Trumpet Tuning and Intonation

This page is “in progress” more than most of the other ones.

First off – You can spend as much money as you like and your Trumpet will not play in tune by itself.

Second – Your Trumpet was built just a little short on purpose so your main tuning slide will have to be out pretty much always. How much? You’re going to figure that out.

Third – The fingerings you were taught were convenient but incomplete. For some notes they weren’t even close.

Fourth – There’s music theory and there’s listening – you need both.

Let’s separate tuning from intonation for the purposes of this page. Tuning is relatively simple and means getting the instrument set up so that it’s going to put you somewhere close to “in tune”. Intonation is the more precise business of playing every note so that it sounds great. If you’re a beginner we’re going to concern ourselves with tuning and be happy. High school players should be thinking about intonation because your listeners can hear it even if you can’t – yet.

Tuning –

… the act of coming close with pitch is really the second thing. The first thing is getting the right note and we know there are no guarantees on that with a brass instrument. Assuming that you’re playing the right note there’s a fairly wide frequency range that would qualify as “right”. Our goal is to narrow that range for most notes by setting up the tuning slide so that most of our open notes sound their best.

Most school bands that actually bother to tune as a group will tune to a Concert Bb. That’s expedient for the variety of instruments in the group but not really very good for any of them. Most beginning Trumpet players are better off tuning to a Concert F which is a G on Trumpet. (If that statement seems weird, read this other page or at least the Concert Pitch part of it.) That G is easier for most players and more likely the result of fewer bad habits (like excessive pressure).

Tuning requires the use of some reference pitch. This is what’s happening when you hear an orchestra all playing the same note before a concert starts. Orchestras traditionally use their Principal (1st) Oboe as their reference pitch and everyone tunes to that player. If I’ve tuned to a thousand oboe reference pitches there probably haven’t been more than 5 where the oboe player wasn’t staring at an electronic tuner of some sort. Occasionally we’ll tune to a piano but you can bet that the piano tuner had a fancy device too. Orchestras tune to an A. Its the first letter in the alphabet so why not? The fact that violins, violas, cellos and basses all have A strings on them probably has something to do with it. The general idea is that they can all tune their open A string to the oboe (who had better be right) and then get their other strings in tune with that one.

If you have a smartphone then download a tuner app and you’re almost ready. There’s a bunch of these apps. Some are specific to guitars or violins or some other thing, so be sure to get one that you can use. Maybe check some reviews to see what’s currently the best bang for the buck. If the app understands transposing instruments, you might be able to tell it that you’re a Trumpet or Bb instrument player and it’ll transpose for you. Otherwise you’ll have to tell it to tune an F while you’re playing a G. The same goes for electronic tuners that are their own separate device, not an app. Some devices have to be told which note to tune, some don’t.

The goal here is not to adjust the note with your chops or to telepathically calibrate your tuner to you. The goal is to see if your setup is sharp or flat and then adjust it. Start without even looking at the tuner and get a nice, steady tone. Then see what the gadget says. If it says you’re sharp you’ll pull out your main tuning slide (the first big bend (second on most cornets)). Do this like you’re sighting in a rifle … don’t try to inch your way towards the goal or you’ll start bending your pitch. If you think you have to pull out the thickness of a pencil then pull it a pencil and a half. Noodle around to erase the last note from your memory and start again. With any luck you’ve gone a little too far and you’re a bit flat. In that case come back a bit and you’re good. Do some other playing and come back to the tuner to see if you’re still there. If not, adjust. If you are still in tune take your pencil and make a mark on your leadpipe. That mark does not indicate where “in tune” is. It marks where in tune is right now, today with a gadget but it is a good reference point. Next time start there and see how things go. Try tuning before you’ve warmed up or after you’re tired or when your Trumpet is really cold and see what happens. This is the beginning of figuring out what tendencies you have.

Congratulations! Now you and your horn are in tune with a machine on one note at a given state of readiness. Now it’s time to forget all of that and listen. Remember the thousand oboe notes above? At least 300 of those times I’ve made an adjustment to my main tuning slide within a few minutes after everyone in the group presumably got themselves “in tune”. Now, I hope, the grammarian trolls out there will see why “in tune” has quotation marks. Once the stick drops the tuner goes out the window. We’re right back where we started but without the devices. Now we use our ears and the knowledge we have picked up from playing with the tuner and with other humans.

So …

Some notes are notoriously out of tune almost always on your trumpet. The low C# and D are so sharp that they’re useless without being corrected. On the Beginner page I told players to include throwing the 3rd valve slide for those notes as a part of the fingering and told them how much. That was an arbitrary length just to get the habit forming. The actual amount depends on a lot of variables but let’s start by using that tuner again to find out where the notes should be. While you’re at it check out the nearby E and A and see if they’re a tad sharp too. If your Trumpet has a first valve trigger or saddle, that’s how to bring them down to correct pitch. If it doesn’t you can use the 3rd valve alternate fingering instead of 1st & 2nd and adjust down from there if necessary.

The D just above the middle of the staff, ironically, is usually a little flat on most Trumpets. Last month I played the Overture to Nabucco which has a pretty little solo in the 1st Trumpet part that (if you play it on Bb trumpet as I wanted to) has an octave jump from the notoriously sharp low D to the usually flat higher D. If I hadn’t corrected the low one there was no way that octave would have sounded even close – and everyone can hear when an octave is in tune.

As you get up into your higher register you’ll notice that it’s increasingly hard to play notes in tune. You can beat that by getting stronger – a long, slow process and by using alternate fingerings. Once you get high enough (above high Bb) almost any fingering will do. I generally advise starting with the fingering from an octave below so that you don’t get lost but you really have to listen to what’s coming out of the bell. The notes are so close together up there that anything could come out. That’s why classical players buy Piccolo Trumpets – they spread the notes out so you can find them (the first thing). If you find an alternate that works consistently for you, use it. It’s that simple. As your strength grows you might find that things change, but that’s not an overnight prospect.

Somewhere in the rambling above I mentioned music theory and on another page I mentioned that theory at TrumpetHeroes.com is on a need-to-know basis. Now that we have your horn “in tune”, you’ve learned its and your tendencies and you’ve got the really funky notes figured out there’s just one more thing …

Intonation.

For our purposes here, Intonation is everything you do to make notes sound great after you’ve done all of the obvious tuning discussed above. Yup – it all starts again. If you’re a famous trumpet soloist already you’re not on this site. The rest of us play in groups of all kinds and would like them to sound really good.

Being “in tune” isn’t enough. The core players in a group listen hard to each other, the players in each section listen hard to their leader and to the rest of the group and everyone is responsible for fine adjustments. There are some things that just happen. If you’re playing with strings they have a tendency to go sharp in tricky passages. (That’s the number one reason that your instrument was built short at the factory.) If you’re playing with amateur singers don’t listen to their pitch – they need you to be consistent. We could make a fun list but the important thing is to develop your ear so that you know if you’re above or below the pitch on a given note, or just generally. If most of your notes are flat, push in. If only that one note seems flat and you don’t know why it might be time to learn some music theory.

There’s this thing that happened a long time ago, a few hundred years, when serious musicians gradually moved towards tuning keyboards (organs, pianos, harpsichords, etc.) so that they sounded pretty good in any key, not just the most common keys. To make that happen the tuners (people, not apps) cheated a tiny little bit so that the math seemed to work out. As a result modern keyboards and music theory in general kinda sorta make sense. The trouble is that there are harmonies that don’t sound great (read “perfect” if you know where I’m going with this) when you cheat on the math. They only sound great when they are perfect. Perfect is a thing in intonation and it’s our mission as Trumpet players most of the time. If you are playing a G on 2nd Trumpet and your 1st player is playing a D above it’s your job to make that interval a “Perfect Fifth”. That’s a thing and it’s what the composer wanted, it’s what your conductor wants and it’s what you and the audience will enjoy most. You might have to play your G 1st & 3rd valves and drop the slide a little to make it ring. That’s what you have to do even if it’s a short note. I might cheat if it’s in a run of sixteenth notes but not if it’s a big fat final fermata. If this sounds like crazy talk take a minute and type Pythagorean Comma into your search engine. I’ll give you have a few months to digest that and uncross your eyes.

There are other intervals that you’ll have to listen for. The third of a major chord usually wants to be played a little low. The last note of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah has the 2nd Trumpet on a printed low E for D Trumpet. That one wants to be as flat as a pancake. On the other hand the third of a minor chord will want to be on the high side. What you’re doing with these fine adjustments is enhancing the chord’s “majorness” or “minorness” (don’t Google those words – I made them up).

If you’re playing in a group where the conductor has a really good ear and that person tells you to play a given note a little high or low just do it. They can hear things at the front, where the sound comes together, that are more difficult for you to hear where you are – especially if the @#$%^&* trombones are right behind you. If my conductor tells me that kind of thing I pencil it on the part so that I don’t revert to my tendencies. It also helps the next person to play that part. Rental parts are full of that kind of helpful information.

Most of my orchestral playing has been on the second trumpet part, and there’s probably another post coming on some of the challenges particular to that role. The one that matters here – to do with intonation – is that almost all of the time its your job to play in tune with (and adjust your intonation to) the first Trumpet player. This can be tricky if the first player is having pitch issues, but the right thing to do is to play in tune with them anyway. Never leave your wingman. Its worth working on the skill of figuring out which way and how much you’re out of tune with another note so that you can minimize those unpleasant sounds.

Another trick you can work on with another trumpet player is trying to match various tone qualities, or timbres. If I’m playing second and struggling to match pitch with the first player I try to match their timbre. That usually clears up any minor issues. It does require that you be able to change your timbre somewhat but it works like magic. Without getting too deep into science it makes sense that if the sound waves are similar it would be easier to match their length (frequency, pitch) as well. I believe that’s why its so beautiful to hear families sing together. Famous singing families share timbre – that’s what’s special about them.

 

 

Playing in a smaller group is another matter. Someone has to set the pitch standard but in the end everyone has to agree on it. It is a truism that chords are built from the bottom up but quite often the most experienced player is the 1st Trumpet who is playing the highest notes. Who tunes to whom?

That’s probably another page’s worth.