Sometimes it is impossible to play in tune! The most common example is when the piano is out of tune, and the rehearsal or concert is ready to begin. Pianos require several hours of professional work to reset the tuning, so it is impossible to correct this problem. The second most common example is when a temperature difference causes a serious problem with the musical instruments. This problem is particularly relevant when it is cold outdoors and warm on stage under the hot lights, and instruments adjust unevenly to the new temperature. In these conditions, it is impossible to predict or prevent the warping of sound due to the temperature changes. Changes in air pressure due to the weather can also distort sound unintentionally. The third most common reason it is impossible to play in tune pertains to the construction of particular musical instruments, which may have been built at different standards. For instance, some recorders are manufactured with A at 440Hz, while others are at 442 Hz or 444 Hz. This problem is notable between several manufacturers of recorders in Europe.
Barring these circumstances, usually tuning and intonation problems are the fault of the performers, and something can be done to improve tuning. The following suggestions describe tools which students can use to improve their tuning and intonation.
1) Use a Tuner
Using an electronic tuner to check intonation is essential. The simplest electronic tuner consists of the A 440 tone found on most metronomes. It is usually better to purchase a tuner which receives tones and checks them electronically with an algorhythm. These electronic tuners may be as inexpensive as $10 from an online discount store. Some of these models also provide tone generation, with 1 to 12 tones or more which can be used to check accuracy of intonation against at starting note. The most expensive strobe tuners, which pre-date the electronic type, are still available for thousands of dollars. Strobe tuners analyze the components of each pitch, including the main harmonic overtones, with precision. Fortunately, this level of complex analysis is not necessary for most students, who can rely on the simple, inexpensive tuners available from their local music store or online.
2) Learn to Identify Tuning & Intonation
The first and most important task is learning to identify correct intonation and tuning. This can be difficult to achieve without the correct instruction and training. A set of ear training materials from Schottenbauer Publishing can assist students with these tasks. This multimedia Ear Training series consists of the following components, each focused on a particular aspect of ear training skills. Although the first focuses on tuning and intonation, the topic is relevant to all parts of the series.
- Tuning & Intonation
- Tone Quality
- Harmonic Overtone Series
- Identifying Musical Mistakes
3) Practice Chromatic Variations of Popular Tunes
Practicing alone on an instrument or with voice is essential for learning correct tuning and intonation. The following exercises from Schottenbauer Publishing can assist students with these tasks.
- Elementary Exercises: These exercises provide opportunities for beginners to practice tuning and intonation several ways. Long tones and repeated notes in Book 1 can be practiced in contrast to a computer-generated tone, honing the skill to play with correct intonation while in unison, without distortions of the pitch. Exercises in Books 2 through 6 facilitate playing intervals in tune. These can be performed with a computer-generated or tuner-generated long tone droning in the background for reference. The following exercises are available:
- Introduction to the Series: Instructions for Practice (Sold Separately)
- Book 1: Long Tones & Repeated Notes (plus Natural Slurs for Flute and Brass Instruments)
- Book 2: Two-Note Slurs
- Book 3: Scales and Arpeggios
- Book 4: Patterns and Interval Studies
- Book 5: Two-Note Slurs, Eighth Note Ending
- Book 6: Two-Note, Long Slurs
- Big Print Tunes: These exercises provide opportunities to practice well-known tunes in all 12 chromatic variations. Students learn basic combinations of intervals (e.g., seconds, thirds, fifths) in the context of these popular tunes, beginning on each chromatic pitch.
- Interval Exercises: These simple exercises teach intervals in order, beginning on a common starting note. Intended both for theory exercises and either instrumental or vocal practice, they are available in treble, alto, and bass clef. Scores are accompanied by audio and MIDI files for easy reference.
- Interval Intonation Training: Learning to hear and play intervals correctly can be strengthened by performing discrimination tasks. In these exercises, the student plays the initial interval, plus chromatic notes immediately above and below the target note. These exercises, commonly used by band directors in the USA with no known origin, are written out here with a wide range of starting notes in various clefs.
- Systematic Chromatic Exercises: These exercises teach correct intonation by systematically providing note patterns beginning on all chromatic pitches, from low to high notes.
4) Practice Tuning with Duets
Focusing on tuning with one other instrument or voice builds essential skills to hear intervals performed simultaneously, in tune. The following exercises from Schottenbauer Publishing can assist students with these tasks.
- Big Print Duets: These duets consists of exercises which focus on good tuning and intonation of basic intervals, as well as dynamics and rhythm. Audio and MIDI files of the exercises are included in the package, so students can hear the exercises with correct tuning and intonation, or practice alone with the computer performing the other part. The exercises are also accompanied by several audio files specifically for teaching tuning and for learning to hear the "beats" which are characteristic of out-of-tune unison notes.
5) Practice Tuning with Chamber Ensembles
Practicing in small chamber ensembles, whether with similar instruments or mixed, builds essential tuning and intonation skills. In particular, students benefit from focusing on the tuning of triads, particularly with placing the third within the triad. The following exercises from Schottenbauer Publishing can assist students with these tasks.
- Big Print Ensemble (Exercises): Essential ensemble skills honed in these exercises include tuning, intonation, tone-passing between instruments, tone-matching exercises, dynamics, tonal balance, and rhythm skills. Audio and MIDI files of the exercises are included in the package, so students can hear the exercises with correct tuning and intonation, or practice alone with the computer performing the other parts.
- Learning Chamber Music (Part I: Tuning Exercises): These exercises systematically provide students with opportunities to learn correct tuning and intonation. Instruments rotate through the essential notes of each chord, practicing tuning, intonation, and dynamic balance through a spectrum of note placements.