Intonation Basics

1. Introduction
2. Factors influencing oboe intonation
3. Harmonics and adding keys
4. General principles of oboe pitch

1. Introduction

Intonation can be more problematic for the oboe than for the other woodwinds for several reasons. First, the oboe tone has comparatively clear focus and projection (even with younger players), so faulty pitch stands out exceedingly well. Second, the stability of the reed directly influences pitch stability so an unstable reed can cause even an experienced player to be out of tune. Lastly, even a stable reed has a range of possible pitch on each note, so playing in tune requires familiarity and consistency from the player that takes time to develop. Finally, excessive physical movement, particularly in the embouchure, can inadvertently cause the pitch to change (one reason why the oboe is not part of the marching band).

The flexibility of the reed is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, it makes the oboe easier to play in tune than many other instruments. The experienced oboist can tune and focus all notes quickly and mostly automatically. On the negative side, until oboists learn how each note feels and sounds when it is in tune, pitch can be completely inconsistent.

A tuner is a good resource for practicing consistent good pitch. When playing in an ensemble however, oboists must not stubbornly play their note in tune with the tuner when everyone else has gone flat or sharp. They need to learn to adjust by ear, based on their knowledge of their own intonation tendencies, and the pitch of their reed that day.

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2. Factors influencing oboe intonation

  • A stable reed

A stable reed is one that can be described as having the following characteristics:

A stable crow: Traditionally, a stable crow is pitched slightly below or on two or three octave C naturals (for a description of what a crow is, see Reed Styles and Reed Testing). Blowing more strongly into the crow should not change the pitch. However, the stability of the crow is not important if the individual player is able to play a reed easily in tune for long periods of time with what others would consider a less stable crow.

In tune in all registers without much adjustment: The oboist must be able to hold the pitch steady in all registers, play F-sharp5 and E5 in tune, without pitch changes in dynamic extremes. Slurring up the octave on the left hand notes (A5—C5) should require some adjustment, but not so much as to tire the embouchure.

If a reed is too stable and/or closed, the high register will tend to be sharp, and the low register will tend not to respond easily. If the reed is too unstable, it can be hard to get high notes out at all, and not with consistent pitch.

Pitch qualities of the reed can be affected and therefore changed by the length of the tube (though generally 47mm, tubes can be purchased at 46mm and 48mm), the shaper used to shape the cane (a wider shape lowers the pitch, particularly in the higher registers), and even the quality of the cane (softer cane tends to create flatter reeds). These variables can be intentionally used if some pitch problems seem otherwise unfixable.

  • Consistent air support (See Breathing)
  • Embouchure changes for good pitch and tone in each register

low middle high 2The oboe has three major embouchure positions, each corresponding to the three pitch registers of the instrument (see above). The tone and tuning in each of these registers is best when the embouchure and oral cavity make slight changes specific to the register and reed. For the low register, this means having the lips more rolled out, with the mouth forming an “oo” vowel. In the high register, this means rolling the lips and the reed into the mouth more and closing the mouth into more of an “ee” vowel. The middle register works best with a more neutral embouchure and mouth shape—something between an “oo” and “ee” vowel. These embouchure changes may be very slight depending on the reed and the note. In the high register especially, good consistent air support is also a priority for pitch stability.

In actuality, each note has its own slightly different place or “sweet spot” in the embouchure. Dividing embouchure changes into three registers addresses a general concept, but some slight adjustment must occur on each and every note, and these changes may be slightly different for each reed and instrument. Focused, consistent air support, a steady embouchure, and good pitch models, either in unison or an octave below, are important to help develop the embouchure “memory” for in-tune note placement.

  • A working oboe

Leaking pads and/or maladjusted keys can cause pitch and response issues. (see Intonation Remedies). The higher the key raises over a tone hole, the sharper the pitch and visa versa. The pitch of a note can also be adjusted by changing the size of undercutthe tone hole, moving the tone hole (filling in the bottom, and opening up the top to raise the pitch for instance), and/or the shape of it’s undercutting (the flare in the tone hole where it meets the bore). Different models of well-made oboes that are in good adjustment also have different pitch tendencies related to their manufacture, though most oboes have the tendencies listed here.

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3. Harmonics and adding keys

The harmonic version of high register notes can be very stable, yet tonally different from the characteristic oboe sound. Alternating between the harmonic and regular fingerings of these notes can help more easily find the correct pitch with the more flexible regular fingerings (See Harmonics and Color Fingerings.)

For some situations, it may be appropriate to use added keys or different fingerings to play certain notes more in tune, though recognizing this can change the tone colour and flexibility of the note. For instance, adding the low B key to an F-sharp5 can focus and stabilize that note, bringing it up or down as needed. (For more details about adding keys, see Harmonics and Color Fingerings).

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4. General principles of oboe pitch

 LESS Air Support  MORE
• flatter pitch • sharper pitch
• duller tone • brighter tone
• softer sound • louder sound
  LESS Embouchure Pressure   MORE
• flatter pitch • sharper pitch
• airy tone • pinched tone
  LESS Amount of Reed in Mouth   MORE
•flatter pitch • sharper pitch (unless too much reed is pushed in, not rolled in, the mouth; then the pitch will be flat)
• duller tone • brighter tone
• flabby tone • harsh tone
• better low register response • better upper register response
  LESS Jaw Pressure   MORE
• flatter pitch • sharper pitch
• deeper, rounder sound • pinched and narrow sound
• better for middle and low register • better for high E6 and above

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