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James Barrera - Professor of Saxophone

Bob Cole Conservatory of Music
California State University, Long Beach

Alas! All music jars when the souls out of tune - Miguel de Cervantes

It could be said that playing the saxophone in tuen is what separates the amateur from the professional, or the
novice from the artist. The mechanics of altering the pitch on the Saxophone are closely tied to those of tone,
and through striving for exactitude in pitch the sound will improve greatly. Before going into the pedagogy of
tuning it worth discussing what it means to be in-tune.

Pitch is perception

What we perceive as sound is a creation of our brain. Oscillating pressure waves of air strike out eardrum, and
the resulting vibrations are interpreted by our mind. Sometimes these pressure waves are misinterpreted; to a
person with synesthesia audio is combined with the visual resulting in different colors when sound is heard.
We hear out of tuneness, or dissonance, as beats or waves within two tones. The faster the beats are the more
out of tune we are, and as we close in on pitch, the beats slow. The speed of the beats is simply determined by
the mathematical difference between the tow pitches. Two people playing an A, one at 440 hz and one at
443 hz would produce 3 beats per second.

It was my understanding that there would be no math...

-Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford

Equal Temperment
Conceived of in the late 16th century, equal temperament divides the octave into 12 equal parts. This is how
keyboard instruments are tuned, and how a standard tuner works. Each step is divided into 100 parts called
cents, with a total of 1200 cents in an octave. The result is that fixed pitch instruments like the piano can
play in any key without a great deal of dissonance. While this is a great advantage, it comes with a
compromise in that all intervals are slightly out of tune.

Just Intonation
When using just intonation the distance between two notes can be calculated using simple ratios. The interval
of a perfect fifth can be represented by the ratio 3:2 in just intonation, but uses the ratio 27/12 : 1 in equal
temperament. In just intonation the pitch of every interval must be compared to the root. The resulting sound
when using just intonation is, transparent or hollow, compared to the haze that seems to surround equal
temperament. This tuning is used in a Capella vocal groups, such as barbershop quartets, and give them their
unique tone quality. The disadvantage of just intonation is that no two notes are ever the same. A G# in one
key will not be the same note another. It also requires significant ear training on the part of the player. The
following table will help you make the necessary adjustments from ET to JI.




Cents - JI

Cents - ET



Minor 2nd





Major 2nd





Minor 3rd





Major 3rd





Perfect 4th









Perfect 5th





Minor 6th





Major 6th





Minor 7th





Major 7th









Octave horn came tuned from the factory

- Anonymous

Pitch Tendancies
Like any instrument, the saxophone is built upon a series of compromises. These lead to some notes being
more out of tune than others. While it is out goal to learn to play the saxophone in tune, sometimes an extra
key or alternate fingering can get us out of a jam.




Sharp 10-15 cents




Vent low C# key



Vent forked F# (Tf)



Use Side Bb or Vent Ta


Flat 10 cents+

Use Covered C#
(3+octave key) Doesnt work on Selmer Series III
Vent Tc

Sharp 10 cents+

Add low B key. Use C2 in pp volumes.



Add first finger of right hand

F-3 / F#-3


Take away C1 and C2


Harpists spend 90 percent of their lives tuning

their harps and 10 percent playing out of tune.
-Igor Stravinsky
Mechanical issues
Before you play too many long tones with your tuner, it is wise to make sure your saxophone is adjusted
properly. Most saxophonists are unaware of the huge impact pad height has on their intonaition. In a nutshell
the lower the pad height the flatter the tone and vica versa. As saxophones age the felt and cork bumpers
compress leading to the pad height increasing, and ptich with it. Keep your horn in good regulation, ask your
repair tech to keep your instrument at the factory spec key height. You can then go above and below that
standard as you customize your instruments setup.

Extremes in air temperture can make tuning impossible. As the temperature drops so will your pitch; the metal
in the tube contracts and interior volume increases dropping the overall pitch. While the players breath will
warm the instrument to a certain extent, in larger instruments the majority of the tube will remain at the
ambient temperature. This could create a situation where short tube notes are sharp, and long tube notes flat.

Air v. Face
The source of most tuning issues is a lack of air. We must strive to play with the fastest air stream possible.
This is what will support the tone, and decrease the need for manipulation from the jaw and facial muscles.
Most begginers on the instruemnt will use the musicle of the face to close the distance between the reed and
mouthpiece. This will allow them to produce a sound with the least amount of air possible. The muscle used
most commonly to do this is the mentalis. This muscle is also known as the pouting muscle and pushes
upward on the lower lip. This muscle must remain relaxed, and instead its next door neighbor, the depressor
labii inferioris should be used to pull the lower lip downward.

As discussed earlier, we must be able to play every note on the saxophone at a variety of pitch levels. This
requires a great deal of flexibility on the part of the player. A good starting point to develop this is to play on
the mouthpiece. As a starting point the following pitches should be used:
Mouthpiece Pitch (Concert) Alto Sax - A
Tenor Sax - G
Baritone Sax - D Soprano Sax - B
Once this pitch is strong and consistent, begin to move it up and down. On the Alto Saxophone Mouthpiece a
one octave C scale can be played. It is only when you have achieved this control that tuning will become

Oral Cavity and Voicing

A contempoary apporach ot the saxophone relies heavily on how we shape the interior of our mouths. The oral
cavity is the space between your teeth. Simply stated, the larger this space is the lower the pitch will be. The
two factors in the oral cavity size are the jaw, and tongue. Most players hold their teeth too far apart. I believe
this results from their music teachers telling them to drop their jaw in order to not be so sharp. The correct
distance the teeth need to be apart will be determined by the size of the mouthpiece. The lower teeth should
gently touch the lower lip without compressing it. This distance will only be about 1/8 to 1/4 of an an inch
away from the reed. The role the tongue plays in pitch can be explored by playing with a variety of vowel
syllables. Hold your tongue in the positions of A-E-I-O-U (Eight-Heat-Hype-Hope-Boo) and play an upper
register note to see what effect each has. (This plays a key role in mouthpiece flexibility) A little lower than
the oral cavity, is the pharyngeal cavity. The pharynx is the part of the throat that lies between the mouth and
the larynx or voice box. This is used in the technique known as Voicing, defined by Donald Sinta in his
book Voicing: An approach to the saxophones third register. While initially intended as a technique to
improve the altisimmo register, voicing can be used in tuning as well. The advantage of voicing is that the
pitch can be changed, without any alternation in the oral cavity, or facial mask. This is especially useful at the
extremes of volume, and is key to playing the upper register of the instrument in tune.
Easy to learn, hard to master
Learning to play the saxophone in tune is no simple matter. It is much more involved than drop your jaw, or
you need to pull out. An in tune sound, is a beautiful sound, and by striving for the latter we will learn where
to place our notes.