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Improve Your Intonation with Tartini Tones

These little-known phenomena are keys to perfecting double-stops

Have you ever played a double-stop and heard a third tone sound in the process? You may be hearing one of the lesser-known phenomena of the sonic world—the mysterious Tartini tone. Understanding the implications of that third tone can improve your intonation, tone production, and double-stops.

The violinist, pedagogue, and pioneering acoustical researcher Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770) is credited with the discovery of these elusive tones and is the first well-known advocate for them. He called them terzi tuoni (third sounds) and taught his students that their double-stops were not in tune if they didn't hear them.

The violin teacher Leopold Mozart dedicated an entire section in his landmark text A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing to the subject. He stated that Tartini tones are a device that "a violinist can use in playing double-stopping, and which will help him to play with good tone, strongly, and in tune."

But by the 20th century, Tartini tones had fallen into obscurity.

The violin virtuoso and pedagogue Carl Flesch was dismissive of the importance of this phenomenon in his The Art of Playing the Violin: "The so-called combination tones ... have in my opinion not much significance when it comes to practical application." Ivan Galamian, one of the most influential violin pedagogues of the 20th century, neglected to even mention Tartini tones in his Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching.

It was with the rise of the great romantic style of string playing that Tartini tones fell out of favor. One reason is that so-called expressive intonation and constant vibrato—required to push sound out above an orchestra and into a large concert hall—can obliterate such subtleties.

But we live in more eclectic times. A career as a concerto soloist is no longer the only conceivable path for the aspiring string player, and alternate career opportunities are expanding every year. Teaching, playing in string quartets, and performing earlier styles of music have brought about a resurgent interest in just intonation and Tartini tones.

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