Intonation describes how well an instrument is in tune with itself. For example, you might have tuned your new saxophone perfectly to Concert A, but that doesn’t mean your F# is in tune. Most keyed instruments are a compromise between note quality and tuning. In practice, it’s very common for some notes to play a bit sharp and others a bit flat. This can sound unpleasant, especially when playing with others, for example in a brass band or horn section. But if you know your instrument well and listen carefully, you can usually ‘lip it up’ or ‘lip it down’ to get all notes sounding in tune.
It’s not all down to the instrument either. It’s common for beginners to play flat when playing loud because their embouchure changes, or they get too wrapped up in performing to pay attention to tuning. This is usually described as ‘your intonation’, rather than the instrument’s intonation, and is an essential part of a musician’s skill set.
Intonation also applies to non-keyed instruments like the violin or trombone, because the tuning of any note depends on exactly where you put your fingers or slide. Developing good intonation on these instruments takes a lot of work and practice.
There’s also a question of consistency. If a note’s tuning is different every time you play it, you’ll need to work on your technique. A professional musician will hit any note in tune with the other players every time – well, most of them.
Use your ears, not the tuner!
It’s generally considered very bad practise to rely on electronic tuners when trying to improve your intonation. While looking at tuners, it’s common to compensate so that you rely on your eyes, and so you never train you ears properly. It’s also well known that performing on stage is very different to playing in the practice room.
Electronic tuners are also pretty poor at assessing your instrument’s intonation. Each keyed note has slightly different tuning, and going through every one with a tuner takes forever. Even if you make that effort, we’re back to the ‘compensating with your eyes’ issue described above.
Even if every note you play is perfectly in tune with the tuner, is your intonation good? Not necessarily! Even pianos or keyboards are subject to compromise, because the physics of acoustics dictate that if you tune an instrument to sound perfect in one key, it’ll sound terrible in another key! So piano tuners use a system where each note is slightly imperfectly tuned so that the piano will sound acceptably good in every key. A tuning system is known as ‘temperament’, and pianos use the “Well-tempered” system invented by Bach. If you don’t believe it’s a compromise, try playing a major third chord at the low end of a piano. Do you hear those nasty low frequency vibrations?
Most keyed instruments use the “Equal temperament” system, which is technically different, but similar enough in most circumstances. If your band or ensemble includes a keyboard or guitars, you’ll have to stick to Equal Temperament.
But if you’re playing in an orchestra, you may be playing to the ‘Just Temperament’ – even if you don’t know it! This is the perfect tuning system that’s dependent on the root key of the piece you’re performing. Even though your wind or brass instrument may be Equal Temperament, you’ll be changing it to Just Temperament by lipping up or down so that you sound perfectly in tune. If you’re playing a bowed instrument, your fingers will be moving fractionally up or down from where they’d be if you used an electronic tuner. In fact notes that sound perfectly in tune in a brass band or orchestra can differ from what the tuner thinks by 20 cents or more!
Confused? You should be! The unfortunate foibles of acoustic physics have vexed musicians for centuries. The only practical solution is to use your ears and learn what sounds right, coupled with an intimate understanding of your instrument’s shortcomings.
How Intonation Station can help
Intonation Station has two main functions:
- It maps out your instrument’s tuning compromises while you perform normally, so you know where to devote the most effort improving its intonation, or in extreme cases, whether to send it to the technician.
- It allows you to tune the valves of valved brass instruments with speed and accuracy.
- It trains you to use your ears, not your eyes. Intonation station is retroactive: it won’t display the note you’ve played until you’ve finished playing it. So you can concentrate on your performance and using your ears. Then, only when you’ve finished playing your scale or performance, it will give you all the detailed information you need to focus your technique and sound perfectly in tune.