What is intonation?

Discussion in 'Trumpet Discussion' started by rowuk, May 10, 2011.

  1. rowuk

    rowuk Moderator Staff Member

    Jun 18, 2006
    We had a recent thread here that started to address this issue, but got a bad start.

    I propose that intonation is the art/science of comparing of tones to a reference. That reference can be a tuner or other instruments.

    When we talk about intonation, much more comes up based on the frame of reference. We can refer to a fixed scale that could be used for tuning a piano for instance, or a dynamic relationship based on what happens when playing in an ensemble. We can also talk about balancing chords for the best "effect".

    What do you all think? As I discovered in the other thread, there are terms that some prefer to be used in a particular way. If we run into a situation, we simply need to ask for the definition and perhaps debate its merit.

    Mathematical formulas are OK, just remember that the audience is not primarily engineers.
    Last edited: May 10, 2011
  2. Vulgano Brother

    Vulgano Brother Moderator Staff Member

    Mar 23, 2006
    Parts Unknown
    I learned tuning intervals with a natural trumpet in C and a 12-dial Stoboconn. E's were flat, G's sharp (looking at their dial) but the C's were pegged in--in other words, the "out of tune" notes were in-tune (using C as a reference). In two part playing chords are implied--the combination of E and G can implies C major but can also mean E minor. That is why we learn music theory, and if geeks, acoustics as well. Paul Hindemith and Arthur Benade provided theory and math, but intonation rests in our ears, not our mind.

    In an orchestra, if playing principal, my reference is what the other principals are playing, when playing section, I tune to the principal player, and if the chord is out of tune I'm willing to adapt.

    I use my first and third slides a lot!
  3. coolerdave

    coolerdave Utimate User

    Nov 7, 2009
    San Pedro
    That is a pretty interesting question ... but it definitely seems to imply a relatonship between consecutive notes if you are playing solo or simultanious notes in an ensemble. I can't imagine just playing a single note and be able to refer to intonation in any aspect.
    I am not sure if I would use the word intonation to describe the balance of a chord although a 5th tumpet player could certainly ruin the intent of a disonant chord by over playing and "flipping" the chord center. I am in the minority but I hold that many performances of Gerswin pieces are ruined because some performers don't hear their place in the chord ,,whether that is through dynamics (to me.. not intonation) or perhaps a slight flattening/raising of a pitch ,ie seventh,eleventh, (intonation).
    that's my take
  4. Myszolow

    Myszolow Pianissimo User

    Apr 23, 2011
    A couple of dictionary definitions to help us along (or not? :-))

    Of course there are other uses in which it refers to " the music of speech".

    But the above two seem to reinforce what Robin's saying. It seems to be all about pitch accuracy relative to a "standard".
    coolerdave likes this.
  5. coolerdave

    coolerdave Utimate User

    Nov 7, 2009
    San Pedro
    that's very good myszolow but what a way to kill a thread :)
  6. Myszolow

    Myszolow Pianissimo User

    Apr 23, 2011
    Noooooooooooo. Don't stop discussing. This is an interesting thread and highlights that different people use the term differently. I'm interested to see how other people use it. I think the point Robin was making in starting this thread was "What do you all think?" As I was "hard of thinking" this morning, I thought I'd look up the official definitions. That doesn't mean everyone else is wrong. What does intonation mean to you? :dontknow:
  7. EdMann

    EdMann Mezzo Forte User

    Sep 20, 2007
    Los Angeles
    Intonation in the way most of the west is familiar is actually a construct of man, not nature. It took years for the pianoforte to become an even, 12 tone manufactured system of tuning perfection, like nothing found in nature. It universally changed western music, and how other instruments were made to work in that system, but nature consistently gets in the way. Brass of particular lengths have no hope to get perfectly in tune; they're a natural phenonmenon, and tradeoffs on intonation are unavoidable. They will naturally resonate off key on as many notes as they do on key, more or less.

    But here we are, in the west... at least I am, and that's what we're been brought up to know is proper music, but there are many more interesting forms which don't involve a perfected form of 12 notes. Maybe that's why I like the fretless bass of Jaco Pastorius, and Ian Anderson's flute, and Don Ellis.

    Last edited: May 10, 2011
    coolerdave likes this.
  8. Graham

    Graham Pianissimo User

    Jun 8, 2008
    Melbourne, Australia
    I have a firm belief that one should not only keep TUNING in their mind when in comes to intonation, as TEMPERAMENT plays a role in this issue as well!

    As has been implied by a couple of earlier posts, the way notes resonate in keys as well as their adjustments to properly sound chords is just as (if not moreso) important that how "in-tune" they are with a given reference pitch.

    I believe that the idea of temperament is increasingly becoming lost in the age of "the well-tempered klavier" and it's electronically synthesised derivatives. This can be circumvented with the use of aural recognition of tuning in a group context, and the ability to identify discrepancies of pitch and adjusting accordingly. The most important aspect of this practice, I believe, is that it is DYNAMIC in nature - that is, relevant to the chord/scale/context of the moment in which it occurs.

    I say this as a reaction to the growing tendency for musicians to rely on electronic tuners or static pitch sources to be the reference point of tuning for EVERY given point in the entirety of a piece of music.

    If anyone understands the concepts of temperament and are able to paraphrase in more "user-friendly" manner, I would appreciate it greatly - my brain is cheese at the moment and I may have been a bit dense :S
    Vulgano Brother likes this.
  9. Dave Mickley

    Dave Mickley Forte User

    Nov 11, 2005
    speaking purely as an amateuer, when I talk about intonation issues with one of my horns I'm talking about how much in tune it is with itself. once I adjust my tuning slide to a tuner and then slowly play a scale do all the notes stay in tune?- do most of the notes stay in tune? I have never owned a horn that all notes were in tune with itself. I've had some horns that were all over the place and some that were most notes were spot on and the few notes that were not were very close. after I initially tune my horn to a specific note I let my ear take over and keep my pitch [intonation] adjusted with the ensemble. as I said earlier, I'm just a rank amateur so I'm probably way out in left field on this.
  10. tobylou8

    tobylou8 Utimate User

    Dec 22, 2008
    Intonation is a foreign concept to most singers so It is up to my ear during a service/performance (rarely play w/o a singer) to stay in tune. It is a real challenge when no one else wants to tune-up. Most of the horns I play are in tune with themselves although the usual suspects (C#/Db, G#/Ab) are always interesting. My fellow trumpeter never tunes his trumpet OR flugel so I have really learned to tune on the fly. Throw in a flutist, things get interesting. Did I mention the tenor saxes?:shock::lol:
    Last edited: May 10, 2011

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