Intonation or In-tuneation?

In music, there remains a rule of thumb to tread very carefully before bringing up any pitch discrepancies within an ensemble performance. This would be the musical equivalent of asking a stranger on which side of the political spectrum they tend to vote. One’s pitch-playing ability is among the most sensitive issues for any musician. My experience as a professional musician has given me a perspective on this topic that I wish I’d had as a younger player. To fully explore the nature of this subject, it is crucial to understand the evolution of harmony and scales in Western European classical music.

Scales did not exist before music—they evolved as a means to understand the changing nature of music. The scales upon which Western European tonal music was based came about as a result of the notes of the natural harmonic series. It was eventually determined that a system in which the octave was divided into equal spacings between adjoining notes, thus creating a 12-tone equal tempered scale, would be most preferable. This made it easier to modulate to different tonalities and allow for increasing chromaticism, since all of the enharmonically spelled tones were of the same frequency. Keyboard and other fixed-scale instruments have been tuned in this manner. Woodwind, brass and string instrument manufacturers have attempted to approximate this type of tuning as well. However, there remains an “out-of-tuneness” with the perfectly tempered intervals when ensembles with strings, woodwinds and brass instruments perform with fixed-pitch instruments as well as non fixed-pitched instruments. As an example, the ear demands a subtle difference between the ideal pitch of an F# as the 3rd of a D+ chord as opposed to the F# as the 5th of a B+ chord when trying to make these chords sound in tune. This is due to how the resulting difference tones—an unwritten but audible 3rd tone that is present when two notes are heard simultaneously—will sound. When no adjustment is made when playing the F#s from the D+ to B+ chords, beats indicating that one of the chords is out of tune will result. (No beats would mean that the chords are in tune.) Hence, the need for “adjustable tuning.”

Master clarinetist and a former teacher of mine, Joe Rabbai, once told me that when he was a young player in New York he would sit down at a rehearsal or concert with Julie Baker (flute), Eli Carmen (bassoon) and Bob Bloom (oboe) and just start playing without a tuning note being given and magically everything would be in tune. Each of these masters understood that they would have to adjust to each other in order to achieve the best results. Joe lamented that with all of the sophisticated tuning equipment available in more recent times and with every “A” being presented by the oboist justified as correct by an electronic tuner, he believed that the woodwind sections played less in tune these days. Why is that?

The vast majority of electronic tuners used by professionals are constructed using the equal tempered scale. These types of tuning devices are invaluable as they relate to understanding the pitch tendencies of any individual note on any one instrument. When a player works with an electronic tuner or tuning app to correct whatever pitch inconsistencies exist within their instrument, they are focusing on individual notes as they relate to A440, or whatever pitch frequency one’s ensemble decides to adopt. Once there are two or more notes sounding together, everything changes. In order for intervals and chords to sound truly “in tune,” performers need to make adjustments beyond what the tuner has indicated for any one pitch. The following table is extremely valuable in indicating what the necessary adjustments are when playing a note above or below any other pitch. (This also applies to playing scales when viewing the intervals within a scale.) The arrows up mean a slight sharpening of the interval; the arrows down refer to a slight flattening of the interval.

Interval Adjustment Required
Minor 2nd
Major 2nd
Minor 3rd
Major 3rd
Perfect 4th
Perfect 5th
Minor 6th
Major 6th
Minor 7th
Major 7th

These adjustments allow one to play with equal tempered instruments as well as with non fixed-pitch instruments in order to sound more “in tune.” In other words, there is a difference between matching pitches with an electronic tuner (moving the needle to the “0” point or dead center) and being in tune when playing with other instruments. As woodwind players, this necessitates the ability of the player to be extremely flexible with regard to embouchure adjustments and the use of altered fingerings. It also demands that the woodwind performer adopt a philosophy for playing—I will do everything I can to make the ensemble performance that I am part of sound as in-tune as possible!

Even if you have perfected the pitch on every note of your instrument against a tuner, when the first interval or chord of a piece is sounded, all of that goes out the window. We are then in a constant state of listening and adjusting where in a split second one must analyze what function their note represents within a chord; the pitch relationship of your note to the bass note and the rest of the sounding notes; and how that note will resolve within a phrase. (This also requires sensitivity to blending the note within a chord, the intensity of the note, and how best to articulate that note.) I have worked with too many instrumentalists who refuse to adjust since they are convinced that their pitch is right because their tuner told them so, they cannot hear harmonic implications, or because they’re just inflexible individuals. While their internal intonation may have been fine, their in-tuneation was not. I remember working with a reed-playing musical contractor who was playing the clarinet very flat and I adjusted accordingly on my flute. I had to physically move my head joint out—I could not lip the pitch down that much and still play my part for any length of time comfortably. He saw me doing that and asked if his pitch was a problem. I delicately stated that I thought he was a “little” flat. With that, he immediately took out his tuner, adjusted his embouchure to get his best sound and pitch, and was at A440. He said: “See, I’m not flat.” I never worked for him again. Bad for my pocket book but good for my musical and mental health!

So how can one become better at being an in-tune player and having fine internal intonation on one’s instrument? The first step is to develop interval recognition, sight singing, and transcribing ability—i.e. EAR TRAINING. Equally important is to develop one’s knowledge of theory—understanding chord structures, progressions and functions—i.e. HARMONY. Sound familiar? These are two of the required classes that all music majors take as undergraduate and graduate college students. The problem is that most student performers just try and get by in these classes with a passing grade in order to devote more time to practicing their instruments, paying very little attention to the importance of the subject matter as it applies to all music-making. I certainly did. Part of the problem lies with the teachers who are generally assigned to teach these crucial disciplines. Most are either theory majors, composers, or pianists who never actually earned their keep as professional instrumentalists playing within professional ensembles. As a result, these classes are often intellectual pursuits (boring) and not made to feel as relevant as they certainly should be. Private instrumental instructors tend to focus on repertoire, etudes, orchestral excerpts and moving the student along technically in their studios. Pitch is only discussed with regard to the internal notes of the instrument, which one can decipher from a tuner. In-tuneation is discussed only when receiving a coaching with a piano accompanist or chamber ensemble. Eventually, it begins to dawn on the instrumental performer that becoming an excellent in-tuneation player requires a great deal of study when you begin to work with more experienced, high-level professionals in quality ensembles. And that may be too late in many circumstances given our industry’s ultra competitive environment. Some remedies for this include:

  1. Go back and work on your ear training with excellent source materials such as A New Approach to Ear Training, Modus Vetus, Modus Novus, Aebersold’s Jazz Ear Training, etc. Make sure that you also incorporate playing piano parts while singing the upper woodwind lines while studying sonatas and/or concerti. Also, improve your understanding of harmony with books like Hindemith’s Elementary Training for Musicians, Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony, Jack Reilly’s The Harmony of Bill Evans, David Berkman’s The Jazz Harmony Book, etc.
  2. Play duets frequently on all of your instruments with your instructors and/or colleagues and focus intently on the intervals and difference tones. I am so thankful to my principal flute teacher, Tom Nyfenger, who always made it a habit of playing duets with his students at most lessons. He had radar-like ears with regard to pitch and harmony and made me more sensitive to those aspects of performance…or else!
  3. Use the tuner for in-tuneation as well as intonation by selecting short melodic phrases in one key center. Set the tuner to reproduce the tonic of that melody while playing the melodic line slowly without vibrato, always listening to the difference tones produced by the varying intervals.
  4. And finally, don’t be afraid to ask colleagues to check in-tuneation when things are not resolving themselves, even when you’re doing your best to make things better. The key is to find the right way to approach the situation. A famous woodwind colleague of mine is a master of this. He might say: “John, I’m having trouble putting my note in tune at m.32. Can we run that measure so I can see what I’m doing wrong.” By putting the blame on himself, he deflects any of the blame on his colleague but hopes that John will be sympathetic and make some changes as well. There is another way to deal with an ongoing situation with pitch difficulties, but one that might cause ulcers. Once again, Tom Nyfenger comes to mind. He related a situation he was in while playing with a high-level chamber group in NYC many years ago. After a rehearsal, the principal oboist said to Tom: “We play so well in-tune together.” Tom held his tongue (not always the case) but told me: “Yeah, we play so well together because I’m moving on every note with him to make us sound good.” Not many of us will ever possess the ears, harmonic knowledge, and the flexibility of a Nyfenger, but it is an enviable goal.

The ultimate statement on this subject is best demonstrated by this famous story involving the great violinist, Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz was renowned for playing with perfect intonation and on gut strings, which are notorious for going “out of tune.” In 1914, Heifetz played a dress rehearsal of the Glazounov violin concerto with his teacher, Leopold Auer, in attendance. After Heifetz had played the concerto with seemingly perfect intonation, Auer ran to the stage, grabbed Heifetz’ violin and plucked the strings. Everyone in attendance could hear that the strings were, indeed, badly out of tune. Heifetz had obviously been making continual adjustments throughout that performance. A final Heifetz gem was related by Erick Friedman, Heifetz’ most prized student. Heifetz once told Mr. Friedman: “You know, when I think I’m playing out of tune, I usually am.” The jury is in and the verdict is to make sure that BOTH your intonation and in-tuneation are excellent. If Heifetz did it, we can certainly try.


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