard, it can sustain indefinitely and has a pretty inoffensive timbre. I usually practice to a drone on the tonic or the fifth, I plan to add other scale degrees as I move along. Eventually I hope to be able to play in tune against any scale degree.

    What I'm finding as I spend more and more time at this, is that strongly related intervals, relative to the drone, unisons, octaves, fourths and fifths have a kind of brilliance when I'm right on it. I'm almost perceiving it as a difference in timbre. It's my hope that I will eventually be able to hear a similar change when playing other intervals.

    Is anyone having similar experiences?
  15. PocketGroove82


    Oct 18, 2006

    I experience the same thing when I practice with a drone, which has done wonders for my intonation. The bass resonates, sounds, and feels different when it's really in tune with a drone. It can feel like the whole instrument and room just swells up with air, sound, and vibration. Gotta love it!

    The OP, Proviolins, said his student was stuck looking at markers on the side of the next, which is a bad habit I developed over years of self instruction. Now, I do most of my practice in front of a mirror and try to keep my eyes focused there on things like posture, bow position, and shifting. I also have a Peterson Strobo-Flip Tuner (one of the most highly accurate tuners in the world) sitting by the mirror so that I can really dial in my intonation when practicing shifts/scales/arps/etudes/sonatas w/o vibrato. That tuner is EXTREMELY unforgiving, it's a perfect set of ears in the practice room.

    Proviolins, I would get your student practicing in a mirror asap, using drones to really HEAR the intervals and tune them up by ear, rather than relying on visual aids. Also, the muscle memory/body mechanics have to become ingrained, and using open strings and harmonics to check/confirm pitches is a good test. I often notice that even the worlds best players are sometimes out of tune, but they fix it so fast that it's almost impossible to perceive.

    As a teacher, you should be aware that this particular student is a "visual learner" and accept the fact that it can be a great asset at times but also a crippling bad habit.
  16. PNeher


    Mar 31, 2005
    Bellingham, WA
    Again, some really helpful stuff here. Sorry to be "preaching" but in this forum I will often quide the conversation towards innovation, introspection, and - especially - openness:
    Beware of words like "bad habit!" What is not necessarily useful for one person may be super useful for another. There really IS NO BAD way of playing the bass. You are either in rhythm, in-tune, musical, sensitive to others or not. None of those have "bad" or "good" evaluations attached. Keep in mind that what works and may be a perfect solution for one may not work for many and visa versa.

    We all struggle or should I say, are challenged, by playing in tune, in rhythm, etc. To express that one technique is good or one way is bad is simply showing that your view of the world is not as encompassing as it could be. To be helpful to all bassists, one can apply one's technique as a suggestion, because it works for you. But an evaluation on some technique as bad can often lead to a student not attempting something that might work for him/her. In other words: Just Do It. If it works for you, fabulous! If it doesn't, fabulous! - you have learned. Let's be helpful to all bassists challenged with playing in-tune by providing as many ways to approach the problem as possible, while keeping evaluations about their usefulness to our own experience.
    :) to all
  17. dneubert

    dneubert Supporting Member

    Jul 30, 2009
    Austin, TX
    The key to good intonation is developing a good ear. Ideally, you should be able to SING what you are playing - if you can't do this then you are not listening because you don't have a MODEL of what you are trying to play. Having a good fingering and well marked fingerboard won't help as much as HEARING what you want to play before playing it. Use your "EAR BALLS" instead of your "EYE BALLS" to correctly place your fingers on the fingerboard. Practicing scales SLOWLY with an accompanying tonic drone is always helpful - you have a constant reference pitch to refer to. Also, using MIDI file accompaniments (which you can set at any tempo without changing the key) is a great way to HEAR your part in relation to a reference pitch. Its also cheaper than hiring a pianist to sit there while you practice at 30 BPM. You can always bring the piece up to performance tempo after you have fully integrated each and every interval SOUND - thus creating an auditory MODEL. You can actually learn a new piece faster using this method than trying to mow through it at the performance tempo - stopping and starting every other measure and ignoring the "out-of-tune" notes that fall by the wayside. I was pleasantly surprised when Edgar Meyer told me that this is exactly how he practices - that certainly explains his near perfect intonation.

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