When playing classical music with for example a trombone, the player who plays the third of a chord must consciously adjust intonation depending on major / minor chords.

On a piano this is not possible.

How can we avoid intonation problems, when brass players adjust their thirds, but on the piano there is an unadjusted third player at the same time?

Is this only a matter of accurate hearing?

  • 2
    Note that choirs, unfretted strings (violins, etc..) and, to a degree, woodwinds, will also have this issue. Oct 21, 2015 at 14:31

3 Answers 3


In our "modern" system of equal tempered tunings, we encounter many compromises and trade-offs...but perhaps also some advantages.

In performing an equal temperament, the fifth intervals are made smaller by about 1 beat in 5 seconds, and the fourth intervals are made larger by a similar amount. Not enough to overtly disturb the purity of those intervals, but enough so that as you climb the scale, you don't encounter jarring mathematical asymptotes. In other words, in pythagorean (pure math) tuning, you get far enough up the scale to be "out of key" and suddenly you encounter 4ths and 5ths that are noticeably "out." The equal temperament spreads these mathematical "errors" across the whole scale, making each error almost vanishingly small.

One thing this does, however, is to make the third interval very much wider than it would have been.

In just (Ptolemaic 5-limit) intonation, we hear very clean, sonorous thirds. (to our modern ears, anyway!) In equal tempered tuning, we have been trained to be much more forgiving or perhaps better said, "tolerant" of varying degrees of sonority in our thirds. The standard equal temperament third (both major and minor) is a little bit sharp, thus feels a bit shrill compared to its 5-just sister...but this ambiguity has allowed us the ability...I might even use the word luxury...to take the third definitively and dramatically into interpretive territory, a place that the pure fourth and fifth can never be dragged, even kicking and screaming. I introduce into evidence "the blues." I can almost rest my case there.

In the context of the OP's question, the overall question of ensemble playing, the key is to arrive at consensus as an ensemble. The River of Thirds is wide and deep, and you all need to be in the same boat to cross to the other side!

  • Thanks everybody for your answers. This time it was difficult to decide which answer to accept. So this is a clear call for hearing carefully at each other while playing music.
    – MW1971
    Oct 22, 2015 at 9:56

As you stated, on a fixed pitch instrument this is not an issue, since the instrument is fully responsible for the intonation.

This being said using a tuner will resolve most intonation problems for wind instruments. There are certain pitches that will have sharp/flat tendencies, and it is fully the instrumentalist's responsibility to be aware of these on their given instrument.

Most wind players are encouraged to practice singing as well as other forms of ear training to help them play with proper intonation.

  • Is it commonplace for wind players to refer to a tuner rather than their ears?
    – Tim
    Oct 21, 2015 at 15:40

Chamber groups like brass choirs have the capability to create more acoustically natural harmonies because of the ability to lip pitches down/up, and the same can be said for strings and woodwinds, as you correctly stated.

When I was in college, I worked long and hard to figure out how that would work with a piano playing along, and I came up with one three-word answer:

Deal with it.

Seriously, though, the world is full of people playing out of tune. Our society has ears that are, for the most part, accustomed to equal temperament, so an equal-tempered major triad sounds just as correct as a just-tempered major triad. Sometimes it's better to err along with those who cannot avoid the error. So if the piano is playing the third of the chord a bit higher than you want to, and they can't change, you COULD try to be stubborn and keep lipping it down, creating dissonance where the composer did not call for dissonance. Or you could just use your ears and adjust to the equal temperament, and serve the music rather than trying to make the music serve you.

In the end, you've got to ask yourself, "Do I want to be right, or do I want to be musical?"

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