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1.7: Pitch and Intonation

  • Page ID
    125350
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    As you have certainly noticed, pitch on brass instruments is primarily controlled by the embouchure. The valves, rotors, or slides serve to alter that fundamental pitch, but in the end, embouchure adjustment controls pitch at the macro level when moving between shelves and the micro level when adjusting intonation. While each instrument has unique ways to deal with intonation (e.g. the trombone slide, adjustable valve slides on trumpet, 4th valves on euphonium and tuba, right hand in the bell of the horn), the embouchure serves as the primary method of intonation adjustment.

    Relationship between Pitch and Tone

    One of the challenges of adjusting pitch on brass instruments is that when adjusting pitch, the tone also changes. Brass players refer to the center of a pitch, which is the point at which the embouchure is buzzing at the exact same pitch as the instrument is playing. This creates the fullest tone, and serves as the target for each pitch.

    The embouchure can be adjusted to address intonation issues due to tendencies of partials or fingering combinations. By firming up the embouchure and making the oral cavity smaller, the pitch will move sharp. By relaxing the embouchure and opening up the oral cavity, the pitch will move flat.

    Unfortunately, by adjusting the embouchure, the brass player also alters the tone quality of their instrument. By tightening the embouchure and jaw, the pitch goes bright and loses the richness of its overtones. By relaxing the embouchure and jaw, the tone becomes under-supported and unfocused. Increasing the amount of air can counteract many of these tendencies, but the more dramatically the player needs to adjust the embouchure for pitch, the more apparent the tone problems.

    Relationship between tone and pitch
    Embouchure change for tone and pitch are integrally related to one another. A change in embouchure for one impacts the other.

    Adjusting Intonation

    Due to the relationship between pitch and tone, it is important that brass instruments are regularly adjusted by their main tuning slide to be in tune. Due to the pitch tendencies of various partials, brass instruments tune best to octaves of their fundamental pitch, typically at the third partial. For some young players, this may be too high to play without placing extra stress on the embouchure in which case the perfect fifth at the second partial can be used. On horn, the Bb side of the horn should be tuned first and then the F side.

    Preferred tuning pitches for brass instruments
    When initially tuning brass instruments, the instrument should be tuned to the most comfortable octave of the fundamental to set up the instrument for more successful intonation adjustment. Notes in parentheses can be used as secondary tuning notes or as substitutes for students with limited range.

    In addition to daily tuning of the main tuning slides, valve/rotor slides on horn, euphonium, and tuba should be tuned to accommodate for intonation inconsistencies on an occasional basis, especially if weather or circumstances significantly change. While more advanced players may do adjustment based on specific musical demands of literature to be played, in general the first valve should be tuned to a major second below the fundamental noted above and the second valve to a minor second below the fundamental above. The third valve/rotor slide should be tuned using the 2-3 fingering a Major 3rd below the noted fundamental. For instruments with a 4th valve, tune the slide a perfect fourth below the optional note as this will be the most frequent application of the 4th valve.

    Valve Horn Tuning Pitch Euphonium/Tuba Tuning Pitch
    1 Bb (on F side)
    Eb (on Bb side)
    Ab
    2 B (on F side)
    E (on Bb side)
    A
    3 (using 2-3 fingering) Ab (on F side)
    Db (on Bb side)
    Gb
    4 N/A C

    Once the instrument is “in tune,” it is important to remind students that all the notes will not be in tune (see the Acoustics chapter for details). With all beginning instrumentalists, a common myth is assumed of “I tuned, therefore, my instrument is in tune.” They still need to be prepared to listen and adjust pitch, either by manipulating the instrument or adjusting the embouchure. Explicitly teaching the tendencies of each valve combination and partial will assist in making these adjustments.

    When there is a way to adjust pitch mechanically, this should be done first as it also adjusts where the instrument’s tone will be centered. These options include the following:

    • Trumpet–Adjusting the 1st or 3rd slides, particularly for a5, d4, and c#4
    • Horn–Adjusting the hand in the bell to further open or close the bell flare
    • Trombone–Adjusting the hand slide (As this works on every pitch, trombonists seldom adjust pitch with the embouchure)
    • Euphonium/Tuba–Using the 4th valve as a substitute for 1-3 and physically adjusting the main tuning slide while playing (for more advanced players)

    If there is not a way to physically adjust the instrument, the embouchure should be used to lower or raise the pitch by relaxing or firming the corners and opening or closing the oral cavity by changing vowel shape. The process is similar to adjusting pitch between shelves. By changing mouth shape and tongue placement from ahhh to ohhh, the pitch will become flat. By changing the mouth shape and tongue placement from ahhh to eeee, the pitch will move sharp. With any changes from centered tone, more air is needed to ensure that the quality of tone remains the same when altering pitch.

    Exercises for Intonation Awareness and Adjustment

    Mouthpiece Sirens–As opposed to their use when first learning how to play brass instruments, mouthpiece sirens can be used by established brass musicians to focus interval control. Students should start on a specific pitch and intentionally adjust both above and below that pitch by a specific interval. This can build awareness of embouchure adjustment for different spaced intervals.

    Lip Bends–Starting on a comfortable pitch, students should play the pitch and then relax the embouchure to bend the note flat and then return to the original note. The goal is to have pitch change with as little tone change as possible. With practice, they should be able to control the interval. Initially, students will only be able to bend pitches flat by a minor second, but with time, they should be able to bend pitches by a third or more. VIDEO

    Remington Exercises–With a tuner in hand, students should play through both descending and ascending Remington exercises. For each pitch, students should make sure that the pitch is in tune and that the tone is centered. If individual intervals pose a problem, they should stop on that note and isolate it, ensuring that it is accurately played in tune and in tone.


    This page titled 1.7: Pitch and Intonation is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Brian N. Weidner (PALNIPress) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.