Friday, November 07, 2014

Electronic Tuner or Tuning CD?

Which should I practice with: The Tuning CD or an Electronic Tuner? I've been trying to use both simultaneously and I'm confused.

Jen's Answer:

Well, basically, the Electronic Tuner can analyse if you are playing all your notes sharp, or all notes flat, but it's no substitute for actual human ears, and it doesn't know what you're doing in a musical context. :>)

1. The Electronic Tuner does not know what key you're in so can only be used to occasionally match a piano, and no other instrument.

And because of the way pianos are actually tuned (by humans), the higher notes of the piano may often be sharper than the tuner shows, and the bass notes flatter.

See this chart of typical pianos after being tuned and note the sharpness of the flute range notes and how they are not predictable (nor would the electronic Tuner be set up to mimic this phenomena.) Stunning information, isn't it?

Source of above diagram:

To play in tune with any other instrument that can change its pitch (woodwinds, strings, brass etc.), every note in the scale of a key must be slightly higher or lower than what would be shown on the electronic Tuner.
The Tuner cannot know what key you're in, nor what interval you are tuning, and will only show Equal Temperament and will therefore be wrong.

Here's the chart of higher and lower for each interval below. Notice how wrong the tuner would be for each "in tune" interval.

  Table of intervals expressed as cents

Ratio          Interval         In Tune     Electronic Tuner (wrong)
 1/1         perfect unison     0 cents - Tuner would say: 0
25/24  "small" minor second    71 cents
16/15  "large" minor second   112 cents - Tuner would say: 100
10/9   "short" major second   182 cents
 9/8    "long" major second   204 cents - Tuner would say: 200
 6/5            minor third   316 cents - Tuner would say: 300
 5/4            major third   386 cents - Tuner would say: 400
 4/3         perfect fourth   498 cents - Tuner would say: 500
36/25      diminished fifth   631 cents - Tuner would say: 600
 3/2          perfect fifth   702 cents - Tuner would say: 700
25/16       augmented fifth   773 cents
 8/5            minor sixth   814 cents - Tuner would say: 800
 5/3            major sixth   884 cents - Tuner would say: 900
 9/5          minor seventh  1018 cents - Tuner would say: 1000
15/8          major seventh  1088 cents - Tuner would say: 1100
 2/1         perfect octave  1200 cents - Tuner would say: 1200

As you can see: The Electronic Tuner is wrong most of the time.

2. The eyes are not good at hearing "in tune-ness".

Musicians need to tune 'on the spot', all the time, and very quickly. Therefore their ears have to be very fast at picking up what is in tune and what is not.
The eyes looking at an electronic tuner are not connected to the ears in this way.
The eyes see the indications of flatness and sharpness, and then make the slow correction of telling the body to adjust to play flatter or sharper.
The ears are usually ignored while this is happening.
This is exactly as crazy-making as attempting to train your ears to hear "sky blue" or "ocean green" or "yellow sunshine".
The ears are not good at eye tasks either.
It's far smarter to train to use the ears for musical tuning, not the eyes.

3. In modern music, the key center changes constantly:

If you're in the key of G major, and you're playing in tune (the major third B-natural, is 14 cents flat to what the tuner says it should be, and it sounds beautifully in tune to the G root), and then the composer suddenly modulates to E minor, or D major, then your pitches must now conform to the new key.

But an electronic tuner doesn't know that your piece of music has modulated.

In the key of D major, the B-natural is the sixth note of the scale, and has to be 16 cents flat to the tuner.
In the key of E minor, the B-natural is the fifth note of the scale and needs to be 2 cents sharper than what the tuner says.

So as the piece of music modulates from key to key, the B-natural would have to change to be in tune against the new tonic.

If you're using the Tuning CD, and your etude, piece or solo modulates, you just change the drone from G to E or B.
You play along with a new drone.
If it modulates back to G major, you just switch back to the droning G on the Tuning CD again.

This can also happen even quicker, and in an even more subtle way; if the composer borrows chords from a nearby key if even for a split second  while still staying in the home key.

In colourful music, sometimes the added "colourful" chord might be, for example an A major chord with a C# in it, in G major! This chord may well be resolving to a D major chord, which then resolves back to the basic G major chord.  (V of V, going to V, going to I ) This all happens in a moment.

During these colourful chords, to play in tune might mean bending certain notes only for a fraction of a second.
(The C# in the Amajor chord will be resolving "ti-doh" to D major, so that's where it will get its tuning from.)

This is all done much faster by ear, and all the while, the Tuner will never know what you are doing and why.
It cannot figure it out like you can. :>)

4. In ensembles, the pitch changes constantly:

The Tuner is no use when the entire ensemble starts at A-440, and then through physical increases in heat or cold then sharpens or flattens progressively, or even momentarily (Causes: air conditioning, drafts, heated bodies in small rooms, some players playing sharper and sharper over several minutes to hear themselves more clearly etc.)

Ensembles do not stay at A-440.
You can use your tuner to check any professional recording. You will be surprised.

Using a very accurate tuner, during an exciting 6 minute Overture, a professional orchestra was once clocked at rising from A-440 to A-448 from beginning to ending, six minutes later.
They did it through EXCITEMENT and PANACHE.

There would be no point telling them they are now incredibly sharp; they all have to follow each other no matter what and end up in tune with eachother.

Then there are physical factors:

In a very cold rehearsal space, the instruments that go flat from cold (brass/woods) can only push in their tuning slides so far.
In a very warm rehearsal space, the instruments that go flat from heat (strings) cannot stop playing to retune each individual string, so may have to stop using open strings to remain fingering the notes higher as the room heats up.

All of this has to be momentarily accomodated while still continuing to play.
The Tuner cannot know any of this is happening. Only your ears can.

5. Your good tuning also depends on whether you're the Root, the Third, or the Fifth or Seventh of a Chord.

An electronic tuner does not know which interval of a chord you are playing.
While the person on the root of the chord may be fine consulting a Tuner, the person on the third of the chord needs to be 14 cents flatter, and the person on the fifth needs to be 2 cents sharper than what the tuner says.

If any of the other factors come into play (hot/cold, excitement of playing sharper to be heard, or any instrument playing out of tune for any reason) then even the person on the root of the chord can be incredibly "wrong" and yet they will sound their note, regardless.
If so, everyone else in the chord must shift their notes to accomodate the root or tonic they are being given to play with.
This happens constantly in any ensemble.
A tuner cannot know any of this is happening.

So use The Tuning CD and here's why:

The good news is that on notes of quick duration, bad tuning is not as audible, as there is very little time for the ear to hear the "beats" of out-of-tune intervals.
This is also true of very low pitched instruments: the "beats" that annoy the ear are quite slow, and will only be noticeable if a chord is held for several seconds.

But for high instruments, where "beats" are fast and annoying between out-of-tune notes (high woodwinds, sopranos etc.) even quick, short notes can be heards as annoyingly out of tune.

Also, in a melody, intervals between notes of the melody are more noticeable the slower the melody is.

That means that the intricacies and expertise in tuning of chords and melodic intervals is more needed in slow music, or on notes of long duration, where the out-of-tune intervals are more audible.

So always spend more time tuning slow moving music, and higher pitched instruments, always listening to the root of the chord, and assessing your distance above it, to eliminate "beats" in the sound.

All you have to do:
Start by tuning long held notes with the Tuning CD until your ears begin to witness the restful feeling of being "in tune".

Everything else you'll do starts from a simple scale, played slowly, against a constant drone.


Drone G on the Tuning CD (plays G to D perfect fifth interval plus octave G above).

Play a slow scale spending much time on each note. Listen and adjust until you find beauty and serenity on each note.

Jiggle the note you are playing until it sounds beautiful against the drone. Some will bend up, some down.

"Beats" will disappear and the sound will become smoother as you get closer to the pure intervals.
(for hearing "Beats" listen to this mp3 of flute with the Tuning CD; they sound like "Wah-wah-wah". Your job is to bend your note until the wah-wahs disappear).

The most important intervals for ensemble playing are:

Root, Third, and Fifth.

Playing these in tune with the Tuning CD will lead you to adding Seconds, Sixths and Sevenths, which are also super beautiful to hear when they are in tune (especially seconds which are complex and full of motion.)

Have fun.

Your ears will soon know what they're doing.
The Electronic Tuner will never learn anything new. :>)

Best, Jen

Comments (5)
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great posting, Jen. Clear and practical advice. You hand a VERY complex topic succinctly and without getting into the confusing aspects of just intonation and difference ton

Saturday, November 08, 2014 10:00:00 AM

Anonymous Moana Kutche said...

Why is this rarely covered in lessons? I only recently began to understand playing "in tune" when I started playing with a string ensemble. It explains a lot about why things sound off in our community band. Playing solos with a piano doesn't help much. This should be part of music instruction from fairly early on, but it's not. It's kind of second nature to string players but few non-pro wind players seem to pick it up. Crucial stuff. Thank you for posting.

Saturday, November 22, 2014 9:22:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Thanks Moana; you're absolutely right; crucial stuff. I've always wondered why it's not taught clearly as well. Never too late. ha. Jen

Saturday, November 22, 2014 11:34:00 PM

Blogger Mike Shaw Today said...

Thanks Jen - an ear opener for me. I had no idea it was like this. I was relying on wathing an electronic tuner dial while I practiced. I'll get the tuning CD.

Friday, February 12, 2016 1:11:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Glad to hear it Mike; you can look up the myriad articles on Just Intonation to listen to sound samples. Choirs, string players, and ensembles that do not contain piano all play with other styles of Tuning that make the sounds richer.
You'll hear it when you hear the sound samples; so beautiful.
Also of interest a book that's in the library:

"Lies My Music Teacher Told Me" (or taught me.)
Super interesting. The author has a website with choir samples and tuning mysteries etc.
Best, Jen

Friday, February 12, 2016 9:05:00 PM


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