Are you really playing out of tune?

In our Western culture we have seven basic notes: A-B-C-D-E-F-G. It is possible to make the note a semitone higher by adding a sharp, or make the note a semitone lower by adding a flat. That makes twelve possibilities to divide an octave (in sound). If we play a note slightly higher or lower than one of the twelve notes, we call that ‘out of tune’. But is that true?

It is possible to play additional steps and divide a semitone into two steps, so that we can divide an octave into twenty-four steps. We call those quarter tones. It is possible to divide a tone into even more steps, which is called microtones, but that is a topic for another time.

What does that look like in music? Let’s look at the following example:

This example starts with an F. The second note is an F with a semi-sharp. It sounds a quarter tone higher than F. The third note is an F sharp and the fifth note an F three quarter tone sharp. It sounds a quarter tone higher than F sharp.

Then we start with G, followed by a G half flat. That sounds a quarter tone lower than the G. The next note is a G flat, followed by a G three-quarter tone flat. It sounds a quarter tone lower than Gb.

On the flute we can play those quarter tones by using a different fingering or by using tone bending.

You can try this example:

Besides the fact that some composers use quarter tones in their music (Fukushima – Mei for example, but also Tilmann Dehnhard, Alex Ford and many others), practicing quarter tones can be very interesting to work on intonation, because you have to listen very carefully. The flute also responds differently to the alternative fingering and that is interesting to experiment with sound.

In the Flute Colors book you will find a whole chapter on quarter tones including exercises and fingerings.


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