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Today I want to go over how to tune a saxophone.
Tuning is something all saxophonists should know how to do because you need to tune your saxophonist the first time you assemble it, every time reassemble it, and even single time you move the mouthpiece over the cork.
To tune your saxophone you need either a chromatic tuner or a piano. In a nutshell, tuning with a chromatic tuner is much more accurate than tuning by ear using a piano.
And there are many free online chromatic tuners, and even free tuner apps.
To tune a saxophone, you need to adjust pitch by moving the mouthpiece in or out over the cork. Play Concert A while checking if you are in tune using a chromatic tuner or Concert A on piano and F-sharp on saxophone. If your note is flat, your mouthpiece is out too far on your cork, and if your note is sharp, your mouthpiece is in too far. Adjust accordingly.
That’s a pretty concise overview of how to tune a saxophone. Let’s unload that in the rest of this article.
Tuning is a fairly simple concept to understand. If I’m playing an A and you’re playing an A, they should both sound the same. That is what is referred to as being in tune. If they don’t sound the same, then one of us is out of tune.
There is really only one spot on the saxophone that you’re going to make adjustments in order to tune the instrument—and that’s how far you put your mouthpiece is on the cork.
The position of the mouthpiece on the cork is the key factor that determines your saxophone pitch. Others are your embouchure, temperature, reed strength and so on and so forth.
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What Note Do You Tune the Saxophone To?
Concert A on a piano is the best note to use to tune a saxophone. This is also the note you practice your embouchure in with your mouthpiece only.
Concert pitch is typically at 440 Hz., and internationally, since about the 1950’s, the world has settled on 440 Hz. as being what is called Concert A. That is the note that the orchestras tune to, and what is commonly seen now as standard tuning.
How to Tune a Saxophone Using a Chromatic Tuner
If you are one of my regular readers, you know I’m not a big believer in buying loads of fancy saxophone equipment or spending more money than you absolutely must on gear.
I think you should spend money on lessons if you must spend money on anything. And even that is an iffy proposition because why not just learn the saxophone by yourself.
But one piece of kit, besides a metronome, that is absolutely critical, and that I think you should absolutely buy is a chromatic tuner.
You Need a Chromatic Tuner for This
If you are not familiar with what a tuner is, all it does is it reads the note that you are playing and indicates that with an arrow over a display—something that will say whether your note was lower than the pitch, or higher.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to plug a product on you. There are loads and loads of different brands, just do your own research and pick one.
A chromatic tuner is how you know if you are playing in tune or not. That’s as accurate as it gets, literally.
A chromatic tuner will tell whether you are bang on, or whether you are a little bit sharp or flat.
If you are lower than the pitch, that’s flat and you need to bring it up, and if you are higher than the pitch, that’s sharp and you need to bring it down.
In our case, if the tuner will read A-flat or A-sharp, you to make appropriate adjustments on your mouthpiece to bring that to Concert A.
If your mouthpiece is out too far on the cork, you will get an A-flat. The distance between A and A-flat on your tuner is a full note, so if your needle or pointer about the halfway mark, you are half a note flat and so on.
What you would have to do in this case is just push in your mouthpiece slowly until you get to the right pitch on your tuner.
If you push your mouthpiece in too far, you will get back an A-sharp. The same logic applies here. You pitch will be voicing somewhere between Concert A and Concert B-flat.
As you get used to, and more familiar with, getting yourself in tune, you’ll learn how much to push in and how much to pull out so you don’t spend too much time tuning, so you can be able to tune just based off of how flat or how sharp you are.
The next thing you need to do is to tune the rest of the notes. I say tuning here but what I really mean is adjusting your embouchure to the rest of the next.
A good place to start this is with the entire chromatic scale.
Like everything with the saxophone, this takes practice to get better at.
How to Tune a Saxophone Without a Tuner (Using a Piano)
If you’ve done mouthpiece exercises to improve your embouchure, you know that the pitch we are always aiming for on the mouthpiece alone is Concert A on the piano.
This is one of the first lessons you when you start out the saxophone because everything else you learn on saxophone builds on proper embouchure.
If you have access to a piano, which you should if you’ve jumped to this section, Concert A will be your reference pitch for tuning your saxophone.
If you have relaxed your embouchure enough, the perfect mouthpiece only pitch is that A right there. So an A on the piano is the pitch you should be aiming for.
The concept here is pretty much the same with a chromatic tuner except you are doing this on a piano and you are going to rely more on ear training to estimate pitch.
You listen on the play Concert A on piano, listen and keep that in your head, and match that on your saxophone to tune it.
The thing about using the mouthpiece alone is that it’s very easy to influence the pitch. If you squeeze it slightly harder or loosen up a bit, that pitch changes.
You have to get those notes sounding the same. If you loosen up your embouchure pitch drops and if you tighten your embouchure pitch rises.
So it is really easy to mess around with pitch using your embouchure.
If you get Concert A on the mouthpiece alone, you can pretty much guarantee that you’ve got the right saxophone embouchure to start with while going to tune your saxophone.
I suggest that you first get the A out with your mouthpiece only so that you can be sure your embouchure is perfect and then try the same with your horn.
It makes it easier to single out a problem with your embouchure and work on it before proceeding if there is any. Which I think is a really good idea.
Once you go to tune your saxophone, you play a Concert A on piano and match that to an F-sharp without the octave key on saxophone.
Here is the fingering chart for F-sharp for your convenience:
And here is the alternate fingering chart for F-sharp:
Start with an A on piano, listen to that, then move to replicate the sound with an F-sharp on saxophone. The best way to influence the tuning is by listening carefully.
Take as long as you need, moving back and forth, to make sure the sound is exactly the same.
The thing to keep in mind during tuning is that your embouchure should remain the same—same as when you practiced earlier getting A out of the mouthpiece only.
Is it the same?
Try pulling your mouthpiece to lengthen the horn and see if that makes a difference.
The longer the horn, the flatter the pitch.
If you try this with your mouthpiece all the way out–sitting just at the end of the cork, you should be able to hear a much flatter note than what you are getting on piano. You should hear that your F-sharp is a lot lower.
Bringing it back in ever so slightly is how you are going to tune your saxophone.
You should hear the saxophone getting closer and closer until the two notes sound similar in pitch.
If you are too high on saxophone, then you need to pull your mouthpiece out slightly and if you are too low then you need to push your mouthpiece in slightly until the two are completely in tune.
If your saxophone is pretty out of tune, certain notes, especially notes with the octave key, are generally a little bit too sharp. If you end up tuning that F-sharp like we just did there, what we end up doing is tuning one note on the saxophone.
The trouble is, if you end up tuning just one note, the other notes aren’t necessarily all going to be in tune.
This means that we now have to “adjust” to that. To do this, just walk over a few notes, do an F-sharp then a G, A, B and so on and so forth.
This is where the chromatic tuner helps, just to jump back, to know that the note you are playing is in tune. So have a go at that, if you’ve got one.
Top 4 Essential Saxophone Tuning Tips
Tip #1 — Your Embouchure Affects Your Pitch
Your pitch might change just because your embouchure changes, even when you are in tune. This is particularly the case when you are trying something new, or if you are just getting started with the saxophone.
Always remember that if you are relaxed enough, and your embouchure is excellent, you should get an A out of your mouthpiece alone.
I have a pretty thorough guide on saxophone embouchure. You should have a look at it if you haven’t to get a proper embouchure going, or even to improve on what you already have.
Tip #2 — The Most Accurate (and Easiest) Method of Tuning a Saxophone is With a Chromatic Tuner
All things considered, most accurate method of tuning a saxophone (and the easiest) is with a chromatic tuner.
There are two reasons for this:
First, pitch one area where different people are differently gifted. That’s why there’s ear training in the first place. You do need to be able to properly tell apart pitch to tune a saxophone with a piano, especially when getting started. No two ways about it.
You do need to tell apart pitch to play saxophone to some degree, but for tuning with saxophone, the keyword is properly.
Second, chromatic tuners are inexpensive, handy, little, easy to use gadgets. There’s no reason to not have one as a saxophonist. Period.
Tip #3 — Temperature Affects Your Pitch
There are other factors beyond this that will affect your pitch. The biggest one is temperature.
If it’s hot you’re are going to play sharp, there is nothing you can do about it you have to pull out. And if it’s cold you’ll play flat, and you’ll have to push in more than you normally would.
This is one of the main reasons I am not a proponent of what a lot of people do—drawing a line on your cork where you are in tune.
It is not that simple, there are other things that change.
Always use a tuner to reference where your pitch actually is and where it should be. Get in the habit of checking all your notes on the saxophone and you’ll learn how to play better in tune.
Tip #4 — Reed Strength Affects Your Pitch
A lesser-known factor that affects your pitch, and consequently your tuning, to some extent, is reed strength.
Thanks for reading I hope you found this helpful, useful and informative.