June 2019
The Process of Tuning
by Phil Hollar
Of all the watershed moments in my music education, few have been as important as the realization that tuning is an ongoing process. As a high school band player, I would begin rehearsal each day by taking my instrument to the stroboscopic tuner at the front of the band room. Concert B♭ was adjusted until the strobe stopped moving, and I would return to my seat, completely confident that I would be in tune for the rest of the rehearsal. You can imagine my shock a few years later when I learned that each note must be tuned individually.
For many years, musicians have relied on tuning devices to help us with this process. Electronic tuners, or tuning apps on your phone, analyze the note that you are playing and tell you whether it is in tune or not. There’s no guesswork involved, you are either sharp, flat, or in tune. But as cut-and-dried as this sounds, it begs an important question – exactly what are we in tune with?
The Trouble with Tuners
This question reveals one of the limitations of the electronic tuner – it is calibrated to a fixed pitch that doesn’t take musical context into consideration. Early music performers generally agree that equal temperament is detrimental to the sound of early music. We tend to want our intervals as pure as possible, especially if we play an instrument that can vary the pitch, as the recorder can. This means that the exact pitch of any given note can vary depending on its harmonic or melodic function. The fixed pitch reference of an electronic tuner simply isn’t flexible enough to cover all these variables. It should be noted that many electronic tuners allow the user to select specific temperaments in which to tune. While this is certainly better than the models with equal temperament only, it still lacks flexibility.
In order to get the flexibility that we need for good intonation, we need to get our ears involved. We need a tool that produces a reference tone to which we can match our pitch – a modern tuning fork, if you will. My favorite tool for this purpose is a compact disc called The Tuning CD by Dr. Richard A. Schwartz.
The Tuning CD
The Tuning CD produces an electronic drone of pure octaves and fifths. By playing a note along with the drone, a player can easily hear when they need to adjust their pitch by listening to the beats produced by the difference in the pitches. Players can tune any interval to this reference pitch, not just the fundamental. Even what we think of as discordant intervals can clearly be discerned as in or out of tune. The intonation habits built up by working with The Tuning CD can then be applied to everything that one plays. It doesn’t tell us whether we are right or wrong, like an electronic tuner does. Instead, it trains our ears to make that determination while still adjusting for harmonic and melodic context.
While electronic tuners are still quite useful for certain applications (tuning stringed instruments, checking to see if a recorder is in tune, practicing steady breath, etc.), The Tuning CD has become one of the primary tools that I use as a musician. I was first introduced to it by director Jody Miller when I joined the Emory University Early Music Ensemble many years ago. I have used it ever since and I make sure that my students use it. The sound of its drone may elicit good-natured groans from my students when I make them work with it, but their intonation rarely elicits groans from the audience! The Tuning CD is available as a compact disc, as its name suggests, at www.TheTuningCD.com . It can also be purchased as an mp3 from iTunes, Amazon, and other music purchasing sites. (Note: this is not an advertisement, just a suggested tool.)
Here are some comments from Tuning CD users:
"This is an awesome tool for working on intonation issues. It is also very beneficial for training the ear to hear interval relationships to the root. After just a few days with this CD I see a noticeable improvement in my ability to blend with other musicians. A MUST for any serious woodwind player."
"I've used The Tuning CD a few times now and have noticed that I'm more focused on the center of the pitch during performance. It helps me get the pitch dialed in for especially troublesome notes on the flute. It seems to educate the ears and mind to correct pitch so that I recognize being out of tune quickly. I suppose you could compare it to the way a metronome makes you aware of consistent pulse. I've found that a little focused work with The Tuning CD goes a long way."

Phil Hollar is a member of the ARS Board who lives in Greensboro, NC. (He is not getting any commissions from Tuning CD sales.)
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