Intonation: A Game Changer for Achieving a Mature Ensemble Sound

Mike Lawson • • August 30, 2018

Share This:

While some concepts such as phrasing are relatively straightforward to address, intonation can be tough for young players to grasp and is an ongoing process.

But spending even a little time regularly working on individual and ensemble tuning with students will lead to noticeable improvements in your ensemble’s sound! Here are some practical, effective suggestions:

Planting Seeds

The concept of intonation should be introduced in small doses- planting seeds as opposed to lengthy explanations – as soon as students can sustain a stable tone on their instrument. A simple way to do this is for you and a proficient student to play a note in tune together, followed by you bending your note markedly out of tune, and then back into tune. This can be done in three, separate tones (in-out-in) or during a single long tone. Regardless, in discussing what students hear, use vocabulary that conveys what is meant by flat (low, sour, or weak), and sharp (high, edgy, or shrill). I describe the dissonance of playing out of tune as “having a musical argument.”

See if students can identify whether your tone drifted up or down. Even a quick ensemble tuning, directing students with noticeable issues to make adjustments, plants seeds as well. In doing so students:

1. learn that intonation is important to you

2. hear you use the words “sharp” and “flat” in context

3. learn how to make the appropriate adjustments for their instrument

4. experience what it sounds and feels like to play more in tune

Tuning Tech—Seeing Is Believing

A picture really is worth a thousand words! Mobile device tuning apps, or the tuner built into SmartMusic, can be a big help. Kids love working with these apps and—with parent permission—may be able to download and use them independently.

Nurturing Growth

Once seeds of intonation have been planted, it’s time to let students try making decisions themselves. When tuning, begin asking students to make their best guess and adjust. If they are apprehensive, tell them “The worst that can happen if you choose wrong is you’ll sound worse. Then you can adjust in the opposite direction!” To instill a sense of playing with a centered pitch, I recommend having students play along with a reference sound (teacher, recording, SmartMusic accompaniment, piano, etc.) and the use of interval warm- ups (such as the Expanding Intervals exercises in the Sound Innovations Ensemble Development books). Through repetition, students develop an aural concept of each interval. Hold certain notes as fermatas to allow students to remove any tuning tension.

Tuning in Pairs

One of my favorite ways to tune a section or the entire band is to tune successive, adjacent pairs of players. Some great material for employing this approach can be found in the Passing the Tonic exercises in all three levels of the Sound Innovations Ensemble Development books. As a note is passed from player to player around the ensemble, players listen and adjust so their sound “disappears” into their neighbors.

Tune a Band Like You Tune a Guitar

A guitarist typically tunes each string individually, then sounds a chord to hear how the strings ring and resonate together. I recommend tuning an ensemble similarly: first tune individual players (the older the player, the greater the player’s responsibility for tuning

him/herself), then have a section or the entire ensemble sustain a vertical sonority together so you can listen for tuning tensions that still have not been resolved. The opening or closing chords of most pieces, or a work’s climax, serve perfectly for this.

Awareness Makes a Difference

Like many educators around the country each school year, I must craft a “Student Learning Objective” as part of my teacher evaluation process. Last year I chose an intonation awareness SLO. The goal was simply for second year players to know how to read a tuning app and make the appropriate adjustment if necessary. Despite such a modest, “awareness” approach, I was pleased with the results. With younger players, we’re often tickled when students just play the correct notes and rhythms! Nonetheless, by planting seeds of tuning awareness and understanding along the way, your band’s sound will grow to be more pleasing to all who hear.

Scott Watson has taught instrumental and elective music for 30 years in the Parkland School District (Allentown, PA) and is an award-winning and frequently commissioned composer. Many of Watson’s published works have been named J.W. Pepper Editor’s Choice and appear on various state lists; he is a contributor to Alfred Music’s Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development series ( Watson has presented numerous professional development sessions/workshops for music educators and frequently serves as an honor band guest conductor. To learn more, visit

Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development is a complete curriculum to help beginning through advanced band students grow as ensemble musicians. It thoroughly complements and supplements performance music while breaking down each ensemble concept and preparing students to be ready for any scenario in their repertoire. Learn more at


The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!