Droning away about Intonation

Do you wish you could one of those musicians that never seem to have trouble playing in tune? If only I had an ear like __________ , then I could play in tune.

In your quest, you could buy a tuner and a contact mic to only pick up the vibrations of your instrument.  You could then spend the rest of your life staring at the tuning needle endlessly at the mercy of a machine.  Even if you were able to perfectly keep the needle in place, you would still be out of tune!

Being in tune actually depends how your note interacts with all the other notes around you.  Just because your tuner says you are in tune does not automatically make you in tune, because of something called temperament.   You can read more about that in another post.

Think of playing in an ensemble as driving on a multi-lane highway.  There are many things that can go wrong:

  1. Driving on the wrong side of the road (playing in the wrong spot in the music)
  2. Driving faster or slower than traffic (not playing in time with everyone else)
  3. Drifting in and out of the lanes (playing out of tune)
  4. Insisting on driving the exact speed limit regardless of traffic and road conditions (insisting on following a tuner despite your surroundings!)

Within each lane, there is a margin of error.  You can drive down the center of the lane or the edges.  An observant driver might notice a vehicle that is not exactly centered, but for the most part the problem occurs when a vehicle drifts over into a another lane.  This is the point where you are far enough out of tune that someone notices – and bad things happen.

Playing in tune, therefore is keeping your vehicle (your pitch) in proper relation to the surrounding vehicles.  So, how does one go about learning to play in tune?

If you have ever witnessed a piano tuner, you would likely discover the small tool they rely on – a tuning fork.  With that small piece of metal and a trained ear, the piano tuner is able to properly set all 88 keys on a piano.  If you continue to watch the tuner work you would notice that notes are compared and adjusted.  Intervals of octaves, fourths and fifths become reference points as the piano tuner continues to ever expand outward on the piano, slowly getting every string in agreement.

You can do the same thing.

You need a sustained reference pitch.  This is a drone.  You will need a tone generator.  If you have a smart phone, I recommend the ClearTune app.  I even know several piano tuners that use this powerful app.  You can find tuning drones online, and even some practice accompaniment CDs have an A440 tuning pitch.

I recommend you begin with a C (or a corresponding note if you play a transposing instrument).  You will then play your instrument with this tone and begin using your ears to compare your sound.  You may need to adjust the volume of the tone so you can clearly hear both sounds.

Listen for beats.  Your goal in tuning is to eliminate them.  As you get closer the beats will increase in speed until they disappear.  Piano tuners actually count the beats.

You may not be able to hear the beats.  I consider myself to have an excellent pair of ears, but I don’t hear the beats as readily as others.  However, you can still hear where a note is supposed to be.  Try playing a G above the drone and listen.  Intentionally change the pitch to be sharp and then flat.  Somewhere in bending the pitch around you’ll find a sweet spot.  This is being in tune.  You can do this with every note – and also change the drone tone to find new challenges.  As you play, you will develop not only your ear but gain the flexibility needed to quickly adjust to surrounding pitches.  This is how you truly learn to play in tune.

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