Correct Saxophone Intonation (Overcoming the Natural Intonation Spectrum)

Those of you who know me are probably bored of hearing me talk about intonation and the need for a comprehensive system because i’m always banging on about it, but I believe it’s important. I firmly believe that in order to play the saxophone in tune, you have to have a comprehensive system in place that tempers the intonation of each pitch. There are several reasons why I believe this is important:

  1. Pitch and tone color are intertwined and closely related. A consistent approach to intonation will help lead to an even and uniform tone.
  2. A consistent system will allow us to easily execute large intervals.
  3. Without a reliable system in place consistency will always be illusive.

Ok, so what is my system? The short answer is to set the instrument up to play everything sharp and then bend every single pitch down into the center of the pitch. I believe that accurate intonation in performance is controlled by 2 factors: pre-hearing, and instrument set-up. Obviously you have to hear the pitch you are trying to hit in order to get it to come out of the other end of the instrument. For the purpose of this article I will mainly be discussing the second aspect of intonation: instrument set-up. I’m not talking about gear here, i’m referring to how far in or out you put the mouthpiece when you tune. (Incidentally, I almost never tune when playing in a section. Instead I prefer a much more active version of listening and adjusting in real time until I feel that I have the instrument in a position that all of the notes are in tune.)

Intonation pic 1

Before we approach the instrument, it’s important to understand what I call the ‘natural intonation spectrum’ of the instrument. The saxophone does not naturally want to play in tune with itself, let alone others! The intonation spectrum ranges from the bottom of the horn, which wants to play sharp, through the middle short-tube notes, that want to play flat, immediately into the long-tube notes, which want to play sharp, followed by the notes around concert A (on alto) that will actually play in tune fairly accurately, followed by the upper register and palm key notes that want to play extremely sharp! Phew! Just playing a scale as the instrument wants to play it will be all over the map! So, how do we deal with the fact that some notes will naturally tend to be sharp, while others will naturally tend to be flat?

My opinion, and what I do when I am playing, is to set the instrument so that the flattest notes are in tune and then bring everything else down to pitch. This might sound radical, but let’s think about it. We know that pitch and tone are closely related. If we’re trying to pinch the flat notes up, we’re closing off our airstream and most likely pinching the tone color.

How would we approach a phrase like the bridge of ‘Chelsea Bridge,’ which has notes that will naturally be flat, as well as those tending to be sharp?

Chelsea Bridge

Shown here in the concert ‘C’

If we try to pinch the short tube notes, which will tend to be flat, and then try to bend down the long tube notes, which will tend to be sharp, what will happen?

  1. We’ll have an uneven tone because we’re changing out voicing, embouchure, and air stream.
  2. It will become difficult to easily make the large interval leaps because we’re moving all of the above for each note.
  3. We’ll get tired! It’s exhausting to try to make that many adjustments!

Ok, it’s starting to make sense now. What is the correct way to approach a phrase like this?

I believe that we should start out with the saxophone set up so that the first note ‘B’ will be in tune. This will often be a rather flat note, so let’s push the mouthpiece in until it is exactly in tune, or even a little sharp. This will mean that some of the other notes like the D# on the staff and the G above the staff will probably be sharp, maybe even significantly. That’s OK. We’re going to bend those notes down with our voicing. (I’d really recommend spending some time with Donald Sinta’s book, ‘Voicing’ or Eugene Rousseau’s Book, ‘High Tones for Saxophone.’ These books will explain and give practical exercises on the concept of voicing.’ By creating the correct tongue position, with the back of the tongue raised as if saying the ‘k’ sound in ‘cake,’ we’ll be able to accurately place those notes that want to play sharp directly in the center of the pitch.

The more extreme the intervals are in a passage, the more it becomes clear that this is the only method that can work accurately. For example, this excerpt from Jean Matitia’s ‘Devil’s Rag’ features leaps of an octave. Making these leaps is simply not possible if we are making adjustments in embouchure or airstream. The only way to navigate these intervals at speed is to have a constant, focused, and well voiced airstream.

Devil's Clip JPEG

The added benefit of approaching pitch this way is that we will suddenly experience a world of sweetness and fatness in our tone. This is how the saxophone is meant to be played! Approaching intonation with this consistent downward concept allows us to always be focusing the air in the most properly ‘voiced’ position.


Why I never tune. I’ll leave you with one more thought on intonation. I almost never tune with a tuner or take a note from the piano when playing in a section. As you’ve just read, I believe it doesn’t make sense to tune to one note that’s in the middle or the high side of my ‘natural intonation spectrum.’ Also, how do I navigate the fact that that tuning note will probably sit in a different place at pp than it will at ff? Through really active listening and frequent small adjustments, in a matter of minutes I can typically find the spot where I’m adjusting everything in one direction, just the right amount. When this happens, the pitch locks in and my tone opens up. It’s a bit like the part where the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes!