Tuning Together

Tuning is another way to express “togetherness” as an ensemble. When paying attention to tuning, it’s important to think about the kinds of instruments you’re working with. If some have fixed pitch, such as a piano, then other pitches that align with those of that instrument will need to tune to it. If not, then there is more flexibility. We’ll focus on the latter case, and encourage anyone whose primary instrument has fixed pitches to use another instrument, such as their voice, for this section.

While different approaches may be appropriate for different situations, perhaps the most common way to tune a chord is to “build” it up in the following order:

  1. start with the root of the chord;
  2. add the fifth, adjusting until it sounds “pure” and seems to “ring”;
  3. add the third, adjusting until it sounds “sweet”;
  4. add any other notes.

For any note performed by more than one musician, start with the lowest and then add the higher one(s).

Here is an example:

As a general rule, when we want chords that sound “perfectly in tune,” fifths should typically sound extremely pure, with no “roughness” or “beats”; major thirds should be played just a little on the low side; and minor thirds should be played just a little on the high side. Experiment, however, with what sounds good to you.

Activity: Tune a chord as an ensemble

Goal: Develop sensitivity to vertical tuning and practice strategies for tuning with an ensemble.

Before you start: You’ll need a small ensemble of at least three musicians, each with an instrument that can sustain tones and adjust its tuning (voice is fine). Players of fixed-pitch and/or quick-decay instruments such as piano, guitar, harp, and marimba should either sing or choose an alternative instrument. Tuning will be easiest if everyone uses the same instrument; a good second-easiest is to mix instruments within families (winds, brass, strings).


  1. Assign each member of the ensemble a pitch. Choose the pitches to create a chord. As you repeat this activity, experiment with different tunings and, if you have more than three people, doubling different members of the chord.
  2. Have each musician start to play their pitch as a sustained tone, one at a time in the order root-fifth-third-anything else. With each new pitch, the person who just joined should adjust as necessary to achieve excellent tuning. If the ensemble is singing, make sure everyone is using the same vowel. If someone is having trouble, it may be helpful for them to get feedback from other group members.
  3. Once steps 1–2 are working well, choose a second chord to move to and assign everyone a pitch in that chord. (Ideally, each person’s note in the second chord will be the same or just a step away from their note in the first chord.) Start by “building up” the first chord, then move all together to the assigned pitches in the second chord and see if everyone can listen and adjust tuning there too.


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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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