It is better to sound in tune than to be in tune

Discussion in 'Articles and Interviews' started by Jacob Larsen, May 2, 2006.

  1. Jacob Larsen

    Jacob Larsen Member

    Since childhood we have been trained to accept the equal tempered scale as being in tune. When listening to a piano recital, the instrument sounds pretty much in tune. But when we hear a well-trained vocal ensemble, a fine string quartet, or when we experience a truly in-tune interval in our own playing, it sounds so much more in tune than the piano. This euphonious sound is quite different from the equal temperament of the piano; it is that of that of “just” intonation (also referred to as pure or natural intonation). Singers, wind and string players would play naturally with just intonation if they did not have to play along with fixed-pitch instruments such as the piano.

    Just intonation
    While our system of intonation (based on equal temperament) is necessary it does not sound in tune. In faet, the intervals which sound in tune in equal temperament are octaves. Every other interval is adjusted in order for us to play in every key. The octave is divided into 12 equaI semi-tones, or half steps, consisting of 100 cents each, and these half steps are consistent from one key to another. In contrast, just intonation does not adhere to such a formula. Just intonation has an unequal series of half steps, in order for each interval in a given key to sound right. This, however, would make it impossible for keyboard instruments to play in every key. For instance, if piano where tuned wilth just intonation in the key of C, the interval af a fifth between the C and the G would be a harmonious 702 cents, but the interval of a fifth between aD# and an A# would be a very flat sounding 680 cents. Obviously brass instruments other than the trombone are not completely flexible regarding intonation, but everyone who performs on the brasses has the potential to use just intonation to a great extent.It is a system based on what sounds best to the human ear, and if we develop our ear to recognize the sound of just intonation we will be able to use it. It requires that we train ourselves to hear gradations of pitch that are slightly different than those used in the tempered scale. This is no more difficult or easier than learning what sounds best in equal temperament, and the reward is that we will sound better in tune with each other.

    How to develop our ears
    In order to develop the ability to hear the intervals in just intonation, we must let go of our tendency to use electronic tuners to determine our pitch. If we were to play an interval of a sixth with someone and then check that sixth with an electronic tuner, we would find that we were “out of tune” with the tuner, although to the ear it sounded in tune. Anyone interested in learning about the details and history of the various systems of musical intervals (including the Pythagorean system, just intonation, and equal temperament) may want to consult same of the many books on the subject. We do not, however, have to study these various systems to learn to play in tune. We must simply recognize and memonze the sound of just intonation. Given that we often perfom with pianos, however, we must, of course, also master the equal tempered scale.

    Perform with good musicians
    One of the hest ways to leam to play in tune is to perform with musicians who play in tune. By playing with those with “great ears”, we can quickly learn to play in tune with them. An exercise to develop the ability to hear just intonation is to have someone sustain the tonic note of a scale while we sustain each interval of the chromatic scale ascending and descending one octave. Each and every level of the scale should be sustained until it sounds perfectly in tune. It is helpful to experiment with each interval until it sounds its best, since we must sometimes move notes quite a ways away from where we normally play them. It is easy to recognize when they are in tune, as there is one “sweet spot” where the interval sounds better than at any other intonation. It is also important to maintain a proper balance between the two voices, as this has an effect on our perception of the overall sound of the interval. Generally, we are tempted to move on when the interval sounds pretty good, or when it sounds fine in the equal tempered scale we have grown up with. Patience and persistence in working with just intonation is rewarded, however, when the intonation starts to improve. When I work with a student on this concept for the first time, it is not uncommon that we spend 45 minutes on a single scale. If time allows, we move the tonic note up or down a half step and tune each interval from that note. This demonstrates to the student that individual notes on the instrument are not out of tune, but must sometimes be moved higher or lower than he or she is used to, depending on the key. For instance, if the student tunes the major third and lowers it in order to make it sound in tune, moving the tonic up one half step makes the interval a minor Third. The note must then be raised for it to sound good. Once students learn that these intervals sound like when they are exactly right, it is quite easy for them to apply these sounds to whatever they play. Repetition is necessary so that we learn to memorize the sound of just intonation.

    Learn the Equal Tempered Scale
    In order to improve the ability to perform in tune with the equal tempered scale, I recommend performing duets and unisons with an electric fretted bass guitar. This allows the brass player to listen down to the bass, and to play against a fixed, inflexible pitch source (Her kan der også bruges CD med Sinus Lyde eller Keyboard). The advantages of this over a simple electronic pitch source is that the ovectone content of the bass is quite complex, and the ringing of the overtones give us much more feedback as to our intonation than the pure tone of an electronic pitch generator.

    Perform with just intonation
    Performing slow, sustained duets with an ear toward perfect intonation is a great way to put this newfound skill into action. It is important that we duplicate the sound of just intonation and not just think in terms of various intervals being raised or lowered. If we remember the sound, and not the feel, success will come quickly. If we lip a note up or down, we will achieve a ehange in pitch, but without the refinement necessary to always play in tune. With practice, it is possible to relate the sound of the next note to the sound of the note we are playing. We can hear a chord made up of the note we are playing and the note we are about to play.
    Obviously, we must learn to play in tune with ourselves in addition to playing in tune with others. In order to achieve this, it is very helpful to practice the “Studies for the Slur” in the Arban book. This section gives us practice on each of the intervals, and with repetition we begin to memorize the sound of each interval.

    Learn the sound of each interval
    It is vital that the student learns to recognize the sound of each pure interval instead of just recalling what the note feels like. It is counterproductive to think in terms of intervals being lipped up or down. If we do so, we are reacting to something we have already done wrong and are trying to fix it, instead of simply hearing what to sound like beforehand. Drawing arrows up or down over our notes is to risk getting further away from what really controls our intonation. It is important to imagine the sound as a specific quality of tone, not simply a pitch. If we can hear the sound in our head as we play, our instrument will resonate those pitches and produce that tone, as lang as we have the correct valve combination or slide position.

    Listen To Music!
    It is very helpful to listen to as much live and recorded music as possible, particularly string quartets and Renaissanee and Medieval vocal ensembles, because they often perform with extraordinarily good intonation. In addition to applying just intonation to our regular ensemble and solo work, there are compositions which are written specifically for the just intonation system. Michael Pisaro has written “The Line” for two euphoniums and two tubas, and in it he writes chord progressions leading to the syntonic comma. Besides being a subtle and moving composition, it also happens to be a marvelous ear training exercise. Veme Reynolds has written two books which can also improve brass players' intonation. His “Intonation Exercises for Two Horns” is excellent and can be adapted to any two instruments. His “150 Intonation Exercises for Brass Quintet Through Complete Section” is a marvelous way to improve the intonation of individuals and of complete brass ensembles.

    Hints For Better Intonation-Play With A Better Tone
    There are several helpful hints that can help us play with better intonation. As intonation is but one of many composite parts of our sound, it is important always to perform with our best tone, thus ensuring that each of the composite parts is fine. With very good musicians, it is usually possible to play with excellent intonation simply by playing withi a beautiful tone. In fact, the larger and better a musician's tone, the easier it is not only for the player to play in tune, but for others to play in tune with him or her. This is because the larger tone is comprised of a much wider spectrum of sound there is not only the center of the sound, but also a band of frequencies on either side of it, with more numerous and colorful overtones. It is very easy to tune to such a complex sound. A narrow, thin tone is difficult to tune with and difficult to tune to, because we must be nearly perfectly in tune for that narrow band to sound in tune. The larger tone allows a much larger “target”.

    When we perform in an ensemble or with a piano and we are out of tune, we should first try to play with a better tone. If this does not cure the problem, we should listen more carefully to the sound around us. By simply listening to the group or the piano, we will know what we should be tuning with. Some musicians recommend tuning to the highest voice, and same to the bottom. In my experience as a player and conductor, I have found that groups have more succes s in tuning to the bottom. It does not really matter, as long as everyone tunes to the same voice. There is also usually a pitch to the group that everyone can hear and tune to, without even identifying which instrument it is from. This is why even a marching band can play in tune - there is a group sound that everyone can tune to.
    lf we are still not in tune, then it is time to experiment a bit. It is usually possible to use a little vibrato to find exactly where we are in relation to the overall pitch. If we actively lip a note up and down trying to find the pitch, we risk sounding quite comical, and will usually overshoot the mark. A subtle vibrato, moving both above and below Ouf pitch will generally find the best tone and intonation for us.

    Adjust The Instrument
    In case we are still out of tune, it may be time to move the main tuning slide to make sure it is where it should be: Younger players often play with the tuning slide in the wrong position.

    Even when they are in tune, they are in tune while playing their notes above or below their instrument' s most resonant point, in effect lipping an out of tune instrument into tune. This is also a very common cause of endurance problems. Most of the time playing with a great tone will allow us to play in tune, but if the above suggestions still haven't worked, it might mean that we have to manipulate the instrument itself while playing; that is, we may have to move individual slides. With a high-quality instrument, this will rarely be necessary beyond a few notes. The quality of the instrunient is obviously a factor in intonation, although usually it is not as important a factor as we may think it is. lt is much easier and more effective to tune our brain instead of our instruments. Many younger players play a note on the high side of its resonance point, and then adjust the slide to bring it down into tune. They basically lip the note up, and then use their slide to pull it back down. If we learn to imagine the sound which we want our audience to hear, we will send that frequency and quality of sound into the instrument, and the instrument will have no choice but to resonate that frequency and quality. If the pitch we send in is not where the instrument gives maximum resoriance, we should move our slides so that the vibration we send in and the instiument are in tune with each other. It is possible to move the slides in order to get more resonance, although we tend to move the slides in order to simply correct the piteh, without improving the quality. An exereise to practice this is to buzz the mouthpiece while watching an electronic tuner. We should buzzthe note exactly in tune, and then buzz the exact same pitch into the instnument. The instrument will have no choice but to resonate that pitch. Then manipulate the slides and listen for an improvement in resonance. It is possible to position the slides of our instruments in such a way as to facilitate playing better in tune in a certain key, and then to reposition them for another key. it is cumbersome, but effective, and easier than constantly changing slides while playing.

    Tune Our Brains, Not Our Instruments
    We should strive to be able to think in tune and to imagine melodies and intervals which are perfectly in tune. One simple way to achieve this is to listen to an excellent player play something in tune, and then try to hear him or her play the samething immediately afterwards in our imagination. Withi a little practice, we can imagine what we want to sound like before we play. We can then listen to that sound in our brains as we are playing.

    Another intonation exereise is to tape ourselves playing the bottom part of a duet and then to play it back while performing the upper part. It is an excellent way, for example, to try out a new instrument or to beeome familiar with horns in other keys, sinve we can tape one part using our accustomed equipment and then tune to this part with the unfamiliar horn.

    Electronic tuners
    Electronic tuners can play a small role in our musieal lives. They can help us tune octaves and individual notes, if these notes are the root of the chord and if the ensemble plays at the same pitch as the tuner. The use of sight can be a very powerful learning tool. Seeing the tuner can help a student begin to understand intonation very effectively. There is a danger, however, that the student may start very quiekly to tune with his or her eyes instead of his or her ears. It can happen that a musician insists on playing his or her notes where they are in tune according to the tuner, thus making him or her inflexible in an ensemble.

    A Better Way to Teach Ear Training
    There are several ways to train our ears and to learn to play in tune. I believe the most natural way is simply to play with good musicians and to learn to play with a beautiful tone which blends well with theirs. Unfortunately, how “ear training” is taught in many universities and Conservatories is not towards developing the ears of a performing musician, but is aimed at exereising the many other skills musicians should acquire, such as learning to analyze musie or study scores. In these courses, the quality of performance of the music is sometimes not held to a high standard. At times, the performance standard in ear training courses is to make the music merely recognizable. For performers, however, it is essential that their ears are trained to recognize the highest standards of pitch, rhythm, sound and style, and the finest nuances of professional music making. We should incorporate playing and singing good music into our ear training. We should also perform it at the highest possible standard. It would be advantageous to invite professional musicians to demonstrate their art to the students and have them play with students in both ear training courses and in ensembles.

    Keep Our Thoughts in the Art Form
    Musicians tend to perform their best when thinking in their art form, instead of thinking about the mechanical aspects of their bodies or instruments. For this reason, we should strive to spend our practice time thinking in terms of performing music, not in terms of fixing ourselves and our horns.

    When working on something such as intonation, we can keep our thoughts in the art form. We should learn to hear our music in tune, instead of manipulating our bodies and instruments in order to make them in tune. When we think of only a single aspect of what we do, we often leave out to many other aspects. For instance, if we think solely in terms of pitch and not in terms of sound, there is a chance that our rhythm or our articulation will not be correct.

    The only way to control all aspects of our playing simultaneously is to
    simplify our thoughts and think in terms of sound. When we hear the sound in our heads the way we want our audience to hear it, we give our bodies the only direction it needs. I believe we should not individualize any single aspect of our performance, including intonation. Instead, the overall rule, I believe, should be to sound our best always, as opposed to doing things “correctly”. Remember, it is betler to sound in tune than to be in tune.

    Rex Martin

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