I believed that the trombone stands almost alone among wind instruments, in that it allows to play a continuous pitch range. The rest have a discrete set of possible notes (pitches), hence things are somewhat easier, in that (providing that the instrument is ok) you almost cannot play "out of tune" (I mean, by a fraction of semitone). Something like the difference between a fretted and unfretted bass.

But the "out of tune" scene in Whiplash left me wondering.

Is the above -more or less- true?

  • 75
    'Can wind instruments be played in tune?' is often, alas, the more natural question to ask.
    – user3490
    Apr 11, 2018 at 12:51
  • Temperature and humidity affect the tuning of a wind instrument. All wind instruments, including the trombone, have some method for adjusting tuning. Apr 11, 2018 at 23:53
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    Note the big slide right at the start of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, played on the clarinet.
    – Ben I.
    Apr 12, 2018 at 13:01
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    "What's the definition of a minor second?" "Two piccolos playing in unison." Apr 12, 2018 at 14:32
  • @TracyCramer good catch. I overlooked it because it's not in Wikipedia's Continuous pitch instruments category.
    – phoog
    Apr 12, 2018 at 16:38

9 Answers 9


Yes, wind instruments can play out of tune, even when the instrument is "tuned properly" (which isn't as well-defined as it seems). In fact, the same can be said for fretted string instruments as well.

For wind instruments, the way you blow into the instrument can drastically affect your pitch. As a flute player, I can vary between as much as a whole step above and below the note I'm fingering by basically just rotating the instrument. I've heard single-reed (saxophone and clarinet) players slide up an octave without changing fingering. For brass instruments, you can get a lot of different pitches out of each fingering due to the nature of the instrument and the interaction with the mouthpiece. I would say, in general, that playing out of tune is the default situation for all wind instruments, and playing in tune requires a lot of practice and very good ear.

For fretted string, the amount of pressure you put on your fretting hand affects the pitch. It's not as much as an intentional bend, but it can be up to a quarter step or more, and definitely enough to sound out of tune even to untrained ears. This issue become much more pronounced with scalloped frets. It's not as much of a concern as wind instruments, however, because it's a universal solution: fret lightly and you will stay in tune, vs. wind instruments needing to take care of many different things for each note and situation they are in.

The instruments which cannot (without effort) play out of tune are non-fingered string instruments (harp, dulcimer, lyre), percussion instruments (drums, keyboards, auxiliary), and those instruments which are somehow both (piano, harpsichord, celeste). These instruments are all basically just a set of pretuned objects which are vibrated by picking, plucking, or striking to create the sound. Assuming those objects are in tune and you aren't going out of your way to touch or bend them inappropriately, they will play in tune. However, you can make them play out of tune in various ways, but it will not be an accident, and may be harder than playing in tune.

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    Yeah - I've a friend who can do the full-octave clarinet bend at the top of Rhapsody in Blue without batting an eyelid. It is rather impressive.
    – Tetsujin
    Apr 11, 2018 at 7:25
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    Important to know is that those pretuned instruments (guitar, piano) are not perfectly in pitch either, that's why the piano is called en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Well-Tempered_Clavier the well tempered clavier. It's a rather complicated topic, but very interesting.
    – Mafii
    Apr 11, 2018 at 13:07
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    @Mafii - perfectly in pitch is subjective. In 12edo, both are 'perfectly in pitch'.
    – Tim
    Apr 11, 2018 at 16:38
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    @Mafii We are assuming that the instrument itself is properly tuned to whichever tuning system the performer desires (or is required to play in).
    – Alex Jones
    Apr 11, 2018 at 17:35
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    @MichaelSeifert For simpler pieces, this is true. But for more complicated pieces (modern band/orchestral works, and most percussion ensembles and timpani solos), changing tuning is part of playing the instrument. Check out this solo and some of Diana's other videos to see what I'm talking about: youtube.com/watch?v=BlwyIxWXNZk
    – Alex Jones
    Apr 12, 2018 at 18:15

Yes, all wind instruments can be played out of tune. Very out of tune.

Source: I work with junior concert bands.

To elaborate, the frequency produced by a given wind instrument is a function of the fingering, but also the embouchure (mouth position), airspeed, and any number of other factors.

Learning to play in tune is a major part of starting to learn a wind instrument. This is not the case with something like piano (no tuning at all), or guitar (where a beginner will play adequately in tune).

  • 90
    "Source: I work with junior concert bands." - Howls of laughter And sympathy. You are a hero in the world of music. Apr 11, 2018 at 2:49
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    Agree with piano, but certainly not guitar. Slightly bent strings?
    – Tim
    Apr 11, 2018 at 6:16
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    @Tim Probably fair. I guess I'm not saying that a guitarist never worries about intonation, but that it's much more of an issue for a beginner wind instrumentalist than a beginner guitarist. I'm not a guitarist though, so feel free to correct me.
    – endorph
    Apr 11, 2018 at 6:37
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    @AnoE To be fair to Tim, I did change that sentence based on his comment.
    – endorph
    Apr 11, 2018 at 10:17
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    Mandatory link to wind instruments being played out of tune: youtube.com/watch?v=aZTghhCcM-E
    – Buhb
    Apr 11, 2018 at 14:10

I have a number of brass family instruments (mellophone, cornets, trumpet, euphonium). I regularly bend ("bluesify") notes on them intentionally. On the lower-pitched ones this may be easier for some players. Brandon Ridenour does that famous Rhapsody in Blue bend on a soprano trumpet here, very impressively:

In this case he's using partial valve closure, but I find that I can generally do up to a whole tone by adjusting my embouchure.

Actually, due to the physical constraints of the instrument, for many notes a brass instrument will naturally play "out of tune" unless the player adjusts his/her embouchure to correct it. On the three valved instruments, each of the valves increases the length of the plumbing by 1/2, 1 whole, or 1-1/2 steps thus allowing all the notes of the scale to be played as harmonics, but this is only strictly correct at the natural pitch of the instrument.

When you are playing at, say, an octave higher than that, the extra length actually added by the plumbing does not change even though the added length required to lower the note would be less. For the higher notes "lipping up" to avoid flatness is necessary although it is usually unconscious.

  • What is the "natural pitch of the instrument"? For example imagine the lowest c-major scale you could play: bottom C is on the 2nd harmonic, DEFG on the 3rd, and ABC on the 4th. Which harmonic is the valves "correct" for?
    – Rodney
    Apr 11, 2018 at 18:41
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    You can bend even farther than that - on my trumpet I can bend a G down to a E without partial valve closure. It sounds terrible, but you can do it.
    – bendl
    Apr 11, 2018 at 19:00

Oh dear higher power, yes. Wind instruments can play out of tune. So very much out of tune.

Already starting with the humble recorder, you first have the challenge of matching concert pitch by slightly pulling out your mouth piece (which wrecks the coherence of the instrument's basic tuning) and then using embouchure and articulation and dynamics in a manner where the focus of a tone is at the core of where it should be.

There is such a difference between conservatory-level recorder players and the humble school beginners regarding the fine points of pitch control that one wouldn't believe it until having sat through a number of school level concerts as well as concerts people actually pay for hearing.

Now the straightness and purity of tone actually make the recorder one of the cruellest instrument for ensemble play regarding pitch control, but the same considerations apply to a good degree to other winds even though the means of pitch control differ individually.

With brass instruments you have the additional problem that the valves are getting combined and the resulting resonator length modifications are arithmetic while the required frequency modifications would be geometric. So every scale needs individual corrections to each note.

  • The standard types of recorder also require some precision for playing the "black notes", since the pitch depends on how much of the double-hole is uncovered. Partially uncovering one or more single holes can have a similar effect, too.
    – Chromatix
    Apr 12, 2018 at 21:48
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    Notably, the standard trope for "bad musician" isn't a novice violin player any more - it's a recorder being blown far too hard, resulting in a sharp and uneven pitch, a harsh and grating timbre, and even random jumps in octave.
    – Chromatix
    Apr 12, 2018 at 21:50

Mr.Buzzkill suggests what he's really asking is -- what other instruments can be positioned to play any wavelength without bending from the design fundamental for a given fingering/setting/etc.

Playing "out of tune" strictly means the whole instrument is off-concert pitch.

" Bending" is just a way of forcing production of wavelength which is not dead-peak resonance for the instrument.

Thus, for a specified bore length and specified set of holes (i.e. fingering on woodwinds), there is only one fundamental resonance wavelength. The trombone can adjust the bore length to arbitrary precision, hence play any wavelength fundamental. Most brass instruments can adjust the bore length a small amount via tuning slides (most often used to go from natural to tempered scales, for example). To my knowledge there isn't any woodwind which has variable position or variable size holes designed in. Performers can and do "partially cover" some finger holes to bend pitches by virtual adjustment of the hole size (wander on over to Helmholtz Resonator for more on this).

  • When you talk about one fundamental frequency that implies a well defined length, but rather like a river flowing to the sea there isn't a precisely defined point where the sound wave considers itself to be inside or outside of the instrument, so there's room to bend
    – Rodney
    Apr 11, 2018 at 18:48
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    @Rodney That's not strictly true -- the bell is supposed to act as an impedance-matching device to better transmit energy from instrument to the world. I agree that you can push the effective length by changing the pressure stream, thus damaging the quality of the impedance match. Apr 11, 2018 at 19:15

Yes, in addition to the points mentioned by others, the temperature and humidity conditions in the room, for example , when playing the Indian bansuri the artist has to make sure to avoid sudden rise or dip in temperatures and has to allow the instrument to adjust to the room temperature. Check this website for some tips.


Most wind instruments have fingerings or positions that will create a "general" pitch at each semitone. But a player can actually sound a different semitone or pitches between the semitones based on embouchure and air support, or even things like the shape of the mouthpiece or barrel of a clarinet or neck of a saxophone.

A young player who has not developed a strong embouchure or proper air support will play terribly out of tune. A more advanced player may, at times, slide the pitch up or down on purpose.

Even a player with proper embouchure and air support will have to adjust notes while playing because each instrument has notes that tend to be out of tune, just by the nature of the design of the instrument. A good player will know the instrument and which notes tend to go flat or sharp, and adjust accordingly. Sometimes alternate fingerings will be more in tune.


An unusual type of wind instrument is the humble steam whistle fitted to vintage locomotives, ships, and even factories. Despite having a fixed resonant length, listening to any of these with a critical ear will reveal their pitch dependence on the temperature and pressure of the steam actuating them, the latter of which is commonly varied by the driver (known as "quilling").


It's rather interesting you'd mention the trombone, but not unsurprising.

One thing of note in regard to this instrument is that there are, in effect, despite common impressions to the contrary, two boundaries to the trombone's ability to accurately play a pitch*: that is, first position is first position and can go no higher, and seventh position is limited by the length of the player's arm.

As an example, "D" above middle C is the 1st position note in the 5th partial (aka 'overtone'), which tends to sound flat. If you want to play this D in tune you cannot do so in 1st position without "lipping it up"; alternatively, some professional model trombones have a spring-loaded slide receiver, and the player pulls the slide in harder than normal on 1st-position "D", compressing the springs, but merely puts the slide against the springs for standard usage of first position, such as B-flat in the 4th partial (which is typically in tune).

For this reason advanced trombonists often play D above middle C in 4th position, 5th partial (or have the aforementioned spring-loaded receiver).

For reference, a chart of the trombone's overtones/partials and their pitch tendencies is at http://www.olemiss.edu/lowbrass/studio/overtonecharts/tenorandbasstromboneovertone.pdf

*"accurately play a given pitch" --- within a given partial/overtone series.

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