Tuning – Understanding How Pitch Works



I remember the first years of my musical studies… The teachers all told the students that we must play in tune and always check the tuner. Watching some really stunning chamber music performances on www.youtube.com, I wonder if these musicians learned to play in tune so well just by studying a tuner, looking at its pointer? Is there something else — something secret about pitch? Can anyone play in tune?

Remembering back to music school, I regret today not having taken classes in this subject when I was very young, just starting to learn to play the recorder at the age of eight. Nowadays, I see very young pupils, who learn to hear intervals in tune from an early age — and who have no trouble tuning their instruments or playing in tune in a group. But even when we are not so young, we can learn some concepts and parameters that help us play in tune consistently.

Learning to Listen

How do we learn to speak? It is unlikely that you remember your first words — but you can always watch a child learning to speak, observing how the process works. Parents repeat the word “Mom” or “Dad” a million times, never doubting that the child will speak — and finally the child repeats it.

By listening and repetition, the child learns an increasingly extensive vocabulary.This is the most natural way to learn a language, and I have had many experiences that prove to me that music is really another language, which can (and should!) be taught this very same way.

But we were considering pitch… is there another way to learn about tuning theoretically, without first listening? Perhaps there is, but it would be much harder. First we have to hear the difference between two notes in tune, and between two notes that are out of tune. Why two? Because if there is only one note, we do not have a listening reference point to inform our ear objectively that the note is in tune or out of tune.

To hear audio demonstrating intervals—unison, octaves, fifths, major thirds, minor thirds, and, finally, major and minor chords — click here. I created this audio sample to show some intervals that are very well tuned, which I will call pure intonation. We strive for this result.

I will not try to discuss here what makes up pure intonation, but can only show how it works on the recorder, letting you try it for yourself.

Listening to this sample, you will hear the intervals and chords I mention above. In each sample, the interval begins in tune (no beats between the notes), then gets out of tune because one notes goes high, then goes low, and finally gets in tune again. The final two samples are chords with pure intonation.

Beating is the result of the difference between the frequencies of two notes. The resulting sound is like a vibrato — the note sounds dissonant, and we hear a slow or fast oscillation depending on the size of the detuning (the faster the oscillation, the worse the intonation). To play notes in tune, there should be no beats between the notes.

Please listen to the sample more than once, trying to hear each detail. It is not the same as playing intervals on the piano or another keyboard, because they use another kind of tuning based on mathematical determinations. For more resources, search for “pure intonation” or “just intonation” at www.youtube.com or elsewhere on the web. I have a good video explaining this:


How do we tune a recorder?

First of all, we must keep in mind that the recorder is not a tempered instrument—i.e., that the recorder’s notes are not always at the same pitch, as with the piano, for example. We have several ways to alter the pitch of a note:

  • Changing the length of the instrument, by opening or closing the top joint;
  • Varying the air pressure, blowing more or less;
  • Changing fingering patterns, using real or alternative ones for the same note;
  • Half-holing, leaking air or shadowing holes.

Tencaixehus, before playing, it is very important to tune the instrument according to a reference. We do this by adjusting the top joint of the recorder. The reference can be a tuner; a tuning fork; the lowest in pitch (not the lowest in range) or the most stable instrument within a group (since we cannot close or shorten a recorder more than the socket allows, but we can always open the joint to lengthen it and lower the pitch).

To tune the instrument, blow uniformly without fluctuations in air pressure, without vibrato — all the while keeping a comfortable air stream such as one would use when playing music. We must play a note in this manner and compare it with a reference, auditorially — opening (or “pulling out” to lengthen) the instrument when it is too high, and closing the instrument (or “pushing in”) when it is low.

To find out if the recorder is high or low when one has not yet developed this auditory perception, blow gently so that the pitch is low, and gradually increase the air pressure until the result appears: one stops hearing beats. If we continue to increase air pressure from this point, one will hear the beats again.

Important: when using a tuner for this task, instead of looking constantly at the pointer, use it only to play the reference note. Then each recorder should play together with the reference to tune the instrument, because we want to train our perception and our ears, not our eyes.

After tuning the note, by opening or closing the recorder, we have to ensure that the note is actually in tune. For that, one must play again — the beginning, the whole length and the ending of the note should be in tune. This is an excellent breathing and perception exercise that should be practiced by all recorder players.

The next step is to tune intervals of a fifth; if we have a tuner playing an A, we can play the high E or low D (each being five notes away from the A). Follow the same principle: always seek to remove beats, resulting in a sound that melts the two notes together without oscillation.

Since the recorder was already tuned at the beginning of the exercise, at this point we must affect the pitch by changing the air pressure and controlling the sound so that all the notes are in tune — from the attack, holding for a few seconds, and ending the sound without fluctuation in the pitch.

Repeat this fifth exercise through the instrument’s range . If the tuner plays only an A, use a keyboard as a reference, in order to learn how to tune all the notes of the recorder’s range. Remember that we are training our ears and breath, not our eyes or fingers. If the reference note is A, play high E and low D. If the reference is G, play high D and low C, and so on. Note to yourself that, for each note, there is a specific way to blow in order for it to be in tune. If we blow all notes the same way, then all notes will be out of tune — unfortunately, this happens with lots of recorder players. You don’t want to play out of tune, right?

When we can play all the notes through the range in fifths, all in tune, we can move to major and minor thirds, playing arpeggios. If the reference is a C, play C E G (major third) — but also C Eb G (minor third). If the reference is D, play D F# A and also D F A, and so on. Always avoid producing beats and strive to tune perfectly.

This cannot be done in a hurry because we want to listen to every note and train our ear to detect beats. Then we want to train our flexibility in changing air pressure and the amount of air to tune each note perfectly.

In this arpeggio exercise, we are faced with something curious: it is necessary to make larger changes in the amount of air to tune the thirds of the arpeggio. Try it yourself before you continue reading the article, and see if you can figure out what we should do to play thirds in tune.

Alternative fingerings


While playing the arpeggio exercise, it became clear that, for some of the notes, it is not possible to play in tune just by changing air pressure. It is necessary to use what we call alternative fingerings, in order to keep blowing comfortably throughout the range. Above, we can see a table listing some possible alternative fingerings, showing that the fingering for F# is different from Gb, for instance; the fingering chart also shows some other frequently used notes. These fingerings may change from instrument to instrument.

I recommend visiting www.recorder-fingerings.com, where all of the fingerings appear in a more complete list.

Beyond that, there is an easy way to find an alternative fingering: from the desired note, finger a half-tone higher; add fingers to lower the tuning until the pitch is accurate. Using this technique, the alternative fingering will sound darker and quieter, using less air pressure to produce the best sound.

semitomBasically, we need to pay attention to two rules: first, each note with a sharp sign (#) must be slightly lower than the corresponding higher note with a flat sign (b)—the enharmonic . That is, G# should be lower than Ab (or, Bb should be higher than A# , Db should be higher than C# , etc). This can be a cause of discussion, especially by those who play a stringed instrument like violin or cello, but I will explain about it in more detail in upcoming articles.

The second concept we need to keep in mind is the tuning of thirds: a major third should be slightly narrow, while a minor third should be slightly bigger in order to be perfectly in tune. Although not the main subject of this article, I will mention that we can also choose to apply alternative fingerings to change the timber and dynamics. When trying alternative fingerings, you’ll notice that each fingering has a distinctive sound — we can (and should!) use that to our benefit, creatively as an additional tool to enhance the music we play .

Working with Pitch in a Group

EncadeamentoNow we know how tuned intervals should sound; what sound to seek; and the techniques to tune notes as you play (air pressure, shading holes, alternative fingerings). It’s time to consider exercises to tune in a group. Here is a simple recorder quartet exercise that can also be used for other groups of instruments that do not use tempered tuning, such as a string quartet.

Use these steps:


  1. Tune the instruments individually
  2. Analyze the music to find intervals: fifths, major thirds and minor thirds
  3. Play the first chord very well in tune
  4. Play all chords, taking special care on the last chord

 1. Tune the instruments

There are a few different approaches to use in tuning instruments in a group:

  • Tune just the note A (in an easy range) for each recorder – Start with the top joint completely closed on each recorder. Aurally or using a tuner, determine which recorder has the lowest pitch on this one note. All other recorders must use the lowest instrument as a reference, each one opening the recorder’s top joint (“pulling out”) slightly to fine-tune. With this method, there is a disadvantage: when we play music that has few instances of the note A (the key of Eb major, for example), the tuning can be compromised.
  • Tune the tonic of the key of the music – The procedure is the same as the previous method, but the main note (or tonic) of the music’s key is tuned. This solves the previous problem of unrelated tonality, but does not work if the music modulates to a distant key, or if an instrument has a specific problem in tuning only certain notes. (You should identify these notes as you get to know your instrument, and learn how to play them in tune.)
  • Tune all recorders using the same fingering pattern – Recorders in C (soprano and tenor) play A and recorders in F (alto and bass) play D — thus, all players use the fingering 0 1 2, a very stable and reliable fingering. This approach is great for Renaissance and Medieval music, and also works well in other repertoire. I recommend this approach for groups who are not yet familiar with tuning chords.
  • Tune chords in the key of the music. This approach is the most complete, but may cause mistakes on the part of the musicians who play the third of the chord. As thirds must be adjusted high or low — depending on whether the chord is minor or major, respectively — the musician must tune the instrument by taking this fact into account. In this approach, use at least two chords: the first and the last in the piece of music.

For whatever approach you choose, the intention is to keep the instruments tuned, so that each musician has the flexibility to adjust the pitch while playing, by using different blowing pressure and/or alternative fingering, but never moving the top joint (pulling out or pushing in).

Personally, I like to begin with the third approach (all group members using the same fingering). After I have each recorder adjusted and in tune, I play thirds and fifths together with the reference recorder (the lowest one) to check the range of each instrument.

As an example, if I am playing alto, I would tune D as a reference. After tuning the instrument and adjusting the top joint, I would then play low G, B, Bb; middle F, F#, high A; high D (other notes in chords that employ D, my reference note). I need to be sure that I don’t need to change my blowing too much for the fifths and octave (G, D, A and high D); and also that I can tune the thirds (B, Bb, F, F#) properly.

Other tricks:

When tuning in a group, avoid holding a note for a very long time. When you do that, your air pressure changes: you become tired, and have a false perception of tuning. Always keep tuning notes short. A one-second note is sufficient to check tuning, and does not demand much stamina.

Always tune your own instrument before playing in a group, but keep your personal tuning time short. All players must be ready and in tune in less than five minutes, even in a large group with a variety of recorder. (Of course, tuning exercises in the group can take much more time.)

After tuning the instrument properly, never move the top joint again during the performance or rehearsal.

2. Find fifths, major thirds and minor thirds

It’s time to analyze the music to be played, looking at thirds (minor and major) and fifths in each chord. In the above example, each important note is in color. Look at it carefully to find each note forming the interval of a fifth, minor third, or major third — each in relation to the chord’s fundamental (this may not be the note played by the bass recorder).

IEncadeamentot is important to pay close attention to the colored notes, in order to understand what is happening. As each chord is revealed, determine which note must be played differently. Those who play the black notes need to remain very stable because those notes provide the reference; the others must make adjustments in blowing or fingering to tune with the fundamental or reference note.

Just remember: The upper note of a fifth must be tuned slightly high and those playing it must blow slightly more; the upper note of a major third must be tuned low, so those playing it must shadow a hole and/or blow softly; those playing the upper note of a minor third must play it high, using an alternative fingering and/or blowing more.

3. Play the first chord

At this point, we take whatever time is needed to fine-tune the first chord, without changing the top joint of the recorder — because all recorders have been tuned in step 1.

First tune the fundamental note of the first chord — in this example, D — while the other musicians stay silent. Then, those who play the fifth of the chord — in this case, A — should play and adjust, while the other members who are playing the D try not to change their blowing pressure. The intention is to not change recorders that are already tuned, so that only one member changes to get in tune.

Finally, anyone who plays the third of the chord — in this case, F# — joins the others. Again, those who have already tuned do not change anything, while the players of the chord’s third change blowing and/or fingering until they find the correct pitch without hearing beats.

4. Play all chords, taking special care on the last chord


After having tuned the first chord very well, then it is time to play the entire exercise. You already know which notes should be high, which should be low (those in color); this should serve to guide your ear and your technique, thus giving the necessary flexibility to tune each chord.

Take special care in playing tied notes because the same note can have different functions as the chords change. In these cases, there are two approaches:

• Play the tie without changing pitch; the whole group must use the tied note as its reference for tuning a new chord. This can cause a problem after a long sequence because pitch can change from where you started.

• Change the tied note slightly: this is a compromise, which adjusts the tied note to its function in the new chord, and the others follow. The group needs to be flexible in its listening, but this gives the best result.

It is better to use the fundamental note as a reference — those who play the tied note should be alert to changing roles as the chords change, as well as to the function of that pitch in each new chord. In the next article, which delves into the science of tuning, I will explain about the harmonic series; historical background of tuning; and temperaments, especially “equal temperament” and “just intonation”. Understanding such information is useful for our goal of always playing in tune!

In the video above, you can watch this exercise being done by the recorder players at International Suzuki Festival in Lima/Peru, in January 2013, when I did a speech about this subject. When we know what to do, it is easy to get a good result.

Below, you can see a table with the difference between the music intervals called “pure” (without beating) and tempered intervals. In the tempered tuning, all semitones have the same size: 100 cents, but in the pure intonation each semitone is divided by a proportion of small integer numbers. We must consider this when playing in a group.

In the next article, more information about these relationships.

Interval Exemple Proportion Just intonation Tempered intonation
Minor third C-Eb 6:5 315,6 (+15,6) 300
Major third C-E 5:4 386,3 (-13,7) 400
Fifth C-G 3:2 701,96 (+1,96) 700
Octave C-C 2:1 1200 1200

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19 Comments to "Tuning – Understanding How Pitch Works"

  1. Pingback: Artigo na revista American Recorder | Flauta doce Brasil por Quinta Essentia QuartetoFlauta doce Brasil por Quinta Essentia Quarteto

  2. Estou tentando aprender flauta doce sozinho, estou vendo vídeos no youtube, procurando materiais de estudo na internet e etc… mas a coisa parece que não é tão fácil… principalmente para manter a nota afinada… parece que até as batidas do coração desafinam o negócio… tô ralando…

    • Muitos acham que é fácil, mas pouquíssimos tocam bem o suficiente para fazer juízo de valor.
      Continue seus estudos, mas recomendo que procure um professor. Seus esforços serão bem menores com a ajuda de um bom professor.

  3. Tem momentos que parece que eu vou morrer sem folego….. Afinal, para uma YRS 302BIII qual a afinação em que deve ser regulado o afinador??? 440hz??? Se alguém puder me responder isto ficarei muito feliz. Já viu isso ficar sem ar com os pulmões cheios de ar…?

    • A afinação na flauta doce varia dependendo da temperatura e pressão do ar. Não há como você definir o diapasão dessa forma. Mas provavelmente se você colocar o afinador em 442 ou 441, você conseguirá afinar corretamente abrindo um pouco o instrumento.
      Lembre sempre de afinar com os ouvidos, não com os olhos. Coloque o afinador tocando uma nota e afine a flauta pela nota, sem olhar para o ponteiro. Estamos sempre buscando melhorar a nossa percepção auditiva, não a leitura do ponteiro.

    • É muito fácil dizer que os problemas estão no instrumento. A flauta pode ter problemas de afinação, mas quem deve saber afinar é o músico, pois o instrumento não faz todo o trabalho sozinho.
      O primeiro passo é conhecer o instrumento. Saber quais notas são altas, quais notas são baixas, quais são afinadas, e saber como corrigir cada um dos problemas alterando a pressão do ar ou fazendo dedilhados alternativos. Este trabalho deve ser feito por todos os músicos, de todos instrumentos.
      Você pode comprar um outro instrumento. Mas se não fizer o que eu disse sobre conhecer o instrumento e buscar corrigir os problemas você mesmo, você terá gasto dinheiro e não ficará satisfeito com o resultado.

  4. Olá, Gustavo.

    Eu aprendi a tocar flauta doce com um amigo alemão, que deu uma flauta doce soprano de presente. Esse amigo me disse que era de feita de pereira. O som era uma maravilha. Infelizmente ela foi furtada, e preciso adquirir outra, mas não tenho condições de comprar uma nova. Encontrei uma flauta antiga no “mercado livre” da marca Hammerschmidt – soprano e dedilhado germânico. Diga-me, por favor: Essa marca é boa? Compensa comprar uma flauta antiga?
    Sou apaixonado por esse instrumento. Obrigado. ats

  5. Ola’!
    Estou começando a aprender a tocar o instrumento. Tenho uma YRS – 302B III soprano e uma YRN – 22B sopranino. Eu toco guitarra e faço leitura na clave de sol sem muita dificuldades. Qual das duas você considera mais apropriado começar a estudar? Gosto do som das duas mais preciso me aprofundar no domínio do dedilhado de uma das duas. Depois pretendo compra outras, com som mais grave.

    • O domínio do dedilhado, tanto das posições regular quanto de todas as opções de dedilhados alternativos é a parte mais fácil do aprendizado do instrumento, esta é a parte visível e mais óbvia. Há muito mais que aprender sobre intenções musicais, articulação, fraseado, respiração, estilos, afinação, ornamentação e muito mais, que apenas um professor pode ensinar.
      Para nossos alunos, geralmente recomendamos a flauta soprano ou contralto no início, dependendo do tamanho do corpo do estudante, pois alunos muito pequenos geralmente não conseguem tocar em instrumentos maiores.
      Recomendamos que procure um professor.

  6. Thanks for the article. I work with combination tones – my students have to know for the most important intervals which combination tone they must listen to. Of course the cannot practice this alone… There are also interesting pieces by Adrian Wehlte where the combination tones make up a third line. Do you have any experiences whith that?

    • Thanks for your comment!
      Yes, I know about combination tones, sometimes I use it in my group classes, usually to show the students how the intonation and the pitch works.
      But, I don’t know this composer. I will look for his pieces, thanks!

  7. É normal a flauta não tocar corretamente as notas mais agudas da segunda e terceira oitava? Isso significa que minha flauta está desafinada? Por exemplo: eu tento tocar um dó sustenido, na última oitava, mais agudo, e sai um ré. Eu toco um sole sai um lá. Ás vezes eu tenho sucesdo com algumas notas quando manejo a língua de maneira diferente. Eu não sei se o problema sou eu ou minha flauta, que é de resina. Será que isso aconteceria numa flauta de madeira? Eu sou um iniciante, mas tenho acompanhado seus artigos e estudado pra aprender mais. Porém tenho dúvidas e problemas como esses ainda, além de não conseguir dedilhar com habilidade e rapidez ainda. Mas estou praticando e tentando melhorar cada vez mais. Aguardo sua resposta. Um abraço!

    • Você já fez essas perguntas ao seu professor? Ele certamente poderá verificar o que pode estar acontecendo: se você está fazendo os dedilhados corretos, se você está usando a técnica de articulação correta, se está sem tensões que atrapalham o seu som, se a sua postura não está atrapalhando o seu som, se algum dos dedos está mal posicionado, se a sua língua está na posição correta, e por último, se seu instrumento é o mais adequado.
      Tudo isso não pode ser avaliado apenas por uma mensagem na internet. É necessário o contato pessoal com um professor.

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