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Tuning and intonation!

Tuning and intonation are difficult issues for a lot of players, and are connected with listening to our own and others performances. Some can hear tuning issues without any problem, others find it difficult to hear their own or others tuning problems. So how do we deal with this?

The first problem is of course to identify a problem and, in the same way that players don’t always realise they aren’t together, they don’t often realise that they aren’t in tune. Not everybody suffers from this issue though, and there are many good players who play in tune and in time without a problem, so what is the cause.

The first possibility is that they don’t listen well enough, and there are lots of players about who play in their own little bubble and bear little heed to what is going on around them. This is a difficult one to fix and something that is seen quite regularly, when tuning or ensemble issues are brought to the attention of the player they are miraculously fixed. These players don’t seem to be able to see themselves as being part of the ensemble and consequently are unable to fix it themselves. Constant badgering does help and encouragement to write instructions on the music can also help to remind them to pay attention to them.

Another possibility is that they can’t actually hear poor tuning which is a difficult one to overcome. The first difficulty is whether they recognise when a note is out of tune or whether a hearing impairment makes it difficult to pick up. In either case it is difficult to deal with and the only thing you can do is to ensure the players instrument is as in tune as possible, and hope to get the intonation as good as it can be but this may be a continual problem with few solutions. Those who don’t listen, and may be in their own bubble, as previously discussed may respond when it is drawn to their attention, and quite often this is the case, but there are other issues and solutions.

Tuning and intonation and Equal temperament

close up shot of upright piano grayscale photo. Equal temperament largely dealt with tuning and intonation.
Photo by Pixabay on

Our system of Western music is based on the diatonic system, but it is imperfect. In ancient Greece when Pythagoras (for the geeks please click here for Wikipedia article for more information) discovered the relationship between string lengths and pitches it became noticeable that there were some anomalies. B#, in a purely mathematic sense, sounds at a slightly different frequency to C although we recognise them as the same note. When the system of equal temperament came into popular use the pitch frequencies were compromised so that B# became the same note as C. These compromises also produce tuning issues, the middle note of a major triad for example is sharp and should technically be flattened and certain harmonics are either flat or sharp. A good example on a Bb brass instrument is high Bb when played on open valves or 1st position on a trombone. This harmonic, and all other notes on it in different valve combinations or slide positions, is very flat which is why no-one ever uses it. On a trombone it would need to be sharpened but being in 1st position there is nowhere else for the slide to go so it is then played in 3rd position where it can be more easily tuned. High G, just above the stave, is another note that sits on a sharp harmonic and is a difficult note to tune as it needs to be flattened or lipped down. There are lots of examples of this and one way in which players try to alleviate the problem is by using alternative slide positions. The high G we just discussed is a good example and, depending on the context, playing it on valves 1 and 2 or even 1 and 3 can help tuning. This is because in these alternative fingerings the note, although, the same pitch sits on a different place in the harmonic series and because of equal temperament can change the tuning.

As you can perhaps begin to see, tuning and intonation is a big subject and in depth discussion is beyond the scope of this article; but hopefully it will trigger some thoughts and help players to find their own solution to this age old issue.

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