The greatest ongoing battle for all of us, performers and directors alike, is getting an ensemble in tune. Instruments are affected by reeds, temperature, humidity, performer embouchure strength, and what we had for breakfast this morning. No matter how good we get, we still have to work every moment to play in tune! And one of the best and worst tools in this ongoing battle is the electronic tuner.
Don’t get me wrong! The electronic tuner, whether in its old strobe form or in the ubiquitous smartphone app so many of use today, has been a boon to instrumental musicians everywhere. We have an absolute baseline measurement of whether a note is in tune with the established A-440 (in America) standard. However, this standardized tuning can be incredibly useful yet simultaneously and equally worthless to us as we search for perfect intonation. How is that possible? Simply put, a tuner assumes that every single pitch class is assigned an absolute frequency. For example, a tuner calibrated to A-440 assumes that D#2 has a frequency of 77.78 Hz. In addition, that same tuner assumes that Eb2 is the exact same pitch and has the same frequency of 77.78 Hz.
“But aren’t D# and Eb the same pitch?” you might ask? If we rate them as a “pitch class” then yes, and if we look at a equal tempered keyboard, then yes again. However, wind instruments aren’t keyboards, and we don’t treat D# and Eb as the same pitch, except to remember how to finger that particular pitch class. We must utilize Just Temperament.
Here’s why. Take a look at the following triad: B-D#-F#. That’s a B major chord. Now look at this triad: B-Eb-F#. That’s no major chord! If it was functioning as a major chord, then it would be spelled properly. And here’s where it gets weirder. If a major triad is written, our human ears and brains don’t want to hear that D# tuned to 77.78 Hz. If we do, then we will hear an out of tune chord with subtle beats disturbing the sonority. (By the way, I always struggled with mathematics. If you are math-impaired like I am, feel free to forget what I just wrote and use the trusty maxim of “Just Temperament is important because math.”)
Because our human brain wants to hear interval relationships that form whole number ratios, we have to utilize Just Temperament and adjust the tones in every chord we play. That D# in a B major chord has to be favored down, and the F# must be favored slightly up. An electronic tuner will tell us we are no longer in tune, but that’s just not true. “Well if I can’t trust the tuner, who can I trust?” you might ask. The answer is to trust yourself and trust your ears, given some Just Temperament know-how. Take a look at this chart. It provides every triad and seven chord, and includes how many cents (100ths of a half-step) you must adjust each chord tone up or down to achieve a gorgeous sonority.