No matter what your skill level is, the saxophone is a temperamental instrument when it comes to playing in tune. There are many things that can affect the exact tuning of each pitch, from your embouchure to the age of your instrument or the distance between keypads and open holes. But, the first step to playing with proper intonation is to get the instrument itself in tune. There are a few factors that affect tuning, so the more times you go through the process of getting in tune, the easier it will get.
In this post, we’ll walk you through firstly how to tune a saxophone and then discus some more tips to staying in tune. Let’s jump in.
Saxophone Tuning Instructions
The steps below are for all the different types of saxophone although we recommend beginners probably start on the alto sax.
Step 1: Warm up the Saxophone
The first step before even attempting to tune your saxophone is to warm up.
While the saxophone is sitting in its case, it gets cold and the materials aren’t vibrating or being touched.
But, when you play, your warm breath and the vibrations makes the metal heat up which in turn causes the the saxophone to expand.
This is the case for all instruments, not just the saxophone and the general rule is that as an instrument gets bigger, its pitch gets lower.
This is why we need to warm up first as if we tune it up and then start playing, the saxophone will become warm, expand and then go out of tune.
Playing some long notes or scales that reach the upper, middle, and lower range of the instrument will help each part of the saxophone come to playing temperature.
Step 2: Get a Tuner
Next, we’d recommend purchasing a digital tuner as these are the best way to be sure you’re in tune.
Something like the one below is what you’re looking for.:
- Tuner and metronome functions can be used simultaneously or independently
- Large backlit display for improved visibility; twice the battery life of the tm-50
- A wide detection range of c1-c8 supports a broad range of instruments
But, if you don’t have a dedicated tuner, there are many tuning apps for phones and tablets available.
If you haven’t used one before, a tuner will register the pitch of the note you’re playing and show you how far above or below concert pitch it is.
This is often displayed as a needle on a gauge telling you you’re sharp or flat.
Sometimes, tuners will even have a green zone in the middle where the needle is close to the pitch and red zones at the lower and upper ends where your pitch is high or low.
Step 3: Play into the Tuner
Members of the saxophone family have different tendencies with alto and bari saxes being generally more stable across the instrument, while tenor and soprano saxes can really vary in different ranges.
For alto or bari, a concert A (which is a written F#) and concert B-flat (written G) are great tuning notes to play.
For tenors and sopranos, it’s good to play concert B-flat (a written C) and concert F (a written G).
With the tuner on, take a deep, healthy breath and play the first note in the middle range of the instrument.
Notice where the tuner registers the pitch and then try playing another tuning note in the same octave, and then use the octave key to see where the higher pitches register.
Step 4: Adjust the Mouthpiece
The final step to tune the instrument is to move the mouthpiece slightly until the tuner is showing you that you’re in tune..
If you are below the note (flat), you’ll need to push the mouthpiece further onto the cork.
If you’re higher (sharp), you’ll need to pull the mouthpiece out slightly.
Adjust the mouthpiece just a little bit at a time so you don’t overshoot by twisting in back and forth and gently pulling or pushing.
When you first start playing, you may not be able to get your tuning notes and their octave-higher counterparts all perfectly in tune at the same time.
Focus on getting the notes in the middle range of the instrument in tune then, you can use other methods to adjust the range of the instrument.
How Mouthpieces Can Affect Tuning
When pulling or pushing the mouthpiece onto the cork, we’re actually causing the saxophone to be longer or shorter in length.
This means the air you blow into the sax has more or less distance to travel which is the main thing that affects the pitch of the sound it creates.
But, mouthpieces can also affect the pitch from how they’re constructed with the materials they use, the tip facing, the baffle as well as other parts all affecting how well the sax will play in tune.
Generally, a saxophone mouthpiece with more space inside is considered more “open” and requires more air to keep the note’s pitch from going flat.
Tip facing is how far apart the tip of the mouthpiece and the tip of the reed are.
A tall facing allows a lot of air to go through the instrument, but it requires stronger muscles to maintain a steady pitch; a short facing requires less muscle but won’t project as well.
The baffle is the surface inside the mouthpiece opposite the reed that slopes towards the player.
A baffle that is thick makes the chamber of the mouthpiece smaller and the sound bright and piercing.
A thin baffle opens the chamber and makes the sound warmer and rounder.
There are also mouthpieces for different styles with jazz mouthpieces being shaped very differently than classical mouthpieces and are often made of metal instead of hard rubber.
Embouchure and Airstream
The way your lips are shaped around the mouthpiece is called your embouchure and can have a big affect on tuning.
Saxophone requires an embouchure that is firm at the corners, but relaxed, and a strong, steady airstream.
An embouchure that is too tight or stiff will cause a pinched sound and a thin airstream, which drops the pitch flat.
An embouchure that’s too open or loose won’t stabilize the reed for a steady pitch and can let tons of air through (often called “overblowing”) and this leads to a loud, sharp tone.
Once the instrument is in tune, your embouchure is the best way to tune each pitch by either firming up your muscles slightly to bring the pitch up or opening and lowering the jaw while keeping your embouchure firm to help bring the pitch down without making it unstable.
Just like a musician practices technique, practicing tuning is also important and developing your ear to tell whether you’re in tune takes time.
Playing along with reference pitches is the best way to practice manipulating your embouchure to bring the pitch up or down.
You can use some of the videos on YouTube to practice tuning your sax by ear.
Just play along with them and try to hear whether you’re sharp or flat and adjust accordingly, focusing on using your embouchure to tune each pitch in every octave.
Summing up the Saxophone Tuning Process
We hope that guide to tuning a sax has helped give you some direction of what you’re aiming for.
It’s important to work on as developing a sense of intonation on your instrument is an all part of becoming a better musician.
Although it seems hard at first, by training your ear and your muscles, tuning your instrument will get easier every time you play.