#87 How To Play In Tune On Sax

technique Sep 13, 2020

My favourite sax saying of all time is "you're better to be sharp than out of tune"! This is SO true for saxophonists I'm afraid to say. However, as you'll learn today, the odds are against you and it's vital to be aware of this and know how to adjust your tuning on a note to note basis to sound better.

Be sure to pick up your free PDF cheatsheet for this lesson, which has got all the main points from the lesson, plus the examples I demonstrate. Here are the Q&A topics covered in this lesson, with video time stamps (min:sec). Clicking on the time stamp will take you straight to that portion of the video on YouTube (in a separate tab). Full Time stamps for the video and a complete transcript are at the bottom of the blog.


What does playing in tune mean? (2:23)

  • playing in tune means that the note you are playing has a vibrational frequency that matches the frequency that has been agreed upon as being correct for that note. In most of the world the reference pitch is A=440Hz, although historically this wasn't the case and still isn't the case in some countries.
  • in a more general sense, being "in tune" means the note sounds pleasantly resonant with other notes in a chord, or other players in an ensemble. The whole ensemble might be playing sharper than A 440Hz, but if everyone is in tune with each other it would said to be in tune.
  • notes that are played sharp (too high) or too flat (too low) "grate" on the ears and sound "off".
  • one big problem with tuning together is that we all hear pitch slightly differently. So one musician may think and hear that they're in tune, when a digital tuner will show them to be consistency off. The ear and brain has to be retrained to become accustomed to what perfect tuning sounds like.
  • musicians can be very spiky about their sense of tuning, so proceed with caution when mentioning it! (1:39)


Why is it hard to play sax in tune? (4:10)

  • due to unavoidable physics that compromise the acoustics of the instrument, every saxophone will be inherently out of tune for a given embouchure pressure and vocal tract formation. In other words, some notes will play flatter than others, and and some notes will play sharper than others. Unless the performers makes continuous subtle adjustments, they will sound of of tune.
  • the ambient temperature will make a big difference to the pitch of a saxophone. If it's cold it will be flat and if it's hot it will be sharp.
  • in general saxes are usually flat at the bottom end and sharp at the high end, with many other regional variations.
  • having an incorrect amount of embouchure pressure or vocal tract formation will result in faulty intonation on sax. Unless the performer understands this they will play out of tune.


Should I pull my mouthpiece off or push it on to get in tune? (5:45)

  • pulling the mouthpiece further off the cork will make the effective length of the sax longer, making the sound flatter, or lower. If your pitch is consistently sharp (too high) then you should pull off slightly.
  • pushing the mouthpiece further on to the cork will make the effective length of the sax shorter, making the sound sharper, or higher. If your pitch is consistently flat (too low) then you should push on slightly.
  • remember this though - you should only use your mouthpiece position on the cork as a rough guide to compensate for extremes of temperature, or an out of tune ensemble. The real work of staying in tune should be done with your vocal tract.


How should I adjust my tuning when I'm playing sax? (6:48)

  •  as mentioned above, the mouthpiece's position on the cork should only be used to get in the ball park, tuning-wise. The real work should be done by subtle movements in your vocal tract/larynx.
  • don't use embouchure pressure to changes to adjust your tuning as it will compromise your tone.
  • if you lower the position of your larynx (voice box) in your throat the pitch of the note will go down without compromising your tone (7:35). Arching your front/middle tongue towards the roof of your mouth will have the same effect, but not as dramatic (7:58).
  • (8:39) it's much easier to pitch notes down than it is to pitch them up, so I recommend setting your mouthpiece slightly more pushed on (sharper) than normal, then sink down the pitch slightly to settle on the right tuning. This gives you headroom to compensate for any flat notes on your instrument.
  • (9:15) a final alternative is to compensate for out of tune notes on your instrument by adding additional fingerings that alter the pitch of the note. For example, whilst playing a middle E you can add the low Bb or low B key (10:10).


How do I know if I'm in tune or not? (10:25)

  • the easiest way to find out if you're in tune is to use a digital tuner. This could be an app on your phone, or a stand alone tuner. Tonal Energy make a good app and Korg make good stand alone tuners.
  • each semitone is divided into cents, or 100ths of a semitone, and your tuner will probably show how many cents flat or sharp you are.
  • if you are playing inane ensemble and you want to check your tuning you have to use a tuner with a vibration setting. I use a Snark.
  • (11:34) use your digital tuner to hone your intonation, but remember that in a performance situation it's best to be intuitive tune how the music sounds best, not just what the needle says!


What is the Equally Tempered Scale? (12:40)

  •  the equally tempered scale is a tuning system with the same frequency difference between every semitone. The gap between each semitone is exactly the same i.e. an octave divided by 12. This is how a fixed pitch instrument like a piano or marimba is tuned.
  • using more natural ratios, or the Just Tempered Scale makes music sound more pleasing to the ear, but this can only be done on instruments able to vary pitch like woodwinds, brass, voice or strings


How do I sound more in tune than simply in tune? (12:40)

  • by using the just tempered scale, you can adjust the pitch of certain notes, depending on what note you are playing in a chord.
  • the easiest one to start with, and one of the only one you need to worry about really, is adjusting the third of a chord.
  • (14:34) for a major chord flatten the third a bit (-14 cents to be precise, but don't worry about that too much).
  • (15:20) for a minor chord sharpen the third a bit  (+16 cents to be precise, but again, don't worry about that too much)


So that's it for this week. I hope you enjoyed learning why you're probably out of tune and what to do about it. Don't forget to get your free PDF cheatsheet for this lesson, which has got all the main points from the lesson, plus the examples I demonstrate. Next week, you'll learn the ripping baritone riff from "Moanin" by Charles Mingus, made famous by Leo P at The Proms. Until then, keep practicing smart and I'll see you later! 

Jamie :-)


Video Timestamps

0:00 - lesson intro and theme music

0:31 - about tuning

1:04 - how to get your free PDF

1:15 - how to get your free one hour masterclass

1:39 - why tuning starts wars!

2:23 - we all hear pitch slightly differently

3:09 - quiet notes sound sharper

3:37 - the importance of good intonation

4:10 - why saxophonists are out of tune

5:35 - how to adjust your tuning

5:45 - mouthpiece position on the cork

6:48 - using your vocal tract to adjust tuning

7:35 - pitch bend demo using larynx 

7:58 - using your tongue to adjust tuning

8:17 - pitch bend demo using tongue arch

8:39 - why to tune sharp on the cork

9:15 - using alternative fingerings to adjust tuning

10:10 - pitch change demo using alternative fingering

10:25 - using a digital tuner

11:34 - be musical and intuitive with your intonation

12:40 - next level ninja intonation

14:34 - flattening the third on a major demo

15:20 - sharpening the third on a minor demo

16:06 - tuning a major and minor chord same note demo

16:46 - why tuning is a moving target

17:24 - lesson recap

18:07 - sign off

19:00 - end music and bloopers 


Video Transcript

Hi, I’m pro saxophonist Jamie Anderson and you’re watching Get Your Sax Together. Every week I sax up your Sunday with free lessons covering technique, tips on improvising and my unique breakdowns of the world’s most famous sax lines. In today’s free online saxophone lesson you’re gonna learn one of the most important and neglected aspects of playing, and that is intonation, or how to play in tune.


Intonation is a huge topic to cover in one lesson, so I’m going to try and hit some of the most important topics without going on for too long. This all applies if you’re a beginner on sax, or an intermediate and if you play alto, tenor or any other sax. You’ll learn how to tune notes, why you’re probably out of tune at the moment and how to use an electronic tuner, and keep watching to the end as I show you how to take YOUR intonation to the next level! In this lesson we’re gonna try and unpack all this intonation stuff, but just before we do, let me quickly remind you that you can get your free PDF worksheet for this video by clicking the link in the description. That has all the main points from today’s lesson in a handy cheat sheet that you can print off and keep on your music stand. Also, if you’re enjoying this channel, go and check out my FREE one hour Saxophone Success Masterclass, which is an awesome, special extended lesson with me, covering a bunch of essential saxophone topics. This could REALLY transform your playing immediately, so jump on board by clicking the link in the description or use the URL below. Right, let’s get on with the lesson, and get in tune!

[STING: The Out Of Tune Elephant In The Room]

If there’s one thing that’s certain to sow the seeds of discontent in any professional playing situation it’s intonation. Wars have been fought over less, and many friendships have been ruined over tuning! For some reason, the topic of tuning seems to trigger a deep and personal emotional response in musicians, and I have no idea why. You would offend someone LESS by saying they stink compared to saying they’re playing out of tune, and I’ve seen and experienced this for myself first hand on many occasions. Here’s a word of advice - be very careful about telling someone they’re playing out of tune. Be as diplomatic you can, and be prepared to eat some humble pie along the way. I remember on Jersey Boys we all bought Snark tuners at one point to try and resolve the “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality that was rearing its ugly head every night, and it proved to be a very enlightening experience for all concerned. It turned out that at various times, ALL the horns in the pit were out of tune! lol And this highlights the fact that we all hear pitch slightly differently. One man’s sharp is another man’s flat. I remember hearing Jackie McClean play live once and to my ear he was LEMON SUCKINGLY sharp. I’m talking at least a quarter tone sharp, but I’m sure that if you asked him he would say he was in tune, and this is true for all of us. We all hear intonation differently. It’s like the old saying that I love regarding alto saxophonists - “you’re better to be sharp than out of tune” lol. But intonation is even more nuanced than individual perception, because the human brain perceives pitch differently at different VOLUMES as well. A note played very quietly will appear sharper to our ears compared to the same played loudly at exactly the same pitch. And as we’ll see later, the story doesn’t end there, as being perfectly tune is not the same as the equally tempered scale that we hear on a piano or see on a digital tuner. That’s a lot to deal with - but when you get this stuff together, it will make a HUGE difference to how good you sound. Huge. One of the most instant identifiers of a beginner, quite apart from tone and timing, is how out of tune they play. Trying to play a gig with someone who has faulty intonation is like hell on earth to me, whereas doing a gig with a fantastic musician who has impeccable tuning is like a dream come true, it’s just so easy and enjoyable. Let’s start by looking at some of intonation problems we face as saxophonists. 

[STING: Why The Game Isn’t Fair]

It’s no co-incidence that saxophonists are often out of tune. The dice are totally loaded against us from the start. Number one - the saxophone itself is inherently out of tune. Unavoidable flaws in the physics of the saxophone mean that different notes are either flat or sharp. These inconsistencies vary from instrument to instrument, but some common problems are low D and Eb being flat, middle B and C playing flat, second octave D, Eb and E being sharp and high C# playing sharp. Every instrument will have many more discrepancies, but those are a few of the common ones, along with an overall tendencies for low notes to be flat and high notes to be sharp. Also - the ambient temperature makes a big difference to tuning. We don’t just say do a warm up for no reason. As well as warming up our physical muscular systems, the brass and air inside your sax needs to warm up or you’ll sound flat. Just try playing in a freezing rehearsal studio or in a marching band outside on a cold day to experience this for yourself. And by the same token, on a boiling hot stage on a sweaty gig, your sax will play really sharp. Even reeds make a difference to intonation, with softer reeds tending to blow flatter. The moral of the story is this - it’s not your fault that you play out of tune, but you’ve gotta learn how to do something about it!

[STING: How To Adjust Your Tuning]

The first thing you’ll see an inexperienced saxophonist do to get in tune is constantly fiddle about with the position of their mouthpiece. But hang on - it’s the position of the mouthpiece on the cork that puts you in tune right? Wrong. 

The position of your mouthpiece on the neck should only be a ball park guide. Push your mouthpiece ON to make the sax sharper, and pull OFF to make it flatter. This stands to reason - pushing the mouthpiece further on the cork will make a slightly shorter tube length, that makes a higher pitch and vice versa. My advice is to adjust your mouthpiece on the cork to compensate for extremes of ambient temperature, but beyond that my mouthpiece is almost always on the same position on the cork. If it’s really cold, push on a bit, if it’s a roasting gig, pull off a bit. What you SHOULDN’T be doing is constantly tinkering about. If you’re consistently flat across the whole instrument, push on, if you’re consistently sharp, pull out, but don’t get drawn into the game of trying to get individual notes in tune with the mouthpiece position. What you SHOULD be doing is using your vocal tract, and possibly your tongue, to fine tune the pitch of each note as you play it.

[STING: Using your vocal tract]

You’ll often hear people say “lip it up”, or words to that effect, but this is not something you should LITERALLY do. If you use your jaw to push your bottom lip up onto the reed you’ll narrow your tip opening, stifle the reed and get a thin horrible sound. Instead, use your vocal tract to adjust the pitch. Full details on using your vocal tract and how it works can be found in my altissimo video, linked above now, but basically, you can adjust the position of your larynx to vary the pitch of a note. Lowering the position of your larynx lowers the pitch of a note and vice versa. It’s helpful to practice with your mouthpiece, but remember when you use the full horn you’ll only be able to bend the notes a fraction of what you can with just the mouthpiece.

[demo lowering pitch with larynx. MP and horn.]

To a lesser degree the same thing can be done by keeping the tip of your tongue down and forward but arching the front and middle portion up. Arching your tongue UP will bring the pitch DOWN. This is slightly more difficult to teach, but I’ll be covering it in full in my new Total Tone Mastery course coming soon.

[demo tongue pitch. MP and horn]

You’ll find that it’s much easier to bend notes DOWN than it is to pitch them UP. For this reason, I tune my saxophone every so slightly sharp on the cork, then use my vocal tract to ease down into the correct pitch. If I have any flat notes it’s then much easier to get them without trying to strain to raise the pitch. It’s important to get familiar with what notes are flat and what notes are sharp on your sax, and instantly adjust those notes as you play. After a while it’ll become second nature, but only if you consciously and diligently work at it over a period of time with a digital tuner.

[STING: Using Alternative Fingerings]

Your number one concern should be playing all the notes on the instrument in tune, with the regular fingerings, however, this video wouldn’t be complete unless I said that you CAN use alternative fingerings on some notes to adjust the pitch. There are far too many to list in full here, and they are very personal to each player, but as an example, take a middle E. This is a pretty sharp note on my mark six, so sometimes I like to add my low Bb key to the standard E fingering. This brings the pitch down quite a bit and I won’t have to use my vocal tract to adjust it. Just be aware that these alternate fingerings will also change the timbre of the notes slightly. Watch the pitch dip down flatter as I add that low Bb key to the E. You can experiment with your own weird combos, and if you’ve got some good ones, please share them in the comments below so I can try them out!

[demo flattening E with low Bb key]

[STING: Using A Digital Tuner]

In the bad old days you’d just crack a tuning fork on something and put it on a table to resonate while you tried to match the pitch. Luckily we all now have access to digital tuners, which makes life a lot easier. I’d say it’s a virtually indispensable tool for any saxophonist who wants to sound better. If you’re playing on your own, you can either get a posh app on your phone like Tonal Energy, or a stand alone digital tuner. I’ve had a Korg combined tuner and metronome for years now and I love it. If you’re playing in an ensemble situation, you can still check your tuning in real time by using a Snark tuner or something similar. This type of tuner has a vibration setting. The microphone is off and it’s just the vibration of the metal that gives the tuning, so you can be playing a chord with other instruments and still know where you are. I like to put mine on the neck, where the vibration is strongest, although it also works on the bell. The only problem with the Snark’s is that the ball joint is continuously breaking. We used to have a graveyard of broken Snark’s in our theatre pit, so treat them carefully. 

[STING: Don’t Be “Wrongly” Right]

An important thing to bear in mind whilst using a tuner, is that the pitch that sounds best on a gig may not be the pitch where the needle is on zero. It’s extremely unmusical to be self righteously “correct” with your note, while the chord would sound better if you just matched everyone else. Although the horn section may be a little sharp or whatever, it’ll sound better if raise your pitch a little and match it. If the horn section as a whole is relatively in tune, it won’t matter much if it’s a bit off perfect pitch in the grand scheme of things. In other words, use the tuner as a tool, but always use your ears and put the music first. For example, if I’m playing in Incognito and it’s a hot gig, and there are five unison Es in a row, with the trumpet on a high E, I’m not gonna play them on the green then turn to the trumpet player and say “hey man, I think you were a bit sharp there”. I just KNOW that those trumpet notes are gonna be sharp in that situation, so I’ll play my E a bit sharper to make the trumpet player sound better.

[STING: Next Level Tuning]

I promised I’d give you a tip for taking your intonation to ninja level, so here’s it is. Counterintuitive as it may seem, not all notes in the major scale sound best evenly divided into identical semitone increments. A piano is tuned like that, for sure, but just as the greatest curse of sax is that we have the flexibility to play OUT of tune, we also have the gift of being able to play MORE in tune than a fixed pitch instrument like piano or marimba. I don’t have time to go into the full story of the equally tempered scale versus the just tempered scale, but suffice to say, when we use naturally occurring ratios, chords sound better if the pitch of certain notes is adjusted. For this video I’m only going to focus on the most important adjustment, and that is to the third of the chord. When we’re talking about tuning, we divide each semitone into cents. A cent is a hundredth of a semitone, and often your digital tuner will be marked in cents. If you are fifty cents sharp on a note, you could equally be fifty cents flat on the note above, if that makes sense! Anyway, in a MAJOR chord, the third should be flattened by about fourteen cents, and in a MINOR chord the third should be raised by about sixteen cents. Don’t get too concerned about the exact number of cents though, just remember to flatten major thirds a bit and sharpen minor thirds a bit. I’ll now demonstrate this, so you can hear it for yourself. I’ll play a concert Bb major chord with three tenor saxes. That’s a C major chord for tenor, the root C, the major third E and the fifth G. I’ll play the C and G together first, and both these notes will be on zero on the tuner. I’ll then add the third, the E. First at equally tempered pitch, then I’ll flatten it. It’s subtle, but hopefully you’ll be able to hear that the chord settles down when the third is flattened, and it just sounds, well, better!

[demo C major chord on 3 tenors]

Now, if the chord is minor, that third should be sharpened. This time we’ll use a C# minor chord for tenor. I’ll do the same thing again, but using this minor chord instead. I’ll play the root, C#, and the fifth, G#, at perfect pitch, then I’ll add the third, the E, at perfect pitch, then make it slightly sharper. Hopefully you’ll notice the chord sound better when I sharpen that E.

[demo C# minor]

Finally I’ll demonstrate an interesting quirk of playing perfectly in tune. If the music has a C major chord, then a C# minor chord, but in the ensemble I’m holding a long E throughout, then in the middle of the note I actually need to change my tuning to match the chord. Weird huh? I’m gonna hit that E slightly flat for the C major chord, then make it slightly sharp for the C# minor chord. Check this out…

[demo C to C# minor]

Now bear in mind, this is an advanced concept - you need to be aware of what key you’re in, what chord you’re playing, and what note you’re on in that particular chord, and even most professional musicians won’t do that, although most wind and string players will probably do it subconsciously. The point I’m getting across here is that tuning is not a fixed target. Yes, start by practicing every note in tune with a tuner, but be aware that in a real musical situation things are more fluid. You can even start playing slightly sharper to have more of an exciting emotional impact in your solos. And it’s worth remembering that using a reference pitch of A as 440 Hertz hasn’t always been the case, and still isn’t the case in many countries. Once again, pitch is a relative and flexible concept, but one that you should start to become more aware of if you wanna sound better as a saxophonist.

[STING: Recap]

Let’s have a very quick recap of what we’ve learned today then.

  1. Tuning makes a huge difference to how good you sound
  2. Your saxophone is inherently out of tune so deal with it
  3. Don’t fiddle about with your mouthpiece position too much, just use it for general ball park tuning
  4. Don’t use your lip to tune, instead use your vocal tract or even your tongue
  5. Get a digital tuner to practice with and get familiar with adjusting certain notes on your instrument 
  6. In a performance situation, make sure you put the music first and try and tune intuitively, doing what sounds best, not just what’s on the tuner screen

[STING: Before You Go]

Hopefully you’ve learned something today, or at the very least become more are of what you already knew. Don’t forget to pick up your free PDF cheatsheet from the link in the description, and if you wanna learn some more in-depth sax stuff go to double-u double-u double-u dot get your sax together dot com, forward slash masterclass to get your free one hour lesson with me. As always, thanks for watching and supporting me and if you’re loving this channel, give the video a thumbs up, leave me a comment, subscribe to the channel, click the bell icon to be notified when I upload new content and check out my Insta and Facebook pages. Next Sunday you’ll be learning the ripping baritone riff from Moanin’ by Charles Mingus, made famous by Leo P at the proms. Until then, thanks for watching and have fun practicing. See Ya!


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