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Working with Drones – Introduction: Improving Intonation

One of the best ways I know to increase one’s intonational precision is to play against a held drone note. It is excellent not only for left hand finger spacing, shifting, but also for improving one’s aural pitch discrimination.

You can create your own drone note using a looper, midi program, etc. or your metronome or tuner may have the ability to produce a drone. I prefer to use a tone that includes the full series of overtones (i.e. a real instrument or decent electronic imitation) rather than just the fundamental pitch (i.e. a sine wave), but any drone note is better than none.

Working with drones is a fairly simple concept, but takes time, patience and can be taxing to the ear. I advise doing it often. We can use drones with anything we practice from a technical etude to a major concert work.

For now, however, let’s use a C major scale as an example:

  1. Set a drone note of “C” (the root of the scale) to “hold” or loop indefinitely.
  2. Play the first note of a C major scale (i.e. C) and hold it using as many bows as you need, we may be here awhile.
  3. We are trying to listen harmonically. Adjust your pitch until you are confident that your note sounds the absolute best it possibly can against the drone note, intonationally speaking.
  4. If you are unsure about the accuracy of the pitch you are playing, move the pitch sharp and/or flat and come back around to an in tune note. When you are first starting this process I suggest you move the pitch sharp or flat even if you are confident about the interval you are creating. You may discover a new level of aural pitch discrimination.
  5. Constantly compare your note to the drone. Be exceptionally discriminating and listen extraordinarily closely. Listen for the two tones (i.e. yours and the drone) to “lock in.” Find the pitch level where there is the least amount of dissonance between your tone and the drone. Do not rush to the next note. Hold this note and listen deeply.
  6. Once you are certain your note sounds the best it possibly can against the drone note, hold it for a bit. Listen closely.
  7. Repeat this process for every note of the scale. Play the appropriate number of octaves for your technical advancement level. For this exercise do not use any vibrato and avoid open strings and harmonics.

Some intervals created between you and the drone note will be more consonant than others. Despite this obvious fact, each interval will have a place that sounds the best to your ear. Some intervals will “lock in” in a clear way, while others may prove more elusive at first. In tune unisons, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths and octaves are generally easier to hear, and find, than seconds or sevenths.

If you listen closely you may find you hear a third tone, i.e. a note other than the drone or the note you are playing. This is a sign you are playing the interval harmonically in tune. These third pitches are sometimes referred to as “Tartini Tones,” combination tones, or differential tones. A detailed explanation is beyond the scope of this article, but I advise you to listen for these notes as you work with your drones.