Intonation & Tuning

Which of these is more “in tune”?

First of all please try this little experiment. The two audiofiles are two different versions of the first few notes of an alto saxophone solo. In each audio clip listen to the first long note of the alto saxophone (they each have slightly different pitch).

Example 1

Example 2

Bad intonation and tuning
I have tried this on quite a few people and there is not always agreement as to which one is “in tune” and which one isn’t. Or whether they are both in tune or both out of tune. The survey did show that most people prefer Example 1.

Now have a look at the video to see the intonation of each take. Did you prefer the out of tune one?

Why is this?

Most people who have tried this prefer example 1 . In this example there are two possible reasons. One is that in a blues style it is not always necessary, or even a good idea to play perfectly in tune. A lot of the feel of blues saxophone is based on ” blue notes”. In some cases this means playing a note approximately a semitone lower so that a major becomes a minor (even though the rhythm section are style playing major chords). But it can also be a much more slight change in the tuning (playing flat to a greater or lesser degree. In this case it is way falltter (30 cents) than most people would deem acceptable.

Another reason is that players often use a different form of intonation, ie just intonation (see below: When is “In Tune” Out of Tune?)

How to Play a Saxophone In Tune

“Easy!” I hear you say, “just buy a saxophone that’s in tune”. If only it was that simple. The most revered saxophone of all time, the Selmer MKVI, is well-known to have some tuning “quirks”. Admittedly, saxophone design and manufacturing technology has come on a long way since then, and most modern saxophones (yes, even many of the cheap Chinese saxophones people love to hate) have fairly decent tuning, but I doubt there is a saxophone that you can say is “in tune”, unlike an electronic keyboard.

Even a violin can have four of its notes tuned to perfection, but due to acoustic imperfections in the very core of the design, a saxophone has what are politely called tuning tendencies so that although you can tune one note and get it perfectly right, that does not guarantee that any of the other notes will also be in tune without some “coaxing” from the player.

OK, while on the subject of violins, we often think of bad violinists being horribly out of tune. But once those four strings are tuned, playing any of them as an open string (whether bowed or pizzicato) will result in more or less an in tune note (it’s all the others in between that we need to worry about!). But with a saxophone, just that one note you tune to can vary so much depending the way the player blows it (the shape and pressure of the embouchure, dynamics and the quality of air support) and the type of mouthpiece.

So Many Variables

Why Isn’t my Saxophone Perfectly In Tune?

Well, a very short answer is that the saxophone is an acoustically imperfect instrument. It has a conical bore, and to be acoustically “correct” this would continue tapering at the neck to a point. Obviously this is not possible due the mouthpiece being there. Ideally some of the “missing volume” of this imaginary extension of the neck is made up by the volume of the mouthpiece chamber. Fine, except that such chambers usually cause a sound that doesn’t fit in with the tonal demands of players these days.

During the twentieth century the saxophone evolved into one of the most versatile instruments in the world, capable of enormous variety of tone and styles of playing. However the main body of the instrument is still very similar to the one Adolph Sax invented. The biggest change has come about in mouthpiece design and structure due to the demand from jazz and rock players in the pursuit of different and louder saxophone sounds.

Most jazz and rock players now play mouthpieces that are very different: smaller chambers, wider tips, higher baffles. All of these can have a considerable effect on the tuning of a saxophone: one particular problem can be when trying to use a modern high baffle small chamber mouthpiece with a vintage saxophone which was designed for use with large chambered low baffle mouthpieces.

Step 1: Tuning the Saxophone (sort of)

Traditionally instruments tune to a concert A (F# on alto and B on tenor). So if we assume the player has a reasonable ability to blow the instrument, surely all the other notes should be in tune? Sadly this is hardly ever true as the saxophone is not an acoustically perfect instrument (see box). Saxophone players need to do a bit of work with their embouchure to coax many of the other notes in tune.

As all saxophone players should learn very quickly, to tune the saxophone we move the mouthpiece further onto the neck to play sharper, and further off the neck to play flatter. However this only makes sense if we know how to blow the instrument competently, but assuming you have a reasonable grasp of embouchure, there are a few other things to take into consideration.

  • Often blowing very loud causes the saxophone to go flat so tune at a moderate dynamic.
  • Using vibrato may cause the sound to be slightly flatter.

If you are a player who always uses vibrato, then tune with vibrato. If you never use vibrato, then tune without. If, like most players, you play with and without, it makes sense to tune with vibrato, and then be aware that you may need to relax your embouchure a bit when playing without to avoid sharpness.

Electronic Tuners

Can these help?

Yes and No. Tuners are fine for tuning your tuning note to, or for reference: ie as a way to see if certain notes are more out of tune than others. But they should never replace your ears. Playing scales or long notes and constantly watching a tuner may be counter productive, but glancing at it occasionally after starting a note can be very worthwhile to check if you are in tune or not. It’s important not to get hung up on perfection.

Don’t Worry

It’s very often fine to be within +/- 5 cents of the exact pitch and sometimes more depending on the music you are playing. Sometimes the more you worry about your intonation, the worse it can get.

Step 2: Tuning the Rest of the Notes

The very simple explanation of how to do this is to apply slightly more embouchure pressure to flat notes, and a slightly more relaxed embouchure to sharp notes. Basically you are compensating for the inherent tuning quirks of the saxophone (NB: If you feel you need to compensate excessively, there may be some important issues regarding the instrument you need to look at, which we will look at later).

Although there are some tendencies of certain notes to be sharp or flat (see below), the only way to develop the skill you need to play in tune is to use, and develop, your ears. Some lucky people are born with perfect or extremely good pitch and can tell instantly whether a note is sharp or flat and by how much, others need to train their ears to become more discerning.

Tuning Tendencies

Individual Notes

Assuming we have tuned one note of the saxophone (as mentioned above it is traditionally concert A but does not have to be – you may get better results tuning to a different note), the next thing to know is the “tendency” of certain notes to be sharp or flat in relation to that note. This can vary from instrument to instrument, but here is a rough rule of thumb:

Upper Register

Lower Register

Notes from D (lowest note of upper register) upwards will be sharp with the exception of F#, but with D (and possibly Eb and E) being particularly prone to being sharp. Notes from C# downwards in the lower register will have a tendency to be flat (especially open C#), with the exception of A, B and C, which should be in tune. Bottom Bb and B which may be sharp.

Tuning Tendencies of Instrument

These are not hard and fast rules, but can be used to pinpoint problems



Mouthpiece position Pushed In Pulled Out
Dynamics Quiet Loud
Embouchure Biting too much Relaxed
Tip Opening Closed Open
Reed Strength Hard Soft
Key Height Open Closed
Temperature Warm Cool

When is “In Tune” Out of Tune

This can get very complicated, but it’s worth taking a little time to understand the concept of Just Intonation as opposed to Equal Temperament. All modern keyboards and other “fixed pitch” instruments are tuned so that the octave is divided into 12 equal semitones (equal temperament). Before there was any music which required complex key changes, people used a scale which did not divide the semitones into equal 1/12ths.

The reason is that some intervals (especially 3rds) sound much more pleasing to the ear when the interval is based on the notes of the overtone series, however with this system as soon as you change key, each note of the scale is now at a very slightly different pitch relative to the new tonic. This is no problem for a group of singers, but it is not practical for a fixed pitch keyboard, so the equal semitone system was invented. When there is no keyboard present, it is quite possible (and desirable) for musicians to subconsciously use just intonation as it feels more natural. Another reason not to worry too much about tuners, the way you “hear” an interval may actually be better than the way your tuner tells you it should be. That’s my excuse anyway!

Using a tuner vs tuning by ear

There are a few things to think about.

Using a tuner:

  • Constantly watch tuner while playing notes. This is fine for initial testing of instrument, although bear in mind there could be some red herrings. e.g. is the mouthpiece compatible or is your embouchure underdeveloped so that you blame the instrument/mouthpiece rather than yourself? Or vice versa: you blame yourself when it’s a gear issue.
  • Glance at it occasionally to for “spot checks”. This is good after checking that your starting note is good. So you might for instance check that your G is in tune (either with a tuner or by ear against a known pitch such as keyboard, tuning fork, tuning CD etc. Then play a scale, arpeggio and then spot check your finishing note.

Using your ears (against a “benchmark” known pitch such as tuning drones or keyboard)

  • Playing in unison with a benchmark pitch. You should easily hear any discrepancies as there will often be a beating sound as the waves “clash.” Whether you can hear how out of tune or even if you are sharp or flat will depend on how developed your ears are. Some people have a very good sense of pitch from birth, others need to develop it by aural training.
  • Playing in harmony with a benchmark pitch. Playing in 3rds or 5ths is very good exercise, but for this ideally do need a well developed sense of pitch. You will be able to adjust your embouchure and use your ears to hear when the interval sounds in tune. Using this method you need to be aware that as you are not playing in unison with a predefined equal tempered scale, then you may well instinctively adjust to to just intonation – in which case spot checking with an equal temperament tuner could show incorrect pitch, when in fact you are are playing in tune according to just intonation, which could be construed as a good thing. (Noboday said this would not be a complicated topic!)

A closer look at some of these aspects of tuning


Vibrato is usually made by a regular relaxation of the jaw in a more or less regular pulse which creates a kind of wave effect. As the jaw is relaxed the note dips down from the regular pitch, resulting in a pitch which on average is flatter. It’s arguable that this is not quite as flat as the logic of this might imply, as our ears possibly compensate to hear the higher pitch of the “wave” rather than the middle, however I have found that in general it is slightly flatter. One thing about vibrato is that it can help to mask less than perfect intonation – although this should not be a reason to use vibrato!

Reed Strength

I said that softer reeds have a tendency to play flat. This does not mean you will play flat if you use soft reeds, as long as you stick to the same reed you use when tuning up your saxophone. If you tune with a hard reed, then switch to a soft one, don’t be surprised if suddenly you sound flatter. One advantage of soft reeds is that they do often allow you more flexibility to coax the note sharp or flat as necessary

Intonation Checklist

  • Is the saxophone itself out of tune? There are some saxophones that are just built badly. If you are in doubt the saxophone being out of tune take it to a good repairer. It must be one who is also a player. Alternatively a good teacher should be able to diagnose an out of tune saxophone.
  • Is it a high pitch instrument? Up until the middle of the twentieth century there was more than one standard of tuning – high pitch and low pitch. Low pitch was adopted as the standard. If you have an old saxophone it may be high pitch (almost a semitone sharp), and will never play in tune with modern orchestras or keyboards.
  • All notes either sharp or flat? This indicates that the mouthpiece is in the wrong position. (Back to Step 1)
  • Is the keywork height set incorrectly? Again, a good repairer will be able to tell. If this is the problem it can usually be fixed very quickly.
  • Is the problem only noticed by other people? This could mean it’s time for you to do some work on your hearing. You should ideally be able to hear the pitch of a note in your head before playing it, that way you will immediately know if the note is sharp or flat. If you have trouble with this, then try some ear training, sight singing exercises. Joining a choir can be immensely helpful with learning to pitch notes.
  • Is it actually a Problem? This may be a controversial thing to say, but there are some styles of music that do not need perfect intonation. (Also see the box above about Just Intonation) Some of the greatest jazz legends, Charlie Parker, Jackie McLean and Ornette Coleman were known to not play perfectly in tune. (See my Charlie Parker session blog). Bending notes can be a large part of a blues style, and often notes are flattened by varying degrees, so although technically “out of tune”, they are perfect for the style.

Is it Better to be Sharp or Flat?

The human ear tends to perceive flat notes as being more unpleasant than sharp notes. As mentioned in the blog above, Charlie Parker was often quite sharp, yet is considered by many to be the best saxophonist or musician that ever lived.

In the words of one of my colleagues:
“it’s better to be sharp than out of tune!”


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