Playing in Tune
What is Playing in Tune?
How is tuning measured? Equal temperament… strobe tuners and overtones. 1200 cents, each half step = 100 cents…
Playing in tune is both a science and an art. It also requires some knowledge of music theory. It begins by developing the ability to play every note comfortably in tune at equal temperament from note to note and register to register. Equal temperament divides the octave into 1200 parts. Each half-step interval of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale gets 100 units which we call “cents” and each whole step is 200 cents. If we add up all the half steps in an octave we might say that we have 12 “dollars”! As a way to remember, think of each half step as a dollar and any tuning deviation above and/or below is measured in “pennies”.
Equal temperament is easily checked with an automatic chromatic tuner, but is not always easily achieved. It requires the resonant core of every note to be centered chromatically at equal temperament using standard fingerings, but not so rigid that the pitch cannot be moved higher or lower without suffering in tone quality. Achieving this requires:
- A well-maintained instrument with proper pad heights and correct tone hole sizes,
- A reed that is adjusted for proper tuning, note to note and register to register,
- A reed style and strength that is compatible with the instrument, mouthpiece, and player,
- A mouthpiece/bocal that has a good “scale”, one that is even in pitch throughout the registers,
- Understanding proper tone production for each note and register (embouchure, air speed, and vowel shape).
Is Playing at Equal Temperament Playing in Tune?
Yes, and mostly NO! There are a growing numbers of young musicians who believe that if they are playing at equal temperament they are in tune, period! They’ve practiced hard to be able to “nail” any note at equal temperament. Good start though. While this may work to some degree playing with a piano, which itself is not totally tuned to equal temperament (more on this phenomenon later), several generations of musicians have had automatic chromatic tuners at their disposal and have learned this is playing in tune. There can be an attitude among some players that I’m right and everyone else is wrong, so I’ll play it here where I know it is correct. Is this person a “team player”? But if you are playing with a “fixed-pitch” instrument that is at equal temperament you absolutely must take their pitch into consideration. You can take it all this way or mix it up with your tuning of intervals with the piano or fixed-pitch instrument. Judicious use of vibrato has always been a way around some pitch problems too.
You’ll Know It When You Hear It!
Professional musicians play using a tuning system based on the overtone series called “Pure Tuning” or “Just Intonation”. In this tuning system, intervals are based on the natural physical ratios of the overtone series. All top orchestra musicians, soloists, vocalists use this method because it is more pleasing to the ear for reasons which will be explained below.
The “C” Overtone Series
When a musical pitch is sounded, it produces a series of overtones in addition to its fundamental pitch. These overtones, also known as partials, identify what musical instrument you are hearing based on the strength or absence of these overtones. For instruments with a very pure tone like the flute, the upper overtones may be minimal or absent. The bassoon on the other hand, has a weak fundamental pitch but is rich in overtones. Each musical instrument or human voice has an additional element called a formant which also helps identify the “voice” you are hearing. The bassoon’s primary formant is close to A = 440 (high A). A sound or voice also has secondary formants which help further identify who or what you are listening to. The bassoon’s secondary formant is approximately A = 880. In the overtone series, the doubling of a frequency produces an octave in pitch or the ratio of 1 to 2 (1:2). In the example above, the octave is known as the second partial. A pure octave is a doubling of the frequency of sound and that is consistent with an octave in equal temperament. This includes partials number 4 and 8 which should also sound at equal temperament.
Partials can also be out of tune which can make the pitch or musical instrument sound “false” or out of tune. This is discussed in more detail below. The only tone possible without partials is the electronically generated sine wave. Some instruments are designed to have special out of tune partials. These include percussion instruments (cymbals, gongs, etc.) and orchestra bells and church bells. Some instruments have a predominance of odd-numbered partials or a player’s tone production can produce odd-numbered partials. The stronger the even numbered partials, the more pure the tone quality.
Pure tuning deviates from equal temperament beginning with the 2nd to 3rd partial (2:3) also known as the “open fifth” which is the practice for tuning from one string to another on a string instrument. An open fifth tuning (2:3) is two cents sharper than equal temperament and can be easily heard when the open 5th is in tune. When they are in tune, the sound produces no beats with an added depth of sound. This phenomenon is known as a resultant tone, which will be discussed below.
The pure fifth tuning of the string instruments also produces a sometimes frustrating additional element. As each string is tuned to concert A, each string (open 5th) adds two cents. For example, the cello strings from top to bottom — A/D/G/C — will be six cents below equal temperament on low C. The violin strings from top to bottom — E/A/D/G — will be two cents sharp on E and four cents flat on the low G string.
The most significant element of pure tuning as it relates to the overtone series — and the key element — are the ratios between the 3rd and 4th partial (major 3rd) and the 4th and 5th partial (minor 3rd). These ratios deviate significantly from equal temperament.
Pure tuning is based on playing in a key (i.e., C Major, A minor, etc.). When intervals are sounded together using just intonation, beats are NOT produced when using the correct ratios. The simplest explanation of the difference is the pitch adjustment when playing on the 3rd, 6th, and 7th degree of a scale. The 2nd, 4th, and 5th degrees of the scale also deviate from equal temperament but to a lesser degree. Another way to look at this is that the note “C” in the tonality of C Major or minor is centered at equal temperament, yet C in A minor is above equal temperament and C in Ab Major is below equal temperament.
The Major Scale
Unlike equal temperament which has one interval size for each half step or whole step, playing a scale in pure tuning involves 3 interval sizes which are based on the natural ratios of the overtone series. The major scale is made up of:
- The “major tone”, a slightly wide whole step Do to Re, is 204 cents (4 cents above equal temperament).
- The “minor tone”, a much narrower whole step Re to Mi, is 184 cents.
- The “semi-tone”, a significantly larger half-step, Mi to Fa, is 112 cents.
These interval sizes repeat within the scale (Fa to Sol is 204 cents, Sol to La is 182 cents, La to Ti is 204 cents).
Please note: the myth that the leading tone of a scale should be sharp in pitch is wrong! The leading tone should be 12 cents below equal temperament as it functions as the major third of the dominant V chord. The correct spacing of the intervals in pure tuning/just intonation leads the ear to recognize the tonality (key) that the music is in. If the music is in a minor key, the intervals of the 3rds and 6ths are flipped. (See minor scale below.)
Comparison of equal temperament to pure tuning in C Major:
Tuning a Major Chord
It is the responsibility of the musicians playing the accompanying chords to lower the pitch of the major third and slightly stretch the fifth of the chord. This provides a pure major third interval based on the overtone series with the physical ratio of 4:5 or 14 cents below equal temperament. (See Overtone Series.) Note: all major chords are made up of a major third (root to third) followed by a minor third (third to fifth). The minor third deviates above equal temperament by 16 cents with a ratio of 5:6.
For those playing the melody, it is their responsibility to match the third of the chords in the accompaniment. This is not always an easy thing to do if the melody is moving quickly with a passing note. However, if the melodic note is held for any duration and it is not tempered to match the correct pitch in the chord it will clash with uncomfortable consequences for those holding the notes correctly. The melody should also match the correct position in the scale for the deviation from equal temperament most notably that of the sixth and seventh scale degrees (see the major scale diagram above).
How does a person learn to place the third correctly at the right pitch? Many of the digital chromatic tuners show the correct position on the meter for the major third with a hash mark at -14 cents (see tuning meter image below). Note: there is also a hash mark for the minor third at +16 cents. The musician must be aware of what note of the chord they are playing be it the root, fifth, or third of the tonality and make the necessary adjustments be it playing an interval of the chord or the melody.
A general rule: the major third, major sixth, and major seventh of the scale are always played below equal temperament.
The most accurate tuning meter is a strobe tuner which will show the correct position for every note of the scale for the tonality for which it is set.
The major primary chords (I, IV, and V) are all identical in the spacing of the major third using the same mathematical ratios: the 3rd of the each primary chord is 14 cents below equal temperament. The root of IV is 2 cents below equal temperament and the root of the dominant (V) is 2 cents above equal temperament. Doing the math may be confusing but the outcome is the same.
The Minor Scale
The difference between and major and a minor scale is that the 3rd and 6th notes of the scale are flipped. In both cases they are significantly sharper than equal temperament.
Comparison of equal temperament to pure tuning in C minor:
Ensemble Tuning of Major and Minor Chords
The best way tune chords in an ensemble is to establish the root and 5th before adding the 3rd as follows:
- Tune all players on the root to match their pitch.
- While the players are holding the root in tune, add the players with the 5th.
- Once the root and fifth tuning is stable, have the players on the 3rd of the chord enter one at a time, checking for correct tuning before adding another player.
General rule #1: the major third of the chord is always played below equal temperament.
General rule #2: the minor third of the chord is always played above equal temperament.
General rule #3: When playing in a key signature in flats and you encounter an accidental with a sharp, in most cases the pitch of that note should be played below the pitch. If you see a natural on a note in a flat key, it should be played below the pitch.
General rule #4: When playing in a key signature in sharps and you encounter an accidental with a flat, in most cases the pitch of that note should be played above the pitch. If you see a natural on a note in a sharp key, it should be played above the pitch.
Some of the notes on every bassoon have their own acoustical pitch tendencies sharp or flat that can change with dynamics making matters worse. For example, half-hole G (top space) has a tendency to play sharp when played loudly. To compensate, we add the low Eb key (resonance key) but when G is played extremely softly the pitch is better in tune without the key added.
Strangely enough, a great playing reed may sound in tune to you, but to others listening it can sound out of tune and “false” in pitch.
To play at a professional level, every bassoon needs additional “tuning and voicing” work on the instrument to match up with a player’s bocal, reed style and tone production. There is no tuning slide or reed ligature to be quickly adjusted like single reeds. Pulling out a bocal to lower its pitch is not effective and creates other problems, just as pulling out the joints of the bassoon also causes problems. All these things create challenges that must be overcome for the professional player. The main difference between a talented amateur and a professional bassoonist is the amount of effort made to play in tune at all times.
What is false pitch and what causes it? For some reason, as a performer you are not able to accurately hear the sound that is projected from the instrument especially its overtones. While there is a natural series of overtones for any fundamental pitch, the balance and strength of individual overtones varies for each instrument. In addition, each instrument has a formant and secondary formants at specific pitches that also help identify the sound of an instrument. The bassoon’s primary formant is around A440. Below is an example of the overtone based on the fundamental C. The notes indicated with arrows are considered “out of tune” however the use of the pure seventh overtone in tuning is stunning when used in a chord (see Mendelssohn excerpt below) and is sometimes used with brass instruments as these notes are what are naturally produced by a bugle.
The overtones on a bassoon based on Low Bb are shown below (courtesy of James Kopp):
While it is possible for a note to be perfectly in tune with an electronic tuner, to the musician’s ear the perception can change when the ear is plugged if the note is false. This test is only possible if you are playing a note or a wind instrument that requires only the left hand. The difference is the acoustic input of the open ear and the sound heard through bone conduction (inner ear) with the ear plugged are at odds with each other. This is likely due to the inability to hear the offending (false pitched) overtones with the open ear. The plugged ear is a more accurate measure of true projected pitch. What causes false pitch can be any of the following: incomplete reed tuning, tone production issues including under or over blowing the instrument forcing or constricting the tone, improper vowel shaping within the oral cavity, and improper placement of the lips in forming the embouchure. Note in the graph above of bassoon overtones that the fundamental frequency is extremely weak compared to the upper partials of the bassoon overtones. It is vitally important that the even numbered overtones be in tune to support the fundamental frequency through the phenomenon of the resultant tone which is discussed below.
False pitch is not unique to the bassoon. For example, on a string instrument an individual string after being stretched out and re-tuned over and over will also become false in pitch. To hear the true pitch, the player can place the tuning peg against the head or closed ear to hear the true pitch. It is expected that at some point this will happen on every string instrument. For brass instruments, it is common when played loudly to over blow the instrument creating a perception to listeners that they are playing sharp in pitch. Under blowing a woodwind instrument can create the perception that they are playing flat. But the reverse is also true depending on the reed and tone production. On a woodwind instrument, a worn out reed will become false in pitch just as a reed which is not properly tuned or played correctly will be false in pitch.
The word inharmonicity is commonly used (especially by piano tuners and players) in reference to overtones that are not in tune with the fundamental frequency of the note being played. Wikipedia defines it as follows:
In music, inharmonicity is the degree to which the frequencies of overtones (also known as partials or partial tones) depart from whole multiples of the fundamental frequency (harmonic series).
Methods for Checking False Pitch
In the process of tuning your reeds, when you believe that the reed is near completion of fine tuning use this technique: with a tone generator set on C, play open F, C and G (these notes are sensitive to bocal depth and require a balance of tuning between the three notes). If in the process of playing these notes you do not feel that they are blending in pitch with the tone generated, the reed is still false, requiring more work until playing along with the tone generator feels comfortable.
Another way to check for false pitch (unfortunately after the fact) is to listen to a recording of yourself or your group’s performance to see how your pitch sounds when projected. What you will find is that some notes will sound out of tune yet notes next to them sound in tune. A note can sound out of tune because care has not been taken to place the note in its proper tuning location be it equal temperament or just temperament (pure tuning).
Problems Related to Raising or Lowering Pitch
How to maintain proper resonance in the tone when making pitch adjustments for just tuning or general pitch adjustment. A typical response by a person who has discovered that the pitch is required to be above or below equal temperament is a tone change that is unacceptable when a pitch modification has been made. Lowing the pitch becomes unfocused and flabby while raising the pitch becomes pinched and small in tone. In either case, the pitch may be correct with the tuner yet sound false in pitch.
A professional player who uses just tuning will produce a tone with the proper resonance and tone color that is acceptable and not sounding false in pitch. This is accomplished through tone production where shifts in vowel placement, embouchure tightness, and air speed are adjusted in combination to produce the correct resonance at the right pitch. An effort should be made to make the major third “sunny” and brighter in color than what would be the outcome without a combination of tone production elements working together as in a flabby, dull major third. On the other hand, the minor third needs to be more open and resonant and again this is accomplished through tone production techniques. In addition to these tone production techniques some notes may require the use of altered fingerings to accomplish the best result. In the example below for Stravinsky’s Berceuse the fingerings are noted that will produce the best results. Pianissimo and/or forte dynamics will also effect the choice of fingerings used in combination with proper tone production. All of this may require the player to use extreme embouchure shifts, mute fingerings, “shaded” tone holes, mutes inserted into the bell, or other tricks of the trade.
An automatic chromatic tuner is essential to check pitch to direct attention to any problem notes when tuning your reeds. And reed tuning can do only so much if the bassoon is out of whack or leaking (80% or more bassoons leak to a significant degree). Again, achieving an equal tempered chromatic scale is the starting point to playing in tune. Playing in tune in an ensemble also requires significant pitch flexibility as much as 30% above and below the equal tempered pitch.
Ensemble pitch fluctuation is common and to be expected for several reasons which include: 1) other instrument’s pitch tendencies related to dynamics (strings go flat when playing soft on low strings, brass instruments sound sharp when playing loudly) 2) the temperature of the stage or practice room (strings go sharp in cold temps and woodwinds go flat), and 3) pitch in the strings is better/easier in keys with sharps and the opposite for winds (in keys with flats).
Some examples of problems that you may have encountered as a wind player in an orchestra relate to string player’s use of open strings in keys of F major, C major, and Bb major. Unfortunately, when playing the Mozart bassoon concerto you should expect that the orchestra, especially the violins, will play at a pitch above A 440. This can make it difficult to perform the whole concerto without loosing your chops. Similar problems exist in the Beethoven overtures, which are in the key of C and F when open strings are used and very loud brass ensemble is present.
For those professionals who know the answer, hearing someone playing at equal temperament or wildly fluctuating for no good reason can make you cringe or angry. It is especially frustrating if you are stuck playing with someone who doesn’t get it, or if you are playing with someone who is inconsistent in pitch placement. In listening to auditions for symphony orchestras, college scholarships or solo competitions a pro can hear within a few notes what approach, if any, is being taken. The intervallic tuning between notes make all the difference in the approach. Hearing a wind or string soloist playing strictly at equal temperament from note to note is a sensation of “dullness” or discomfort. Great performing artists can only hear it another way: tuning of intervals that are based on the natural ratios of the overtone series within a tonality. Each note of the melody or chord is adjusted according to its position within the scale of that tonality.
Have you or the musicians you play with ever considered pure tuning rather than equal temperament tuning? What is “in tune” is best left to a question: What is the most pleasing to your ear?
What Is the Problem with Equal Temperament?
BEATS! What sounds best to the ear are scales and especially intervals that do not produce the flutter of beats when sounded together, but produce a pure combination of tones without beats. If intervals are “acoustically correct” based on the natural physical ratios of the overtone series, there are no beats, no flutter. Pure intervals have a distinct positive side effect. In some cases this can be easily perceived and definitely felt if you are at the bottom of a chord. Two or more notes sounding together can “produce” what are called resultant tones (phantom tones sounding lower) or summation tones (sounding higher). Other terms used are subjective tones, difference tones, or “Tartini Tones” named after violinist Giuseppe Tartini who explored these phenomena. Those who have played duets with recorders, penny whistles, or flute or clarinet duets in the high registers can hear a third phantom tone. These can be perceived as a low buzzing in the ear. In fact, some composers have written duets called “trios for two instruments” where the third tone is designed to be an audible component of the trio. IN the example below, the melody in bass clef is the result of the two notes sounding together in the treble clef. Performing this on two clarinets makes these tones clearly audible.
Example from Band World, Jan/Feb 1989
Resultant tones are based on simple math. If you subtract two note’s frequencies from each other the result should be an in tune note below (heard or sensed) at the frequency of the remainder. Here’s a hypothetical example: two high notes are sounding together, one at 770 cycles per second (cps) and another at 550 cps. The resultant tone (phantom tone) will sound at 220 cps. If one of the upper notes is off (i.e., 775-550=225), the sounding/sensed resultant is in conflict with the correct 220 cps frequency. This is the second bassoonist’s dilemma.
How do I Hear the Resultant Tone?
It is possible for a bassoonist to experience the resultant tone by using a chromatic tuner that has a sounding pitch. Set the tuner’s pitch for F and then play the highest C or A and the resultant tone will be sensed as a buzz that is audible. It is also possible to hear beats that indicate that the tuning is not pure if you play slightly below the pitch for high C and bring it up gradually. The beats will increase in speed and clearly audible.
<Add musical staff example showing the sound of the resultant tone.>
The Overtone Series
In ensemble playing, like instruments playing acoustically pure intervals together sound BIGGER, whether the phantom tone is audible or not, than if the interval played is not pure. Beats cannot always be heard clearly as their intensities change with the note combinations sounding in the register(s) played. But for the second bassoonist at the bottom of a chord it can be impossible to find the right pitch when the intervals in the upper winds (major 3rds, etc.) are not pure intervals. If the upper notes are outside of pure tuning, there is no place to put the second bassoonist’s note that will sound or feel correct to the player at the bottom of the chord!
Why Do I Have So Much Trouble Matching Low Notes With the Piano?
In piano tuning, getting the beats out of a single note’s three strings must be done and then getting the correct number of beats between intervals must be balanced. Piano tuning is built on beats. And pianos do not have a perfect equal tempered scale either. The highest and lowest notes are “stretched” away from equal temperament on purpose! So when the bassoonist plays a matching low note below the staff with a piano accompanist, why do you feel so sharp on your low note? The low strings of the piano have been stretched/lowered in pitch which is a standard tuning technique for all pianos, and stretched upward on the highest piano notes. As you can see in the graph below, the lowest notes on the piano are almost 40 cents flat. On this graph, the bassoon’s low Bb is 10 cents flat. The notes below Low F are typically tuned sharp on the short bore bassoon. Playing below the pitch in this register requires special attention to reed tuning and tone production.
Keyboard Tuning Problems
Prior to equal temperament, keyboard instruments and even woodwind instruments were tuned to a tonality of the composition’s key signature. The primary chords and scale produced what would be considered pure intervals as it relates to the overtone series. The difficulty with this type of tuning was any chords that strayed too far away from the key center clashed when these intervals sounded. The intervals in a tonality if measured, all equal simple ratios. For instance, an octave is a doubling of vibration with a ratio of 1:2, a fifth a ratio of 2:3, a fourth a ratio of 3:4, a major third a ratio of 4:5, and a minor third a ratio of 5:6. During the Baroque period, keyboard instruments were sometimes tuned in such a way that they could accommodate key signatures closely related to a central tonality. These “historic” tunings that went by different names such as Werckmeister and others which also became known as the well-tempered klavier.
The advent of equal temperament tuning allowed the keyboard instruments to modulate to any tonality without clashing intervals. However, equal tempered intervals produced “beats” of secondary vibration not heard in the pure tuning. Our ears have become accustom to the sound of equal temperament but the traditional pure tuning is related to the overtone series that is called “just tuning.”
The V7 Chord and Diminished Chords
As mentioned above the pure minor seventh of a chord is unfortunately a very low and wide deviation from equal temperament. Achieving this pitch placement requires a major embouchure and tone production shift to drop the pitch. However, this is the only option to sound this chord without beats. In an example below (Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4), it shows a quartet of two horns and two bassoons. For the second bassoon using the lowered natural seventh (29 cents below equal temperament) is highly desirable. If not done this way in performance, the tuning of the four voices feels very awkward in this repeated feature of the solo passage. The seventh of the dominant V chord resolves to the third of the tonic which is also below equal temperament by 14 cents, an unusual move upward to a major third.
The alternative to a lowered natural seventh is to play a minor third above the fifth of a chord by 16 cents. This produces less beats in the chords than playing the seventh at equal temperament, which is the worst choice of the three.
Diminished triads are often a partial element of the V7 chord with the root of the V7 chord missing. The 3rd, 5th, and 7th are sometimes combined with an added 4th note to produce a full diminished 7th chord. Diminished triads are made up of stacking minor 3rds together. (Musical example). The diminished chord is the most unstable and uncomfortable chord to play. It may be desirable to approach diminished chords in equal temperament. Diminished chords are often “pivot” chords that lead to a new tonality in another key. The tension created by diminished chords is a desirable element musically speaking (but not fun to try to tune!).
Tricks of the Trade
To effectively move the pitch above or below equal temperament as required in just tuning, it may require the use of alternate fingerings (for example, long C# rather than short C#), altered fingerings (added digits), “mute” or “resonance” fingerings. When checking on tuning of chords with colleagues in other sections you should see if altering your fingering fixes the problem and if not, don’t be afraid to ask if they have an alternate fingering they can apply. For instance, the throat tones of the clarinet can be problematic and professional players know to add fingers in the right hand to mitigate pitch and timbral problems. Timbral and pitch problems are certainly the case on all woodwind instruments.
When you find an intonation clash within the bassoon section or with a player of another section and it cannot be resolved by the use of alternate fingerings on your part or the other player, ask if you can switch notes with each other to see if the intervals sound and work better. Sometimes after this exercise the problem is solved by simply switching parts and then going back to your original parts. If this doesn’t work, why not switch parts if it sounds better? Obviously if you are switching parts with the clarinetist next to you, you’ll probably want to go back to your original parts. Working on intonation problems with several players obviously must take place at breaks or outside of rehearsal but are best done on stage if you have that option available. Some orchestras allow the stage to be reserved following rehearsals for musicians to do sectional rehearsals, test equipment, test REEDS (the “bounce” test), new instruments, etc.
Achieving comfortable tuning with other instruments or within the bassoon section often requires changing the focus of the tone and its overtones by reshaping the vowel placement of your tone production. This may require de-focusing the tone to lose its core by the use of a more open vowel. Try to marry the sound of the other player’s tone with your alteration. This may also require movement of the position on your embouchure as well as the vowel change. If done correctly, you have created the sound of a new instrument. For instance, the claroon, the oboon, the floon, the celloon, etc. A blending tone and its production should also be balanced by a solo focused tone with more core and upper partials in the tone quality through a more closed vowel. Flexibility in tone production allows pitch shifts without the loss of acceptable tone quality. Some bassoonists play with a “set it and forget it” approach, with an open fixed vowel and an unfocused tone. This does not lend itself to good tuning and blending practices.
Observation of Accidentals in Tonal Music
Assuming that a composer uses “proper spelling”* of notes with accidentals within a key signature and added sharp, flat or natural is a clue that a pitch fluctuation is required. In most cases accidentals convert notes from major to minor thirds (or vice versa) or major or minor sixths. For example, in all harmonic minor scales, the accidental on the 7th scale degree would require the lowering of the pitch for that note. The 7th scale degree functions as the third of the dominant (V) chord. See tuning charts above.
*If the composer or copyist mis-spells a sharp or a flat within a composition, this rule does not apply. See General Rule #3 and #4 above.
What if the Music is Atonal?
Generally speaking use just tuning for major and minor thirds, major and minor sixths and major seventh intervals when playing a melodic line. When playing an accompanying line adjust the interval based on what sounds like the most important voice in the music. It may be that you’ll use tempered thirds, sixths and sevenths depending on what sounds the best or to play it safe go to equal temperament tuning. Let your ear guide you.
When to Play Equal Temperament
If you are playing unison with a fixed pitch instrument (chimes, piano, harp, xylophone, etc.) match their pitch. Sometimes orchestra chimes or bells (and their overtones) are tuned well above A 440 which can make matching more difficult.
Pedal Tone Problems
Sometimes the bassoon is called upon to hold a low note that is called a pedal note. It starts out as the tonic and bass note for a chord but as the chord changes to another chord it no longer functions as the root but may move to the 3rd or another interval of a different chord. While a pedal tone can create musical dissonance, it doesn’t have to create acoustical dissonance. Should the bassoonist hold his/her low note at the established pitch or change the tuning of the note he/she is holding? If the note is held, the result will be pure tuning discomfort. Even though it is a held note, the pitch should move to reflect its position as a major or minor third in the next chord(s) and not be held at its established pitch. The pedal note should adjust to the pure tuning of the chord progression. (Insert examples: Mendelssohn symphony)
Modulations to Different Keys
When music changes to a different key, the established note positions of the chords must now reflect new positions in another key. For example, if an A on an F chord moves to the tonic of A major, the A must move up in pitch by 14 cents.
Secondary chords in a tonality can be problematic as they reflect a different tonality while still within a key signature. For instance, a minor II, III, VI, VII chord pushes the established position around. Question: Should the 3rds of chords match the temperament of the tonality or should they be adjusted for pure tuning of the intervals? In many cases these fall into an area of artistic decision based on what sounds the best to the performer.
The Secret Vibrato
There are times when you are playing a part or a unison with another player and you realize that you are out of tune with that player. What can you do, especially if you know the other player is the one having the problem? First of all, never assume that it is the other player that is out of tune because it may be that your pitch is false or out of tune. However, if the other player is not tempering the melody to pure tuning then how do you fix it in performance?*
The answer is the magic “equalizer” vibrato. Normal vibrato is made up of two components: pitch and volume modulation. The “equalizer” vibrato eliminates volume modulation and is strictly a wide pitch change that fluctuates both sharp and flat, masking the problem. This is accomplished by quickly moving the reed in and out of your mouth. I like to call this “the mix master” where I am stirring up the pitch. Use this technique to cover the distance between your pitch and the pitch perpetrator.
Technique: move the bassoon away from you with your hands, followed by pulling the bassoon back to you while maintaining your standard embouchure and head position. Ideally, your lips roll in and out as you move back and forth. As the reed moves in and out of your mouth, the pitch will change above and below what would be the normal pitch.
*Note: a discussion or a tuning method technique may need to be discussed with the other player at the appropriate time if they are open to the idea that they may be out of tune. This is not always a comfortable discussion when a big ego is involved. In some cases, the recipient who’s pitch you are supposedly matching will get a clue that something is off but you will not be stuck sounding out of tune while you mix it up.
Use of Vibrato When Playing Chords
It is not possible to effectively tune chords in just tuning or any tuning if all the players are using vibrato on a held chord. As in the example above this vibrato masks the correct position and pitch temperament for the notes in the chord. Therefore, it is not wise to use vibrato when holding notes of the chord especially if the vibrato speed is not matched throughout the players holding the chord. The best practice if vibrato is used with a held chord is to have the top voice be the only vibrato sounding.
If players can match the same vibrato then this can be a wonderful musical effect (as in a big band saxophone section) but may not necessarily be the desired effect for an entire orchestra woodwind section. It is usually not desirable to match vibratos when the whole woodwind section is involved in a held chord. Stylistically speaking, the use of vibrato in early classical music is not always desirable for Haydn and Mozart. However, duets with two bassoons or woodwind pairs, it is often desirable to match vibratos in solo passages.
In woodwind sections, what often happens is a mishmash of different vibrato speeds and intensities sounding at the same time. When you are in the lead you cannot always expect another woodwind player to match your vibrato, but you can develop the skill of matching other’s vibrato. For instance, two bassoons or players should be able to match the lead player’s vibrato. It is standard operating procedure that the second chair player matches the principal’s vibrato.
If you are playing with an instrument that sounds above you as in octaves with a clarinet, an instrument that does not use vibrato, it is best to ditch the vibrato and play with a straight tone. The same can be said for the French horn, which also does not use vibrato in most cases. However, if either of these players does use vibrato in a solo line, then join them!
Pitch is a Moving Target
“Pitch and rhythm are like a moving train: it’s not going to stop to let you get on.” — James DePriest
Solos in a Major Key
Beethoven, Violin Concerto
This solo entrance is scary! If the reed is not tuned properly, the D can be false in pitch and the F# (an acoustically sharp note on all bassoons) is a problem in this register, especially when playing very soft. The F# should be played 14 cents below equal temperament and the B and C# should also be below equal temperament while the E should be slightly above equal temperament. Making matters worse, the upper D is often played flat by a majority of bassoonists. This is a very good example of why it is important to use harmonic tuning in the middle register to correct the acoustical tendency of several notes. Furthermore, the D (the nexus note) should be carefully checked that it is not false in pitch using the ear plug test.
Solos in a Minor Key
This solo is in the key of B minor. In this case the D natural (minor 3rd) should sound 16 cents above equal temperament on a note that is commonly played flat by most bassoonists. The effect of a flat D in B minor is excruciating! If the reed is failing, it is always possible to use a Long D and Long C# to raise the pitch. However, the C# should actually be lower and the short fingering would be preferred. It’s tendency is to be on the low side.
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5, Movement 1
This solo is in the key of E minor. In this case, the G (minor 3rd) should sound 16 cents above equal temperament on a note that we commonly add the Eb “resonance key” to lower the pitch. With proper reed tuning, the G can be resonant without the resonance key and it’s natural tendency toward sharpness fits the requirement for the raised pitch. Of course it is possible to push the G up with the resonance key on, too.
At letter B, the harmony is a V7 in the key of E minor, a B7 chord where again the G natural should be played high without the resonance key.
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6, Movement 1
This excerpt has several different elements to it. First, the general pitch level which is established by the basses playing very softly on their low E (sounding an octave below) will be flat in pitch. Many bassoonists switch reeds and/or bocals (longer) to help with this problem. In E minor, the 3rd of the chord/melody should be played well above equal temperament as outlined above. What is the way to raise the third while also lowering the E? The answer to this dilemma is as simple as adding an additional key. Bonus points if you know what this is!
Example of Pure V7
Mendelssohn, Symphony No. 4, Movement 3, “Trio” Section
Solo quartet of two bassoons and two horns in E. A good example of the natural 7th (A natural) in the second bassoon sounds wonderful! The natural 7th of the B7 chord is played 29 cents below equal temperament and resolves “upward” to the major third (G#) of an E Major chord which is 14 cents below equal temperament.
Example of Intervallic 6ths
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5, Movement 3
The first two notes of the solo are a minor third followed by an additional minor third. These intervals should be wider than equal temperament followed by a sequence of 6ths. While you might be inclined to play the upward 6th intervals at equal temperament, it will sound better if these are tuned to pure major and minor 6ths. For example, the major 6th interval from B to G#, A to F#, G to E sound in tune when the upward note is lower by 14 cents. The minor 6th interval from F# to D, F (E#) to C# sounds in tune when the bottom note is lower by 14 cents.
Stravinsky, Firebird, Berceuse
This an example of a mix of minor and major thirds in the melodic line. The choice of fingerings can make this sound horribly wrong. The Bb to Db should be fingered with the Long C#/Db fingering to push the minor third up while the Bb to D natural fingering in the next bar should be the standard two-finger D to help pull the pitch down for the major third.
Stravinsky, Rite of Spring
Now it’s your turn to figure out what the deviation from equal temperament should be. Is the first note played AT equal temperament or ABOVE or BELOW? What is the tonality? What is the secret fingering found in Quick Guide that makes the passage at rehearsal number 1 easier?
Hear Mark play the Rite of Spring with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, Delos DE 3278 (coming soon!).