Do You Play Out of Tune?

It’s one of the key factors that separates the pros from the amateurs. It’s the reason I call American Idol The Intonation Olympics, since it’s the intonation factor which so drastically affects whether or not the singer will manage to touch the viewers’ hearts.

It doesn’t matter whether you sing or play an instrument, but play in tune you must.

When playing by ourselves, it’s often easy for intonation problems to escape our consciousness since we have no reference point other than our own ear. Being the cybergeek that I am, I’ve always liked to use technology to address this problem.

To see how I like to work on this area of my playing, take a gander at the video below.

For those who prefer to read, here’s how it works…

First off, you can skip past the next 4 steps and just use the sheet music as well as audio I’ve provided below (even MIDI if you like).


1. Get yourself situated with some sort of MIDI sequencer.

If you’re new to the world of MIDI sequencing, I suggest you look into it, as music production and composition are going to be great assets to your musical tool belt should you decide to do music full time. I won’t take up our time talking about MIDI sequencing since there are plenty of online resources to help get you started on that (just Google “MIDI Sequencer”).

If you’re on a Mac, the Garage Band software works perfectly well and comes free with your operating system. On a PC, there’s a free piece of software called Quartz Audio Master Freeware that you can download and install. I am not going to suggest anything else specific here because technology changes all the time, and I don’t want to put something here that’s going to end up as a broken link to some ancient software a few years from now (a lesson I’ve learned from having this site up for over 8 years at the time of this writing). At this moment in tech history, your best best might just be to do a Google search on “online music sequencer”, and you’ll find options that work right out of your web browser with nothing to install or buy.

2. Sequence a simple melody to play along with.

This can be long tones, a jazz standard, a classical melody, a nursery rhyme, or basically anything that would expose, plain as day, any intonation problems you might be having. Something with a fast flurry of notes isn’t going to work so well, since pitch problems are going to be a lot harder to spot as the notes whiz by.

The melody I’ve sequenced in the video above is actually more like a “real world” intonation situation, but I would strongly recommend also practicing along with a computer playing traditional long tone exercises.

3. Find a non-vibrating sound to play along with

Avoid sounds with built in vibrato, but go for a lead synth with unwavering pitch. A sine wave works great. Trust me, play out of tune with a solid lead synth and you’ll know right quick if you’re having intonation issues.

4. Sequence your melody and play along

See how well your own intonation skills can match the perfection of the sequenced notes off a MIDI synthesizer. Put a loop on that puppy so that it repeats until kingdom come. There’ll be little room for error playing this way, and you’ll quickly get a feel for what’s going on from an ear-training as well as an embouchure perspective that’s causing those windows to break (or not!).

Try the Exercise in the Video Yourself

Download the mp3 here: Intonation Practice Melody from Video

Download the MIDI file here: MIDI Version of Intonation Practice Melody from Video