How Perfect Does Your Intonation Have to Be?

Subscribe to the weekly “audio edition” via iTunes

Whether you sing, play the cello, oboe, or bagpipes, you’ve probably had one of those days (or weeks or months) where you became obsessed with intonation.

Where you carefully tuned every chord, calibrated every last note with a tuner, and worked diligently with a drone. And maybe even found yourself getting sucked down the Pythagorean vs. just tuning rabbit hole .

All of which is incredibly valuable and important, of course…but is it possible to become a little too obsessed with intonation?

I mean, how perfect does our intonation have to be anyway? How much leeway do we have before the average listener notices? Before the average musician notices? 10 cents? 25 cents? 50?1

And how much does intonation affect a listener’s perception of the quality of a performance anyway? Have we become intonation snobs who put intonation up on a pedestal at the expense of other things that might also affect an audience’s experience of a performance?

Believe it or not, there are actually a number of studies out there on intonation! Which is so nerdy, but weirdly exciting, no? Let’s take a look…

6 singers

A recent study (Warren & Curtis, 2015) recruited 6 singers at varying levels of experience and training2 to record 20-second excerpts of three musical theater songs with instrumental accompaniment.3

The researchers then used the pitch-correction software Melodyne (BTW, I didn’t know this existed, and it’s freaking INSANE!! ) to create 3 versions of each performance.

  1. A perfect intonation version, where any note more than 5 cents away from the correct pitch center was adjusted.
  2. A moderately out-of-tune version where half of the notes (chosen randomly) were perfectly in tune, while the other half were 25 cents flat (for reference, there is about an 8 cents difference between 440Hz and 442Hz).
  3. And a severely out-of-tune version where half of the notes were 50 cents out of tune (e.g. a full quarter tone flat, which, based on previous research, appears to be the threshold at which even most untrained listeners can tell something isn’t quite right).

Pitch discrimination

94 psychology students and 51 music students were then given a pitch discrimination test4 to see how sensitive they were to small imperfections in pitch.

31 of the music students and 15 of the non-music students5 passed the test, correctly identifying at least 5 of the 7 out-of-tune notes.

24 of these intonation sensitive students and 20 of the intonation insensitive students (i.e. those who failed the test) then participated in a listening session, where they heard and rated the intonation accuracy and overall quality of the singers’ performances.

So…how much of an effect did mediocre or poor intonation have on the quality ratings of the performances?

Intonation-insensitive listeners

Well, let’s start with the listeners who were less sensitive to small differences in pitch. The quality ratings they gave to the perfect intonation clips and mediocre intonation clips were pretty much the same. Which suggests that 25 cents was not a big enough gap in pitch for them to hear a meaningful difference in the performances.

It was only when the singers’ intonation got really bad – where half of the notes were a quarter tone flat – that the performance quality ratings took a hit. But even then, the scores didn’t drop by as much as the researchers expected – just 28%.

Ok, but wouldn’t a performance where a random half of the notes are a quarter tone flat drive a trained musician nuts?

Intonation-sensitive listeners

Well, yeah, the more discriminating listeners were tougher judges, and the quality ratings took a statistically significant drop when intonation went from perfect to mediocre.

But it wasn’t by very much (less than a point on the 1-7 quality scale). And it wasn’t until the intonation became blatantly flat that the quality ratings took a really big hit (a 47% drop in quality ratings, to be exact).

So, the results suggest that for the average listener, slight intonation miscues in a performance is not that big a deal, as far as their overall impression of the performance goes. And small intonation issues have a surprisingly modest impact on the perceived quality of a performance even among trained musicians with more discerning ears.

Can that really be?

A follow-up study

The researchers were a little skeptical of their own findings, so they decided to kick things up a notch. 

They recruited 18 professional musicians6 to listen to a few of the same recordings from the previous study and see if they could guess the quality scores listeners gave to the moderate and severely out-of-tune performances.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, essentially the researchers found that the professional musicians consistently overestimated how much of an effect intonation would have on the listeners’ ratings of the quality of a performance. Meaning, the professional musicians thought poor intonation would matter more to the listeners than it actually did.

What’s the verdict?

So what does this all mean? Are we making a bigger deal about intonation than we ought to?

Well, no, not necessarily. I think it probably depends on the situation.

If your performance is being scrutinized specifically for intonation, or being compared with others’ performances – like in auditions, competitions, recordings, or juries – intonation may be pretty darn important, and warrant a healthy amount (but certainly not all!) of your time and energy.

But in most performance settings – like a recital or concert – this study does seem to suggest that intonation matters less to most listeners than we probably think. That most listeners aren’t necessarily as sensitive to small deviations in pitch as we might assume. And that while intonation certainly matters, we should make sure to spend plenty of time working on aspects of our performance other than intonation too. Because if you’ve ever heard someone perform a piece where intonation was clearly their one and only concern, you know how painfully uninspiring this can be for everyone involved.

So maybe the take-home message is to work diligently on intonation if it’s a moderate-to-severe issue in your playing, but not obsessively at the exclusion of all else, and when it’s time to perform, give yourself permission to be a little less neurotic about a few cents here and there?

Bonus question: what about vibrato?

The researchers also explored the impact that vibrato has on the listeners’ perception of both intonation accuracy and overall performance quality.

It turns out that vibrato has a couple interesting benefits. For one, performances of a song with vibrato were rated higher than performances of the same song, by the same singer, without vibrato.

Oddly, the perfect intonation performances with vibrato were also rated as being more in-tune than perfect intonation performances of the same exact song (performed by the same singer) without vibrato.

And the quality ratings didn’t drop by nearly as much in the severely out-of-tune performances with vibrato, as they did in those without vibrato.

Which isn’t to say that you can (or should) use a wide goopy vibrato to mask your intonation issues. But it does seem, for what it’s worth, that a bit of vibrato can widen our margin of error a bit, and make it easier to play in tune…

More fun intonation stuff

Want to test your pitch discrimination abilities? See if you can tell the difference between two notes spaced 50 cents, 25 cents, 12 cents, etc. apart with this simple test:

Can You Hear Like an Audio Engineer?

Here are some more videos on Pythagorean vs. just intonation on violin (or, why intonation is so squirrely): 

Intonation: Pythagorean Intonation (explained by Kurt Sassmannshaus)

Intonation: Which System to Use When (explained by Kurt Sassmannshaus)

And a whole page of videos and exercises on intonation at Sassmannshaus’s super helpful Violin Masterclass website:


I wasn’t aware of the whole 440 vs. 432 debate, and can’t figure out if this is a real controversy, or just one of those internet “mock-conspiracy”-type things, but because it’s kind of fun, here’s a short history of 440 tuning, with audio comparison samples with 432 to see which bandwagon you want to jump on.

The Ultimate 432Hz VS 440Hz CONSPIRACY + Comparison

Think you have a clear preference? Alrightie, it’s time for a blind listening test to make sure. =) Be sure to keep track of your preferences on a piece of paper. Don’t try to listen for pitch and guess which one is 440 and which is 432 – that totally sucks the fun out of it (don’t ask how I know…). Just listen for which one you like better, and see how that turns out.

The Ultimate Test: 440 Hz vs. 432 Hz


Warren, R. A., & Curtis, M. E. (2015). The Actual vs. Predicted Effects of Intonation Accuracy on Vocal Performance Quality. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 33(2), 135–146.


  1. For reference, there are 100 cents in every half step, like between A and A#. And the difference between 440Hz and 441Hz is 3.93 cents. 440 to 442 is 7.85 cents.
  2. Two professional singers, two amateur singer/songwriters, 1 music therapist with minimal vocal experience, and one non-musician.
  3. Specifically, Home from Beauty and the Beast, Eidelweiss from The Sound of Music, and Somewhere Out There from Feivel Goes West.
  4. Which involved listening to a short vocal passage and identifying which notes were out of tune (i.e. flat by 25 cents).
  5. (All of whom played an instrument to some degree, though they didn’t all have formal music training)
  6. 8 college music professors, 7 college music production professors, and 3 private teachers

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


12 Responses

  1. I’m of the belief that when I became obsessed with intonation I was merely expieriencing a step up in my musical sensitivity, I progressed. So instead of it becoming something worrisome or burdensome, I now rejoice in the fact that I’ve improved as a musician.

    1. Hi Joseph,

      Yep, I think there’s certainly a time and place for getting healthily “obsessed” with intonation. I remember a year or two where technique, intonation, etc. was my primary focus, and I’m sure I was much better off for having gone through that challenging period than if I had never had that experience.

  2. This is a very interesting study! I would be interested in knowing the results if the pitch was raised instead of lowered, as I’ve always found it easier to hear tuning issues with flatness instead of sharpness. It would also be interesting to see if the results were the same for a variety of instruments (instead of singers with instrumental accompaniment). Regardless, thanks for this article – I’ll be sure to share the results with my students!

    1. Hi Jenny,

      There is some other research on the “vocal generosity effect” which found that people had a harder time discriminating pitch with voice than instrumental sound. So it could be that singers have a slightly wider natural margin of error than instrumentalists…

  3. Your study only involves manipulating notes below the actual note. You didn’t account for notes being above the actual note. My experiences as a musician, educator, and audio engineer (I’ve been using melodyne for 10 years) have led me to believe that almost any human can detect a note that is flat. If they know little about music, they still sense that something is amiss. Sharp is more difficult to discern with the human ear. In fact, I hypothesize that humans are more “forgiving” of a note 25 hertz sharp than 25 hertz flat. The same principal applies to tempo. If a song speeds up a little humans are more accepting than if it slows down a little.

    1. Hi Wayne,

      Interesting – I don’t know if this is just me or if others have this impression too, but when something is slightly sharp, it does seem less like a “mistake” than when something is a little flat. I started looking into this a bit and found this intriguing study which suggests that it might also depend on the instrument – they found that violin was rated as being least in tune when pitches were flat, while trumpet was rated as least in tune when pitches were sharp.

      1. The old saw is that “it’s better to be sharp than out of tune.” An interesting phenomenon that one of my teachers acquainted me with, and which my career and life experiences have borne out as real: when there’s a pitch discrepancy, the one that’s lower is perceived as incorrect, even if it’s the true pitch and the other is sharp. This also leads to “pitch creep,” the phenomenon of pushing your tuning higher — you don’t want to be the one that sounds flat.

  4. Love this exploration!!!!!!

    I’ve often found the slightly flat intonation of famous singers, to be kind of endearing:

    Burl Ives seemed to possess that quality, and it was kind of ‘homey,’ comfortable, and cute – note especially in the introduction part:

    Also, Gary Wright (“Dream Weaver” tune), sang quite flat, and it admittedly got kind of annoying:

    Also, Teresa Brewer – some slight ‘flatness’ on this famous tune – “Music, Music, Music” (1949) – but endearing!

    …and Chris de Burgh, “Lady in Red:”

    Interestingly, there are singers that sometimes sing ‘above the note,’ or at least at the ‘upper edge’ at times, and it seems to add ‘verve’ and ‘sparkle’ to the recording:

    Doris Day, her original recording (1948), “It’s Magic:”

    Your thoughts?


  5. I’m not a musician. My results were 1B (432), 2B (440), 3A (432), 4A (432). I’m not surprised I would like a higher toned A, thinking this might be a consequence of age ? (I’m 66.) I chose the music that I thought sounded more complex, thinking the ones I didn’t choose were “warmer,” which is nice, but ultimately less interesting. For what that’s worth!

  6. I am a Japanese fan of your articles, and an amature flutist. I have to play my flute on stage several times a year, and your articles are of great help. Today I’d like to ask you, not about music, but about the meaning of English phrase used in the beginning of this article. What do you mean by “tuning rabbit hole”? “Rabbit hole”? Does it have something to do with Alice in Wonderland?
    I’d appreciate it very much if you could kindly paraphrase it.

    1. Hi Keiko – yes, “rabbit hole” is where you keep going from one video (or article) to another and another as you keep following the trail of information wherever it goes and get immersed in the subject.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Get the (Free) Practice Hacks Guide

Learn the #1 thing that top practicers do differently, plus 7 other strategies for practice that sticks.

Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 3-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.