There's More To Intonation Than Meets The Ear!

May 31, 2001 (Updated Nov 15, 2005)

The Bottom Line It's a function of the instrument, the player and the situation and there are things players can do to improve.

Sorry for the pun, but there are lots of aspects to good intonation, lots more than adjusting a string or a mouthpiece. In this epinion, I’ll discuss ways of improving and maintaining intonation that are generally applicable, and then discuss specific applications for saxophone and clarinet.

Some people think that intonation is only a matter of tuning the instrument. I believe that good intonation is a function of three things:

The instrument This includes a quality instrument properly tuned.

The player A well-trained ear for all musicians enhances intonation, Hand positioning for strings, embouchure (mouth position), breath and fingerings for saxophone and clarinet all can affect intonation.

The situation This includes temperature, which can affect intonation, the intonation of other members of a group, volume, etc.

When people talk about intonation, the necessary ear training often gets short shrift. A musician’s ear has to be able to recognize when he or she is playing in tune and adjust accordingly if not. Some musicians can do this without thinking about it a lot. Others, like me, need to work hard on developing and maintaining this skill, through such techniques as learning and recognizing chords and intervals (relative pitch.)

I have several exercises to help develop relative pitch included in my two earlier epinions on Ear Training:

Ear Training I: beginning and intermediate

Ear Training II: Prelude to Jazz Improv

There are a number of good commercial ear training programs which can help with relative pitch. Other good methods of ear training include transcriptions of recordings and playing along with commercial recordings or play-along recordings.

In addition, a tuner can be used to assess and develop the quality of the musicians ear. Several years ago, I discovered that when my ear thought I was playing in tune, I was slightly sharp. Over time, by working with a tuner, I’ve been able to retrain my ear so that I understand when I am playing in tune.

I think that most musicians can benefit from developing their ear through the methods I’ve listed above, and in testing how well they hear in tune, using an electronic tuner.

Specific Applications for Saxophone and Clarinet

In addition to the techniques described above, there are performance and ear training techniques available for saxophone and clarinet players.

Before a short description of the ones I use, I was to reference the book Developing A Personal Saxophone Sound by David Liebman as the definitive work on saxophone sound production. While my teachers all worked with me on techniques that are covered in Liebman’s book, the book is the most concise and complete work on the subject. I insist that all my students who are in high school or older get that book.

These exercises help the player learn to subconsciously adjust intonation using the larynx (voice box). Many people and many saxophone and clarinet players, for that matter, do not know that the larynx can influence intonation.

Long Tones I have my students play long tones, starting at a medium volume, going down to a soft volume and then getting louder - as loud as they can for as long as they can do it musically. This exercise has a beneficial effect on developing a player’s sound. It also is beneficial in understanding a player’s tendencies. When this exercise is done with a tuner, the player can learn if these volume changes lead to intonation problems and can work toward resolving it.

The Overtone Series This is a much, much longer topic that I have time for here, but essentially, any musical tone that you hear has included in the tone higher notes eminating from that tone. That adds richness to the sound. Another way to develop a players sound and
intonation is to finger the lowest notes on the saxophone (and clarinet) and then, through breath and intention, produce the primary overtones for that fundamental low note.

Mouthpiece exercise This demonstrates and develops the influence of the larynx. It’s a simple exercise - put the mouthpiece (alone) in the mouth and blow. Then, influence intonation through the breath and the larynx, without adjusting the mouthpiece position or enbouchure (how tight the lips and cheek are around the mouthpiece. Over time, the diligent student can get consistent improvement.

Interval Exercises on the Instrument such as octaves and others are a great way to learn relative pitch and are a way of learning intonation consistency. By the time I start running students through this exercise, their ears are developed enough so that they subconsciously hear the note in their head before they play it. The ability to pre-hear a note has a powerful effect on musical performance on the saxophone or clarinet. I suspect that it is true with any wind instrument.

Pitch matching This is playing a note on a pitch pipe or tuner, then pausing to “hear it in your head” (see below), then playing it.

The “Hearing the Note in Your Head” Exercise This is excellent for beginning students in learning the range of the saxophone or clarinet. I tell them that they will be better players if they can hear the music in their head before they play it. Part of reading music is understanding how the ink on the page is supposed to sound. Then I tell them, if they do it consciously for a while, it will become automatic.

At this point, I get funny looks from a lot of students. But, I prove that it works. The exercise is simple, I usually use octaves as a means of building range. This also works for individual notes that students are struggling with.

1. Play the reference (first) note for a while to establish pitch.

2. Pause and hear the note that you want to hit (generally an octave up or down) in your head.

3. Play the target note.

In addition to helping learn notes and intonation, this helps establish the connection between the brain, the ear and the playing mechanism (breath and fingerings).

This epinion ended up longer than I expected. The point is that intonation is not a simple issue, but need not be a problem. There are techniques available to improve it and help players play with each other.

If anybody has any questions on this subject, please email me.

Please check out some of my other epinions in this category:

Ear Training II - Prelude to Improvisation
Ear Training I - Beginning and Intermediate Players
How to start a jazz band
My worst gig
How to get your child started on an instrument
Being a one man band for fun and profit
I compose the way I play
What music has helped me learn about myself
Fast fingers are important
How to eliminate recurring mistakes
How I help my students learn new music
I learned about a lot more than music from my music teachers
The value of creativity
Develop a business as a private music teacher

Thanks for reading. God bless!

If you like mainstream and fusion jazz, check out my web site, You’ll find information on my newly-released CD, The Power of Two by John Temmerman's Jazz Obsession Quartet. It is available through I have a special discount available on sales through my web site. Come on by!

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