Grooves, Notches, and Other Note Shapes

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how we conceptualize where each note lies in the harmonic series, and how this knowledge can help us navigate the range of the horn more efficiently.  In trying out various instruments over the last several months, one characteristic I was very interested in was the shape of each “groove” or “notch” for a note, particularly in the high and mid-low range.  It was fascinating noticing which instruments tended to favor certain ranges, i.e. which range of notes tended to be more stable, versus which range tended to be more unstable.  Granted, much of what I experienced was probably due to the characteristics of my own playing, but I could definitely tell when these characteristics were magnified (both positively and negatively) on a given horn.  Though the concept can be a little bit difficult to describe, the easiest way for me to think of it is to imagine that every harmonic has a a certain generic shape, like this.

The large depression is the “notch” or “slot” for the note, with higher pitches to the right, and lower pitches to the left.  You can feel this shape for yourself by picking any note (preferably one in the middle range to start).  Experiment by bending the note up as far as you can without popping up to the next harmonic, then bending it down as far as possible without slipping down to the next harmonic.  Pay attention to the sound, and try to find where that note has maximum resonance. Chances are it won’t be at the lowest or highest point where you could bend it, but somewhere in the middle.  The generic drawing above could of course be altered to reflect the characteristics of a specific horn.  For instance, I have played some horns where the notes slot very well, but can’t be bent very far up or down without popping to the next harmonic.   In this case, our note visualization might look like this.

The benefit to having a horn with narrow notches is that it might not take as long (or as much work) to find where each note resonates the best.  However, in terms of intonation, the horn might limit just how far each note can be adjusted before the sound begins to deteriorate and the harmonic becomes unstable.  Going further, there are some horns where the notes tend to slot just a little on the high side, as in the following illustration.

I’ll go ahead and apologize for my meager illustrative abilities, but I hope that you can tell what I’m getting at with this image.  It’s almost like there is a groove within a groove for a particular note, with the note slotting best when you blow up on it.  I’ve noticed this with some Yamaha horns, particularly the 667 and 667v models. Does this mean that it’s ok to play sharp?  Absolutely not!  However, it does mean there is less flexibility to bend notes flatter, and the horn itself needs to be tuned a bit lower so that things are still in tune when you blow up on a note.   On the other hand, some horns have a groove within a groove on the bottom side of each note, like this.

In this case, the note will sound best when played a bit lower in the groove. I  like this characteristic because it demands that we play each note as relaxed as possible, which the horn rewards with a centered, resonant sound.  There are of course numerous other ways to think about the idiosyncrasies of various makes and models of horn, but the images above have been useful to me in both testing out instruments and finally adjusting to a new one.  There are several exercises out there designed specifically to help you find the best place for each note, although virtually any long tone exercise can be used.  One that I like using myself and with students is called “Shwarmaaaaaa!” found in The Brass Gym: A Comprehensive Daily Workout for Brass Players, by Sam Pilafian and Patrick Sheridan, edited for Horn by John Ericson (Focus on Music, 2007).  This exercise consists of a series of note-bending studies, and is great for working on both intonation and tone quality.

In Tune Chords

One resource I had intended to include with my earlier posts on intonation here and here was a great one page handout showing exactly where each note of a chord needs to be in order to be perfectly in tune according to just intonation.  I picked up this handout several years ago while attending the Round Top Festival Institute.  I plan to post more in the future about Round Top, but in short it is a great summer music festival set up in a similar way to Aspen, Music Academy of the West, and various other programs.  When I attended, all participants received free room and board for the entire six week festival.

Getting back to the handout, it is constructed to show all possible triads and seventh chords, with indications beside each chord tone showing how many cents that tone needs to be adjusted.  All of the chords are constructed with “C” as the root, but the same principles would apply regardless of transposition.  For example, the first chord is a major triad.

Notice that the third must be lowered 14 cents, which is further than many students are willing to go, and the fifth needs to be just a shade higher (2 cents).  Looking at a minor triad, you can see that the third must be quite high (16 cents), with the fifth in the same place as in the major triad.

Looking at seventh chords, a problematic sonority for many groups is the dominant seventh.

In this case, the third needs to be where it was in the major triad, and the seventh needs to be quite low (31 cents).  Although in practice you wouldn’t necessarily need to think, “ok, I have the third of a major chord, so now I am lowering my pitch by exactly 14 cents,” I think this chart is very useful because it helps you visualize just how much some of these chord tones need to be maneuvered around in order to ring true.  Try playing each pitch of these chords against a drone and see just how much you need to bend things around on your particular horn, mouthpiece, etc. for things to really be in tune – you might be surprised!

If you are interested in the complete handout you can download it here. In Tune Chords

One word about copyright issues – I would love to be able to give credit to whomever produced this wonderful handout, but I have not been able to find any information on the creators.  The handout lists Mr. Ward Widener and his AccuTone tuner as the responsible party, but the only information I can find on him is this old HTML webpage which lists him as the manufacturer of the tuner mentioned and lists his company as Widener Engineering in Austin, TX.  The bottom line of the handout also names “Jack Holland Productions” in St. Louis, MO, but it is unclear what connection they have to either Ward Widener or the handout itself.  If anyone out there has any additional information I’d love to hear about it.

For now, feel free to download and use this handy reference; I hope you find it as useful as I have.

More Quotes on Intonation

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:



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

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.

Quotes on Intonation from “The Business”

One book that has been in my library for many years is The Business: The Essential Guide to Starting and Surviving as a Professional Horn Player. Compiled and edited by well known British freelancer and composer Paul Pritchard, The Business is full of practical advice on many facets of living and working as a professional horn player.  Looking at the table of contents, the authors are a who’s who list of top British horn players.

Chapter 1: Your First Professional Symphonic Date, by Jeffrey Bryant
Chapter 2: Opera and Ballet, by Julian Baker
Chapter 3: The Horn in the Studio, by John Pigneguy
Chapter 4: Solo Performance and Chamber Music, by Frank Lloyd
Chapter 5: General Freelance Work, by Paul Pritchard

And although the authors are British, their advice is for the most part applicable to the same professional situations in the United States.  In re-reading through the book I noticed that intonation was a topic which kept coming up.  Three of the five chapters have entire sections devoted solely to the discussion of tuning and intonation, so obviously it is an important area to consider.  Although impressive technique and range can open many doors professionally, your ability to blend and play in tune with other players will keep the opportunities coming.  Here are a few of my favorite passages from The Business on the topic of intonation.

From Jeffrey Bryant in “Your First Professional Symphonic Date”

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of playing second [horn] is intonation.  You always have to tune to the 1st horn, even if you believe him to be way out of tune.  This is difficult because it means that you will not be in tune with other instruments that are playing in unison or octaves with you.  When you are put in this impossible situation, my advice is to use a light to heavy vibrato, depending on the severity of the problem.  You will be amazed at how effective this can be.  Never be dogmatic about intonation, always be sensitive and try to adjust to fluctuating pitch.  Don’t try to impose your pitch on a tricky passage by playing louder.  Play quietly and try to merge into the overall sound. p. 11

From Julian Baker in “Opera and Ballet”

Tuning in the pit has its own special problems.  While of course one must be in tune with the principal and other members of the section, it is worthwhile keeping your ears open for general intonation in the pit, by focusing your attention on a larger section of the orchestra preferably not too close to your own.  The ‘cellos’, for example play a similar range to the horn and are good indicators of pitch.  The pitch of all orchestral instruments varies according to the temperature and humidity, which can reach uncomfortable extremes.  Under these conditions, brass instruments will naturally rise in pitch, woodwind also; however the strings will tend to go the other way.  In anticipation of this they sometimes compensate by adjusting the tension of the strings, giving a brighter edge to the sound.  Over a long opera or ballet, this can sometimes result in different blocks of intonation dispersed throughout the orchestra.  This can affect the tuning within each section, as each player tries to cope with the problem in his or her own way.  Although this is a difficult situation, with a little humility and an awareness of the principles of tuning, it can be overcome. p. 23

And from Frank Lloyd in “Solo Performance and Chamber Music”

Tuning however, can still continue to be a problem, in fact it can be one of the most frustrating aspects of chamber music, and a constant cause for concern.  In my opinion, it is the one factor that separates the really top class ensembles from the rest.  Listen to the best groups, either instrumental or vocal, and you will immediately be aware of their impeccable tuning.  No instrument is capable of being built completely in tune, and those fixed instruments such as the piano have to be tuned to a tempered scale, which is in fact a compromise, and the closest that can be achieved but which is far from perfect…In many cases, it will not be sufficient just to play the notes where they normally are, – this might not work in respect of the overall tuning.  At times you will have to bend notes a long way from where they normally sit, and often use alternative fingerings to achieve the desired pitch.  Much depends on the position of the note within the chord.  Experience of the repertoire will enable you to play in tune within the harmony, and also when you have the lead line. p. 68-69

The rest of the book has lots of other great material, and although it may be a little tough to track down, The Business is a great resource to have.

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