In this series of posts we explore musicality: what it means to be “musical”.

If you play an instrument which needs to be tuned up before you play: Are you able to do it yourself by ear – or do you rely on an electronic tuner?

If you rely on a tuner then when you see someone tune up entirely by ear, it probably seems like they’re impressively musical.

Being able to tune your instrument is an important skill and one which is associated with musicality. In fact it is a learnable skill and one which will actually benefit you in a number of ways.

What it means to tune your instrument by ear

Different instruments are tuned in different ways. In some cases tuning up only matters when you play with other instruments but in other cases you need to tune up to sound good even playing solo.

Here are some examples. If you play a wind or brass instrument you probably have a single tuning system, such as adjusting the barrel on your clarinet or saxophone, or moving the tuning slide on your trumpet or horn. You need to tune a single note to match a target note, and once that matches your whole instrument is “in tune”.

If you play a stringed instrument such as violin, guitar or bass, then you need to tune each string. If you’re playing with other instruments or a backing track then you must tune each string to a reference pitch, or tune one string to match a reference and then tune the other strings based on that one. If you’re playing solo then it might be enough just to make sure all the strings are in tune with each other.

Tuning guitar by ear

With keyboard instruments like piano the tuning system is extensive and complicated, so it’s normally the job of a professional to tune it – however musical you might be yourself.

Finally, if you are a singer you might not think your instrument needs to be tuned before playing. In fact, you must continually “tune up” your voice as you sing, making sure each note you produce stays in key. It’s an ongoing job!

Apart from the singing voice, in all the cases above you have the option of relying on an electronic device to tell you how to tune your instrument. You still make the physical adjustments such as moving the mouthpiece or turning the string’s tuning peg, but the electronic tuner tells you whether to make it higher or lower in pitch, and by how much, until you have it perfectly in tune.

When you rely on an electronic tuner, you don’t need any musical skill to tune your instrument. Somebody who has never learned music and considers themselves completely unmusical can still tune an instrument simply by following the tuner’s instructions.

When you tune your instrument by ear, you don’t rely on a device to tell you how to move the pitch up or down. Instead you listen to a reference note and rely on your own sense of pitch to compare it with your instrument’s note. You hear whether your instrument is producing too high or low a note, and you adjust it based on what you hear. You continue to listen carefully and refine your instrument’s tuning until you are satisfied that it is in tune.

The exact process varies by instrument, but it is always this core skill of: listen carefully, use your sense of pitch to compare your instrument’s note with the target, adjust, and repeat.

Why you should tune by ear

In the modern day we rely on electronic devices for so much in our daily lives, you might wonder: does it really matter if I use an electronic tuner to tune my instrument? Today you can get tiny digital tuners which are extremely accurate and convenient to carry around at all times, or even use a tuner app on your phone to do the job.

So why bother learning to tune your instrument by ear?

The answer is that it’s a very simple and pure way to train one of the most fundamental skills of musicality: your sense of pitch.

Believe it or not, it’s possible to become a very proficient instrument player while having a terrible sense of pitch. You can become lightning-fast with your fingers, play complicated pieces, and even pass high level exams, while still having a beginner’s sense of pitch.

However, you’ll never truly sound musical until you master pitch. That’s because pitch is core to musical expression, and although you can perform complicated pieces without mastering pitch, it’s having good pitch skills which will enable you to shape notes and phrases to be musically expressive.

Just listen to this wordless vocal solo:

Or this moving pedal steel cover of a classic Radiohead track:

Or the famous pitch-bending riff from Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight:

Your sense of pitch is also the basis for many other musical skills, like relative pitch which enables you to play by ear and improvise easily.

This means if you want to be truly musical, it’s essential to develop your sense of pitch.

How you learn to tune your instrument by ear

The way you tune your instrument by ear is basically the same as using an electronic tuner, in terms of how you make adjustments on your instrument, and the basic process of “play a note, check, adjust”. However, instead of looking at an electronic display to see if the note played is too high or too low, you listen and rely on your sense of pitch to tell you that.

Learning to tune your instrument by ear each time you play is a perfect opportunity to refine your sense of pitch.

That’s because it’s a tiny masterclass in pitch precision. You boil things down to the simplest possible case: “is this note higher or lower than it should be?” And then your are continually “checking your answer” and making adjustments.

It’s easy to get started. All you need to do is decide next time you tune up that you will use your ear. You might still use your electronic device to give you a “starting pitch” to match, so that you’re in tune with recorded music or the group you’re playing with, but then try to listen for the pitch changes required instead of asking the electronic tuner.

The great thing is that you always have the electronic tuner as a fallback option, so you can always start by trying to tune by ear, knowing that if you haven’t cracked it in a minute or two you can use the electronic tuner instead, and that you can always “check your answer” with the tuner at the end to be confident your ear got it right.

How Musical U can help you learn to tune by ear

Simply practicing tuning by ear is the most effective way to learn this skill, and it will help develop your sense of pitch. However, the reverse is also true: spend some time training your sense of pitch and it will become much easier to tune your instrument by ear.

Inside Musical U we have training modules focused on the fundamentals of musical pitch, which help you to understand some of the subtleties of this seemingly-simple topic, and can reveal some points which may have been confusing or troubling you in the past.
We also have a large number of modules on relative pitch such as intervals and chords which allow you to further refine your sense of pitch and ability to compare and judge note pitches relative to each other.

By training with the modules inside Musical U you can hone your musical ear and will find it easier and easier to tune your instrument by ear without need for electronic assistance.

Learning to tune your instrument by ear is a simple process, but it can be frustrating. Musical U can also help you by providing the help and support you need along the way, through the community and access to the expert team.

For example, if you play a stringed instrument like guitar, it can be frustrating when you start learning to tune by ear. You go through the strings thinking you’re getting each one in tune, only to play a chord and find it sounds terrible! The Musical U community could help you understand why, and how to adjust your process to have faster success next time.

Musicality means learning to tune your instrument by ear

It’s easy to get by as a musician without learning to tune your instrument by ear, especially in the modern day. But any self-respecting musician should consider it an essential skill to tune by ear, so that you know you can just pick up your instrument, tune up, and be ready to play – even if your batteries fail or you can’t find your digital gadget.

Learning to tune your instrument by ear brings a range of benefits and refines your most fundamental musical sense: pitch. Train your ears for musical pitch and you’ll find it easy to tune your instrument by ear. Practice tuning by ear and you’ll refine your sense of pitch. It’s a win-win.

If you want to go beyond robotic playing and passing exams, to become a truly musical player, you owe it to yourself to learn this simple but powerful skill of learning to tune your instrument by ear. It’s easy to get started next time you tune your instrument. Give it a try!