As a follow up to my earlier post on intonation, I thought I’d quote a few words of wisdom from Christopher Leuba’s classic text A Study of Musical Intonation, published in 1962 and revised numerous times, most recently in 2004. I’ll follow up the quotes from Mr. Leuba’s excellent treatise with a few tips of my own for developing good intonation habits. A Study of Musical Intonation is divided into four parts, addressing the acoustic principles of intonation, practical tips for performers, balance, and the use of tone generators. Several appendices are also included. Although there is at times quite a bit of technical information, Leuba explains everything in a clear, concise manner.
In “Part One,” the two points which stand out (they are both printed in all capital letters!) are:
ANY TWO NOTES, PLAYED SIMULTANEOUSLY BY TWO INSTRUMENTS, OR AS A DOUBLE-STOP ON A STRINGED INSTRUMENT, WILL PRODUCE A THIRD NOTE. THIS NOTE IS THE “RESULTANT TONE.” p. 3
GOOD INTONATION REQUIRES THE PLACING OF THE NOTES PLAYED IN SUCH A MANNER [sic] THE RESULTANTS PRODUCED WILL REINFORCE, RATHER THAN CONFLICT WITH, THE TONALITY IN WHICH THE NOTES OCCUR. P. 7
These two premises serve as the basis for the rest of Leuba’s discussion of intonation.
“Part Two” turns to practical concerns with this great quote (with footnote) on centering the tone.
The player should first seek the “center” of each tone the instrument is able to produce. The “center” of the tone refers to the frequency at which the greatest resonance is produced on a given note. Instruments vary greatly in the amount that notes may be raised or lowered on a given fingering. Adjacent notes often respond in quite dissimilar ways, and frequently it may be found that the spacing between the centers of notes is unequal. It is of the greatest importance that the player learn the relative positions of every note on the instrument being played. [Footnote] It is the writer’s opinion that the more “flexible” instruments which are often chosen by professional players because notes can be adjusted higher or lower with less noticeable change of tone quality (for example, many Conn 8D French Horns) make it particularly difficult for the student to achieve control of pitch discrepancies in the scale of the instrument, since the “giveaway” clues of pitch/quality relationships are less obvious. p. 17
Parts Three and Four are full of excellent advice as well – I highly recommend this book!
Here are some of my ideas on things you can do right now in your own practicing to improve intonation.
1) Play scales slowly against a “drone.” I personally think this is much better for improving intonation than using a tuner, as it helps develop a sense of where each note is in relation to a tonic pitch. Most decent electronic tuners and some metronomes come with a built-in tone generator which will play any chromatic pitch within an octave (or more) range.
2) Buy Intonation Exercises for Two Horns, by Verne Reynolds. This inexpensive collection of exercises is one of the best ways to progressively work on intonation. Simple but effective studies for diatonic, chromatic, and compound intervals are included, as well as the “horn fifths” progression so common in Classic era music.
3) Play simple duets, trios, etc. with like and unlike instruments. Start with horn duets and trios, but then expand your repertoire to include ensembles with other instruments. Learning to play in tune with winds and strings, not to mention other brass instruments, is the goal.
4) Work on your ear training. If you are a college music student, it is absolutely essential that you attend aural skills class regularly and practice your sight-singing, melodic dictation, and other ear training exercises. Not surprisingly, learning to internalize pitch is one of the best ways to improve intonation. For additional practice check out websites like http://www.learn2hear.org/.
5) Play J.S. Bach’s Lutheran chorale harmonizations. These work in almost any four-part (or larger) ensemble, from full band to horn quartets, brass quintets, and mixed chamber ensembles. Although playing any kind of chorale is good, Bach’s harmonizations have more unusual harmonies than most other chorales and force every member of the ensemble to listen closely to every chord. Regularly working on these in ensemble rehearsals will improve not only intonation, but balance, phrasing, and the overall sound of the group. Several free editions of these chorales are available at the Choral Public Domain Library.