Fine-Tuning Your Performance

Picking up on my article last week about the main aspects of ensemble training I thought it would be useful to focus on tuning in a bit more detail.

Every player has the responsibility to perfect their intonation as it is one of the most critical aspects of any performance. On the face of it this would seem a simple matter of tuning your instrument, but tuning is a complex area which requires careful study.

The differently tempered scales:

Most of you already know about the equally tempered scale. Imagine a ruler which represents an octave. It has 12 equally spaced semitones, each of which is say and inch apart. This system of tuning came in during the days of Bach and was really an acceptable compromise to address and an age-old problem.

The Chord of Nature:

True tuning is based on the “Chord of Nature”. The physicists amongst you will be interested in this as it the basic principles of harmony which derive from the harmonic series. If we look at the harmonic series we find that the octave partials are in tun with each other, each being precisely double the frequency. They are also the most numerous harmonics and therefor the strongest. The next partial to appear is the fifth, which is very slightly sharp compared to equal temperament. This is the next most numerous. Going higher up the series we come to the 3rd (which is the 5th partial). This harmonic is considerably flat and is also much weaker in the series. The weakest and most “out of tune” harmonic is the 11th partial which is a flattened 7th. This is very significantly flat.

Trevor Wye in his excellent book on intonation describes the proportional differences in “oggs”, a made-up unit of pitch which shows the proportions very clearly. If we take the harmonics and line them up as a scale, we find the proportions are like this:

Interval                          Adjustment in “oggs”

Major 2nd                                 +2

Minor 3rd                                   +8

Major 3rd                                   -7

Perfect 4th                                 -1

Perfect 5th                                 +1

Major 6th                                   -8

Major 7th                                   -6


So, our scale now looks like a rather wonky staircase with no two steps being the same.

In a minor scale the 3rd is in direct conflict with the major 3rd partial, so there is dissonance built into a minor chord.

In the early baroque period harpsichords would be tuned to various “temperaments” depending upon the keys of the pieces. Music could not stray far from these keys as the intonation discrepancies became intolerable. The Equally tempered scale (or Just temperament) was regarded as acceptably “out of tune” in any key and we have become quite accustomed to this sound on pianos. Bach wrote his 48 Preludes and Fugues for the Well-Tempered Clavier to illustrate how successful this could be.

However, if choirs, wind or brass ensembles tune like a piano, particularly on longer held chords the tuning can be excruciating. It is necessary to adjust the 3rd downwards and the fifth slightly bright so that the harmonics do not clash with themselves and the “chord of nature” can have its beautiful resonant sound.


Tuning for bands and choirs:

So much for the theory. This leads to some important practical points:

We can spend as long as we like tuning our instrument but without developing the instinct for fine tuning this is not going to lead to an in-tune performance. The strings can only tune their open strings, everything else is down to their precise positioning of fingers on the string. In the same way wind and brass players must develop the instinct and flexibility to make these adjustments “on the wing”.

Firstly, no note is the same in different keys (it may be on a piano, but remember that is a compromise and has been mitigated by years of design adjustments by piano makers to weaken certain partials!). Middle C will be much flatter if it is the third degree of an Ab major chord, than if is the tonic in C. It will be slightly sharper if is the fifth of F Major. For players this is important. It doesn’t necessarily mean we have to analyse every chord we play in, but we must develop and instinct for where notes sit within chords.

In a wind orchestra I think it is of great value to spend time tuning chords, starting with the octaves, then adding the perfect fifths to get them sounding “raw”, and finally adding the thirds which has to be so carefully calibrated, flatter and softer than the other notes of the triad.

A wind orchestra presents a myriad of tuning problems by its very nature. The symphony orchestra evolved with pairs of woodwind and a four-part “choir” of brass (horns and low brass), all enveloped in the basic string sound. The scoring of chords for the wind section of an orchestra is inherently balanced and the great composers knew precisely how to construct chords according the proportions of the chord of nature. Classical scoring has strong octaves, slightly weaker 5th and often only a single instrument (in Beethoven maybe just the second clarinet) playing the 3rd, which reflects the balance of the partials in the chord of nature we discussed. So, the proportions are correct and relatively easy to tune.

The wind orchestra, particularly where we are more often than not faced with unbalanced sections (eg. far too many flutes and trumpets and often not enough tenor instruments) presents many problems with tuning – almost to the point where we have become accustomed to wind bands being pretty out of tune. For example, flutes tend to go sharp when they are high and loud and flat when they are quiet and low, whilst clarinets tend to go sharp when are low and soft – the opposite of the flutes. Clarinets can present many tuning problems as they overblow in 12ths (ie. the octave plus a fifth which as we have seen is slightly wider than equal temperament),

Coupled with the problems of dynamic balance with a large over-enthusiastic brass section and the inherent tuning tendencies of different instruments we have a serious job on our hands getting a wind band to sound reasonable in tune. My approach is to try to encourage a “chamber music” approach, often thinning the sections down to pairs of instruments in the first instance to try to establish foundations for the tuning.

Another thing which I regard as crucial is for all players in a wind orchestra to have the flexibility in their embouchures to be able to “bend” the pitch. A favourite exercise is to ask individuals, or the entire group, to bend a concert Bb down a semitone with just the embouchure (for flutes this can involve turning the instrument and for brass it requires firm support of the corner muscles of the embouchure). It is possible for an entire wind orchestra to transpose down a semitone without playing different notes. Similarly try bending it up a quarter tone – much harder, but it gives players the flexibility to make adjustments “on the wing”.

It’s worth mentioning a couple of more obvious but equally important observations in relation to tuning:

Firstly, it goes without saying that the instrument and player must be properly warmed up before there is any point addressing fine tuning. A cold wind instrument will be flat and a cold string instrument will be sharp, so spend some time in the temperature of the room and for wind and brass do some lip-gym before every rehearsal to bring the air in the instrument up to your body temperature.

Secondly, and I think this stems from everything we have said about the partials of a sound, make a full and good quality sound when tuning. Support the air and produce the note well. A weak, poorly formed tone will not have the freely resonating overtones and it will be impossible to tune meaningfully.

And one other consideration is dynamic. The tuning becomes less stable as we move further to the extremes, so particular care is required that in the ff and pp dynamic ranges and beyond the tuning remains centred.

A quick word on tuning meters: These are invaluable for establishing the centre of gravity in our pitch. When “testing” your tuning with a metre don’t stare at it as you will tend to try to squeeze the note into the correct pitch. Play a note with a really full tone and then glance at the meter to see if you are on pitch. And remember that note can be quite different depending on its role within a chord.

I thought I’d finish this article with a link to a particularly interesting short clip from a lecture by the great composer/conductor/pianist Leonard Bernstein (who gets my vote as one of the great geniuses of the 20th century). Here he talks about the development of harmony in relations to the harmonic series. It is indirectly related to everything we have talked about here, but well worth a watch.


For further reading:

A Trevor Wye Practice Book for the Flute – Volume 4 Intonation