Scales and Drones

There’s one thing I have learned in the few short months I have been learning to play the fiddle–proper intonation is a must. It’s a good idea to mindfully practice good intonation, rather than just sawing away at practice time and hoping it’ll work itself out. Not many folks appreciate playing with a fiddler whose intonation is off.

There are a couple bits of advice I have heard regarding achieving good intonation:

  • Practice along with recorded scales
  • Practice over a drone note

Brass_scales_with_cupped_traysWhen practicing to recorded scales you are listening to your playing and attempting to match your tone with the recording. It isn’t hard to hear when you’re a bit off. The idea is that eventually your fingers will learn where to go to play the notes accurately. Here are some links to scales that would be useful for playing Irish traditional music–feel free to download!

A major–one octave

A major–two octaves

D major–one octave

C major–one octave

C major–two octaves

G major–two octaves

dronePlaying along to a drone means that you are listening to a single note–probably the root or tonic of the scale or tune you want to practice–and listening to the relationship between your note and the drone note. You can also play tunes along to it if you want to make it a bit more musical. I find this method more intuitive–the drone becomes almost like background, in a way, and you are able to listen attentively to your own playing. This link will take you to a site where you can play along with or  download drones–every possible note is represented. (To download, click the link, then right click on the drone you want. Select “save as” in the menu and voila!)


I am not a brain scientist, but I get the sense that using these two techniques in conjunction forces you to use your brain in slightly different ways,  solidifying your ability to play in tune. It’s helped me quite a lot–try it for yourself.

5 thoughts on “Scales and Drones

  1. Cool Stuff! I’m gonna try this out. I think Kevin Crawford (of Lunasa fame) had also mentioned the drones at a workshop I took with him.

  2. I forgot to say, this computer based tuner, which samples as you play and graphs whether your notes as you play them are sharp or flat is also pretty cool: I use it quite a bit myself. Also, I’ve read that most humans can’t hear a difference of about 5 cents or less off, so don’t get too neurotic about perfectly nailing it.

    • Flutini is great, by the way–not able to get it going on my mac (which is in the space where I practice) but I have it on the laptop so I can bring that up with me. Turns out I CAN play pretty in-tune, occasionally.

  3. I’m reading a good book by Jonathan Harnum called “The Practice of Practice,” in which he devotes an entire chapter to the subject of playing with drones. Just wanted to share a quote from that chapter: “… Playing in tune with a drone is a physical, feelingful way of understanding intonation . After surprisingly little practice , adjusting to be in tune with a drone is kind of like slipping on the ice. You don’t stop to think, your body simply reacts instantly, without conscious thought. After some practice with drones, you’ll adjust your pitch to be in tune with little or no conscious effort. This is “thinking in music.”

    Harnum, Jonathan (2014-06-08). The Practice of Practice (p. 163). Sol Ut Press. Kindle Edition.

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