Saxophone Forum

by MyOldSax
(3 posts)
2 months ago

Should I tune to equal tempered intonation?

I'm very confused about how saxophones should be tuned.


Yes, I already know that one uses a combination of the cork and embouchure to tune, and that in the shop, one also uses key height and possibly pad shape to affect relative tuning. And I know that embouchure changes are needed to tune partly because the sax doesn't have nearly as many keyholes as notes.


But for band play, at a college or professional level, should one be tuning to equal tempered pitch (i.e., each halftone is a twelfth root of two frequency ratio)?


I'm told by a violinist that for modern orchestral play, depending on the music style, people often use some variation of just tuning, so that one tries to be close to something akin to "perfect" (small integer frequency ratio) intervals when playing simultaneously, and that the exact pitches people play also drift depending on prior notes. Also that the flatted and sharped tones are distinct (i.e., there are more than twelve pitches per octave).


I'm also told that acoustic pianos, in modern play, use "stretch tuning", because the harmonics of real world strings go slightly sharp at higher harmonic numbers, even at octaves, due to the inherent stiffness of strings. And that in theory wind instruments, including saxophones, have somewhat the same issue because (I'm not sure I have this exactly right), the effective length of an open pipe extends a little beyond the length of the pipe, in a manner that depends on the wavelength and other things. And there have been some studies which showed that power of two frequency ratios, especially at high octave spans, sound a little flat to trained human ears.


But I'm not sure what I should be using for saxophone - specifically in concert band or wind ensemble use.


The easiest thing to learn to do would be to tune to twelfth root of two equal tempered pitches, because there are lots of smartphone tuner apps that do that. But I'm not sure that is right.


I'm a senior citizen, looking to return to playing at a recreational level. I mostly stopped after high school. I thought I was good, but when I tried to play a few years ago with a community band (whose members were mostly professional musicians or post-graduate performance music majors), I learned otherwise, and among other things that I had not had the ear training expected at advanced level. (I received a little guidance from the saxophone section leader, who told me that each section leader in that band tries to tune in consonance to the concert mistress, and the rest of the section should try to tune in consonance to the section leader. But that guidance wasn't more specific.) 

And incidentally, my old horns are out of tune, for various reasons. (I took one to a shop, but they did a genuinely awful job - literally a quarter tone off on some notes, possibly because (??) the tuner used a different mouthpiece than I use - mine is an old Selmer Soloist C*, and the horn is a late model Mark VI.) I think the tech tried to tune by using nominal distances with a micrometer, and a modern mouthpiece. And when he was done, one pad still leaked a bit. (I've also an older Bundy (2??) student horn, that I used in rain, sleet and snow in a marching band, that needs more work than it is worth. I might try to learn to change pads and modify key heights on that - see


I found an old book

  J. Murray Barbour,Tuning and Temperament; A Historical Survey,1951

but it may be out of date, and is mostly about early keyboard and string instruments. It is possible the writer didn't know much about wind instruments, and modern band play conventions. It did mention that intonation depends on the style of the music - e.g., that chorals and music that has more modal modulations use different tuning.


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  1. by MyOldSax
    (3 posts)

    2 months ago

    Re: Should I tune to equal tempered intonation?

    Oops, I should have clarified that the tendency of string and wind instruments to play harmonics sharp is relative to integer frequency ratios, not to tempered pitch.

     And it might not be universal - to some extent, it's possible instruments are sometimes shaped to modify that somewhat.

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