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expressve intonatio


By Bayla Keyes


When using expressive intonation, we intensify and exaggerate functional harmony. The role of a sharp is to lead up to resolution one half-step above, so when we want to exaggerate that role, we place the sharp a fraction higher. We do the opposite with flats, placing them lower. The result of this is that half-steps become narrower (requiring excellent fingertip placement skills!). In fact in this system, all minor intervals will be slightly narrower, and all major intervals will be slightly wider. This will create a certain kind of tension which is desirable in some musical situations, because the tension pulls the listener to feel certain emotions more deeply. 


In G Major, for example, the two half-steps are between B and C and F# and G. If we use expressive intonation, both the B and the F# will be slightly raised, leading to a slightly more brilliant and happy affect. Modern soloists will use this in order to stand out from an orchestra and also intensify their presence. (Mozart G example)          


G   A   B   C   D   E   F#  G

In G harmonic minor, the half-steps are between A and Bb, D and Eb, and F# and G. If we use expressive intonation, the F# will be raised, but the Eb and Bb will be lowered, leading to a dark and mournful quality. (Bruch G, Tartini examples)


G   A   Bb  C   D  Eb  F#  G

You can learn this system by playing with an adjustable drone raised for sharps or lowered for flats. If you use A=440, then raise it to A=441 or lower it to A=439; then put it on the expressive pitch you are trying to learn to hear. Be sure to keep your regular notes in tune with your open strings!

Expressive intonation is not always desirable, but it is particularly useful in the solo repertoire and in music of high emotion. For good examples of this, listen to David Oistrach, Gidon Kremer, Itzhak Perlman, and other major violinists playing concertos from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  For the opposite kind of intonation, listen to early music or country fiddling.

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