What If You Could Have More Confidence Tuning Your Ensemble?
What if you could have the confidence to tune your notes, instruments, and ensembles (voice or instrumental) and be accurate to within a 16th of a semi-tone with complete confidence? The answer is… everything you are doing musically would improve -including the confidence level of your own tuning abilities. A.P.S. Development LLC has just finished the development of an incredible iPhone/iTouch/iPad app that will surely bring rapid improvement to anyone’s ability to tune -all while practicing this skill in complete privacy: it’s called the A.P.S. Tuning Trainer (and it’s amazing!).
For years I’ve observed students, beginning teachers and veteran teachers alike struggle with their ability to properly and accurately tune. This is a skill set that I work on with all of our college students, at Grove City, from “day one”. This is also something that is a very “personal” matter for many musicians, so much so that they are afraid to ask others for help for fear that it is something they feel they should have already mastered and be an “expert” at. It’s not uncommon to find musicians that have solid, traditional, Solfeggio skills and still have problems tuning. This is usually due to their lack of exposure to extensive repetition of tuning practice and accurate feedback as to what they are listening to with regard to whether the pitches are the same or not.
I often hear experienced music teachers explaining to their ensembles about “beat” tuning… “listen for the beats”. While there is absolute truth to the statement about comparing two overlapping sine-waves (sounds) of similar frequencies together and “listening” for the “beats” to determine if something is in tune, the problem is that most of them can’t properly explain to their students what to do after they hear them! I’ve heard such nonsense things as “if they beats are close together” it’s sharp, “if they are far apart, it’s flat” and vice-versa (usually followed by a “pull-out” or “push-in” without regard to explaining the function of the movement itself to the students). The actual truth is that the beats will be produced if it’s flat or sharp and the further they (the beats) are apart the closer you are getting to the right “mark” – the beats, in and of themselves, do not indicate specific “flatness” or “sharpness” without further exploration and comparison of what is being heard through further changing the tension of the string or changing the length of a tube -it’s not enough to just hear the beats -you have to be a detective.
There are further “dangers” to be considered with the exact tuning of instruments with regard to the common usage of the equal temperament scale/tuning system. Because of our usage of this tuning system if an instrument is tuned to be “beat-less” it will clash with instruments such as the piano or fretted guitar. Also, often times it is difficult to hear beats in instruments of complex timbre. The real question with regard to tuning using a reference pitch is: Is what I’m hearing flat or sharp to what I’m comparing it to? The ability to answer this correctly, in my experience, comes with prolonged exposure to hearing what “flat” and “sharp” sound like in relation to a referenced pitch.
I always start out my first-time-tuning sessions with my students with a ridiculous example of flat and sharp comparisons: I play a note on the piano that is followed by another note about six whole-steps above it. I ask them if the 2nd note played was either flat or sharp. At this point, the look on their faces is usually that of bewilderment, but the point is that they CAN hear the difference -the 2nd note is way “higher” than first so, in essence, it’s sharp. I then do a series of half-step comparisons and, as you can imagine, they get all of these correct. So with good confidence I can say that just about everyone (except those with the medical diagnosis of amusia) has, at the very least, a pitch discrimination accuracy of better than 100 Cents or 1 complete semi-tone (half-step).
I don’t intend this post include a “primer ” about understanding the unit of measure known as the “cent”, but it makes sense (pun there) to have a working knowledge of it. The equal temperament scale (discussed prior) is divided into 12 notes or 12 equal semi-tones. Each of these semit-tones (half-steps) can be further divided into 100 equal parts known as “cents”. A cent is 1/100 of a semi-tone. The following list details this concept in fractions and audible “space”:
- 100 Cents = a semi-tone (or 1/2 of a whole step: C to C#)
- 50 Cents = 1/2 of a semi-tone (or 1/4 of a whole step:)
- 25 Cents = 1/4 of a semi-tone
- 12.5 Cents – 1/8 of a semi-tone
- 6.25 Cents = 1/16 of a semi-tone (about the best humanly possible – known as the “just noticeable difference or JND”)
Every musician should strive to be in the < 12 cents category of confident pitch discrimination (regardless of age). Interestingly enough, many tuners will show the “acceptable” range of tuning to be + or – 20 cents, but as you might imagine- it’s really not an acceptable range (but certainly better than + or – 40 cents)!
When I envisioned the A.P.S. Tuning Trainer, I wanted to make something that would allow a massive amount of exposure/questions to be experienced in a minimum amount of time. I also wanted the ability to change variables that affect each person’s ability to accurately discriminate pitches including:
- The listening octave range
- The range of pitch variance with regard to a specific “cent” difference (i.e. 20 cents) or a range of “cents” (i.e. 10 to 19 cents)
- The timbre of the reference pitch
- The timbre of the pitch to be compared (the determinant pitch)
- How long a pitch would be played
- The space (in seconds) between the two compared pitches (pitch memory)
I wanted to make the user-interface basic, intuitive, and effective. I also wanted to include the ability for the user to “go-back” and review the pitches that were missed and hear them again while knowing the the correct answer to reinforce what the correct answer to the questions sound like.
Needless to say, I’ve spent countless hours in the creative and design process (but also had an amazing programmer) and countless hours testing this product. Would you like to know my results with continued usage of the A.P.S. Tuning Trainer? –> When I started using my own piece of software, I was accurate at 20 cents about 95% of the time (not bad). I’m now accurate at 10 cents 99% of the time and 7 cents 90+ percent of the time regardless of timbre, delay, or octave range. How is that for a testimonial?
I’m not aware of anything like this, especially with regard to the ease-of-use and the endless possibilities of variations with the product that allow reinforcement of the skill through many different scenarios. It is one of those “Wow, I wish I had this in the fourth grade things…” (maybe some of you are thinking…you wish you had this college <grin>). I’ve included a 20 day (4 week), 20 minutes-a-day curriculum with the A.P.S. Tuning Trainer that should get just about everyone to the “12.5 cents or better mark” very quickly. Put simply, It works.
The software has just been submitted to Apple and will be available shortly for the iPhone, iTounch, and iPad (i.e. it’s not out JUST YET). We are going to put it on the Apple Store for a limited time at $.99 cents and then change it to its slated price of $1.99 (50% off for launch). We want to make this product affordable for every single person that wants it. We are already thinking of the next upgrades for this product and have some great ideas in that regard, but we have to re-coup the development money on this first! So, please, help us spread the word and consider buying this one-of-a-kind tool!
Joseph M. Pisano, Ph.D. is the creator of many education websites, a lecturer, clinician, trumpeter, and conductor. He is currently the Associate Chair of Music and Director of Bands in the Calderwood School of Arts at Grove City College in PA. He been named a TI:ME Teacher of the Year, received the JEN Jazz Educator Award and the PA Citation of Excellence. He is a past Vice President of the Technology Institute for Music Educators and the current Vice-President of the PA Intercollegiate Bandmasters Association. He also writes for DCI Magazine, Teaching Music Magazine, and is the Educational Editor for In-Tune Monthly Magazine; he has contributed hundreds of articles to various publications. Find out more at his website jpisano.com.