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Ok. So I consider myself to have pretty good pitch. If you give me a few seconds after you sound a note, I can tell you what the note is. I can also tune a timpani to any pitch using only my mouth (because you are supposed to sing into a timpani, and it will "sing" back). I associate each pitch with something that I heard before. I guess people call this "Perfect Pitch." But I was recently told that I should not always rely on my memory because it doesn't show as much "talent" as it would with a tuning fork.

I'm no expert, but wouldn't tuning a pitch correctly using nothing at all be more impressive to a judge at an audition? So my first question is how are using tuning forks more impressive. My second question is how do people even use tuning forks? Because I am probably going to have to start using one eventually anyway, because it is a more stable way of tuning. I have heard of songs to remember things like 3rds and 4ths. Like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." It has a 3rd, a 4th, and a 5th. But how do people get a D# from a tuning fork? That isn't in the scale of A, so how do they find a note that isn't in the scale? And is it possible to learn how to notice an interval? Like noticing that D# is the flat 5th of the scale of A.

So to make it clear, here are my questions:

  1. How is using a tuning fork more impressive than a pitch pipe?
  2. How do people use tuning forks to obtain notes that aren't in the scale of A?
  3. Can you train yourself to recognize intervals?
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Personally, I prefer to call this aural skills phenomenon "absolute pitch," (AP) and only make use of the name "perfect pitch" when the level of skill is indeed at that point where it can not be distinguished from perfection.

I was recently told that I should not always rely on my memory because it doesn't show as much "talent" as it would with a tuning fork.

Interesting! Usually we hear it the other way around, because AP is a rare ability, and nearly everyone uses a pitch pipe of some kind in order to tune. But, it's always a good idea to practice things that are difficult for you in order to build your skills, and the skill of matching a pitch to a reference is a very important skill to have!

As far as impressiveness is concerned, AP is really only impressive from a "party trick" perspective. When auditioning for a judge, the judge is concerned with you playing the right notes, and making a minimum amount of fuss in tuning from one pitch to another. Making a show of how you are tuning the timpani is NOT the way to go. Rather, use whatever method will get you to the target pitch as accurately as possible, that can be executed with as little extraneous noise as possible. Now, let's talk method:

How the Pros Do it

Have you ever heard an orchestral timpani player blow a note on a pitch pipe between movements of a symphony? Of course not, and if he ever did during a concert, the conductor would fire him. In a high school band there's obviously a lot more wiggle room, but I bring this up to use as a professional standard of reference. The professional is using either AP or relative pitch to retune a drum whenever a change is required. Which skill he/she is using does not matter, so long as it is accurate. When using relative pitch, the professional does not even need a pitch pipe, since the timpani themselves, as well as every instrument in the orchestra, is providing reference pitches.

In a nutshell, the professional using relative pitch is doing this:

  1. Tune the timpani before the concert using a pitch pipe or other reference tone.
  2. When changing tunings during the concert, identify intervals between the timpani's current pitch and the target pitch. Use these intervals to audiate (create an internal aural image) the target pitch.
  3. In the appropriate moment, retune the timpani by matching its pitch to the target pitch in the timpanist's head, while making as little noise as possible. If the orchestra is silent, this can be accomplished just by actuating the foot pedal and listening to the pitch head as it stretches across the frame.

Now, let's break down each of these steps, and include some alternative methods.

1. Getting a reference pitch

  • I haven't mentioned tuning forks at all yet, because most people see them as a bit arcane given the other technology options available, and there's not a single high school or college-level program that I've ever seen that uses them to tune timpani. From pedagogy to professional, the "gold standard" is the Kratt "Master Key" Chromatic Pitch Pipe. Every time I've ever seen a timpani, one of these is close by.
  • People with very good absolute pitch can pluck a note out of thin air to use as a reference.
  • Large ensembles traditionally tune to an A or Bb before playing, that can be used as a reference pitch.

2. Finding a target pitch by interval

If your reference pitch is different from your target pitch, you will need to use relative pitch to find the target pitch. Interval recognition and recall are the aural skills most relevant to this task. Like any skill, they can be learned and trained. At the college level, one is expected to be able to identify the interval between any two notes within a 10th or so; and to do the same in reverse, singing a note at a particular interval above or below another one.

Perhaps this is why you are hearing that it is more impressive to use a tuning fork and interval recognition. It is an important skill, and one that takes time to develop, but tuning forks are just too old-school to justify using them just to show off some interval recognition (in my opinion)!

3. Tuning methods

Nearly everyone uses foot-pedal tuners on timpani nowadays, though here and there you'll occasionally see timpani with crank tuners. (At least we don't have to prepare drum heads from animal hide anymore...)

  • Anything you do to a drum is going to make some noise of the resonant pitch, so as mentioned above, if you are in a silent room, just actuating the foot pedal may give you enough information to tune to your target pitch.
  • If you're in a loud environment, the singing method you mentioned is a great trick since you don't really need to hear the timpani before it gets to the target pitch.
  • If you're between movements and the audience is making some noise, a slight tap of the head will likely go unnoticed and give you enough information to tune.
  • It is common to find timpani with tuning gauges that allow you to tune visually, but you should only trust these if you verify they are accurate (or recalibrate them) earlier that day.
  • In most middle school/high school band programs, it's acceptable to use a note or two on a pitch pipe between movements or pieces.

What I would expect to hear at an audition

If I was judging an audition at the high school level, here's what I would want to see.

  1. Student walks in to audition with timpani provided, carrying own mallets, and pitch pipe (in case one is not provided).
  2. Student blows one or two different notes on a pitch pipe to tune all four timpani to pitches required for excerpt #1, striking timpani lightly with mallets to tune.
  3. Student plays excerpt #1.
  4. Excerpt #2 is from the same piece of music, and only requires two timpani to be retuned at a 4th or 5th of one of the existing pitches.
  5. Student uses existing pitches to retune timpani for excerpt #2, using a quiet tap if necessary.
  6. Student plays excerpt #2.
  7. Excerpt #3 is from a different piece of music, in a completely different key from previous excerpts, all timpani must be retuned at uncommon intervals.
  8. Student blows two new notes on a pitch pipe to tune all four timpani.
  9. Student plays excerpt #3.
  10. Sightreading time! Provided excerpt requires three notes--an octave and a 5th above the root.
  11. Student blows the root on pitch pipe, tunes all three timpani, plays sightreading excerpt.

Every single one of the steps can and should be practiced in sequence so that the prepared portion especially goes perfectly smoothly. The judge doesn't need to see or hear you tune. You hurt yourself by making a big deal about it. (You also hurt yourself by tuning the wrong notes!) The idea is to emulate a concert situation, so the initial tuning is similar to a concert warmup situation, the retuning between the first two excerpts from the same piece of music happens quickly and silently, and more time is given to tune for the new piece of music.

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The aim of tuning an instrument is to make the instrument be in tune, and not "being impressive". Use whatever works - but try to be sure it actually is in tune.

A pitch pipe and a tuning fork are both sources of a reference pitch, and neither is better or more "impressive" than the other. I think I would personally prefer a tuning fork, because in my experience they produce a purer tone which a more distinct pitch -- but perhaps I have not yet experienced a high quality pitch pipe.

Not all tuning forks produce an A tone - although it is the most common. You can get tuning forks in any pitch (some pitches being easier to find than others).

You can certainly train yourself to recognise intervals - that is the ability to hear a note, followed by another note, and be able to say how many semitones difference there is between them. Or, to be played a note, and be able to sing a note the desired number of semitones higher or lower.

Some people like to learn intervals by reference to songs - but that's just one learning style, and it's not how everyone's mind works.

Myself, I have instant access to the "important" intervals - the octave, the fourth, the fifth, the major and minor thirds - and for others I'll mentally "sing" a scale, stopping at the one I'm looking for.

Specifically, here's how I would get to D#, in my head, from an A tuning fork:

  • I know that D# is not in the A major or A major scales. So I have to be a bit smarter.
  • I know that D# is in the B major scale, and I know that B is in the A major scale
  • So, I get a reference A from the tuning fork, and (in my head) play the first two notes of a rising A major scale. I have found B.
  • Now, starting on that B, I mentally play the first three notes of the B major scale. I have found D#.

Someone with more interval training than me, would be able to take a much more direct route.

An awful lot of instruments can be tuned without being able to recognise relative pitches, however. For example, if all you have is an A tuning fork, and you want to tune an E string on a fretted instrument, you can check the tuning against the A of the tuning fork, by fingering the fifth fret to play an A.

You mention that you're "probably going to have to start using one eventually anyway" because it's "more stable", which makes me wonder how much faith you actually have in your perfect pitch.

  • If you're absolutely sure that your perfect pitch gives you the exact right tuning every time, then you have no reason to ever use a tuning fork.
  • If you have any suspicion at all that sometimes you might get the pitch even slightly wrong, then you should start using an electronic tuner, or some source of reference pitch, right now and always.

It would probably be a good idea to test yourself with an electronic tuner (there are free apps for computers/tablets/smartphones) -- tune something, then check it with the tuner.

In an orchestral setting, you are surrounded by reference pitches from the instruments around you, and I suspect that this is what a professional timpanist would tune against.

Electronic tuners are so cheap now, there's no practical reason not to use one.

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For the purposes of impressiveness, I was referring to auditions –  Cody Guldner Mar 18 '13 at 17:18
Nobody at an audition should care how you tune your instrument, as long it actually is in tune. –  slim Mar 18 '13 at 17:21
It might be worth clearly demonstrating that you are tuning though. By analogy, when you take a driving test, you make big head movements every time you look in the mirror. "Wouldn't it be more impressive to look in the mirror just with small eye movements?" -- maybe, but the tester needs to know for sure you're looking. –  slim Mar 18 '13 at 17:44
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