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 requires some knowledge of music theory. But it begins with the ability to play every note comfortably at equal temperament from note to note and register to register. This 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, but not so rigid that the tone cannot be moved higher or lower in pitch without suffering. Achieving this requires 1) a well-maintained bassoon with proper pad heights and correct tone hole sizes, 2) a reed that is adjusted for proper tuning note to note and register to register, 3) proper tone production habits for each note and register (embouchure, air speed, and vowel shape), and 4) knowledge of alternate fingerings sometimes referred to as “resonance”, “power” or “mute” fingerings.
Some of the notes on every bassoon have their own acoustical pitch tendencies sharp or flat that can change with dynamics making matters worse. And strangely enough, a great playing reed may sound in tune to you, but out of tune to others and “false” in pitch. A bassoon often needs additional “tuning and voicing” work on the instrument to match up with a player’s bocal, reed style and tone production. Most do. There is no tuning slide or reed ligature to be quickly adjusted like single reeds. Bocals have problems with the tuning “spreads” that affect individual notes and registers. Pulling out a bocal to lower its pitch creates other problems, just as pulling out the joints of the bassoon also cause 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?
An automatic chromatic tuner is essential to check pitch to direct attention to any problem notes when working with your reeds. And reed tuning can do only so much though if the bassoon is out of whack or leaking (80% or more 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 pitch of a half step interval to match rising or falling pitch of the group or matching another player. 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 playing soft on low strings, brass sound sharp playing loudly) 2) the effects of stage or practice room temperature (strings go sharp in cold temps and woodwinds go flat), 3) certain key signatures are better for pitch in the strings (sharps) and the opposite for winds (flats), and 4) have you or the group you play in ever hear of anything other than tuning to equal temperament? What is “in tune” is best left to a question: What is the most pleasing to your ear? (More on this later.) But to sum up hearing wind or string soloist play at equal temperament is a sensation of “dullness” or discomfort. Great performing artists can only hear it another way.
For those professionals who know the answer, hearing someone playing at equal temperament within chords or melody, or wildly fluctuating for no good reason can make you cringe or angry if you are stuck playing with someone who doesn’t get it. 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 intervalic tuning between notes make all the difference in the approach.
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 that 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 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. Judicious use of vibrato has always been a way around some pitch problems too.
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, but produce a pure combination of tones without beats and that enhances the sound. 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 that in some cases can be easily perceived. Two or more notes sounding together can “produce” what are called resultant or summation tones. Another term used is “subjective tones” or more commonly difference tones. Those who have played recorders or duets with high tones on flutes and clarinets can hear a third phantom tone often perceived as a buzzing in the ear. In fact, some have written “trios for two instruments”. In ensemble playing like instruments playing pure intervals together sound BIGGER with the added tone 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 or 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 your note that will sound or feel correct to you at the bottom of the chord!!!
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: 500 cps-400 cps =100 cps. If 100 cps is the correct resultant but one of the upper notes is off, the sounding/sensed resultant is in conflict with the correct frequency.
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.
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 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 went by different names such as Werckmeister.
The advent of equal temperament tuning allowed the keyboard instruments to modulate to any tonality without clashing intervals. However, these intervals produced “beats” of secondary vibration not heard in the pure tuning related to the overtone series called “just tuning.”
The Pure Scale Showing Deviation From Equal Temperament