Intonation Naivete; Be Kind to Your Listener’s Ears

Image result for ear hearing music


When I was young and naïve, I liked to program unaccompanied pieces, because I thought that I didn’t have to pay as much attention to intonation. If there was no other instrument to compare my pitch to, nobody would notice if I was a little (or a lot!!) flat on the low notes or just a tad (or a mile) sharp on the high notes? After all, only those extremely rare people with perfect pitch could tell the difference and even that was about the notes, not the intonation, right? HA! I was so wrong, and if you think this way, too, so are you!

Learning to play in tune isn’t just about learning to play in tune with others, it also about learning to play in tune with yourself. If you are playing without accompaniment, the pitch of the first note you play determines the placement and intonation of every note that comes after. EVERY NOTE.

In the listener’s ear, the intonation is always relative to some reference point. As a piece progresses, the reference might shift a little, but the listener’s brain is constantly measuring and comparing each new pitch to pitches that came before. The proportions of the intervals are dictated by mathematical proportions that occur naturally. Your brain recognizes them, even if you don’t know specifically what they are. Even if no one in your audience has perfect pitch, there is something in each of their brains that says “Hm, the notes seem like they fit, but something is a little off.” If the intervals between the reference pitch and succeeding pitches are too big or too small, you run the risk of sounding ‘off-key’ if it’s really bad, or just not quite right if it is only a little. So, yes, your intonation matters even when you are playing unaccompanied pieces.

To address this, practice your unaccompanied pieces against a drone pitch,  usually the tonic pitch of the piece or section you are working on. I advise you to practice this way for two reasons. First, so you can work on keeping a consistent pitch center, not letting your overall pitch wander around. Second, so you can work on learning the sizes of the intervals between the tonic and the other notes in the piece. It’s not enough to know the notes and which keys to press and how to make each note sound pretty, you have to learn the actual sizes of the intervals.

Just like when you sing and you don’t have keys or finger positions to help you find the pitches, you have to learn the size of each interval from one note to the next and from the tonic to each note. (Knowing the pitch tendencies of your instrument and how you play it is very helpful in this endeavor, hint, hint) This is what ear training courses are supposed to teach you, though most forget to teach you why you might want to know how to do this.

I’m starting to ramble now, and maybe rant a little, so I’ll summarize by saying this. Yes, your intonation does matter when you play unaccompanied pieces, so you have to subject them to the same careful intonation practice that you would anything else. Your audiences will thank you for it!

Advantages and Disadvantages of Improving Your Sense of Intonation

The other day I was thinking about the advantages of improving your sense of intonation, the ability to hear and respond to pitch fluctuations, and it occurred to me that there were also some disadvantages (yes, I said disadvantages) that go along with it. Here is my list of 5 advantages followed by my list of 5 disadvantages. Ready?

5 Advantages to Having a Good Sense of Intonation
1. Because you play well in tune, you sound better and are perceived as a better player. Everyone wants to be thought well of.
2. Your tone is usually better and more consistent because you are managing your air better in order to play in tune better. Your technique has to improve in order to make the adjustments necessary to play in tune.
3.You are better able to convey musical ideas both because your intonation is good and because you can concentrate more on other aspects of playing when your intonation is well-managed.
4. Other musicians enjoy playing in ensembles with you because your intonation is good. Directors notice, too, and are favorably impressed.
5. You feel more confident and at ease when you know your intonation is good. Playing is more fun!

Now for the opposite side of the coin.

5 Disadvantages of Having a Good Sense of Intonation
1. Playing with musicians who don’t play in tune becomes increasingly frustrating. But now you know how others felt before you got better!
2. You may develop a bit of a superiority complex, and become less tolerant of other’s intonation flaws. Worse, you might start trying to tell them what to to, resulting in them thinking you are bossy or snobby.
3. You have fewer excuses for playing out of tune once others become used to you being able to play with good intonation.
4. Once you develop a good sense of intonation, you will never be able to listen to music in the same again. You will constantly be aware of inconsistencies and clashes in the intonation of everything you hear. And you will never be able to sit through a beginner band concert with a straight face again, no matter how much you love the sibling, niece, nephew, son, or daughter you are there to hear. My hat is off to all the directors of beginner bands. Every day your ears must take a terrible beating, but you keep at it anyway, and we all benefit from your sacrifice!
5. I couldn’t come up with another believable disadvantage. If you can, or there are advantages I have missed, please put them in the comments and share them.

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely believe that the advantages greatly outweigh the disadvantages, especially being able to fully convey the music while feeling good about it. For most of us, it takes a lot of work to develop a good sense of pitch, then it takes more work to develop the ability to adjust pitch on demand in order to play in tune. But it is well worth the work, and the personal enjoyment of playing well is the reward.

Practicing Flutist’s Pitch Tendencies 2/11

How is your pitch tendency chart coming? I promised to post updates on what is going with the pitch tendencies in my flute practicing, so here is the latest. You will see a large lapse in dates, but I promised! It is interesting to see how pitch can vary from day to day, or month to month.

I am listening to different things in the sound which seems to be helping out my high register, but is making me flatter in the low register. I’m trying to hear more of the harmonic content of each note and bring the harmonics in tune with each other. This seems like a good strategy when I am playing alone, but I’m not sure how it will work in an ensemble setting.

The current low register flatness could also be due to insufficient practice, causing my embouchure to be more diffuse than I would like. It sounds pretty, but it is flat ;(

1/19 1/21 2/11
B 15 s 15 s
C 5 f
C# 5 f 5 f 5 f
D 5 f 10 f
D# 15 f
E 5 f
F 5 s 5 f
F# 5 f
G 5 s 5 s 10 s
G# 10 f
A 5 s 10 f
A# 10 s
B 15 s
C 10 s 10 s 5 f
C# 30 s !!!! 20 s 5 s
D 5 s
D# 5s 10 f
E 5 f 5 f
F# 5 f 10 f
G 5 s 5 s
G# 5 f
A right on
A# 10 s
B 5 s
C# 5 s 5 s
D 5 f
D# 10 s 10 ss
E 15 s 5 s
F 5 s
F# 10 s 10 s 10 s
G 5 f 5 s 5 s
G# 10 s 5 s 10 s
A 5 f
A# 10 f 5 s 5 f
B 10 s 5 f
C 20 s 15 s 10 s
C# 5 s 15 s 10 s
D 25 s 10 s

‘How to Practice With an Electronic Tuner’ is Ready!

Improving Intonation Skills Book 1: How to Practice with an Electronic Tuner is ready to go! I delayed launching because the delivery program I was trying to use wasn’t working the way I wanted it to, I can’t tell you how much time I have spent trying to figure out why files aren’t linking or naming or copying the way they are supposed to. I keep thinking that I am just one more try away from having it all perfect, but it isn’t happening. It’s very much like untangling a difficult passage, only harder. Much, much harder.

So I decided to go ahead with a manual delivery system. When you buy the book, I get notification and within 24 hours I will send the book in a PDF file to you via email. Tried to have a program do it automatically, but I’m not skilled enough with the programming issues yet. Besides, this way I can write a thank you note to those who buy the book! A personal touch is better, especially when a venture is just starting out. Those first contacts will help shape what it is to come.

Go to the blog page under the Buy the Book heading above for more information on how to get the book for yourself.

Book 2 will follow in a couple of months. It’s focus will be on improving your ear and becoming independent of the tuner’s meter. The two books together should have the fundamentals of Intonation Practice covered. I’ve tested all the exercises and know they are effective. I hope they will be helpful to everyone who uses them!

Now back to practicing for this week’s Christmas concerts, then on to the next project!

Looking for a Pitch Tendency Chart?

I’ve noticed that one of the most popular pages on this blog is the page on creating a pitch tendency chart. I have a feeling that what people are really looking for is a chart that will tell them what the pitch tendencies of the flute are, so I thought I would explain why I haven’t provided such a thing, but instead tell you how to create one for yourself.

While there are some pitches on almost all flutes that can be counted on to be sharp or flat intonation-wise (c# in the staff, e and f# above the staff), individual players and different flutes will each have their own tendencies for all the other notes. A note that is flat or sharp for one person may not be for another. And if you play on different flutes for different purposes, especially if you play alto, bass, picc, etc., you will want to chart your tendencies on those flutes as well.

There are two purposes for charting your pitch tendencies. One is so that you will know what your own tendencies are so you can learn to adjust for them. The second is that just by doing the work of charting your tendencies, you become more aware of your tone production and improvement begins almost automatically. This is why I don’t provide a chart of generalized pitch tendencies, because they might not apply to you! So spend a little time, make a nice chart and start measuring your own personal pitch tendencies. You might be surprised at what you find!