Corpus Christi Brass Band

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Mick Danby's notes on tuning and intonation

Tips on playing: Tuning

Mick Danby has helpfully provided the following advice on improving tuning and intonation:

This can be a slow process, and practise time should be given over to it. Furthermore some of us do not possess instruments capable of producing spot on intonation - mine included!

Other than dodgy valves, short mouthpieces etc, failure to listen is probably the most important cause of tuning problems. Listening to everybody else is vital. However, to tackle your own tuning issues (during those few precious moments you get to practise!) I would recommend purchasing your own electronic tuner if you do not already have one - something like this or similar:
- you can clip it to one of the slides and use hands free.

Start by warming up, then check your tuning note against the tuner. Move the main slide (in to sharpen, out to flatten) as necessary. Now check each note chromatically against the tuner. You'll probably find that the instrument's intonation appears to vary across the octaves according to the reading on the tuner. You'll have to memorise whether to "lip" up or down for each note in order to agree with the tuner. You may need to move the valve slides. You may find certain notes need to be played with different valve combinations, eg E above middle C played with valve 3 or valves 1 and 2.

There will almost certainly in each case be compromises to be made. The point is, learning how your own instrument behaves will give you the power to correct as far as possible tuning gremlins that crop up.

Why does an instrument's intonation appear to vary so much? Apart from inherent mechanical issues, the problem relates to the tuning device itself. An electronic tuning device is calibrated for fixed pitch instruments - harp, guitar etc - which have equal sized semitones. All wind instruments produce "natural" scales which in fact have slightly odd sized tones and semitones and this is reflected in the apparent inaccuracies of your instrument.

If you can practise playing "in tune" with your tuning device you will eventually develop enough lip muscle to control fine tuning "on the fly" - this is how the pros do it.

Mick Danby, May 2008

Mick Danby's notes on tuning and intonation
Tips on playing: Tuning