top of page

Be a Happier Musician While Trying to Play "In Tune"

Recently, I made two YouTube videos about the Upper Register of the Native American Style Flute. How high above the fundamental can the instrument go and how do you get there? A vital issue that came up while I was working on the videos was tuning. The best of our Native American and Native American Style Flutes are hand made out of wood or cane and have no moving parts. They also emerge out of many different musical traditions. There is no such thing as a monolithic “Native American” music. The result is that, basically, no two flutes behave exactly the same way, especially when trying to play the highest notes. This becomes an issue when we want to play with other musicians. How can we play “in tune” with them?

Well, what do we mean when say we are “in tune” or “out of tune”? Maybe more importantly, who gets to decide what is “in tune” or “out of tune”?

Almost all musicians, no matter what style we are playing in or what tradition we are rooted in, rely increasingly on assorted machines and apps to do our work. We use everything from tuning apps on our phones to auto-tuner apps in the studio to production software that provides us with samples and grooves. The machines and apps all come with default settings. These default settings almost all derive from Euro-Classical music practices as they are now expressed in dominant culture (domcult) commercial music.

Default settings can be great time savers, of course, but they can also create a false sense of universal standards, especially about pitch and rhythm. Over reliance on easy set-up defaults results in the homogenization of music. The software is often so clumsy at doing anything that is not based on “standard” tuning and rhythm patterns that, over time, it begins to push us towards conformity. Especially if you are under deadline or commercial pressures, it is a lot easier to tailor your music to the limitations of the machines and apps than slog through work arounds in an attempt to do your own thing. This is one of the reasons that domcult pop music, film music, etc sounds so similar from one track to the next. What is lost is the wonderful variety of approaches to pitch, tuning and rhythm expressed in the multitude of musical traditions around the planet. I will get to rhythm another time. This is about pitch and tuning.

The photo is from a tuning app called “Cleartune” (free download version from Apple) that I have on my phone and use pretty regularly. It actually offers the possibility of exploring a variety of tuning systems, but what you see is the default setting. Notice the letters in the wheel. These are note names from the Euro-Classical notation system. In the box above the wheel, you see “A4 = 440.0”. At the top, “Equal Temperament”. These terms are also from Euro-Classical music and by extension, from domcult commercial music.

If you have ever been to a concert of classical orchestra music, you probably remember the oboe player coming out just before start time to give a tuning pitch. In the States, this tuning pitch is defined as A 440. The frequency of 440 cycles per second (hertz) has been designated as the pitch A. Everything else is in relationship to that. The other musicians try to match their instrument to that frequency. Once everyone is “in tune”, the concert can begin.

Now imagine a magnificent Grand Piano, perhaps the ultimate symbol of the Euro-Classical music tradition since about 1800. It is a mechanical marvel with hundreds of moving parts. In its current incarnation, it is also dependent on modern industrial practices. It was designed to do the kinds of things that interest Euro-Classical musicians. It can play more than one note at a time, so one musician can create the kind of harmonic structures that drive Euro-Classical music. Each key plays one and only one frequency because Euro-Classical music, unlike just about every other music on the planet, is based on a discreet sense of pitch. Euro-Classical musicians are mostly unconcerned with the infinity of frequencies that lie between any two keys of a piano. In fact, those frequencies will be considered “out of tune” because they don’t match what the piano is doing. Here is our restricted set of target frequencies. Make sure you hit them. This can even become a frustration for Euro-Classical musicians who play other orchestral instruments like violins or flutes, which CAN hit those frequencies between the piano keys and, historically, have made musical use of them.

Most modern pianos (and by their default setting, most keyboards) use an Equal Temperament tuning system, again because of the harmonic interests of Euro-Classical musicians. Temperaments are a very complicated subject. For our purposes it is enough to understand that in most musical traditions, pitch relationships and tuning systems are determined by naturally occurring ratios between frequencies. For example, in almost all traditions, pitches that have a 2:1 relationship between their frequencies are considered to be the same pitch for musical purposes. Acoustically based tuning systems are common in traditional music making planet wide. Because of the harmonic structures Euro-Classical musicians wished to explore in their compositions, they developed the Equal Temperament tuning system, which slightly distorts naturally occurring ratios. In effect, a piano that has been freshly tuned to the Equal Temperament system will be slightly out of tune acoustically throughout its range. This compromise allows the piano to play in any key at any time without being offensively out of tune in any of them, which is necessary for Euro-Classical Tonal music.

Any musicologist will tell you that A 440 and Equal Temperament are not historically universal standards even within the very narrow world of Euro-Classical music. “A” isn’t even a musical term in many traditional musical cultures. So why do all of our machines and apps default to those settings?

One of the many ugly aspects of colonialism was the conscious denigration and even destruction of Indigenous artistic practices as a means to controlling people. You didn’t even have to brown for this to happen to you. When the English invaded Scotland, they tried to outlaw bagpipe playing. Everywhere they went, the colonizers would try to position Euro-Classical music making as the only legitimate, civilized choice. To this day, you will sometimes hear musicians describe Euro-Classical music as “legit”. With this came the imposition of the Euro-Classical tuning system as the only “real” musical system. Everything that didn’t conform was “out of tune”, “uncivilized”, “primitive”. A professional orchestral oboe player once said to me that they simply could not understand why I was wasting time playing my “primitive” Native Flutes that can’t even play a “real scale”. Their training, which had prepared them beautifully to play a particular kind of music, prevented them from even hearing, let alone appreciating all the wonderful things my flutes can do. The effect on local musical traditions can be devastating. I have heard Native American Style Flute makers arguing over whose flute was most “in tune” based purely on how well they could match the target pitches of the Euro-Classical tuning system.

The increasing industrialization of the Euro-Classical orchestra in the 1800’s also has been detrimental to musical variety and individual expression. Hand crafted instruments, especially wind and percussion instruments, began to give way to factory made instruments. It is more efficient, i.e. cheaper, to have your factory produce multitudes of metal flutes if they are all made to the same default tuning. It also means that any flute can be plugged into that great music machine the Orchestra and work. The training of the flute player then largely becomes about how well they can conform to expectations. Which is why modern classical flute students spend so much time wood shedding orchestral excerpts, often with their tuner app open to see if they are hitting those all important target frequencies.

While many musicians from all traditions continue to create fresh and unique music, it does sometimes feel that music itself is becoming a standardized, mass produced commodity. So maybe we should not be surprised that all of our musical machines and apps default to the same settings. The underlying message is often, “conform or you don’t get to play.”

I will celebrate nonconformity and suggest that being “in tune” is not about matching a number on a tuner app. It is about listening attentively to what is going on around you, then responding with the intention, energy and flexibility that will allow you to be in right relationship with what you hear, whether or not you are playing exactly the same frequency. This will, of course, require that you learn your instrument/voice very well. It will also require that you listen to the Other with openness and respect. It will not require an auto-tuner. Being in right relationship is a core value for most Indigenous cultures. It seems like the place to start if we want our music making to be “in tune”.

If you are a musician, what does playing “in tune” mean to you? We often use the idea of being “in tune” in non-musical settings. Even if you are not a musician, what does being “in tune” mean to you?

Here are links to some of my YouTube videos that explore these issues further. Are You Playing Your Native American Flute "In Tune"? NAF Playing Tips - How to Enjoy Playing the High Notes More, Pt 1 (available 4/23/21) NAF Playing Tips - How to Enjoy Playing the High Notes More, Pt 2 (available 4/30/21) Decolonize Your Native American Flute Playing

Featured Posts
Check back soon
Once posts are published, you’ll see them here.
Recent Posts