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Sounding flat vs sounding sharp

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by Andy Mopley, Aug 7, 2018.

  1. Andy Mopley

    Andy Mopley

    Sep 24, 2011
    Notwithstanding that one should always be playing in tune, I read somewhere opinions that sounding a little sharp in music is more preferred than flat. Even people with no ear for music can hear it when you are flat, but much tougher to detect when someone is a little on top of the note.

    Is this true for the DB?

    Regards to all
  2. I hope this isn't off topic. I have noticed that I tend to play a little sharp in a large ensemble. I think I do this because I can hear myself better...sometimes a big challenge in a group of loud instruments. A director I play with says he thinks bass sections as a whole often tend to being sharp.
    Looking forward to others thoughts on this.
  3. bkbirge


    Jun 25, 2000
    Houston, TX
    Endorsing Artist: Steak n Shake
    That's interesting, I've heard the opposite, that being a touch flat is preferable to sharp though this is from the realm of harmony and singing not string ensembles. I wonder what the reasoning would be for either position.
  4. Sgroh87


    Dec 4, 2012
    DFW, Texas
    I've been told that it's better to undershoot the note because a slide up is stylistically appropriate in jazz and okay in classical, but we tend to hear flat as "out of tune" and sharp as "brighter than the other instruments" (when we're talking on the scale of a few cents, anyway). Several percussion instruments (like the vibraphone) tend to be tuned a few Hz sharp (442 instead of 440) in order to stand out from the rest of the ensemble, and that's also part of the reason for the rising pitch standard (A used to be 415 in baroque times).

    Basically, if you're going to listen and adjust, be a little flat; if you're going to be brave and "stand out", be a little sharp.
  5. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Supporting Member

    i've heard/been taught (and in practice, i would tend to play) "sharp" is better --- for all the reasons mentioned above.
  6. neilG


    Jun 15, 2003
    Ventura, CA
    I disagree. Out of tune is out of tune. Having said that, "in tune" has context, depending on what instruments you are playing with.
    robobass, Neil Pye and wathaet like this.
  7. Don Kasper

    Don Kasper Supporting Member

  8. Neil Pye

    Neil Pye

    Apr 13, 2016
    Horsham, UK
    If you're going to adjust, it's easier to hear from the flat side of the note, but frankly, if you're good enough to pick which way you're going to be out, you're probably capable of not being out.....
    neilG, sevenyearsdown and donotfret like this.
  9. You have hit on one of the eternal sources of frustration, Andy.

    IMO a bigger bass section should tolerate, even need, small differences in pitch in order to enrich the collective sound. It has the same effect as everyone doing vibrato at different speeds. Where things get tricky is when numbers get smaller. Down to three basses there is still a collective resonance, a forming of one sound, so long as intonation is close enough. If one of the three is making a weaker out-of-tune contribution things soon sound pretty bad and confidence is lost. I find the hardest combination is two players unless they are strong yet sensitive and flexible. If one is listening to the 2nd bassoon (who is often sharp) and the other is listening to the cellos then who is "right"? Under those conditions I very much like to be the lead bass!! I would prefer to be the only bass in small ensembles or be in a larger section for the above reasons.

    When playing with piano accompaniment we have to adjust to them because of the noticeable clash between their equal temperament (12 equal half tones) versus our natural temperament. We can adjust. I have found that a workable compromise is to tune my open strings to the name notes in the middle of the piano keyboard, not to use harmonics.

    IME the better the players around you the easier and more enjoyable it is to partake. They have more confidence in pitch, and strength yet sensitivity and flexibility in technique. Yes, lots put a slightly sharp edge to their sound to hear themselves cut through, especially when trying to tune in the orchestra. Others put ears to their bass necks. I have found it easier not to listen to the higher partials and instead try to produce and hear a strong earthy fundamental (the double bass sound) during the music to compare with other instruments. I find that my concept of being in tune is often a little flatter than my colleagues' so I worry that I sound a little under and too dull in small groups. I have discussed this topic with a very good harpist years ago. She deliberately tuned her lowest notes a little flatter and her highest notes a little sharper than the equal temperament indicated by her strobe tuner. From what she had read this offset the human ear wanting to hear the opposite at each end of the piano's range and was a trick used by piano tuners to tweak those notes.

    I would rather be RELATIVELY in tune with my colleagues than be the pain-in-the-butt who insists on being ABSOLUTELY right and can't/will not adjust.
  10. neilG


    Jun 15, 2003
    Ventura, CA
    Wise words and worth repeating.
    Treyzer and Chris Fitzgerald like this.
  11. I don’t think it is as sonically detectable in our low frequencies, but the OP’s original statement is certainly true of higher pitched, more sonically out front instruments. In fact, we had a saying in school: “ I’d rather be sharp, than out of tune”.

    You see, the ear can tolerate a small amount of sharpness, more so than it can tolerate any amount of flatness at all. This is especially true of certain notes. If you happen to be playing the third or seventh of a major chord, there is a natural tendency to slightly raise those pitches, just as there is a tendency to slightly lower the fifth of the chord. These are tiny micro alterations that are made all the time by professional musicians, depending where they find their part fitting at any moment.
  12. robobass


    Aug 1, 2005
    Cologne, Germany
    Private Inventor - Bass Capos
    Andy, No. Where did you read this? It's nonsense. I find it quite offensive actually. You play as in tune as you can. There is "in tune", and "not in tune". That's it.
    wathaet, Tom Lane and Don Kasper like this.
  13. neilG


    Jun 15, 2003
    Ventura, CA
    I said back in post #6 that there is nuance to "in tune". That's the "tendency" you're speaking of. Not the same thing as playing out of tune for some other reason, which I think is what Andy was asking about.
    csrund and dreamadream99 like this.
  14. I think there are definitely different degrees of latitude, depending on the type of playing (i.e. solo vs. chamber ensemble vs. orchestral section). I think a soloist has license to create and release musical tension based (along with dynamics, phrasing, etc.) on where the pitch is centered on certain notes. (Leading tones, for example.)

    I may be opening up a can of worms here, BUT... I've always thought one of the characteristics of Gary Karr's unique sound was the fact that he often plays on the lower side of the note. It creates a mournful, soulful sound, without “going outside the lines,” so to speak. Has anyone else noticed that about Karr, or am I imagining it?
    CaseyVancouver likes this.
  15. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Intonation is a touchy subject. There are all kinds of quantifiable tuning systems, all kinds of theories about difference between "playing truly in tune" and "playing in tune with a tempered instrument", statements about playing certain notes higher than most, or lower than most, but in the end it's like the famous definition of obscenity:You know it when you see it; or, in this case, hear it.

    After a bit of study of different tuning systems and their claim to true "in-tune-ness", I've finally settled on what I call "sweet spot intonation". It goes like this:
    - For perfect intervals, there should be no perceptible "beating" of one note against another in the dyad (consisting of the reference pitch and the note we are playing against it).
    - For non perfect intervals, there is a place where the beating or "turbulence" between the notes of the interval is at its slowest/calmest point. If the note is raised or lowered slightly (i.e. moved by a few cents in either direction), the turbulence becomes more intense. Aim for the point that feels the calmest. This is the sweet spot because it is the eye of the intonation storm for non perfect intervals. I always aim for it and sometimes achieve it.

    When I don't, which is more often than I'd like, I adjust as quickly and intuitively as I can to try and find the spot so that as much of the duration of the note as possible will be perceived as "in tune". I find that adjustment slightly easier when adjusting down from the sharp side of the note because that sound is more grating to my ear and I am less inclined to leave it hanging there. With students who play consistently out of tune, I find that most of them tend to leave flat notes hanging there more often than sharp notes, possibly for the same reason.

    Of course, when there is more than one reference pitch, as in a harmonic stack, the waters get muddied quite a bit. In these cases, I still believe there is a sweet spot as described above, but it is a lot more complicated to find in many cases. We do the best we can in the moment, and work on the process in the practice room. As always, EEMMV.
    dhergert, DrayMiles and Lofreck like this.
  16. I always strive to play "in Tune"and I'm pretty sure those of us that work at this all strive for that. As Eddie Gomez once said, "playing in tune is a constant negotiation". For me, playing too sharp sounds like someone scraping their fingernails across a chalkboard; Playing too flat sound a bit dull or maybe loggy/sloppy. Context certainly matters. Playing with a guitarist is way different than playing with a piano, at least in a trio setting. Both present challenges depending on how much they desire to play low notes as well as how dense their chordal approach is! I don't have much recent experience of playing in a section, (high school and some college) but I would certainly agree with everything that Mr. David Potts wrote.

    Man, bottom line, playing in tune is part of the job as is playing with good time. Going a bit deeper, on ballads, down beats and notes held for more than a quarter note have to be very, very close. Sure you can use all kinds of techniques; vibrato, smears, growls, slipping a few cents up or down, but whatever the choice, the note has to come out sounding in tune with whatever instrument is playing the chord structure. When playing something above maybe 200 BPM or during a solo when playing a 16th note or 8th note phrase/figure, I find that some of the internal notes are not quite as important (still important), as long as the beginning and ending notes sound relatively in tune. IMHO

    That's my story and I'm sticking to it!
  17. Jeremy Darrow

    Jeremy Darrow

    Apr 6, 2007
    Nashville, TN
    Endorsing Artist: Fishman Transducers, D'Addarrio Strings
    On Jason Heaths' recent interview with Joel Reist, Joel recounts playing an out of tune open C against the cellos. After a quick thought experiment, he came up with a new way to tune his C; rather than using an electronic tuner, he tuned that C to his open G, the way he imagined a cello player would, with better results. He also digs into some other aspects of good intonation, it's a really great interview with a terrific player.
  18. wathaet


    May 27, 2007
    If anything you play thirds low and fifths hight. Quite the opposite of what you are saying.
    Playing sharp in an ensemble makes someone else sound flat, so no, it is not better. I have worked in orchestras for almost 20 years and not once have I heard anyone worth their salt say anything like "better sharp than out of tune".
    letrabass and Neil Pye like this.
  19. Neil Pye

    Neil Pye

    Apr 13, 2016
    Horsham, UK
    Strive to be right. Sometimes you want the leading note to be a couple of cents sharp, and thirds can tolerate being a tiny bit narrow, but in general I'm with Wathaet.
  20. rickwolff

    rickwolff CGJ Emeritus (Certified Gear Junkie) Retired??? Supporting Member

    I was wondering if anyone would ask this about Gar Karr. (I wouldn't have been brave enough to ask it myself, But my impression is the same). You mention a 'mournful, soulful sound'. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if this something Mr. Karr does to best express the mood and spirit of the piece. If that is the case you would expect to hear this less in some pieces than others

    Note to Don Kasper: I wonder if JB would have any comment on this. I'm pretty sure he studied with Mr. Karr.
    Don Kasper likes this.

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