Do I need a tuner?
Playing in tune is one of the most important skills
a woodwind player must learn.
Some would say it's the most important, but I feel it has
to share pole position with tone. After all, who's going to listen to
you if you can play perfectly in tune but sound like a cow shaving with
a cheesegrater? Similarly, you could sound like liquid gold - but if you
can't hit a note in tune there's really no point bothering.
Fortunately, both skills can be learned - and there exists a wide range
of techniques to help improve the accuracy of your tuning and the breadth
of your tone.
There also exists some tools to aid the development of your tuning, the
most common of which is the humble tuning fork.
Since the 1980's though, cheap electronic tuners have been widely available.
These were initially aimed at guitarists, and proved to be practically
indispensable in a performance setting whereby it wasn't always possible
to ask the band to shut up while you adjusted the tuning.
They were never intended as a replacement for the skill of being able
to tune a guitar - simply as an aid to speed up the process and a means
of checking the tuning on the fly when you couldn't necessarily hear what
you were playing, but it wasn't long before other instrumentalists took
advantage of the technology and before long the market was awash with
accurate electronic tuners at beer-money prices.
It soon became apparent, however, that the use of tuners with wind instruments
had an unexpected side effect.
Wind instrument differ significantly from stringed instruments in as
much as the wind player is solely responsible for the tuning. When it
comes to a guitar, and to a lesser degree the non-fretted instruments,
the tuning is more an issue of putting your finger in the right place.
Provided the strings are in tune relative to each other, and all in tune
with a given standard (usually 'Concert A 440Hz'), all that's left for
the player to do is hit the right spot on the fingerboard.
Not so with a wind instrument - the player must 'make' the note, and get
it right every time.
In order to do that you need both a degree of skill with regard to blowing
technique and an ability to hear and recognise relative differences in
pitch. To put it simply, you need to be able to hear a given note and
then play that note at the exact same pitch...which is what you do when
tuning up, say to a piano or another horn player.
Switch a tuner on and straightaway it removes the need for this skill
- and this is what happened.
Thousands of wind players bought electronic tuners and became 'addicted'
Disregarding the obvious need for skill, I feel there's a very human
reason behind the ability of the tuner to wreak havoc.
We're essentially very sight orientated creatures. In terms of aural capacity
we're pretty limited in comparison to many other creatures - but we often
exceed their visual acuity. We've evolved to use our eyes as the prime
source of gathering information about our environment. Of all the senses,
sight is the one that seems to have the most impact when it's not there.
Try wearing earplugs for a while and see how well you cope around the
house, or down at the shops. Chances are you'll be fine - with perhaps
the only thing to show for the experience being a slightly stiffer neck
due to all the extra looking around you'd need to do. Now try it blindfold,
and there's a good chance you won't get much further than six feet before
you come a cropper. We instinctively lean toward sight - if it's there,
we use it.
Electronic tuners lock in to this tendency, and from the moment you switch
one on and look at it your brain dives upon it like a thirsty man to a
cool pint of beer. The trouble is, they work. You can play a note, any
note, and the tuner will tell you quite authoritatively whether you're
sharp, flat or right on the button. Marvellous.
The thing is though, it's a relationship between your eyes and your embouchure...and
that wouldn't be a big problem - if you could play a gig with your face
a couple of feet away from the tuner at all times. This isn't possible
of course, so the moment the tuner is taken away you have to fall back
on your ear to embouchure skills...but because you haven't had to rely
on them they will have dulled, if not entirely disappeared.
It's not a process that takes any significant amount of time either. Depending
on your level of skill before you use a tuner, it could happen in mere
minutes. Seriously, we're that geared towards sight.
A good example of this is something known as the McGurk
effect, which shows how what you see can have a dramatic effect on
what you hear. A typical demonstration of the effect is to video a speaker
saying 'Bah bah bah' and 'Far far far' - then playing the video back to
a viewer, but using only the sound of the 'Bah bah bah' phrase. You can
clearly see the speaker's lips change as they change the word they are
speaking, and as they do so you will hear the phrase change...even though
it hasn't. Sounds bizarre, but here's a link to such
Although the effect is related to your language centre, it nevertheless
shows how easily we give up what our ears tell us in preference to what
So it sounds as though tuners are the work of the devil.
Well, not entirely. They're a tool, a very powerful tool, and like any
tool you just have to know how to use them.
The tuner should be considered, for the wind player, as a purely diagnostic
tool. I'd go so far as to say that it's a tool that you should avoid using
Let's assume that you're suspicious about your top A. You feel that it
might be slightly flat. You whip out a tuner, switch it on and play a
known good note to check that you're in tune relative to Concert A. Then
you play the suspect note. The tuner shows where you are. Now what are
you going to do?
What often happens next is the player then attempts to 'play to the tuner'.
You instinctively let go of the ear to embouchure relationship and your
prime focus of attention becomes getting the tuner to read dead in tune.
As soon as you remove the tuner, you're back where you started.
The best way to use the tuner is to have someone else look at it while
you play, and to have them tell you whether you're sharp or flat. This
lets you make use of the tuner's analytical properties, but keeps you
distanced from it - which forces you to work on the ear to embouchure
relationship. This is exactly how I use a tuner in the workshop whenever
a client claims to have a problem with tuning. I only ever let them see
the tuner once they've found their tuning.
Once you realise the tuner is a diagnostic tool, it becomes a great deal
less useful to the average player.
It's worth remembering too that very few, if any, wind instruments play
truly in tune. Our modern, western scale is a compromise of pitch - and
wind instruments are yet another exercise in compromise, so when you put
the two together there's bound to be the odd anomaly floating about. The
job of the player is to even out those compromises - though every once
in a while it's possible to come across an instrument that has a design
flaw . It's even more common to come across an instrument that simply
just doesn't gel with your personal technique. There are plenty of players
out there who can't blow vintage horns in tune, simply because they're
used to modern designs. The reverse is also true.
So, in answer to the title question 'Do I need a tuner?', the answer
is most likely to be 'no'.
There are far better ways for the average player to learn tuning. The
tuning fork, as mentioned at the start of this article, is a tool truly
of reverence. The principle is simplicity itself. You knock the fork,
it emits a note of known pitch and you attempt to match that pitch on
your instrument. But it only gives you the one note.
That's both its disadvantage and its merit - it's then left up to you
to play the other notes in tune relative to the note you tuned to. This
is exactly what playing in tune is all about.
Beginners often benefit from using a range of notes to tune to. This
helps them to establish a relationship between all the notes, and the
most common technique for doing this is to play along to notes played
on another instrument...typically a piano.
Not everyone has access to a piano...but if you're reading this you must
have access to a computer, and there are programs you can use that will
allow you to play notes on it. Do a search using the term "virtual
piano" - use the quotes too for a more accurate match. Add the word
Freeware after the quotes and you'll find a number of programs that can
be downloaded, installed and used at no cost to you whatsoever. Smartphone
users should be able to find any number of apps that will play tones.
These programs are often extremely simple, and certainly too cumbersome
in use to be of any practical use as an instrument - but they'll at least
allow you to play and hear a broad range of notes that you can then play
Even a simple kid's toy keyboard is enough, though it's worth checking
that it plays in tune first...
You can find reference notes everywhere. I once heard a guitarist tuning
up to a ringtone on his mobile phone - turns out his ring was a perfect
You can even purchase a tuning CD, which has a selection of perfect notes,
plus some tuning exercises.
What playing to a note can't tell you is whether you're sharp or flat
(unless you know what to listen for). The tuning meter does this by means
of, usually, a needle. Typically the note is in tune when the needle sits
straight up, and flat when it's to the left of centre, sharp to the right.
They excel at this degree of diagnosis - but too many users take them
far too literally, and get themselves into a right old state by trying
to get every single note dead centre on the meter. It really isn't necessary,
a few cents (or Hertz) either way isn't going to be noticeable - and certainly
isn't as important as relative tuning.
The best way to hear whether a note is sharp or flat is to force it to
be so. Say you wanted to check your Concert A. On an alto sax you'd have
to play your F#, on a tenor sax or clarinet you'd play a B. Pull the mouthpiece
out as far as you can then play against your known good note on the tuning
fork or keyboard. What you'll hear is undoubtedly a very flat Concert
Push the mouthpiece on a little and try again...it'll be less flat now.
Continue until the note sounds in tune. Then carry on past it, if possible
- to hear what the note sounds like when it's sharp.
Oddly enough, a slightly sharp note doesn't sound anywhere near as bad
as a slightly flat one - and many players like to tune themselves slightly
sharp as standard. This tends to make them sound a tad brighter and punchier...and
it helps to prevent the unpleasantness of slipping flat.
Skilled players can do this with the embouchure alone. By relaxing or
stiffening the embouchure you can raise or lower the pitch of a note.
You might not realise it, but you do this for every note you play. That's
how you play in tune, by making subconscious micro-adjustments to your
embouchure depending on what your ear is hearing. That's precisely why
the electronic tuner can do so much harm, by removing that critical relationship.
If you simply must have a tuner then look for a 'chromatic' tuner. These
will tune any note - guitar tuners can sometimes be preset to just the
six tonic notes of the strings.
Get one with a 'weighted' or 'dampened' needle. There are so many harmonic
overtones in a blown note that an overactive tuner will throw the needle
backwards and forwards at speed, and you'll not be able to make much sense
of it at all. A dampened needle averages out the harmonics and gives a
stable, readable display.
I used to recommend that you avoid digital meters - mostly because they
weren't that easy to read - but many modern digital meters replicate an
analogue display, and these will be fine. Likewise, there are plenty of
tuning apps that will work with a smartphone.
And if at all possible, get a meter that can produce reference tones.
Ultimately though the secret to good tuning is practice, and lots of
Using reference notes is a good place to start from, and thereafter you
should concentrate on relative pitch.
The easiest way to do this is to simply play tunes. This also helps to
develop your understanding of intervals. For example, I use the song "Somewhere
over the rainbow" to practice my octaves. The very first two notes
of the song are an octave apart. The first two notes of "Happy birthday
to you" are a tone apart. Songs like "Met a gal in Calico"
give you straight fourth jump, followed by a tone (which adds up to a
fifth jump) on the first three notes.
You'll soon build up your personal repertoire of tuning phrases - one
of the most useful ones I have is the opening theme for the old Star Trek
series (the bit just after 'Space..the final frontier'). If that sounds
a bit naff to you, listen to the the closing moments of Holst's 'Planet
suite' and you'll perhaps hear a remarkable similarity...
So that about wraps it up for tuners then.
I'll leave you with a couple more thoughts.
If it seems like I know so much about what can happen when you use a tuning
meter it's because it happened to me - and I was daft enough to believe
that it wouldn't. It took me a good six months to heal the damage done.
And...it's something of a truism that if you find yourself on a gig standing
next to a horn player who carries a tuner in his or her case, it's even
money that they'll not be able to play in tune. Just one of those things...