How To Tune Your Own Instrument!
Tuning is a very important part of music making. You might be the best musician in the world, but if your instrument is out of tune, nobody is going to want to listen to you.
"Why is it always the trombones?!?"
What does tuning mean?
When we say something is “in tune”, what we mean is that its pitches line up with a set standard pitch. If something is “out of tune”, it can be either sharp (too high) or flat (too low).
Listen to the clip below:
There are two tones in that clip. You can clearly hear that, at first, the first one is sharper (higher) than the second one. The second one is then adjusted so that it is in tune with the first one.
So how do we tune our instruments?
Firstly, a quick note on general tuning. An important principle to remember is that to make something higher in pitch, we need to make it shorter and to make it lower in pitch we make it longer.
If we think about it in terms of instruments, a violin is much smaller than a double bass, and sounds much higher. The same is true of a trumpet and a tuba, or a piccolo and a contrabassoon.
Another important thing to remember is that when tuning, we're usually only trying to change the pitch of the note by a few hundreths of a semitone, so we only make very small adjustments at a time!
There are two main ways to tune our instruments, with our eyes or with our ears.
To tune with your ears, you need something to provide an 'in tune' note for you. Lots of apps can make a note for you to tune to, but you can also use a piano. In an orchestra, everyone tunes to the oboe (but who does the oboe tune to?!?).
Listen carefully to the note being played, then play your note. Is your note higher or lower than the other note? Tune your instrument as necessary, then try again.
Here is a link to a 'tone generator' you can use. It is set to an A at the moment (trumpets, clarinets & tenor saxes, that's a B for you. Alto saxes, that's an F#).
To tune with your eyes, you need a tuner. This can be either an actual little device or an app. You simply play the note, look at the screen or dial and adjust your tuning based on what it says. Try out the tuner below!
While tuning using an app is quicker and easier, it is important to try to use your ears too, as that will help you improve as a musician. For more, see this blog.
How do I tune my instrument?
Before you do any tuning, you want to make sure your instrument is nice and warm. When your instrument is fresh out of the case and is still cold, it will most likely sound flat. By waiting until you're warmed up a bit, you've saved yourself having to re-tune later.
To adjust your instrument's tuning, you move the main tuning slide. On a trumpet, it's where your spit valve is, near the bell. On a trombone it’s the big curved tube that’s behind your head when you’re playing. If you think your note is flat, then you need to push the tuning slide in and if it's sharp, then pull the slide out.
The note we use for tuning is also important. Trumpets and other valved brass, use a note that doesn't use any valves, normally C (remember if you're using a piano, you need to press the Bb key). Trombones, make sure you use a note in first position. You can also tune to a concert A when you're in an orchestra (trumpets, that's your B)
Below is a concert A (trumpets B) and a concert Bb (trumpets C) to use for tuning.
There are two ways of tuning string instruments:
1) using the pegs in the peg box for big adjustments,
2) using the fine tuners on the tailpiece for small adjustments.
Before we continue, I should say that tuning using the pegs is difficult and it's very easy to break a string, so you should only do it with your teacher's help to begin with, not on your own. Because of this, we wont cover that today.
On all string instruments, we start by tuning your A string to the A provided by the piano/oboe/tuner.
Bow your string. If your note is flat, then turn the fine tuner to the right to tighten the string. If your note is sharp, turn the fine tuner to the left.
Now, at this point more advanced players will tune their other strings to each other by ear. This is very difficult and takes lots of practice, so for now, you can tune each string to the tracks below using the same technique as you did for the A string.
As with brass instruments, you want to make sure that your instrument is nicely warm before you start doing any tuning.
On the flute, we use the note A (above middle C) to tune, and we adjust our tuning by pulling out or pushing in the headjoint.
On clarinets you adjust tuning by pushing in or pulling out the barrel. To tune, use your note B (which on a piano is an A).
Saxophones are very similar to clarinets in terms of tuning, except we only need to move the mouthpiece in or out. As with clarinets and flutes, we tune to a concert A, which on a tenor sax is B and on an alto is an F#.
The clip below is a concert A (clarinet & tenor sax B, alto sax F#) to use for your tuning.
Piano & Percussion
Hey pianists and percussionists, good news! You don't have to worry about tuning your instruments! Although you do have to put up with people asking whether you are in tune as a joke.
"Hey Mike, are your drums in tu... oh you've heard that one?"
So now you know how to tune your instrument, you will never sound like this!
Written by Joe Hamlen