Many students of the saxophone have been taught to “make” it play in tune. In reality, we know that many saxophones do not play perfectly in tune on their own and require the player to make adjustments. However, there are many things that can be done to improve the instrument’s intonation and the first step is assessing the intonation without making any adjustments or corrections that players may be accustomed to. We’ll be looking for patterns and overall trends and assessing what they mean. You’ll need an instrument, a tuner, and an intonation chart.
Begin by warming up your saxophone for around 10 minutes. Play the C Scale and adjust the mouthpiece so that it feels comfortable and is as close to in tune overall as possible. If you are used to tuning and have a note you prefer to tune to, feel free to use that in order to place your mouthpiece on the neck. You can fill out several intonation charts using different mouthpiece placements to see how that affects the overall intonation. You can learn more about this concept from this Mouthpiece Article.
Now, play chromatically and record how many cents sharp or flat each note is in the Intonation Chart. There is a great free app for this that will record your intonation as you play so you don’t have to worry that you are changing things with intonation while you play. It’s called “AP Tuner”
We’re going to look at overall trends in the chart and how they correspond to the shape of the bore, the shape of the neck, key heights, and tone hole placement.
Look first at the notes Low Bb through middle C# which do not use the octave key. As the notes go up, is the scale fairly even? Does it get progressively sharper? Does it get progressively flatter? Don’t worry about one note outliers, try to see the trend. Take note of it.
Now look at middle octave D all the way up to Palm F or F#, whatever your instrument is keyed to. Does it get progressively sharper? Progressively flatter? Does it follow the same trend as the lower range? Often times, the two ranges have similar intonation tendencies.
If you notice, in the first octave especially, that your notes seem to get progressively sharper, you may have a key height issue that can be corrected.
Now we’re going to look at Octaves. Check the intonation of Low D and Octave middle D and assess the octave spread. Is it a true octave? Is it spread more than an octave, for example; Low D is in tune at 0 cents, octave D is 25 cents sharp. Is it shorter than an octave? Check the rest of your octaves from D to middle C#. Overall, do you notice a trend of octaves getting progressively wider the higher you go, or shorter the higher you go? Again, don’t worry as much about the outliers get a feel for the trend.
If you notice trends of octaves getting wider or shorter as the pitch gets higher, you likely have an issue with the bore of the instrument.
If you notice octave spread issues from octave A and above, the issue is likely in the neck.
If you have any outlier notes that are out of tune in a different way than the other notes around them, you likely have a key height issue or possibly a tone hole placement issue.
There are far too many factors and different scenarios to get into during this short article, but it’s always helpful to understand your instrument, know its intonation tendencies, and understand some reasons why those intonation tendencies exist.
Now that you know how to test for intonation tendencies, you can use this same system to test different mouthpieces and compare the results. You can also use this system to check different necks, and to compare different saxophones if you are thinking of purchasing a new one.
Likewise, you could use this information if you want to experiment with key heights. If nothing else, the act of making an intonation chart, is an outstanding exercise that will get you thinking about your instrument in a new way.