End the Tyranny of the Green Smiley Face!

As I feared might happen, the absolute busy-ness of my schedule this fall has prevented me from consistently writing here on a weekly basis. When I first started writing a weekly blog in 2012, I was teaching about twenty hours per week; that number has now crept up to about 35. That’s actual contact hours per week working with students. Add to that practicing, performing, grading, other administrative tasks, and trying to maintain some semblance of family and church life, and you can see how blogging can easily get crowded out. Still, I enjoy using this space to develop my thoughts on various topics and am glad to have a little time to do so this afternoon.


TonalEnergy Tuner

I have a real problem with electronic tuners, or rather the mobile apps that we now use for that purpose. Even though I have two different tuner apps on my devices and will use them occasionally, my students will testify that I very rarely use them in applied teaching or ensemble situations. While tuners are great for ensuring that brass players’ tuning slides are optimally placed, once playing begins their utility declines dramatically. (The same applies to tuning open strings on string instruments, adjusting the various joints on woodwind instruments, etc.) Instead, once that baseline placement is established and playing begins active listening must take over, as must willingness to violate “what the tuner says” in favor of what sounds good.

The proper tuning of both melodies and harmonies in just intonation demands that a given note actually have slightly different pitches in different contexts. For example, when playing the tonic chord in the key of D major a written D3 should be played more or less where the tuner says, a frequency of 146.8Hz. However, for a B-flat major triad to be played in tune that same pitch will be lower (145.7Hz) and for a G major triad it will be slightly higher (147Hz). Unless the tuning app is configured to account for these differences, a D that is “correct” according to the tuner will sound rather sharp in the B-flat major triad, and quite flat in the G major one. And even if those configurations are made, wouldn’t it be better just to listen and match with one’s ears, rather than chasing the visual confirmation of the needle—or, in the popular Tonal Energy app, the green smiley face? At the end of the day, if 19 people in a 20-piece band are listening and playing in tune together, but the one person with a tuner on the stand insists that the rest of the band is sharp, who is wrong? The one with the tuner. Pitch is relative!

I’m aware that the previous two paragraphs read a bit like a rant, my excitement brought on by seeing so many ensembles check their pitch with an electronic tuner at the beginning of rehearsal and then essentially forget about pitch afterward. While the intricacies of just intonation are certainly beyond the grasp of younger students (and even of teachers—I had to look up those frequencies cited in the last paragraph), learning and employing a few basic principles can help players and groups of almost any ability level to improve their intonation. Here are some ideas.

1. By all means, use the electronic tuner to set the instruments at the correct lengths before beginning. The “green smiley face” can become a tyrant if it is followed too religiously, but in its place it is a useful servant. Once players have warmed up a bit, the tuner should be used to set the tuning slides at optimum lengths. With brass instruments, my preference is to set the main tuning slide so that the fourth partial note (B-flat3 on tenor trombone and euphonium; B-flat2 on BB-flat tuba, etc.) is correct according to the tuner. Next, I will set the first, second, and fourth valve tuning slides so that their fourth partial notes are correct, and the third valve tuning slide so that the fourth partial note with the 2-3 combination is correct. With trombones I will check both the second and fourth partials with the F-attachment, and on bass trombone I will check the second and fourth partials with the two valves combined. Things get a little more complicated with five and six-valve tubas, and advanced players and other teachers might have their own preferences, but this is what I do to establish a good, reliable starting place for playing.

2. Once that baseline is established, the rule should be to “listen and match.” The proverbial “dude with a tuner on his stand” that I mentioned earlier is no fun at all to have in the band. Instead of listening and trying to blend with the group he has shut off his ears and is trying to “tune with his eyes.” Instead, everyone in the group should be encouraged to listen to the players around them and adjust pitch as needed so that discrepancies are eliminated. I understand that this sounds rather advanced—and for beginning players it almost certainly is—but even intermediate players can be taught to eliminate the “beats” that occur in the sound waves when intonation is faulty. Moreover, admonish students—especially the more proficient students—that matching pitch is not something for “other people” (i.e. people further down in the section) to do. Playing in tune is everyone’s responsibility. If it’s out of tune, everyone is wrong. Even better, when everyone is listening accurately suddenly more than just pitch is being matched. What if through listening people started to match articulation, note lengths, phrasing, etc., etc.? Wouldn’t that be great?


W. Francis McBeth (1933-2012)

3. Match volume, then tone quality, then pitch. I have heard more than one great musician say that it is impossible to really tune when one has an uncharacteristic tone. More specifically, I remember how my college band director, Ken Lewis, constantly admonished us to “match volume, then tone quality, then pitch,” an instruction I believe he received from the great band composer and conductor W. Francis McBeth (1933-2012). The idea is that many apparent tuning discrepancies are actually instead problems with balance and blend. When these are solved, a majority of apparent intonation problems disappear as well, either as a result of improved listening or because the supposed intonation problems weren’t actually intonation problems at all. I have applied these principles in my trombone and tuba-euphonium ensembles, and can confirm from experience that they work.

4. Three rules that will instantly improve intonation. There are lots of principles involving tuning tendencies—both tendencies of the instruments themselves and tendencies of certain harmonies—whose mastery will greatly improve intonation. Advanced brass players ought to be familiar with the overtone series and the tendencies of each partial, and the following chart, which originated in drum and bugle corps circles in the pre-internet days, suggests a number of very specific adjustments to be made in given harmonic contexts.


However, players at almost any level can learn these three rules that, when applied, will have an instant and positive effect on any ensemble’s intonation. They are:

  1. Lower major thirds.
  2. Raise minor thirds.
  3. Raise perfect fifths.

That’s it. Is there more to tuning chords than that? Sure, and notice that I didn’t indicate in any way how much to raise or lower those things—that is useful information, but not always necessary to have in one’s memory. When students are taught to tell by hearing whether they have the root, third, or fifth of a chord and what the likely problem is when a discrepancy is heard they can instantly correct—or even anticipate—problems with intonation. If they learn what to do with sevenths and other intervals that’s even better, but learning about thirds and fifths will take care of a lot of issues.

And above all, teach your students what I call Rule Number One: “Make it sound good.” Every other rule is intended to make it easier for students to determine what to do in order to fulfill Rule Number One. If it sounds good, it (probably) is good!

Tune with your ears, not your eyes. End the tyranny of the green smiley face!

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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