Intonation - How to Hear It

Intonation – How to Hear It and Stay In Tune
Staying in tune is one of those challenges for wind players that we sometimes tend to forget about. It is much easier to notice if someone is playing a wrong note, rather than whether a note is in tune or not, especially in large groups of musicians.
We are often surprised when we get into smaller groups, that we are not able to match pitch. It is not that we are any better at it in larger groups, but that our ears are less able to differentiate so many pitches being played at one time.

So what exactly does it mean to stay in tune?
Technically, every note that we play has a pattern that you can actually draw a picture of, called a sound wave. Those sound waves repeat themselves at particular speeds. If you have heard the term “A 440”, you are actually describing the speed of the sound wave that is being produced. An “A 440” is a wave that repeats itself 440 times per second.
If you are in tune with an A 440 pitch, then your sound wave speed matches that of the instrument that you are tuning with. If you are out of tune, then your sound wave speed is either slightly faster (meaning you are sharp) or slightly slower (meaning you are flat) than the instrument you are tuning with.
The difference in speed between two out-of-tune notes creates a sound that our ears hear as an uncomfortable wave in itself, which gets faster the farther apart the pitch speeds are. If you force your pitch farther in one direction or the other, you will often be able to determine if you are sharp or flat, just as a result of the type of adjustment you need to make for the wave to either get faster or to disappear.

In past blog entries, I have discussed the necessity of being able to move your embouchure and jaw, and to make sure that they are flexible, and not frozen in place. Adjusting for pitch is one of the most important ways to use that flexibility.
I don't plan to spend a great deal of time on embouchure adjustments in this entry, but I will go through a quick and dirty explanation.
To make your pitch drop, do any or all of the following (not all of these are appropriate for ensemble playing, but all of them will work to illustrate my current point):
- roll your flute in towards your chin
- blow more softly into your flute
- drop your jaw
- blow more into your flute (airstream direction down)
To make your pitch go up, do any or all of the following:
- roll your flute out away from you
- blow harder
- move your airstream direction to be more across the flute, instead of down

Hearing the differences - Now, everyone is always saying that it is hard to hear intonation in a large group. That is true! Therefore, your best best for learning how to listen for pitch is to work with one or two other musicians at a time. It will be easier to begin with if everyone is playing the same instrument.

The following exercise is how I would suggest beginning:
Exercise #1: Have one person in your group tune to an A440 on a tuner. Have that person hold an A, while another one of you comes in after a couple of seconds, playing the same A. Listen for any vibrations or harshness in the resulting sound. If there is none, you are most likely in tune, and you can move on to the next person or exercise.
If you heard vibrations or harshness in the sound, have the first person repeat the A constantly, taking a breath when necessary. The person trying to get in tune with them needs to begin again, and slowly roll your flute in towards your chin (or drop your jaw).
What happens? The resulting sound should change. If you heard vibrations, their speed should change. If you only heard a harsh sound at the beginning, you may have heard vibrations begin, or some of the harshness fade.
If you heard vibrations on your original pitch, and they went faster as you rolled in, then you began flat, and are going flatter by rolling in. You will need to push your headjoint IN, and then repeat the exercise. If they went slower or disappeared, then you began sharp, and brought the pitch down (closer to being in tune). You will need to pull your headjoint OUT before repeating the exercise.
If you heard only harshness on your original pitch, it likely means that you were WAY out of tune, and may need to make big adjustments. If you began that way, and started to hear vibrations as you rolled in, you are most likely sharp and need to pull your headjoint OUT before repeating the exercise. If the harshness get less noticeable, but you can tell that pitches still don't quite sound right, you are likely extremely flat, and that making your pitch flatter is almost turning it into a different note. Push your headjoint IN and try again.
Once you get everyone in your group in tune with the first person, test out all of your pitches against the tuner, to see how close you all came. Be sure to do this experiment enough times so that everyone gets a chance to practice tuning by ear, and not just tuning with the tuner.

Now, it's time to move on to the second exercise:
Exercise #2: Have two in-tune musicians play the same note, designating one person as the “holding pitch” and one person as the “changing pitch”. While you are both holding out your pitch, the “changing pitch” player should slowly make his or her pitch drop (as we explained in the first exercise), and then bring the note back up in tune before breathing.
Now, something that is more difficult is leaning to make your pitch rise. Both of you play again, while the “pitch changer” slowly makes their note go sharp by blowing more across their flute (or rolling their instrument out). Then slowly bring it back down in tune before you breathe.
The final part of this exercise is to do an entire “flatten and sharpen” exercise before needing to breathe. Over about a 10-second time frame, have the “pitch changer” begin in tune for a second or two, then drop your pitch, then make it go up and past the in-tune spot, then back down in tune, holding the in-tune pitch for a couple of seconds.
Now, rotate positions so that everyone in your group gets the chance to be the “pitch changer”.

When you get used to hearing the differences between your pitch and a tuning pitch, you can use Exercise #2 above, to help make sure that you are in tune with any instrument. Sometimes the “out-of-tune vibrations” are easier to hear than an in-tune sonority (especially while tuning in a large group). Instead of making your sound louder, so that you can hear yourself, modulate your tone sharper and flatter (as you did above), so that you can focus in on the vibrations coming and going when you force yourself sharp or flat. The quiet spot in between will be the place where you are in tune.