Instrument Intonation – Good vs Bad, Hype vs. Reality

Intonation – Good vs Bad, Hype vs. Reality

Intonation refers to the pitch accuracy of an instrument. In short, does the instrument play each note in tune? When someone says “this note plays a little sharp on this instrument”, or “these three notes play slightly flat”, they are referring to intonation.

This post will surely be controversial, and I’m sure there will be naysayers and those who disagree, but I’m posting this because of a unique set of experience and circumstances that have greatly improved my definition of intonation.

Intonation is typically most debated on woodwind instruments – clarinets and saxophones in particular, with saxophones being the most scrutinized. The first question many people will ask when purchasing a new saxophone is “does this instrument have good intonation?” I started asking myself what good intonation actually is? Some people say either a horn plays in tune or it doesn’t, period. Others claim there is no such thing as an instrument with perfect intonation, every horn has some notes here and there that require adjustment, some will claim the mouthpiece makes all the difference, while a few will claim it’s the reed or the ligature. All of this aside, there is a constant pursuit to achieve “good” intonation, which to an average player is the ability to play chromatically, from the low-register to upper-register while a consistent pitch throughout.

I want to shift gears and share some findings less mentioned. Humidity, ambient temperature, temperature of the horn itself (intonation shifts after playing 10-minutes with a warm horn vs. a cooler horn), playing style, a good night’s sleep vs. a bad night’s sleep, playing for too long or not long enough, is the player looking at a tuner? Is the player playing along with something that is in tune?

The truth about intonation is no instrument is perfect, and a professional player will always accommodate and adjust to make each note play in tune. Not to mention, there is a bit of truth to every factor previously mentioned. To my knowledge, no one has ever performed a “real” intonation test to narrow done with horns have the “best” intonation (note I referred to best, vs “good”).

The most intellectually honest and appropriate way to test intonation of a particular horn would be to have several or more professional players perform with a double-blind test against a good tuner (or two tuners at the same time) and write down the results of each note, and have the process repeated with several horns of the same make and model (as each horn may have a slight variance horn to horn).

While we have not had the opportunity to perform the test in this fashion, we have performed exhaustive double-blind intonation tests on wide-range of instruments in a one-on-one fashion, and in general have found that most of the players are simply all over the place in the double-blind scenario, be it a Selmer Mark VI, a Yamaha YAS-23, or an LJ Hutchen student saxophone. At other times we’ve found the players to pretty much be spot-on throughout all of the instruments. At some points we found the same player would play much better one day than another day.

In a world where virtually everything is a variable (embouchure, reed, mouthpiece, playing style, etc) trying to pick out the constants can be extremely difficult. One person will pick up a horn and say the intonation flat out sucks, while someone else will play up and down a chromatic with no more than a 5-10 cent variance note to note (which some players would consider excellent, while others would say 10-cents on any one note is not acceptable).

Given this information, making a purchasing decision based upon another person’s good intentioned half-hearted attempt to evaluate the intonation is a big mistake. A real world playing situation is far different from a solo performance with a tuner, your ability to adjust 40-minutes into a gig may be far different at a live venue blasting your brains out, vs. a controlled situation in a small room by yourself.
What is the solution to this problem? Finding the horn that is right for you! If you gave everyone keys to a Ferrari, you would find some people who wouldn’t like it for one reason or another. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good vehicle, it means it wasn’t a match for you. Fortunately, these variances from player to player is why companies with vastly different products from Selmer, to P. Mauriat, to Eastman, to Yamaha all enjoy successful product lines.

The goal is to find a horn you love, don’t get caught up on if one note may “tend” to be a little sharp or flat, because while you are doing your best Coltrane impression on-stage, nobody will notice, including yourself. On the flip side, if you are playing in a classical saxophone ensemble you will know real quick if something in particular is slightly off. I’m not saying to disregard intonation, but focus on intonation as it pertains to you as an individual player, as it may be far different than the perception of another player.

If you are testing intonation, ask someone else to hold the tuner and write the results. Never test the intonation of a single horn, always compare several horns together, then go back and do it all again. Try testing in the morning, then again at night. You may be surprised to find fairly consistent results across a wide-range of horns. Finally, remember no instrument has “perfect” intonation, and if there ever is one that does, chances are it won’t be perfect when you play it!

Good luck on your hunt for your perfect instrument!