Is it me or you? A guide to intonation

Intonation – is it me or you?

Getting in tuwhat-brass-players-want-intonation-me-or-youne and maintaining good intonation are really important skills for any member of an ensemble.  Getting the instrument in tune (that is getting A=440hz) and then ensuring that all of the slides allow different valve combinations to be roughly in tune is the first step.  But that’s just tuning, and an in tune instrument will not always equal good intonation…

So what is intonation?

Good intonation is where the individual notes that you play are in tune relative to each other as well as the other members of the ensemble that you are in.

Can you learn to play in tune/with good intonation?

Following these steps will help to enable you to develop better awareness of intonation, but if the note is not heard in tune inside your head there is much less chance of the note coming out in tune on the instrument that you play.  Hearing the note before you play is the first step toward getting good intonation.

  1. The first step is to sing everything that you play before you play it.  Singing something through (of course  with good intonation!) will help you to hear the notes in your head.  This process of hearing the notes will allow for a better audio image of what you intend to come out of the instrument.  The importance of singing through the music that you are playing can not be underestimated!  This, of course, applies to any performances as well.  Aim to hear the music in your head before the piece starts.
  2. Understand what is going on around your own part.  Listen out for the chords that are being used, what the bass line is doing.  Are you part of a major, minor, diminished or augmented chord? Is the note that you are playing the root, 3rd or 5th of the chord?  Try to become aware if you are playing as part of a 1st inversion or 2nd inversion chord and where the note you are playing sits in the ensemble.  This will help you to understand how your music fits in with everyone else and will enable better balance as well.
  3. Learn your scales and practice them in lots of different ways, for example you could try crab scales, scales in thirds, in fourths and octaves.  Always listen to the relationship between the notes and check the difference between semitone and tone distances.  When you work on arpeggios think about your major and minor intervals and the relationship between the notes.  Listen carefully to each of the notes and check to see if the octave is definitely in tune.  Of course, it is important to make sure you sing your scales and arpeggios through before you play them.  Try to internalise the feeling and difference between the intervals of the scale or arpeggio.  Whilst you are playing it is a good idea to play the scale and then check your tuning per note with an electronic tuner.  This will help to train the muscles and the ear to get closer to the ‘correct’ pitch.  Try the following exercise in all keys:
  4. Aim to learn the music you play in different keys and tonalities.  Try transposing your part up or down by a tone, perfect 4th or 5th and listen carefully to the intervals between notes and notice how it feels.  Do the same with the tonality and swap major for minor or vice versa.  This could of course be achieved through transposing to the relative key or the tonic major/minor of the music you are playing.  Make sure that you sing them through first and then play them allowing your inner ear to guide you as to what is the correct note, and the correct intonation for each note.
  5. Improvise and work around well known scales such as the pentatonic scale, the blues scale, dorian, mixolydian, aeolian as well as major and minor.  Learning standard chord patterns will also help to train the ear to predict what is coming next in the music that you are playing.  This awareness will help to develop aural awareness and a better understanding of where the music is heading.  This knowledge will inform your inner ear as to what is required and allow you to hear in advance more quickly the note that you are going to play.

what-brass-players-want-intonation-me-or-youIt is important to remember that any note will require fine tuning whilst playing in an ensemble or as a soloist in relation to the key that you are working with.  Lots of musicians will always listen to those around them and assume that every note they play is out of tune.  Only through careful listening and a real focus on the production, quality and pitch of every note will allow for the greatest development in your intonation.  Aim to raise your own personal standard every day, week, month or year.

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