Intonation and Vowel Shapes

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Since doing the interviews with Peter Iltis (MRI horn) last summer (more here) I have been pondering a related topic, horn intonation and vowel shapes.

It is very easy to see them in the MRI videos; the vowel shapes change with range and dynamic. The thought to project forward in relation to intonation goes something like this:

  1. A new model of horn is designed to play in tune by a maker working with fine players.
  2. Those fine players have a way they do thing in terms of oral cavity shapes, and the new horn is made to play well for them.
  3. For a buyer to play that same horn in tune, they need to use a similar approach to oral cavity shapes.
  4. And how did the fine players arrive at their approach to begin with? Because the horns they played as students required that same general approach to oral cavity shapes…

I believe that some of this is brand specific due to variations in how the people the maker worked with play, but still the general approach to vowel shapes in horn (and brass) playing perpetuates itself over years.

For a concrete example, if in the high range a potential buyer uses more of an “eee” position than the horn is designed for it will be sharp. If less, it will be flat. Exactly how even very fine players approach this will have to do with what horn they are accommodated to playing.

Of course, in relation to the high range the first step is to check the relative intonation of the F and Bb horn, there is an optimal pull to all the slides! A little more on the topic is here:

But some horns are just wonky, they have construction issues like blobs of solder or really funky leadpipes or whatever that lead to intonation issues. That is why, to conclude, it is always a good idea to have a fine player check any instrument for major issues. It might not be you in other words, it could be the horn — but also you need to play it in the same manner as a would a fine player to achieve correct intonation.

University of Horn Matters