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Have you ever known someone who is never quite happy, no matter what you do to please them? And even when you think you've done everything the way they want, they change the parameters and you're back to square one?

Well, that's what pitch is all about. It's like balancing on the top of a ball. You're never able to relax and just be. You have to adjust constantly.

But there's often no time to adjust, especially in a moving line. In a chorale, where each note is held a bit, the chords carry the line. But a melody is mostly passing tones of some sort, so one has to act on the fly. You have to just feel how to fit in with those around you. And pray, and sweat, and pray some more, and bite and honk. If you're lucky, you'll get a bit more than half the notes in tune. That's why I feel like slapping people when they say "Oh, it must be such a JOY to play music!!!".

In an orchestra, the oboe sets the pitch. Uppity oboe! "My way or the highway." No really, oboe is limited in pitch variation, so that's why they tune us. Oboists are fine as people, but nicer when drunk. These days all oboists use electronic tuners to be sure they are right on. Most orchestras tune to 440, which is the number of vibrations per second in the note "A". But some orchestra's, like Saint Louis and Boston, tune to 442. It's only a hair higher, but it makes a world of difference. If I played in either of those orchestras, I'd have to adjust all my equipment to be comfortable at that pitch level.

OK. So I've spent hours at home with a tuner checking each note on my instrument, learning which notes are a little or a lot sharp or flat, and finding ways to adjust those accordingly. Now remember, tuners are giving you a "tempered" reading, based on the "equal temperament scale". That means each pitch is equidistant from the next. But if a singer sings a major scale starting on "A", for example, the third note in the scale, C#, would probably be sung a bit low to a tuner. That's because in any particular "key" the third is usually "felt" low.

There's a good reason for this. It's called "just intonation", meaning each pitch is tuned to "blend" best in it's function in that particular key. Are you still with me? So the singer sings the C# quite low because it is more mellow in that key. If someone sings or plays an A and another plays a C#, those notes will clash until the C# is lowered, 26 cents low to be exact. A cent is 1/100th of a half tone.

That's just one example of "just intonation". Each note of the scale is slightly different in its needs in order to sound "right" in that scale. Now throw in different keys, especially minor keys, and things get really complicated.

Once in awhile I'll hear someone joke about how their instrument came "tuned at the factory". In the case of wind instruments, it's true. A well made instrument will have a fairly even "tempered" scale, so each note is fairly well pitched and can be adjusted by the player's embouchure to meet the needs of the music. But even the best clarinets have tuning flaws. For example, when I try a new instrument, I check for skewed 12ths, the interval the clarinet jumps in the second octave. The upper 12th is usually high.

So, back to tuning in real life. I've prepared my piece at home, and tuned my instrument and prepared fingerings to adjust for problems. I get to rehearsal and start playing, and I'm out of tune. Why? Many reasons. My reeds may be different in the hall, which is dryer and warmer. The reed may stiffen, raising the pitch. My instrument will also tune higher in warm conditions. I may blow harder in the context of the other instruments, lowering the pitch. It turns out that clarinet goes flat when it plays loud, and sharp when it plays soft. And all the other woodwinds go the opposite way. So the clarinets are left in the dust while everyone else tunes merrily along. Grrrr. What happened to tuning at the factory???

Remember, in the woodwind section there are four completely different instruments playing together. The oboe, a double reed instrument with limited pitch flexibility and dynamic range, and a very dense tone; the bassoon, another double reed with a much lower range and extremely complex acoustical layout, the flute with no reed but with a radically different sound production, and the clarinet, which is acoustically alien to all the others. It's like the United Nations; We all pretend we get along, but blame the others for all the problems.

So how do we ever sound good together? My section has been together 16 years, and we know each others playing, temperaments, habits, weaknesses, strengths. With lots of trust, intuition, experience and ten tons of concentration on the moment, we often manage to sound like one instrument. At least during the tuning note. Then the concert begins and it's each for himself.

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10 comments for “Pitch

  1. October 1, 2009 at

    My piano tuner tunes my piano to "Well Temperament" rather an Equal. Also have found my 1950s Selmer "Centered Tone" clarinets _with their historically accurate mouthpieces_ tune as well as, perhaps better than, my Buffet R13s.

    Fascinating stuff! Thanks for your musings.

  2. April 6, 2006 at

    Gordon- I agree. The reason I don’t ever try to replace the oboe as pitch giver is that I value my life!

  3. Gordon
    April 6, 2006 at

    “Uppity oboe”: According to Bruce Haynes’s book “A History of Performing Pitch”, the pitch of clarinets is much more stable than that of oboes. Perhaps you should lobby to become the standard-bearer for the orchestra!

  4. February 26, 2006 at

    It is interesting how much composers of the past put to tone, one wonders also about how composition is about the relationship of notes, rather than the notes themselves.

  5. February 26, 2006 at

    Hmm, I like this post.. I’m not a musician but I try to be one.. anyway….nice blog here…keep it up!!! :p…cool template too…

  6. February 12, 2006 at

    That was a pretty good read! Fun remembering my time as a trumpet player. I’m glad I stuck with what I’m good at, classical piano, because I can always blame the foreign piano for the problem!

  7. January 30, 2006 at

    Hello Marcellus Fan- I started clarinet with Marcellus’ tone in my ear. Just after I got my first plastic instrument, I chanced upon his recording of the Mozart Concerto. It changed my life.

    Oh yes, we all struggle with intonation. It never ends, ever. Each year I learn a bit more, and notice a little more. That’s all I can hope for.

    I can relate to your frustration. Perhaps the others are trying, just not enough. You might talk with them. Sometimes I have to talk things over with my colleagues, even though we’ve worked together 16 years.

  8. Marcellus_Fan
    January 30, 2006 at

    Great blog, Mr. Thomas! It’s nice to know that even professionals have problems with intonation, not just mere mortals like myself. Of course, I hate it when certain individuals I play with sit on problem notes and don’t even TRY to improve the pitch. I’m always the one that has to bend like crazy to try to get the musical lines in tune!! At least all of the CSO winds struggle equally to tune things up…=)

  9. January 29, 2006 at

    Thank you for the supportive and generous comment. And for the specific suggestions as to where some problems may arise. I am aware of those, and can’t do much about it.

    I hope we meet someday. You are obviously an experienced listener and performer. Please come backstage and say hello sometime.


  10. NewCSOFan
    January 29, 2006 at

    I’m newly arrived in Columbus and have been to only a couple of CSO concerts so far, but I’ve been very impressed. I grew up in Chicago and didn’t appreciate how lucky I was to have the Chicago Symphony in its Solti heyday until I moved away and started going to concerts by regional orchestras made up of freelancers assembled a few times a year. Your group coheres beautifully, conveying a real sense of shared endeavor.

    That said, I’m not sure all of your tuning problems are just a loud/soft sharp/flat thing. The only serious flaws I’ve noticed in the concerts I’ve been to have been intonation issues from the folks sitting in the row in front of you. I know how challenging it can be when the people you are supposed to blending with most closely are a little out of tune! (I’ve played Bb and especially bass clarinet in enough groups with so-so bassoonists…)

    Thanks for the good work playing, and the fun blog!

    — A Columbus Newbie

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