Tuning, Intonation, And The Saxophone

Playing your saxophone in tune with others in your band requires much more than simply playing a reference note into a tuner and adjusting the mouthpiece on the instrument. In order to really understand the tuning process and how best to tune your saxophone it helps to know the physics behind the sound that you produce while playing. When we are talking about physics and the saxophone we are dealing in the realm of invisible vibrations called sound waves.

To better understand these sound waves it helps to think about a guitar string. When you pluck a note on a guitar the string vibrates at a specific rate or “frequency.” The length of this string dictates what frequency the string will vibrate at. By moving your finger up and down the fretboard you can change the pitch to any of a dozen or so pitches. Now think about a fretless guitar. Instead of a dozen pitches you could potentially have hundreds of pitches, each very slightly different that the other. Saxphones behave in this same way but use a vibrating column of air instead of a vibrating string.

When you add or subtract fingers on the saxophone you are changing the overall length of the tube, creating shorter or longer sound waves in the process. Many things can affect this resultant wave. A key that is not adjusted properly can partially close over an open hole causing all notes above that key to be slightly flat. Likewise a key that is left open when it should be closed can make other notes out of tune or at the very least sound less focused.

Two saxophones that are not perfectly tuned to each other will always vibrate at different frequencies even when playing the same note. When two sound waves of the exact same frequency are played together they reinforce each other creating a stronger, more pleasing overall sound. When two pitches are slightly out of tune they occasionally collide with each other causing a disturbance in the combined wave form. This phenomena creates audible “beats” or bumps in what the listener hears. Each bump in the combined sound is literally the two sound waves slamming into each other. It is often easier to understand this process by seeing it visually. Take a look at the examples shown at http://library.thinkquest.org/19537/Physics.html.

As a saxophone player it should be your goal to learn how to play your instrument in perfect tune. Unfortunately this requires more than simply tuning your concert A or B-flat. Now that you know a little about the physics of sound however, you can begin to understand the inherent pitch problems of your saxophone and relate this to your overall performance and study routine.


 

Comments

Toni July 02, 2013 @10:11 am
Hi,I am a Yamaha YAS-23 Student model Alto Saxophone. Now, I know what you are thinking, why is a sohnpxoae commenting on this blog? Well I will tell you why I need serious help. My owner was going to do this, but he got super tired from school and working so hard, and needed some sleep and also forgot But he is a really great kid. But seriously though, come on, it's not that hard to use a keyboard. I mean, if I can, I think anyone can. I don't have hands. I have to sit here balanced meticulously on a chair rocking back and forth with the keyboard hanging of the desk hitting one letter at a time with my mouthpiece. That is hard! But any way. I belong to a great kid. He is a straight A student in High School who has worked so hard to always be outstanding any and every way her can. I was given to him as a hand-me-down from his cousin when he started band in 5th grade. He seemed like a really sweet kid and a wonderful friendship started. Now, I was already pretty old and worn when he started, and I am feeling just about prehistoric now. Let me just say the first few weeks were tough. You try explaining to a young kid that a neck strap must be worn at all times and that sohnpxoaes can't sit upright on a chair like people do. Needless to say me and the floor grew to have a very close, physically painful relationship pretty quickly. After several trips to the operating room (a.k.a. repair shop), the kids older brother, who now fixes me up in his spare time, got us a new neck strap that I wouldn't slip off of, and that he wouldn't keep trying to take off. Let me just say it is like the difference between a nice comfy minivan, and a rusty bike with a missing a seat, both work, but one is bound to hurt you eventually. Anyway, so my owner ended up making first chair in his band later that year, and let me just say he was very pleased. Normally I wouldn't give him all the credit, but hey, he did well. That can't be overlooked. He continued on this trend making first alto for whatever he auditioned for every year. In jazz band he got solos, in concert band he got top parts and solos. We were on fire and ruling the Wood Winds! When we got to high school, marching band started up. This I remembered from long ago. My glory days. Marching down that field in a bright shiny uniform, cheering on a great team, seeing the lights, and just plain having good clean fun with friends on a Friday night. Ahh, those were the days. I was braced for starting slow and not quite being at the top yet, I mean he was only a freshman and all, but he rocked! Even though this was his first year, he held his spot for every show and every game, not losing it to anyone who challenged him all season. I was so proud of the little guy. He has grown into such a fine young man. He always had his music memorized weeks before he needed to know it, and never passed up an opportunity to help out others in his section. He then went on to play Pep band in the winter, and made first chair in his schools second highest concert and jazz bands. Yep, he was really succeeding. He even started taking lessons. Then something horrible happened. My case broke. The handle snapped off and some of the padding inside got loose. Once again I was on a rusty, seatless bike heading down a hill super fast. He decided it would be easiest to carry me in a plastic grocery bag to school on mondays and home on fridays and just spend part of his afternoon at school practicing, in order to stop me from getting hurt, though it really didn't help. Have you ever tried to walk out of a high school with 3 backpacks, a lunchbox, and a sohnpxoae resting precariously in a plastic bag. Yeah, it isn't easy. Hooligans scuttling everywhere, cars zooming by. I honestly thought I was scrap metal. Luckily, we were able to find a way to fix up my home just enough that I am now able to be moved carefully without getting too banged up. I am getting way to old to be bouncing around like this. This kid has a great future ahead of him, and I want to be there with him, but unless I can be safe, I will probably just end up retired in his closet. I can just see it now, I will be shoved in his brothers closet with his old trumpet (which, by the way, believes it is a magical instrument from a far off land with fairies and legendary heroes. It is psychotic! It is a sad, strange little trumpet, and it has my pity), and some shiny new young thing will take my place. This isn't right. Please let me be a part of his life. I need this case. It is my last chance at safety. I may not be a Mark VI, but I still have feelings, and would really appreciate some help from you guys.Thank you,YAS-23

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