Harmonics: The “Key” to Tone Development and Understanding Intonation

By Johanna Beth Sennett

Tone and intonation are two aspects of instrumental playing that are most often left to develop on their own. This “approach” comes from the misconceived notion that as long as one continues to play the notes (the more and faster the better) then one’s tone will develop on its own over time. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As band directors, it is vital that you stress the importance of tone and intonation practice. It is the foundation for the whole of the student’s playing. As I have stressed in past articles, whether you have students who study privately with good teachers or you are their sole musical instructor, this practice must be placed at the top of the priority list. You will reap the benefits by growing an ensemble of musicians with strong resonant sounds who are sensitive listeners. In the end, they will present beautifully in-tune performances.

When developing tone and the concept of sound in our students, short notes will never do! Long notes are the only way! The famous French flutist and teacher, Marcel Moyse always said, “it is a question of time, patience, and intelligent work”. Every instrument has its favorite tried and true method books. Encourage your students to pick up a book of exercises specifically designed to work on long tones. For flutists, books like Marcel Moyse’s De La Sonorite and Trevor Wye’s Tone Book 1 from his Practice Book Series are excellent resources. However, even without purchasing special books, encourage your students to begin with slow 1/2 step descending pairs or simple long tones on each of their scale patterns.

Harmonics are an essential component to understanding sound, your instrument and how it works. It can also be fun and interesting to students to explore this world of “acoustical” phenomenon. It brings a more hands-on understanding of how an instrument actually produces sound. Each musical instrument has a unique timbre and color. The design of each instrument’s harmonic structure determines its identifiable tonal character. Intonation naturally improves when harmonic exercises are done correctly and consistently.

(My examples of harmonic exercises will be in reference to the flute since it is my primary instrument. However, I encourage you to translate these ideas in an appropriate way specific to all of your other band instruments.)

Intonation on the flute, for instance, is not simply determined by the setting of the head joint (pushed in to sharpen and pulled out to flatten). It is primarily determined by the embouchure itself. Band directors and students often focus too much on pulling out or pushing in to tune the flute. This creates what seems to be an endlessly confusing cycle of moving the head joint and never really addressing the actual problem: the embouchure. The flute is designed to be in tune with itself at a certain placement of the head joint. To find this placement, find a full, rich low C. Push the note to its limit without tightening the lips or changing fingering. Allow C2 to emerge. This is the next harmonic in the series when overblowing the fundamental note of low C. Then you move seamlessly from C2 harmonic to C2 regular fingering (see example 1). If they are in tune, you have the right placement. If the regular fingered C2 is sharp to the harmonic C2, then you have to pull out. In turn, if it is flat you will need to push in. Do this on low C# as well. Keep in mind, that you must first check to make sure that the embouchure hole is lined up correctly to the body of the flute: draw an imaginary line through the hole down to the center of the key that the left-hand index finger opens. If the head joint is turned in or out too far, tuning and tone quality will suffer.

Example 1

After establishing the basic placement of your head joint, you must develop the embouchure and blowing strength with the eventual goal of playing all ranges in tune with relatively little motion. Lip “gymnastics” is not necessary in order to produce the full range of the flute.

The focused resonant tone that we all strive for is dependent on developing and understanding the harmonic content of your particular instrument. For instance, ff or f tones are often described as dark, hard, intense and edgy. This is due to the presence of many harmonics (partials) in the tone. The pp or p tones are often described as hollow, yellow, pure or even mysterious. This is achieved by removing many of the partials. On the flute, for instance, changing the direction and shape of the air stream creates these “colors”. This incorporates lip flexibility, air speed, and changing “vowel” shapes inside the mouth and throat (i.e. Ah, Oh, Ooh, Eee…).

Developing a feel for and understanding of harmonics:

  1. Helps to find the correct and best placement of the lips/embouchure position.
  2. Develops breath support as there is an increased pressure needed.
  3. Creates a greater flexibility in the lips throughout all the registers opening up the possibility of many colors and a wide dynamic range.
  4. A freer more open and centered sound.

Important Reminders:

  1. Prevent the flute from turning in to create a dark or edgy tone. It will simply flatten the pitch.
  2. The lips must be free from tension. They should feel more like cushions, which guide the air rather than tight rubber bands squeezing down on the air stream. True size and power come from a firm well-supported and directed air stream, not a forced tightly restrained surge of air.
  3. Do not “overwork” the harmonic exercises or force the higher harmonics out. Avoid those initially until the lips strengthen gradually.

Getting familiar with Harmonics through regular practice is a fantastic way to develop powerful support, confidence and flexibility. Now, who wouldn’t want to have all these ingredients when beginning work on a concerto or a difficult ensemble part? Give these ideas and tools to your students so that they can enjoy making music with the actual pieces. Develop the understanding that they must grow strong and long roots in their playing. Another common and helpful image is that of pouring the strong and solid foundation on which to build their musical “home”. Those roots or foundations come from the way in which students discover their own sound. Building technique through scales, etudes and pieces will only ever be as strong, beautiful and fluid as their tone will permit. All technique problems can be traced backed to tonal weaknesses.

Brass players are absolutely astute in their knowledge of harmonics because they obviously depend on them to produce their normal notes. Have your brass players demonstrate their instruments in front of the band and explain how they work. This is fascinating stuff to all those wind players! They can learn a lot by sharing their knowledge of how their instruments work with each other.

When starting Harmonic exercises on the flute (see example 2), I recommend beginning with middle B and performing slow 1/2 step pairs down to low C. When you have a full easy low C, fingers will remain there and you will push the note to its limit without tightening the lips or “cheating” by pushing the lips forward (a common misguided way flutists are taught to get octaves out). This cheats the sound and eliminates all the “good stuff” – the fundamental tone (low C) gives richness to the sound.

Example 2

You are attempting to create full, rich, resonant tone and not the tight, pinched, shallow sound that comes from “squeezing” notes out as if you were squeezing a tube of toothpaste. The goal is to keep lips full and soft like pillows. Turning the flute in and covering too much with the upper lip will strangle the sound and create weak flat tones. 100% diaphragm/core muscle support is important here. So much more is accomplished if we learn to use support muscles and create strength in our air column without trying to achieve that through our lips. There must be constant reduction in tension and as little lip movement as possible. There is a slight coming forward of the lips that occurs as we ascend. However, it is truly subtle and certainly not the initiator of the sound.

Allow C2 to emerge (actually enjoy that spot where both low C and C2 are singing at the same time) as a rich resonant sound. G2 is the next harmonic and is often tricky for the student. Generally they will force it and skip up to C3. Teach them to hear the G2 in their head and push the air, even encouraging the lips to open more and relax. That G will pop out beautifully. In the beginning, taking this exercise up to C3 is high enough. Eventually, the remaining partials will come as lips gain strength. Follow 10 minutes or so of harmonic exercising with some more low register long tones. This helps to relax the lips after such a “workout”.

Another exercise (see example 3) uses the harmonic to establish a stable pitch and well-positioned tone. This is a wonderful way to test the stability and position. No adjustment between the tied notes should be necessary, just a smooth flowing movement between harmonic and real fingerings of the pitch. This exercise works well from Low C through G1 (taking you up to D3 as its third harmonic). Beyond that the third harmonic pitch becomes quite flat.

Example 3

Allow Harmonics to play a central role in developing the tone and intonation of your students. The results come rather quickly. The “ear-training” that becomes obvious when doing these harmonic and long tone studies is invaluable to all musicians. A centered resonant tone will generally be an in-tune expressive tone!