Helping you with your music

Good Tuning or Good Intonation?

29th April 2019

“The first thing I do is tune the band!”

That’s what most band directors do – but what does that really mean? Everyone plays a Bb (that’s not so good for the flutes, alto saxophones, oboes, bassoons and horns) and then we hear the Bb major scale.
That’s what happened last week (or yesterday) and the week (or day) before that, and no doubt we’ll hear it again at the next rehearsal and the one after that and so on.

Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who gave this definition of insanity?

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?

It gets worse!

After the Bb major scale and a few other well-worn musical clichés, we get right into the music because we have a performance coming up and yes sir – we’re going to ‘nail it’!

What about intonation?

So we’ve tuned up (but in fact most people actually tuned down) but we haven’t heard anything about intonation yet and what’s more, we probably won’t hear anything about it during the next fifty minutes or however long this rehearsal is intended to go on.
So how come it all sounds so bad? It’s out of tune, and yet we’ve just heard the ‘tune-up’ and the ‘warm-up’. Perhaps it’s time to …

Try something new!

Why not try dividing this whole ‘tuning’ thing in two?

  • Tuning
  • Intonation


Let’ s define ‘tuning’ as making the instrument the correct length so as to allow the player to PLAY it in tune without any discomfort – or to put it another way – to allow them to play with good intonation.

Let’s talk tuning first!
What’s the instrument supposed to sound in tune with? An electronic tuning device perhaps?
Is it such a great achievement for a student to be able to watch a needle or a strobe and SEE that they are playing in tune?
Some teachers spend an inordinate amount of time making sure their students can play in tune with one of these devices but spend little or no time making sure they can play in tune with other instrumentalists.
Oh – so they can tune to A440! That’s great, but the rest of the group and/or the keyboard that’s being used isn’t at A440 so does that mean you should stick steadfastly to your guns and play at YOUR pitch regardless of what the rest of the band is doing?
Wouldn’t it be better to play IN TUNE with the rest of the band? That’s called ‘Intonation’.


If ‘tuning’ is making sure the instrument is the correct length, ‘Intonation’ is playing the instrument in tune with the other instruments.

This means that
While tuning requires a physical adjustment to (the length of) the instrument, such as pulling slides in or out, adjusting the position of the head-joint, adjusting the tension on the strings or placing the mouthpiece in a different position, Intonation requires a mental adjustment by the player and there is only one way to achieve this and that’s by listening to the pitch of other instruments.

Listening to whom?
That’s a question that needs to be addressed as well, but it’s complex so we’ll leave that for the moment. Suffice to say a good starting point might be to make your sound become part of another sound such as the lowest sound that you can hear – sounds made by the tubas or double basses.

Intonation must become so natural they don’t have to think about it.

How many times have you listened to the warm-up (which includes the tune-up) of the band or orchestra but then heard absolutely nothing about intonation for the remainder of the rehearsal?
Is it any wonder that the students think that once they have ‘tuned up’ everything is OK, and they can spend the rest of the rehearsal concentrating on other things because the ‘tuning’ has all been taken care of?

The students must use THEIR ears – not yours

The other common occurrence that wipes out any improvement in intonation is the conductor telling the students they are sharp or flat – and then adjusts the instrument for them.

Why not try empowering them by letting them know:

  1. they should listen to the sound of the other instruments and
  2.  they should try to make their sound part of that sound

In other words, teach them to use their own ears, not yours.

What about all the other notes? Who’s going to adjust them?
Most of the students have already figured that they are not playing in tune, however they are probably not sure whether they are flat or sharp, nor have they been expected to work it out for themselves, they have never been concerned about it. So why should they be concerned about it now? It must be OK because nobody has said anything.

Your students probably have better ears than you do but they won’t know how to use them if you don’t teach them to use them. They won’t necessarily  ‘pick up’ this listening ability over time however, it is something they CAN be taught.

Now is the time to start teaching them to use their ears and to stop relying on yours.

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Optimo Software Pty Ltd ~ Optimo Systems
PO Box 154
Mona Vale NSW 1660

+61 2 9940 0229