Two Simple Ideas to Improve Ensemble Intonation

By Ryan Adamsons

This article is an excerpt from The Jazzer’s Cookbook, edited by JEN Co-Founder and Past President Mary Jo Papich, with contributions from JEN members. Part of the books proceeds help fund JEN programs. 

Ensemble tuning and intonation are subjects that affect every music educator. Thinking about the following two ideas and applying them to your tuning methods before and during rehearsal will result in more successful efforts for both educators and students.

1. Decide what to tune to.

This seems obvious and the general choices are a tuner or another instrument, but both of these have a surprising number of variables. When tuning to another instrument, the two main issues are timbre and consistency. Timbre refers to the specific characteristics of a sound, and every instrument has different frequencies in different proportions that make up these characteristics. As applied to tuning, this means that different players may hear a slightly different fundamental pitch from the same reference instrument. This gets even more complicated if the timbre or tuning of the reference pitch is not completely consistent, for instance if a younger saxophone player changes their air support or oral shape. Most ensembles have a fixed pitch instrument such as piano, and given both its consistency and the fact that it cannot be easily adjusted this is generally the preferred choice as far as reference instruments.

Using a tuner can make this process much less subjective, but even tuners come with certain questions attached. First, while the tuning standard has long been A=440Hz, many modern instruments have been made to A=442Hz. It is especially important to check fixed pitch instruments like piano and vibraphone, because if the piano is tuned to a different pitch center than the winds, it will create rather obvious issues. The other main issue is that most tuners measure a single frequency within the timbre of the tone produced, and depending on the quality of the tuner and the microphone it uses this may not be indicative of the perceived tuning of the instrument. The best option is to use a strobe tuner which measures many frequencies at once, but in general it is simply good to be conscious of this fact.

Both of these instances deal with how to tune individuals, but often the need to do so comes up because of an intonation issue in ensemble performance. While the tendency is to fall back on these same methods, it is worth recognizing that ensemble intonation issues are generally a result of relative pitch, or in other words how one pitch sounds in relation to another. Without getting in to chordal intonation, the single most important thing to know is that relative pitch is determined by the lowest sound and exposed by the highest sound. In practice, this means that if the bass trombone is sharp and the lead trumpet is playing exactly in tune with a tuner, the lead trumpet sounds flat. In this rather common occurrence, the natural instinct is to “fix” the lead trumpet player when in fact they are not the problem, so in general it is good to start in the lowest voices when addressing ensemble tuning issues.

2. Tuning is not the same thing as matching.

The end goal of tuning and working on ensemble intonation is in fact to match pitch, but that does not make them the same thing. When performers “listen and match,” they are in fact making adjustments to how they are playing to blend more accurately with other performers in regards to pitch and timbre. However, if players make drastic changes in how they play without also adjusting the tuning of the instrument (for instance the length of tubing on a brass instrument) then this will also affect their timbre. Therefore, it is extremely important to think of tuning as a process occurring in the following order.

First, the player must produce a characteristic sound on the instrument. A student might be playing a sound that matches pitch, but if it is not pleasing to listen to it will not matter to the music. A simple way to think of this is “tone before tune.”

Second, see how the tuning of that characteristic sound compares to another pitch reference as described above and make adjustments to the tuning mechanism of the instrument if needed. This is the step where the most errors occur, because players are so intent on the goal of matching pitch that they change how they are playing instead of the pitch of the instrument. It is also important to pick a “good” note; for instance, concert B below the treble clef is a notoriously out of tune note for the trumpet, but concert Bb in the staff is generally a good note that will create the right tuning for the rest of the horn.

Last, after both of these steps are complete we should now listen and match to make the final minute adjustments to create good ensemble intonation. In most rehearsal methods, the first two steps occur either before or at the beginning of rehearsal, where the final step occurs throughout. Prioritizing tuning with a good characteristic sound should result in a better ensemble timbre, fewer pitch problems overall, and smaller adjustments to be made when they are necessary.