I've been told that, ideally, a note like an e sharp or a b sharp should be slightly different in pitch from an f natural or a c natural. (especially when it is written as a leading pitch in a minor key, apparently)

I'm wondering, what direction that lean of pitch should be, slightly sharp or slightly flat? If it's flat, should I be in the habit of kicking out my first valve slide when an e sharp appears?

And do I need to adjust the pitch for double sharps and double flats if they appear in a classical piece?

Note: I play a lot of orchestral music and run into this issue relatively often. I know that, especially in the middle register of the instrument, it doesn't make a lot of difference. But when tone and tuning is already stressed in an above-the-staff or below-the-staff situation, I'll take any advantage I can.

  • I made your title a little more specific, hope you don't mind.
    – Some_Guy
    Jan 16 '19 at 0:39
  • Depends on context: is the E# the 3rd / 5th / 7th of a chord? For each requires different adjustments to the note. If you really want the advantage, study the score to figure out how your part fits into the whole and plan your tuning adjustments accordingly. Jan 16 '19 at 11:29
  • Hi, in general it is much more useful to provide a citation rather than "I've been told..." . Was this from a music teacher, another performer, a textbook, etc? Jan 16 '19 at 13:07
  • "especially...as a leading pitch in a minor key...": even there, it might depend on whether it's more important for the chord to be in tune or for the melodic progression to sound some way or another. People often want high leading tones melodically, but some people prefer low ("just") major thirds because they make chords "ring" better on account of reinforced harmonics. In a slow piece with richly voiced chords, the latter consideration will usually prevail, especially for a trumpet playing with brass or winds. For a quicker trumpet solo over strings, you might make the opposite choice.
    – phoog
    Feb 4 '19 at 19:34

Let me answer in a slightly different view. Brass instruments (among others) depend on generating overtones -- for a given valve fingering, the instrument will generate the true overtone series. These pitches are not exactly in the equal-temperament scale that is expected for the orchestra as a whole -- or to match an equal-temperament piano, and so on.

What this means is that a skilled brass player will know which notes need a slight adjustment up or down from the true overtone to match equal temperament. So, while F# and Gb are the same pitch so far as the orchestra is concerned, you need to use the valve slide to match the orchestra.

Side note - in solo work, we all (even string players :-) ) may "push" a note slightly flat or sharp to emphasize an interval and enhance a mood.


In the equal temperament tuning system, E# and F are the same. Same with B# and C. There are other tuning systems (just intonation is another somewhat popular one), in which these pitches sound different. Since a piano is (usually) tuned in strict equal temperament, they have no way of differentiating between the two notes.

But orchestras don't always play strictly in equal temperament. The equal tempered scale that we used is a compromise that sacrifices intonation for the ability to modulate between keys without re-tunings. Since strings and wind instruments are able to make micro adjustments in intonation, they are capable of tuning individual chords to sound more harmonically rich. It is common for orchestras to tune major thirds a little flat (about 14 cents) and minor thirds a little sharp (about 16 cents). Since the leading tone is third of the a dominant chord, you would also tune it flatter in that context. In Just Intonation, the leading tone is also slightly flat.

But this is not specific to the notes E# and B#. In the Just Intonation system, ALL minor thirds are a little sharper and ALL major thirds are a little flatter regardless of the key.

This is mainly of concern when sustaining pitches. When playing melodically, it's preferable to stick with equally temperament notes. Also, this will depend on the preference of your conductor, and it is important to be in tune with your section and the other members of the orchestra.

  • 1
    this answer's correct in general but wrong on the specifics. Major thirds are flatter, also, it'd be good to address leading tones (from OP's question)
    – Some_Guy
    Jan 16 '19 at 0:38
  • 1
    @Some_Guy Thanks. You're right; I got it backwards. I've updated the answer to be more accurate and to address the leading tone.
    – Peter
    Jan 16 '19 at 2:08
  • 1
    Any decent violinist will tell you that G# and Ab aren’t the same notes. Jan 16 '19 at 11:27
  • 2
    @jjmusicnotes no they won't, unless they are playing an ancient piece written for just temperament. Jan 16 '19 at 13:08
  • 1
    @CarlWitthoft You're just wrong here. String ensembles don't play in equal temperament, unless I suppose you're playing atonal 12 tone music. Also, "just temperament" isn't a thing, the word temperament means a compromise tuning, so "just temperament" is an oxymoron, like talking about an "exact estimate", an "expected surprise" or a "bright shadow". What's more, temperaments are only for instruments with a tuned scale, fretless strings don't play in equal or any other temperament, neither do they play in just intonation, they adjust their tuning dynamically based on context, like singers.
    – Some_Guy
    Jan 16 '19 at 14:52

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