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’.

Please forward a copy of this blog to a friend or associate.


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