Intonation and balance

Have you ever taken a new arrangement along to a rehearsal and gone away feeling that you’ll never make an arranger as long as you live? Then there’s hope (it might not be your fault). Poor intonation and balance can destroy all your hard work. Conventional ‘block’ scoring ensembles are amazingly forgiving in this respect because of the amount of doubling; there’s safety in numbers. Other forms, such as five part open harmony and so-called ‘cluster’ chords, require very precise control. One weak link can wreck the flavour of the harmonies.

In my long experience, working in almost every style of music, there’s a common tendency among wind players to believe that, once they’ve tuned up, all they have to do is blow and finger the notes and, abracadabra, everything will be wonderful. Even the finest orchestras will establish internal tuning ‘regions’ for all kinds of reasons and in reality every single note has to be carefully handcrafted.

Additionally, some of the notes of the natural harmonic series produced on wind instruments are not in tune with the equal temperament system that was introduced half way through the sixteenth century, when the octave was divided into twelve equal semitones. Before this time, instruments could only play in a narrow range of keys.

Many of these small discrepancies are ‘lipped’ in tune but others, such as the notes belonging to the seventh harmonic, are distinctly flat. Trombonists, have to shorten the slide positions along that ‘air chamber’. There is nowhere left to go when first position is reached so the top Ab is very out of tune. Some trombones have a touch spring that allows a shortened first position and some jazz players even learned to play with the tuning slide shut, moving all positions out slightly to compensate. This also allowed the use of top Ab in first position.

Notes of the fifth harmonic are slightly flat. Referring to the trombone is a useful way of understanding these matters since everything is out in the open, the slide being the simplest and most primitive method of varying the pitch of notes on a wind instrument.

The D in first position is used a lot but loud sustained notes will require the use of fourth position instead. These notes along the fifth harmonic get gradually flatter as the slide moves out. Trombonists know they have to pull the slide in a little for the B and Bb in fourth and fifth, but it’s amazing how many players will play the C in a regular third position. It’s very slightly flat there.

Incidentally, because the two triggers of the modern bass trombone change everything, the poor bass trombonist has around sixteen slide positions to cope with, some of which are very close together. There are actually more than that, if we include notes available with second valve only, on independent valve systems, plus the extra positions required by the above tuning adjustments. It’s fatal to think about these things and I used to practice a lot in the dark, forcing my ears to make all judgements. Don’t keep looking down at the slide, whatever you do.

The chart of slide positions in the book is a useful reference.

As a matter of interest, an ‘open’ valve instrument = 1st position on trombone, 2nd valve only = 2nd position, 1st valve only = 3rd position, 1st + 2nd valves = 4th position, 2nd +3rd valves = 5th position, 1st + 3rd valves = 6th position and all three valves = 7th position.

There are some alternate fingering on valve instruments that have no corresponding slide position on the trombone. This is because it’s possible to use the third valve alone. Rapid reiteration or trills involving, for example, the (transposed) g and a are best played using the third valve for the a rather than 1 and 2. The player only has to synchronize one finger instead of two and the instrument responds faster since only one valve port is involved, and no port, however well made, is 100% efficient. This particular trill would be played in fourth position on trombone = F/G. The F is slightly flat here so the trill will put the G a bit sharp when the slide is pulled in a little.

The written (transposed) bottom c sharp on valve instruments is sharp (and, to a lesser degree, the d), which is one reason euphoniums and tubas (and recently built baritone horns) have a fourth valve and why trumpets have a moveable third valve tuning slide. The equivalent note to bottom c sharp is the b ‘concert’ right on the end of the slide on tenor trombones without the plug and is difficult to land on in a hurry, especially on a crowded bandstand. I always have to listen hard to get this note right on bass trombone. It’s in a slightly lengthened second position with the plug and the ears have to work overtime.

A similar complexity exists with stringed instruments. The layout of the fretboard of a guitar, for example, requires a knowledge of acoustics to explain why things are the way they are. Some instruments feature angled frets.

When you add to all these instrumental peculiarities the fact that the ambient temperature can rise and fall during a performance, you begin to feel slightly helpless. Wind instruments drift out of tune as they warm up so there’s little point in tuning up in a cold band room and then walking out into a warm concert hall thinking ‘well, I’ve tuned up, haven’t I?’. To add to the confusion, at a certain point the central heating will go off, just as your lip starts to go (which may also cause you to play sharp). In short, intonation is a minefield where a keen ear must be the judge. Players are often involved in a search for the most acceptable compromise.

What we’re talking about here is ‘pitching’, not ‘tuning’.

Trombone and string players will play a slightly sharper note with an ascending chromatic than they will when playing the same note in a descending form, in which case they lean on it slightly. Acoustically, this is nonsense, but the habit works from the interpretational viewpoint. This will affect other members of the band.

One final word: twice recently I have tuned to an electronic device and even with the tuning slide pushed right in, the trombone was still reading flat. Could be a low battery (in the device, not me!) or there may be a problem reading the fundamental pitch of brass and saxes due to the intensity of upper partials. At the time of writing I’m not sure. Advice anyone? Perhaps these devices work better if they’re not too close to the instrument concerned.

At least we no longer have to endure out of tune pianos these days. I once did a gig where the piano was so flat our tuning slides were almost falling off. I was glad to get home.

Fixed pitch percussion instruments anchor the intonation for the other players (most of the time) which can be a blessing in brass bands, with so many different sizes of instruments.


Balance is another area requiring clarification. The more ‘treble’ the sound the more intense it will seem. But this is a subjective human response, not a measure of a sound’s volume as measured in decibals. Try turning up the treble on the radio and people will shout ‘turn that down will you!’. We’ve all heard that strident voice poking through in church.

As I point out in the book, unison passages sound louder than voiced passages blown with the same strength. For these and many other reasons we may wish to write different dynamic markings in different instrumental sections. Voiced harmonies involving homogeneous instrumental groups will usually carry the same marking in all parts.

The ear naturally focuses on the lead or top voice, and some schools of thought advocate playing the lead part slightly softer. I believe Bob Fitzpatrick was responsible for bringing this idea into the Kenton band. This trombone section also used to begin notes without the tongue in quiet passages. These techniques, together with a level of breath control that defies belief, helped to create the most satisfying sound in all music: those million dollar five piece trombone sections.


Confused? No need to be. Young players soon come to terms with these problems. But don’t get too obsessive about it; you might actually be the only member of the band in tune, or if you’re ‘too loud’ you might be the only player with a professional level of power and projection! As an old timer once said to me: ‘you’re only as good as the band you’re playing with’.

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Scores and band parts

In the book we examine good and bad habits in an attempt to improve the standard of score and band part writing, which often falls well short of ideal. Under the microscope in this blog are the need for consistency across all written parts for the band, and quality control.

Using, for example, repeat bars, D.C. or D.S. in some of the parts but not in others will often cause confusion at rehearsals. Similarly, if some instruments have a dynamic change, or some other marking, half way through a compressed rest appearing in the other parts, I split the compressed rest to show the change. It’s common for a bandleader to say ‘take it from the so and so’ and if the marking isn’t shown confused players will be shouting ‘where’s that then?’ which wastes rehearsal time.

All instructions to the player except dynamics go above the stave unless lack of space prohibits this.

Some computer notation programs have a nasty habit of ignoring time signature changes when compressing rests, so this is another goof to watch out for.


The ability to extract parts from the computer score promises to relieve us of much of the drudgery of writing parts by hand. Unfortunately there is, as always, a price to pay. The extracted parts require adjustment to the flow of the bars to ensure that we write 4 bars to a line (as far as we can) and place each section of the piece at the beginning of the stave. I particularly hate situations where a new section, with its reference letter, begins on the last bar of a stave, especially the last bar of a page. Sometimes it can’t be helped.

One program I used caused all graphic elements – reference letters, hairpins, dynamics etc. – to fly all over the place during this process and they had to be put back in order. This process took considerable time and was so troublesome that I often used to leave all this stuff off the score until the band parts had been extracted. In this context the term ‘graphic’ refers to all elements not included in the music notation font.

We mentioned there’s a price to pay, but how about some discount? When, for example, the first trumpet had been extracted and edited to perfection, I could ‘save as’  trumpet 2, 3, etc. and make necessary changes to the pitches instead of ‘extracting’ them all from the score. The more similarity (e.g. unisons) between the different parts there were, the more this technique made sense.

On the other hand, this old program allowed varied spacing and positioning of staves to be achieved by selecting and dragging, which is more complicated to do in my current program, which only allows a common level of spacing to be specified between all staves. It also allowed the number of bars to a stave to be individually specified, whereas my current program requires the use of a line break tool, which can cause problems in the last stave of the part because there’s nowhere left to go.

Having ‘finished’ my work I check, check and check again. I’ve produced a quality control sheet listing every element that had been found, at one time or another, to be wrong, or missing. I methodically check each item against the score and each band part. Pitch errors can usually be spotted aurally during playback.

In my experience there will almost always be some error somewhere, anyway. It may be a reference letter omitted or misplaced, or a dot omitted from a note used in a tempo marking, or some other minute but crucial error. I have an agreement with a local band that, if they ‘test fly’ an arrangement, they get a free copy (whether they want one or not!).

Errors are not confined to the work of independent publishers. They’re frequently found in parts produced by mainstream houses – even in test pieces for use in contests.

For many years, publishers in the USA set the standards, for band parts, especially. I recently played a terrific arrangement by one of England’s favourite writers but the publishers had produced parts on small sheets of paper with as many as 13 bars to a line, with a small staff size. Unfortunately this writer, a pianist, also didn’t understand the need to allow trombonists sufficient time to insert and remove mutes. In one piece, an eighth note rest was all I got to insert my straight mute and I already had a cup mute between my knees in readiness for the next change. This wrecks presentation, which can’t be ignored in live performances. Trombonists need both hands unless they have a sustained note in first (closed) position. Personally, I only use muted trombones for colouristic effects, not in brass section writing, unless it’s for a small brass section. Four or five trumpets in a big band give all the muted colour needed.

I do not have hands-on experience of all the many music notation programs, so input on this topic would be welcomed.

A free program that’s well worth using is MuseScore. It has a slightly different way of working but it’s easy to learn, providing the user sticks strictly to the correct procedures, especially when inputting drum parts. There’s a very useful and active forum built into the downloaded material and requests for help are often answered by the program’s developers. The playback is easy to use and superior sound fonts can be substituted for the in-built font, depending on computer memory, etc. It’s nice to know there are still people around willing to put so much time and effort into something and then just give it away.

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Double passing notes

For those wishing to continue to develop their ‘straight’ technique, there follows a more detailed look at this topic. On paper, it probably seems as dry as a bone but you’ll be surprised how much fun it can be!

If the upper root and third of a ‘common’ chord comprising l,lll,l,lll move down a step, they provide the 7th and 9th respectively (of the same chord). The starting chord has a doubled third and doubled root to provide support at the moment the suspensions occur. The two notes continue their step-wise downward movement to become the root and 3rd, the 3rd and 5th or the 5th and 7th of the next chord in the three chord system (it’s ideal for three in a bar time signatures). Each ‘destination’ will result in a chord on a different root (work these out and make a note for future reference).

This system can connect with another using any root progression between the last chord of one ‘system’ and the first chord of the next. Depending on the distribution of the chordal notes (open or close position), the passing tones will move in 3rds or 6ths (inverted 3rds) or their compounds (3rd plus an octave, 6th plus an octave). They can occur between any two voices, including the bass and one of the other voices. A starting chord comprising I, III, I,III, offers four different pairs of voices from which to choose (see below). Since the parts are in motion, the less desirable placement of harmonic functions can be briefly tolerated and gives rise to interesting textures.

If we move the 3rd and 5th or the 5th and 7th of a chord (instead of the root and 3rd), the 7th and 9th (of the same chord) obviously do not occur, so that an immediate change of root is required at the second chord in order to furnish them (the starting chord therefore does not necessarily require a doubled 3rd). Strictly speaking, this is not an example of ‘passing notes’ at all, but a complete chord transformation (these are just labels, after all). The effect, nevertheless, is similar and the two techniques described here can be intermingled to give variety. Again, the two notes can continue down stepwise in 3rds or 6ths, requiring a different root progression according to their ‘destination’ (1/3, 3/5, 5/7).

It’s possible to provide a continuous, scalewise progression of passing notes, although the range of the orchestration will become very wide within a short temporal span.

The first (strong) beat of the bar features a sonorous chord distribution and the triadic form at this point will also provide relief where a composer wishes to avoid the saturated effect of too many 7th and secondary 7th chords.

‘Exact’ or ‘tonal’ inversions give intriguing derivatives of a kind that a composer relying on conventional wisdom might not normally conceive (see The Convertibility of Music in the book). Passing notes now ascend instead of descending.

Try writing a complete continuity of passing 7ths and 9ths in four part harmony. Obtain an acceptable melody in the top voice so that the result is musical and not merely a drill. Compose a contrasting second ‘movement’ by using exact or tonal inversions. Watch out for undesirable exposed intervals between the outer voices and for undesirable parallels. These are easily avoided. An amazing variety can be achieved in a pure diatonic setting, giving the effect of a much broader choice of structures. The cyclical nature of the style tolerates many transgressions (see Harmonic and Melodic Sequences in the book).

You may also like to try transposing your efforts into different modes, choosing from any one of the 36 seven unit scales available. It’s less confusing to transpose the original into a different mode and then try out inverted versions of that.

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