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!

Intonation in Action Exercise

In my mission to help people improve their intonation, I’ve had to come up with exercises that people can do in their own practice. Once I’ve convinced players that notes need to be adjusted according to their context in the music, regardless of what any tuner’s meter says, it helps to have exercises to back it up.

The attached handout is part of a set of exercises that you play against a drone, the tonic note of each exercise. In this case, all exercises are in C Major, so set your drone, tone generator, or helpful friend to play the middle C. As you play each exercise, you pause to listen to how your note compares against the drone; e.g. is it sharp, flat, or in tune with the drone? Don’t move on to the next note, until you get your note in tune!

introductory intonation exercises


The exercises start out by working on matching the unisons and octaves in the context of ascending and descending scales and arpeggios. Then they progress to tuning more of the notes in relation to the drone. The arrows indicate which direction the pitches need to be adjusted in relation to the drone pitch, assuming that you are playing them perfectly in equal temperament, i.e. in tune with a tuner meter. You may not need to make any adjustments, but let your ears be the judge.

So, give it a try! Then play it in all Major keys. Minor keys will require different adjustments, but after practicing the major keys for a few weeks, doing this in minor will be easy.

Reminder: we don’t hear in equal temperament. In order for our ears to register different harmonies as being “in tune”, we have to play the harmony note either higher or lower than a tuner would tell us to. (If this is new information to you and you need more proof than my say-so, there are many sources you can look up on the Web or in the library.)

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.

Intonation in Action Coming Up!

It has been forever since my last post, but I have been productive in the meantime and more will be appearing here. I’m conducting two flute choirs now and the orchestra I play in has started up again, so I’ve been trying to balance all that while not overextending myself TOO much.

So, the Florida Flute Convention is this weekend and I’ll be conducting a performance by the Tampa Bay Flute Choir and presenting Intonation in Action, an extension of all the intonation stuff I post about. It has taken forever to come up with the structure of this particular presentation, but, by Jove, I think I’ve got it! If you read this after seeing the presentation, I’d be thrilled to hear what you think. And if you can’t be there and want to know what this is all about, contact me through the website and I’ll send you the PowerPoint, but only if you promise to give some feedback.

More next week, after I catch my breath. Happy Fluting!

Intonation in Action at the Florida Flute Fair 2014

Yay! My proposal to present at the 2014 Florida Flute Fair has been accepted so I will be presenting a workshop on Intonation in Action. I will also conducting my flute choir, the Tampa Bay Flute Choir, at this year’s event, so I will be busy in January!

The workshop will involve audience members in demonstrations and techniques that I use to work on intonation in playing situations. This isn’t about being able to hit a target on a meter; it is about learning how to develop intonation awareness and develop the ability to respond to changing pitch contexts. Exercise and develop those intonation reflexes!!

More about this later. You know I can’t keep from talking about intonation stuff! Check out more about the Florida Flute Association and the yearly convention here:

More about Difference Tones and the Flute, and about Wil Offermans at NFA

I was doing some research on difference tones, looking for more ways to use them in the flute choir and in my intonation studies, and Googled “difference tone duets.” I got one(!) exact result which led me to this webpage, It is from a website by one of my favorite flutists and teachers, Wil Offermans, whose class I just happened to have attended at this year’s NFA convention. The class was about how to go about learning to play Offerman’s composition for solo flute, Honami. I had purchased the piece at this year’s Florida Flute Fair and was hoping for some insights in how to approach it. I got that and much more!

It was a GREAT class, in which he took a group of players (myself included, you can’t up opportunities like this!) through the entire piece, demonstrating and instructing each of us in how to execute the techniques and gestures featured in each section of the piece. Even though the piece features some extended techniques and includes many interpretive choices, I left feeling confident I could go home knowing exactly how to go about learning the piece and some day perform it. Very cool!

Anyway, this article thoroughly explains what difference tones are and how they work, as well as giving a couple of experiments to try with a flute-playing friend. Offermans wants flutists to explore all the different sounds and tone qualities that are possible on the flute, and this is one of the avenues he suggests trying out. Or as I have said for years, “Explore your sonic resources!” Flutists like Offermans, Ghobriel, Pattillo, and others continue to push the boundaries of flute sound, giving us that much more to explore.

Introducing Difference Tones to the Flute Choir

I am always looking for more effective ways to enable the flute choir that I conduct to play in tune. In the past I had used warmup exercises that focus on ensemble intonation, but at the beginning of this year’s rehearsal season, I tried to use sections of pieces to do the same thing. This was not so successful, so I have gone back to using intonation-focused warmups that are targeted at situations in the pieces we are working on.

These mostly consist of having part of the group play scales and arpeggios against the rest of the group playing a drone, then switching the groups so all have a chance to practice. The newest twist is working on difference tones in order to ‘fine-tune’ the group’s sense of intonation even more. Please excuse the pun! I got the idea after reading about it on Flutelist, and decided I had to try it with my group!

Difference tones, some people use the term resultant tones, are a phenomenon that occur within your ear as a result of hearing two tones of different frequencies. All pitches vibrate at a different frequency. When the difference between two frequencies equals the tone associated with a different frequency, that creates a difference tone in your ear. If you’ve ever noticed an annoying buzz in your ear when playing high harmonies with another player, you were are hearing difference tones. When the interval formed by the regular tones is perfectly in tune, the difference tone will sound like a real note that you can identify, because it will also be in tune. Very cool!!!

I first had two choir members sitting at opposite ends of the group play a short excerpt to introduce the concept of difference tones to the group and make them aware of what they should be listening for. Some people’s eyes got very big as the ‘buzz’ of the difference tones went through their heads. I then explained why we would be doing this as a group and why it was important to work on as a choir. Besides improving our ability to tune intervals, when the group is playing intervals of a minor third in high enough registers, the difference tone that is created is a major third below the lower note, filling out the harmony in the listener’s ear and creating that lovely, rich, ringing sound that makes a small group sound twice as large and much, much grander; always my goal for our group.

Half of the group played the A Major scale while the other half played the C Major scale. We tried it for two octaves, a good test of player’s abilities to play beautiful high notes and a great opportunity to create some ‘major buzz.’ It was a little painful, but the point came across wonderfully. Everybody’s ears and brains were a little jangly after that, but people were pretty excited to have learned something new. At the next rehearsal the things went a little more smoothly and the overall intonation is markedly improved. YAY!!

You can read more about playing difference tones on flutes and much more about characteristics of great flute playing as taught by the legendary William Kincaid in John Krell’s book, Kincaidiana. This is one of those books all people serious about playing flute should read, one of the Flute Bibles. Thank you Flutelisters for reminding me of this!

Update, update, update . . .


I’ve been updating the site by rearranging some features and making it easier to download my Intonation Practice Book. Unrelated work has included totally reworking my Dad’s website (, for all your seed transfer needs), getting the new season of the Tampa Bay Flute Choir underway, Now maybe I can move on to writing the second one!! Not to mention practicing a little and providing my readers with new posts.

Thanks to for all the technical support, I really appreciate the service, and recommend it to everyone who needs to learn anything computer-related.

Hope everyone is doing well flute-wise. I should be also soon. Back to the grindstone!

Tuners, Tuners, Everywhere!

It has been a long time since I bought my current tuner (a Seiko Chromatic Auto-Tuner) so I thought I would browse around and see what’s available now. I found lots of tuners and a large range of prices. Unfortunately, what I see most are tuners that only read pitches, without an internal tone generator or sound out port.

So what’s wrong with that? I did, after all write a practice book on how to use that kind of tuner to improve intonation. The problem is that this is only a beginning in the quest to perfect playing intonation. The feedback that a tuner’s readout gives you is only part of the picture, a narrow slice. It’s great for working on consistency, and learning the sizes of scales and intervals, but it can only help so much. In my opinion, what is needed is a tuner that can generate pitches as well as reading them.

By working with a tuner that plays the pitches, you can work on improving your ability to hear when you are in tune or out of tune, so you can function in the real playing world. Tuners are calibrated to an equally tempered scale in which all half steps are the exact same size. Unfortunately, when those half steps are combined into larger intervals, our ears don’t like that rigid equality. Different intervals need to either be expanded or compressed so our ear hears them as being in tune. Are our ears wrong? No, but it would take a long explanation to clarify this and others can do it much better than I can.

Besides the dissonances with equal temperament, the playing conditions, pitch tendencies of different instruments, and abilities of the players all play a part in the ever-moving target of good intonation. A little bouncing light or digital readout will not give you the information that you need to play in tune when you play with others. To learn this, you have to exercise your hearing and your ability to constantly adjust the pitch.

So, in my opinion, when you buy a tuner or download a tuner app, or whatever, get one that will read all the pitches your instrument can play, one that has a display that is easy to read, and one that will sound at least a full chromatic octave; two or three would be even better. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it just has to do everything you need it to do. And leave your tuner at home when you go to rehearsal or a performance. Your attention should be on the music and your interaction with the other players, not on a gadget! Music is for the ears, and is not made with the eyes.

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