Intonation solutions for orchestral players

Intonation solutions for orchestral players


Issues of intonation generally are fraught with a high degree of emotionality and defensiveness. The majority of the strategies for better intonation are based on science.


  1. For the winds, when playing passages with the clarinets, use less vibrato than usual (Clarinets rarely use vibrato except in jazz.)
  2. Intonation can be significantly and quickly improved in prime unison passages if everyone but the first player uses only a little or no vibrato and plays slightly softer [obviously excepting clarinets with respect to vibrato].
  3. All players should tune to ONE designated player.  This one player should be chosen considering one or both of the following criteria:  one who can be most easily heard by the others playing the passage and/or who has been playing a solo line before the passage which involves the others.
  4. Next, this one person plays the passage with one other individual who MATCHES the intonation of the point person. (Under no circumstances should the point person attempt to adjust his/her pitch after it has been established. She/he must play exactly the same on each “repeat”.) This is repeated individually until everyone has played a “duet” with the designated player.  Any adjustments made should be marked in the parts. Everyone then plays several times together, resulting in markedly improved tuning.
  5. In the large majority of adjacent or non-adjacent octave passages for any instrument, the BOTTOM octave should be played at least one dynamic louder than printed with a full-bodied vibrato. The result is significantly improved intonation and tone quality since the higher octave will appear better in tune and less shrill. Also, the players of the higher octave will intuitively “press less and play softer.” In the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, et al., it is very common for the horns and trumpets to play octaves. Often the first trumpet and first horn parts are high and/or soft, and ultimately challenging. When the lower octaves are played louder than marked, many good things happen vis a vis intonation and accuracy.
  6. For just-diatonic tuning and balancing of chords, please follow the following procedure.
    1. Determine the quality of the chord (e.g. major, dominant 7th, major 7th). Start with the root, then add the fifth, balancing the two notes and tuning them using equal-tempered tuning. Then add the third, and finally the dominant 7th (major seventh), tuning them using the just-diatonic protocol. THIS ORDER IS CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT
    2. It is very important that the open fifth is balanced and is in tune. When the fifth is acceptable, depending upon the physical space, you will probably be able to faintly hear the major third as an overtone.
    3. The major third and dominant 7th should be played LOWER in pitch than equal-tempered tuning.  (Taking into account pitch tendencies of certain notes on certain instruments, the major third should be about 14 cents lower and the dominant 7th about 29 cents lower.)
    4. Further, when the third and seventh are added, they should be played proportionately more SOFTLY than the root and fifth.
  7. One of the purposes of dissonance is to create tension, which often resolves to consonance. This phenomenon is equally valid in tonal and atonal music, though of course, consonance manifests itself differently. To create increased dissonance, expand the interval a bit so that instead of playing one note (e.g. B) close to the other (e.g. C) as in a leading tone function using expressive intonation, do just the opposite and expand the dissonant interval. In other words, widen the distance between C and B, as a minor second or a major seventh, by lowering the B in pitch. This approach also has the additional benefit of delineating the harmony more clearly, whether tonal or atonal.
  8. The piano, mallet percussion, harp, celesta, et al. are equal-tempered instruments and cannot adjust their pitch “on the fly”. Therefore, adjustments must be made by others to accommodate equal-tempered, fixed intonation.
  9. With strings, listen to your stand partner and blend with his/her sound. This results in both improved intonation AND a better section sound. Playing as a soloist (i.e. aggressive, lots of bow pressure, wide and dominating vibrato, reduced dynamic range) in an orchestra almost always negatively affects intonation.
  10. Often, intonation problems with strings are the result of awkward fingerings and inappropriate shifts. Check with your principal or concertmaster to determine the best solutions.


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