Without a doubt, the screeches, honks and wails of an elementary band concert are among the most horrific sounds on earth. On the flip side, attending the symphony is one of the most rewarding experiences the arts can offer. One thing that separates these young musicians from the career musicians of the symphony, other than years of experience, is the tuning of the instruments. While tuning an instrument can seem to an outsider like reading an alien dialect, there is a simple science to it.
For the stringed instruments, like violins, guitars, and harps, the tuning relies mostly upon the tightness of the individual strings, since the sound in these instruments comes from the rate of vibration. A sports analogy that illustrates this is a volleyball net. If the net is too loose, it will be below the level that volleyball regulations dictate. Similarly, if a string on a violin is not tight enough, it will be below the required pitch (or, in musical terms, flat). If the string is too tight, it will be above the required pitch, or sharp.
To tune a string, one must use the pegs located in the scroll (headstock for guitar, neck for harp) of the instrument. As long as you hold the instrument correctly, then the general rule of tuning will be as follows: turning the peg away from you will tighten the string (more sharp), and turning the peg toward you will loosen the string (more flat). As an added bonus, violins, violas, and cellos come with devices called fine tuners located near the bridge, which offer a more exact tune for each string.
While wind instruments take less time to tune, the actual physics behind their tuning process are more complicated than those of the string group. Wind instruments create their notes by changing the "pipe length" of the instrument. In general, longer pipe length equals lower pitch, and shorter pipe length equals higher pitch. The trombone is a perfect example of this –a trombonist lengthens the pipe length of his instrument by extending the slide, which allows him to reach lower notes. Woodwind players lengthen or shorten their pipe length by pressing keys and closing the holes in their instrument, while brass players use the valves to do the same thing.
The process for tuning brass and woodwind instruments is essentially the same. They are given a concert A (the standard orchestral tuning note) and play along with it. If their instrument's pitch is flat, they must shorten the general pipe length of the entire instrument, and if sharp, lengthen it. Tuning slides accomplish this for brass instruments, while a woodwind player must either pull out or push in the neck or head joint of their instrument. The process is repeated until the instrument's A matches the concert A. However, the double reed section of the woodwind family (primarily oboe and bassoon) do not follow this rule, and rely upon the good embouchure of their musician for correct tuning.
Any science depends upon a myriad of factors, and the science of tuning is no different. Temperature plays an important role in successfully tuning an instrument. Any instrument made of wood is extremely sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature, so for best results, let a wooden instrument sit outside of its case for a good 10-20 minutes before tuning to allow it time to acclimate to the current environment.
By understanding how an instrument creates its sound, a musician can better know how to tune it. The above list of steps is by no means exhaustive, as each instrument has its unique quirks and tricks for staying in tune. However, following these steps will aid in creating a better-tuned sound, and the audience will be grateful for the musician's effort.