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Being In Tune by BMM Reader Jonathan Moody

I had a completely different article written about digital tuners and my thoughts on them that was going to post today. Last weekend was a Moody family get-together, where we all (including my spry 93 year old grandmother) met at my Aunt’s house for food and merriment. Grandma was cleaning out the desk in her living room, found one of Grandpa’s old chromatic pitch pipes, and brought it to the get-together for me. I gladly took it, opened the box, and pulled it out and see if it still held a good pitch. It does; remarkably well too, given its age. And from there, my previous article fell apart.

The original article dealt with the inconsistencies of relying upon digital tuners, and using them as “the” definitive source when it came to tuning. Grandpa’s pitch pipe reminded me that my issue isn’t so much with the tuners, but with the musicians using them. The fact is that we seem to rely on tuners more heavily than we do our ears.

Back a number of years ago, these chromatic pitch pipes were the Cadillac of tuning. People would pull a note from one, tune their instrument or voice, and then play. And here’s the interesting part. If, during the performance, someone thought something sounded out of place, they’d adjust on the spot and fix the problem. They wouldn’t wait until the song was over to pull out the pipe and check it. They’d just adjust and keep moving.

Especially with a fixed pitch instrument like a piano, this was of critical importance. It’s an expensive endeavor to have a piano tuned; some places can have them tuned regularly, some can’t. Back in the day, musicians would pull a tuning note from the piano (whether a digital tuner said it was a solid 440 or not) and play, adjusting if/when necessary. Nowadays, you have musicians tune to their tuner when playing with a piano that may be just a bit sharp. And, instead of adjusting to the fixed pitch instrument, they claim that the piano is out of tune, pointing to their tuner as proof.

In that argument, the piano IS out of tune – TO YOUR TUNER. But, when you are the one capable of adapting to a fixed pitch instrument and you don’t, YOU become the one out of tune, not the other way around.  It’s at this point that you need to realize the tuner is but a guide, and your ears are going to be the most accurate piece of tuning equipment that you have, allowing you to make changes and adapt much more quickly than turning a tuner on and figuring out what is wrong.

That’s what the pitch pipe reminded me. While digital tuners are fantastic for setting intonation and general tuning (as an endorsing artist for Peterson Tuners, you will always see me with a StroboClip on the headstock, or the StroboFlip attached to my music stand), they are still a reference point, no matter how accurate they are. Because once you start playing with someone, you need to rely upon your ears to be your definitive tuner to ensure that you’re in tune with the group, and not just the tuner.

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  1. Pingback: just moody dot com » Being “In Tune”

  2. Mark Perrins

    September 21, 2011 at 5:04 am

    I agree, I’ve been in situations (usualy because of humidity or other climate issues) where the poor flautist/saxophonist has pulled their head-joint out to the place where the instrument is in danger of falling apart, all to get in tune with a guitar piched to A440. In such situation, why can’t the whole band tune a little bit flat? Before A440 was adopted as a standard, it was the norm for musicians to tune to whatever pitch they liked, or their that their piano forte/harpsichord could manage. The whole band tuning to A440 is fine when it serves the whole band, when it doesn’t tune to somthing else.
    Also I regularly adjust the tuning of my guitar after tuning to a clip on tuner. Tuning the open strings to a tuner means you will be equally in tune (or more accurately – equally out of tune) in all keys. Making small adjustments, depending on the key you are playing in, often makes things sound better.

  3. Gramma

    September 22, 2011 at 1:08 am

    It’s interesting and, certainly, different to find an endorsed artist writing articles against the products they endorse, especially since they are the best digital tuners on earth. You should probably remember that a lot of, if not most, bass players have never and will never tune to an actual piano. Especially the type of bass players who hold their bass guitars across there shoulders like a barbell. Unlined fretless or not.

    There are bassists who have died rich and happy having never played with an out of tune piano.

    …just a though.

  4. Jon Moody

    Jon Moody

    September 23, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    Mark, you may be interested in looking into the “sweetened” tuning presets that Peterson Tuners have. They are roughly based around that theory of tuning to have certain keys sound better. I think they’re based more around the more popular keys so for a theatre musician such as myself (that is a regular in the 5+ sharp/flat keys), it doesn’t sound that much different to me as opposed to traditional open string tuning.

  5. Cricket

    October 4, 2011 at 1:11 am

    Hi Jon, I enjoyed your tuning article. I love tuners & have a many of them, mostly Korg, in part a reaction to the days when I first started playing the only consumer tuner was the Conn strobe tuner, at $250 it was unthinkable to buy! (probably equal to $750 today!) Also I find a tuner in loud situations, like a club where there is a DJ blasting, is very useful. I agree with your bottom line point about tuning with the piano. Tho when students ask me what the calibrate button is for, I often give them the example of out of tune pianos or playing along with recordings (old ones) that may be away from 440 etc.(unless it’s between 441 & 442 etc where the calibration can’t get to etc..) All the bass! – Cricket

  6. Pingback: A Simple Tuner for "Unity" | Bass Musician Magazine

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