The Brass Section
The Woodwinds
Chorales and the Full Band
An Instant 'Chorale'


While tuning is simple act of adjusting a length of tubing on a wind instrument (often by reference to a single note), intonation is an ongoing process in which a player strives to match the pitch of others in the ensemble during performance.  Unfortunately, the general level of intonation of an ensemble is not simply dependent upon the listening skills of the performers – although this is probably the most important variable. (If this is the main problem in your band, check out the section on ear training). Intonation can also be influenced by a whole variety of factors. 

Players with weak embouchers tend to play flat in the low register. Intonation is affected by the key (wind instrument designs tends to favor flats rather than sharps), the endurance of the players, and the quality of the available instruments.   Intonation can even be affected by the extent to which performers who are resting keep their instruments warm by gently blowing through them (see the section on pitch and temperature).

Generally speaking, a weak embouchure will result in the low register being flat because the lip muscles are not held firm. A player with a badly formed embouchure also tends to overestimate the tension needed in the high register, sometimes causing him to play sharp. This can happen regardless of the intonation tendencies of the instrument.

The Brass Section

As I pointed out in the section on music and physics, brass instruments utilize various partials of the harmonic series in order to make them truly chromatic.  Since several partials, notably the 7th, 11th and 13th, are not in tune with the equal temperament scale, they are substituted with other lengths of tubing by means of rotary or piston valves.   Use of the first valve lowers the fundamental by a tone, the second valve by a semitone and the third by a tone and a half.  These valves can also be used in various combinations, thus giving the player no less than seven harmonic series from which to choose.

The Valve System

Unfortunately, if the instrument is constructed in such a way that the notes played with a single valve depressed are in tune, the notes played by using these valves in combination are not.  The 1-3 combination, for example, is quite sharp while the 1-2-3 combination is very sharp.  To compensate for this, the tubing attached to the third valve is made a bit longer.  This puts the 1-3 and the 1-2-3 combination better in tune (though they are still a bit sharp), but results in the 2-3 combination being slightly flat. Further refinements include the addition of a fourth valve on euphoniums and tubas. Brass instruments tend to play sharp in their low register Trumpets and cornets sometimes come with a ring or trigger on the third valve slide (and sometimes also on the first) to provide further help, while many trombones also have trigger mechanisms.  Even so, it is important that the player listens carefully and uses his embouchure to make fine adjustments when playing.

The inherent sharpness of the 1-3 and 1-2-3 combinations means that - all other things being equal - most brass instruments tend to play sharp in their lowest register. All things are not equal, of course, and beginners often tend to play flat in the low register instead.


The ability of a player to use his lips to correct the pitch of a faulty note varies greatly between the higher and the lower brasses.  This is because the business of forcing a column of air to vibrate at a frequency other than the one that should be produced naturally by the length of the tube (i.e. to sound certain upper partials) becomes progressively more difficult as the vibrating columns become longer.  In this sense, a trumpet is much more under the control of the player’s lips than just about any other brass instrument.  Trombone players can deal with the problem by adjusting their trombone slide, while French horn players can approach the issue by varying their hand positions.  Tuba and euphonium players, on the other hand, have no such means of overcoming the difficulty. This implies – at the very least – that whereas a trigger or ring mechanism fitted to a trumpet or cornet may be considered almost a luxury, the use of a fourth valve on the tuba or euphonium is essential.

The Trombone

Because of the way in which it is constructed, the trombone is probably the only musical instrument capable of being played perfectly in tune.  By the same token, however, this same design can result in the trombone section of the band being the one where intonation problems can be most acute.  The secret is in the placement of the slide positions.

The gap between slide positions increases as the position number increases. Many secondary school players tend to play second and third position notes flat, while notes produced on the fifth, sixth and seventh position tend to be sharp.   Band directors often react to this problem by demanding that their students listen more carefully to what they are playing.  True enough, but many beginners would also find it helpful to be informed that the gap between slide positions increases as the position number increases.  In other words, the distance between sixth and seventh position is greater than the distance between the second and third position.

Buzzing on the Mouthpiece

Resolving these intonation issues requires time, effort and a great deal of patience.  One exercise, which can be used to help develop proper breathing habits as well as improve endurance and general intonation, is to buzz on the mouthpiece.   At first, students unused to this exercise may be unenthusiastic, particularly if any woodwind players present find the activity amusing. The benefits to be gained so far outweigh any short-term embarrassment, however, that the approach is well worth pursuing.

Students should be encouraged to take deep breaths and buzz loudly.  Begin with long notes (any pitch will do at first), then proceed to intervals and finally to some well-known tunes. 

Try to buzz a standard four part chorale. At first, everyone should buzz in unison.  After some weeks of regular practice, however, it should be possible for the brass section to attempt to buzz a standard chorale in four-part harmony.  Another good exercise with young students is to play “Name That Tune” at every lesson.  This involves students taking turns buzzing a tune for the teacher or other students to identify. Players who can do this well will have little difficulty producing a centered tone when using their instrument.

Begin the brass section’s chorale study by repeatedly playing the music in the normal way so that everyone has had ample opportunity to memorize his or her respective part.  Then assign a four-man ensemble to play the chorale softly (an exercise in itself!), while everyone else attempts to buzz at the correct pitch.  Do not forget to insist on proper breathing.  Repeat the exercise several times, selecting a different quartet each time.  Then, as a finale, ask everyone to pick up his or her instrument and play.  You will be pleasantly surprised at the improvement in the tonal quality of the section


In some ways, the intonation problems facing the woodwind section far exceed those of the brasses. This is because there is less uniformity in the way woodwind instruments are designed. In fact, the pitch tendencies of the various instrumental subgroups can be quite different.  As in the case of the brasses, compromises inherent in the various designs also result in a situation in which no woodwind instrument is perfectly in tune, even with itself.

Flutes, Clarinets, Oboes

Most modern flutes, for example, have tone holes that are equal in size, whereas in purely acoustical terms they should be graduated.  It is therefore wise to be aware of potentially off-key notes. This helps prepare a player to make the necessary embouchure adjustments or employ alternative fingerings whenever they may be needed. The most seriously off-pitch note is usually C sharp in the treble staff and - to a lesser extent - C sharp above the staff.

Quiet clarinet passages tend to be sharp. The intonation tendencies of the flute and oboe are almost exactly the opposite of the clarinet.  Flutes and oboes tend to play sharp in louder sections and in the high register, and flat in quieter sections and in the low register.  Clarinets, on the other hand, tend to be flat on high notes and sharp on low ones. But while this is the basic tendency of the instrument, a weak embouchure or a lack of air support sometimes results in young clarinettists playing flat in the low register instead. Quiet clarinet passages will also tend to be sharp.  Considering the fact that the clarinet, flute and oboe often play melodies in unison, the resulting intonation problems can be quite marked.

Added to this is the fact that flute players often double on the piccolo, an instrument whose intonation tendencies have more in common with the clarinet than the flute.  A piccolo’s middle register tends to be sharp, while its upper register tends to be flat.

Because sound wavelengths on high notes are very short, even small pitch variations within the flute and clarinet sections can produce a good deal of interference.  The result can be much more annoying than if a group of bass clarinetists, baritone saxophone or even tuba players are slightly out of tune with each other. 

It is not easy to "lip up" with a clarinet Clarinet players have yet another problem in that it is not so easy to “lip up” (actually done with the jaw) than on other instruments.  In fact, trying to match a sharp pitch with a clarinet can actually hurt the lower lip.  If the clarinet section sounds flat (and adjusting the barrels does not solve the problem), it may be wise to consider the possibility of getting the ensemble to tune down to match them.  However, this strategy risks producing an excessively dark tone colour and may even create intonation problems elsewhere in the ensemble.  It should therefore be done only as a last resort.


The bassoon has many intonation problems.  For one thing, the difference in pitch between a cold bassoon and one that has been played for about half an hour is greater than on any other woodwind instrument.  Lipping a note into tune is possible but, unlike most wind instruments, is not often recommended because it tends to change the tone quality. Another approach is to employ alternate fingerings, especially in slow passages. Notes in the extreme lower register of the bassoon tend to be sharp, as does the G and G-sharp in the middle and upper registers.  When playing loudly the pitch tends to become flat, while playing softly tends to make the pitch become sharp.


Saxophones have fewer inherent pitch problems than most other woodwinds.  Intonation problems can still be found within the saxophone section of the average secondary school wind band, however.  This is probably because the instrument is so easy to play initially that many music directors tend to neglect the section.  Built-in design flaws tend to result in the instrument playing flat on notes in the moderately high register (leger lines immediately above the treble clef) and sharp on those in the low register (just below the treble clef).

There are quite a few saxophonists who play sharp in the extreme upper register. 
This is the reason inexperienced alto saxophone players in particular tend to play flat in the upper register and sharp in the lower one. Fourth line D on the saxophone is also usually flat, as is third space C sharp. In the extreme upper register there are also quite a few saxophonists who play sharp.  However, this is not so much a design problem as it is the result of the player pinching the reed or biting down on the mouthpiece.

The quality of the instrument and how well it has been cared for are issues worth considering.  If the keys open too wide, for example, the pitch will tend to be sharp.  As in the case of clarinet players, young saxophonists also tend to play flat on loud passages and sharp on soft ones.


Reeds also affect pitch.  A hard reed may be more difficult to control, but it does assist in proper embouchure development.  Even so, it is worth remembering that a hard reed will tend to play sharp while softer ones tend to play flat.  Reeds that are old or water-soaked tend to become soft.

Unfortunately, because reeds are not as flexible as the lips of brass players, the woodwinds do not lend themselves to the sort of buzzing exercises I have advocated for the brass section.  Double reed players can come fairly close, however. William Woodward ["Oboes Can Play in Tune" Bandworld Vol. 5 No.4,  March-April 1990] has suggested two exercises designed to help develop a flexible oboe embouchure. The first consists of having the student play a 5-note scale on the reed alone. The second exercise is for the music director to play a pitch and have the student match it using only the reed.


Other woodwind players can also adjust their embouchures to control intonation.  Clarinet and saxophone players who play too sharp are often biting on the mouthpiece, while those who are too flat can usually correct the problem by tightening their embouchures.  Intonation problems on the flute, on the other hand, usually have to do with the angle of the air-stream.  If the air-stream is directed too much into the flute the pitch will tend to be flat.  Raising the head or (even better) moving the jaw should correct the problem.  If too much of the air-stream is directed toward the outer edge of the embouchure hole the pitch will be sharp.

Chorales and the Full Band

The role of chorale playing in developing good intonation, not to mention correct phrasing and breathing habits, is well known. Unfortunately, few secondary school bands practice these exercises with any sort of consistency.  In fact, it almost seems as if band members would rather visit a dentist and have a tooth drilled than play chorales with anything approaching enthusiasm.  In some ways, it is hard not to be sympathetic. 

 Playing chorales may never become fun.  
Chorales are invariably slow and uninteresting to young ears, and the time spent on them can irritate a school band anxious to play a favorite march or Benny Goodman transcription. Playing chorales may never become fun, but band directors should probably spend more time than they do inventing little variations that will cut down on the monotony while at the same time enhancing the band’s listening skills.

Needless to say, chorales should be sung as well as played.  By way of preparation, band members should be given plenty of opportunity to memorize their respective parts by playing the chorale through several times.   The members of the ensemble should then be asked to sing and play the chorale alternately on their respective instruments. As an additional variation, ask the brass section to play the first two bars and the woodwinds to play the third and fourth bars and so on.  This encourages band members to listen to each other and forces everyone to be on their toes with correctly pitched entrances.

 Try adapting a march or other largely chordal piece. 
Richard Otto [Effective Methods of Building the High School Band, Parker Publishing, New York, 1971] has suggested yet another approach to good intonation that does not involve playing a chorale at all. Instead, the band director selects a march or other largely chordal work familiar to the band and asks the players to sustain the first note of each measure as a whole note, proceeding in this way from measure to measure for the first four to eight bars.  This approach has a huge advantage over the traditional chorale, since it helps to make a direct link between the intonation exercise and the music being prepared for performance.

An Instant "Chorale"

The following instant 'chorale' can be used to check the intonation of a band on some basic diatonic chords. It is a simple three-part round that is easy to memorise and can be played in virtually any key. It is written out below for Bb clarinets or trumpets, but can easily be adapted for other sections of the band (such as the trombone section), or even the entire ensemble. It serves as a good warm-up when no suitable chorale is immediately available.

Notice the successive unisons in the third bar between the first and second voice, the first and third voice and the second and third voice. These provide a useful means of checking for  intonation, as does the final unison in the fourth bar.

Numerous variations on this basic scheme are possible, such as varying the rhythm, beginning with a descending scale or playing in a minor key. The following example is much more difficult than it looks to play well because of the augmented and diminished chords created by the minor tonality.