Intonation: Definition, Patterns & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Intonation?
  • 0:40 Musicians and Intonation
  • 1:35 The Challenge of Good…
  • 2:48 Intonation in an Ensemble
  • 3:22 Intonation in Speech and Chant
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sharon Rhinesmith
In this lesson, we will learn about the two musical meanings of the word 'intonation' with emphasis on the more common usage of the word as it relates to pitch: why it is important and how different musicians accomplish it.

What Is Intonation?

Intonation means the rising or falling of a speaking voice, the inflection of a language and by extension also refers to vocal music that is half sung or chanted. The beginning solo phrase of a Gregorian chant, for example, is called an intonation. But the more common definition of intonation in music is how well a note is intoned, the accuracy of its pitch. We will explore what intonation means to different musicians through the perspectives of a singer, a brass player and a string player and hopefully help you to understand how such a simple concept can be so difficult to do.

Musicians and Intonation

When someone talks about intonation in music today they are almost always referring to how in tune the performers are. Playing or singing in tune is a fundamental standard to which all musicians must strive. If a performer is out of tune, it is often obvious even to the most unmusical of ears. Being out of tune means the tone is slightly higher (sharp) or slightly lower (flat) than the correct pitch. When someone is out of tune, it throws off the other musicians around him or her and creates a dissonance that is difficult to listen to.

Keyboard players such as pianists do not have to worry about having accurate pitch. They simply press a key with a finger, and the right pitch comes out. Of course the piano can be out of tune, but fortunately the pianist does not get blamed for this. For other musicians, such as brass players, strings players, and singers, it is not so easy.

The Challenge of Good Intonation

One of the hardest of all instruments to play is the violin. A child who is first learning is often the butt of jokes because of how awful it can sound. In order to play a note in tune on a stringed instrument, one must press down his finger on exactly the right spot on the fingerboard. If the finger is even a hair off, it will sound out of tune.

Similarly a trombone player, a member of the brass family, must be very careful using his hand to position his slide exactly in the right place or it will be out of tune. A trombonist must make sure the slide is well lubricated. Then he must use his ear by listening to himself on a recording, using a tuner and playing with other instruments to practice making the necessary pitch adjustments.

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