Pro Musician Tuning Tips?
March 6, 2010 2:20 PM   Subscribe

Help a professional musician with tuning!

I'm a professional, conservatory-trained musician, mostly on the composing, arranging, and conducting side of things. Performing is mainly a hobby and I rarely do it professionally. I play woodwinds and dabble on guitar, bass, piano.

I have a good ear and strong relative pitch, but for some reason I have trouble tuning instruments.

It's not that I can't hear when something is out of tune, it's that I can't always hear when it's *in* tune, and I'll tweak endlessly trying to find that perfect beatless unison. My theory is that I'm thrown off by differences in timbre, reverb, harmonic content, modulation, attack/decay, etc.

Play me test tones at A=440 and A=441 and I'll tell you without thinking that the second one is a bit sharp. But ask me to tune a sax or guitar to that A and I'll spend 10 minutes turning the peg a millimeter this way--nope, now I'm a bit sharp--nudge it a tiny bit back--nope, now I'm a bit flat--and back and forth in tiny increments without ever "landing."

I've spent a lot of time in my life on ear training for relative pitch, but for some reason my tuning skills haven't improved along with everything else. What can I do to improve this utterly basic musician's skill? Anybody else have a similar situation?
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It's too bad this is an anonymous question because I'd like more information on how you know you're so bad at tuning. Do you get told you're off, or do you just think you are? It sounds to me like maybe you're listening a little too carefully when you're trying to tune.

I play piano, clarinet, guitar, and have dabbled in others. When I tune one instrument to another, I just tune it until it "sounds good." I'm not really listening for that perfect beatless unison, and if you're trying to get one instrument to exactly match another, you're going to be frustrated because those two instruments just don't sound the same. They've got complex and differing harmonics, and if you concentrate on extracting all the different frequencies within a given note of every instrument you're going to drive yourself crazy, as you seem to be doing already.

If you're already using a tuner with a microphone, and the tuner is telling you you're off, the other possibility is that you're just not moving the pegs/mouthpieces subtly enough. It's also possible that the instruments you're using need an overhaul or are warped. Lots of variables at play here.
posted by wondermouse at 2:38 PM on March 6, 2010

I stopped tuning things to specific frequencies when I found that tuning organically ended up being a lot easier and facilitates playing with other instruments. What I mean by that is somebody tunes to a specific chord and then everyone else tunes to that person.

For example, on the guitar, I'll play what's supposed to be an E major chord and tune each string according to the intervals of an E major chord (1, 3, 5 etc.) The thing with electronic tuners and stuff is that it forces all instruments, as you say, to try to achieve some sort of standard harmonic balance with the universe, but then you have two or more instruments that are annoyingly "in tune", but not to each other.
posted by bam at 2:44 PM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, also important: Not undermining the use of electronic tuners here. I just never got around to buying one so my solution was to tune to a scale instead of a frequency.
posted by bam at 2:50 PM on March 6, 2010

er, chord. argh.
posted by bam at 2:50 PM on March 6, 2010

I should have mentioned that tuning to a test tone just kind of sucks, like bam said. Those notes don't sound like any kind of instrument, and the unwavering frequency and constant nagging volume really bug my ears. I never use them. If you're in a situation where you need to use a tuner, I prefer tuners that listen to what you're playing and tell you if you're sharp or flat, and not trying to match to a test tone.
posted by wondermouse at 3:24 PM on March 6, 2010

My own experience with both wind instruments and fretless bass (electric and upright) is that I'm constantly tuning by ear on the fly while playing anyway, due to all the stuff you probably already know about the quirks of tempered tuning, instrumental imperfections, etc. In other words, ballpark it as closely you can within a few cents (which it sounds like you're doing), then just continue to be aware of the issue and make micro-adjustments (embouchure, fingering, etc.) as you play.

The other thing that comes to mind is that maybe you're focusing too much on the "beatless" ideal. As someone else mentioned, the varying timbres (coupled with the fact that no instrument will ever be completely in tune with itself up and down the scale) means that you might never truly eliminate beats and be perfectly In Tune. Maybe you can listen to the ensemble as a whole and develop an ear for when you "feel" sharp or flat without listening for actual beats per se. If you're consistently one or the other, tweak your tuning mechanism - subtly, as mentioned before - then continue to adjust as you go. Again as a wind player, I have noticed my mouth tiring out quicker or my embouchure feeling more "difficult" on occasion, only to tweak my tuning slide/mouthpiece and be much more relaxed afterward - because I'd been subconsciously compensating for the instrument as a whole being sharp or flat.

Obviously, piano is a different animal altogether....

The short version is, "perfect tuning" is a lovely ideal but instruments and fingers and mouths are not ideal. All we can do is be aware of that and refine our sense of whatever "being in tune" means to us as individuals and make the best of it.
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:32 PM on March 6, 2010

Just to add more anecdotal-ness... Have you ever watched, say, a rock-climbing sequence in a movie and felt an urge to reach out and give the climber a little boost up when they're straining for a reach? That's how it feels to me when an instrument is playing flat - like every note is straining, and just failing, to reach its goal. Conversely, an even-slightly-sharp instrument tends to set my teeth on edge and make me wince...I guess there's a reason it's called "sharp", eh? So try paying attention to those kinds of physical/non-intellectual sensations as you play and see if that helps.
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:46 PM on March 6, 2010

An ex-wife is a professional oboist; traditionally, the oboe is the instrument that gives the "A" to which all other symphony instruments tune. Once, naively, I asked her about this responsibility, imagining that if she somehow gave the wrong note, or a flat or sharp pitch of the right note, that the whole of the orchestra could be off for a whole symphony.

"No." she said. "You know, when we we play "A,", it's usually just short, half-note duration. A suggestion, as it were, of the concert pitch to which we think everyone should agree. The individual musicians then actually tune to their immediate memory of our note. Otherwise, a 70 piece symphony tuning up would be sheer cacophony."

I couldn't bring myself to tell her, that, out in the audience, to the lesser trained ear, cacophony didn't begin to describe those final two minutes, before the conductor appeared...
posted by paulsc at 4:01 PM on March 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Another thing that doesn't seem to have been mentioned is that, at least on some string instruments, a note gradually becomes flat as it decays. This actually ends up being a little difficult in the studio if you want to be really anal about various instruments all being perfectly in tune. Some people constantly play the note they are tuning; some let it decay for 30 seconds. These won't line up.

I can be obsessive about being in tune and/or fixing intonation. If you want to limit yourself, I always find that (again on string instruments) playing a chord is a good test. A lot of the subtleties get lost in that chord. I notice a lot of guitarists seem to do this and I think it's a good strategy.
posted by yeoldefortran at 4:35 PM on March 6, 2010

I don't think you can get a beatless unison between different instruments. The overtones are going to be different, and that's going to cause beats, no matter what.
posted by KathrynT at 5:49 PM on March 6, 2010

One observation I've had is that perception of "in tune" is invariant with ability -- the better you get at tuning, the more you notice small discrepancies, and therefore as improve your actual abilities, your perception remains more or less unchanged.

Tuning to a drone can be very difficult. If you're playing an instrument that allows you to bend pitch (brass, woodwinds), you can get a lot of mileage out of playing a staccato tuning note. If the note is short, you won't have time to adjust and you can get a better sense of where you "really" are.

I'd also say that, even though I've made a living as a professional classical performer, there are lots of times where if you put a gun to my head and asked me if I were flat or sharp, I wouldn't have an answer (though, because I play the trumpet, odds are I'm sharp). For me the process is not about correcting what's wrong, but about hearing clearly in my own head the "right" pitch and making sure I am cleanly targeting that pitch. I think that approach is mostly effective for winds, brass, and singers, but I think frequently one of the reasons tuning to a drone is hard is that you haven't really heard the drone before you start playing yourself.
posted by range at 6:28 PM on March 6, 2010

Well, I don't know if any of this will help, but I'll offer it anyway. I'm an amateur musician, but I've been a jazz pianist for a couple decades now, and I play guitar, bass, trumpet, accordion, etc. Also, I tune my own piano; I've taught myself to do this, so I won't claim to be a professional there, either. With all that as sort of a caveat, here are some tricks I know of:

  • First of all, there are certain physical characteristics of particular instruments that necessitate various processes. For example, when you're tuning smaller-scale stringed instruments (guitars, basses, mandolins, etc) you should always first tune below the proper pitch and then work upward. This is because physically you want to loosen the string and then work up to perfect tightness; if you tune above the proper pitch and work down, you will already have stretched the string beyond where it needs to go, and often it will settle gradually over the next few seconds – and you'll find you're out of tune again. So if you're tuning one of these instruments, and you find yourself saying "a little lower... a little lower..." – stop, tune below pitch, and work upward. You'll find you struggle less with nailing the pitch that way.

    Oddly enough, you have to work the other way around when you're tuning a piano. A piano string quite naturally settles on the peg, no matter how you tune it; so it's necessary to go above proper pitch and then settle it onto pitch slowly, making sure you set the pin just right meanwhile. Of course, I'm guessing you're not tuning a piano, so this is probably not that useful to you. I only mention it because I've never played – that is, I've never tuned – a woodwind instrument, so there are probably physical characteristics of those that I'm not aware of that change the tuning process.

  • Tuning an instrument is about intervals. You sound as though you've got a good enough ear and enough training that – as you described it – you can detect when one note is off from another. However, one very essential part of tuning an instrument is to play the note you're tuning against a test so that you can hear both at the very same time. Your brain is musically trained enough to hear minor differences; but there is a barely-perceptible change in frequency that occurs when you've gotten something exactly in tune. My experience is that this isn't something even a very musical mind can synthesize; it's something you have to hear right there. Now, a lot of this would probably mean little to a guitar player, but I mention it because you've played woodwinds – which are generally single-note instruments. You can probably have someone play you an A440 and then walk off and tune up your oboe for yourself, and you'd come back with it quite nicely tuned – but you won't get that satisfied "aha!" feeling you're looking for, that recognition of it being exactly in pitch. To do it right, you've got to play the note you're tuning against a test note, or (sometimes this is preferable) against an interval, like a fourth down.

  • I'm trying to decide if this is a string-instrument-player's bias, but I don't think it is: one good way I've found to visualize what a perfectly tuned note is like is to consider vibration. Whenever a note is not in tune, extraneous vibrations will occur; you're familiar enough with this to know these dissonances quite well, I'm sure. When you play A440 and A441 at the same time, there's a distinct hum. As you approach and finally reach a perfectly tuned pitch, playing (as above) the note to be tuned along with the pitch you're tuning it to, suddenly that hum will disappear. I can always hear this best on a piano, but it happens also on a guitar and even when I'm tuning my trumpet; it's an odd moment, because suddenly the note I'm playing seems quieter, as if I've turned down the volume on it or something. That's one big sign that I've hit correct pitch.

  • As I said above, tuning is very much about intervals. I've sometimes gotten into ruts where I'm trying to tune to this exact note, and I never can, because – of course – any note, played on any instrument or device, will have different overtones and harmonics. So I find in these situations that it helps to begin focusing on different intervals; I tune to the fourth below the note, or the fifth below, or sometimes even the fourth or fifth above. (The third is always more difficult for me, but sometimes it's a good one to try.) Because these intervals are really useful for me in tuning, I find that the best device to use isn't a tuning fork (and I can't really use electronic tuners, as they never actually feel 'right' – and besides, I know they aren't as precise as the human ear) but a piano or keyboard, so that I can try many different notes and play them while I'm tuning. So I'll sit down at the piano while I'm tuning my guitar, bass, etc, and it works much better that way for me.

    Hope some of this helps.

  • posted by koeselitz at 8:40 PM on March 6, 2010

    (not a pro, and I generally use electronic tuners, but I did spend the last few years tuning to a pitch on a cell phone...)

    I've always listened for low frequency oscillations in the sound. When I get closer to the pitch, the oscillations get slower and slower and eventually "flatten out" into nothing. This works best if it's quiet, for obvious reasons.

    Also, in the vein of what others have said about intervals, I've found it helps to play notes surrounding the note I'm tuning (e.g. if i'm tuning from a piano). Like (on piano) N+1, N-1, N; N+1, N-1, (on instrument I'm tuning) N. If the note isn't exactly in tune it's pretty glaring. This helps you keep from "overthinking" the tuning because your ear takes breaks from the single note.

    It could be too that your ear is just too perfect for the imperfect physical world. :)
    posted by ropeladder at 6:46 AM on March 7, 2010

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