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How to improve intonation

Posted by on Sep 28, 2014

cupping ear

Probably one of the most common reasons why people find it hard to sing is because of intonation problems. Intonation is the musician’s ability to accurately produce a musical tone through the voice or an instrument. It may be in tune or out of tune – too flat or sharp – or both in the same musical passage. There are 7 main tuning systems for in Western music. “Equal temperament”, the system used for tuning the piano, is where the 12 tones in an octave are tuned to the same distances.

In his book “This is Your Brain on Music,” Daniel Levitin says that most people who have difficulties with intonation can hear others when they do not intonate properly. But how can you improve your own intonation? Here are some suggestions.

Listen up

Being hard of hearing is one of the most common reasons why people find it hard to intonate correctly. If you do not hear yourself or other musicians who play or sing with you and if the sound is incorrectly balanced (you are too loud, and they are too quiet or vice versa), you will find it hard to intonate.

If you’re at a concert where you have monitors or headphones, do not hesitate to ask the sound engineer to increase or reduce the sound of individual performers so that you can intonate correctly (for me personally, it is imperative that I hear Ur, our guitar player, for intonation).

One trick that is not feasible at a concert but that you can use at rehearsals or when you practice at home is to cup your hand behind you ear. Your hearing will immediately improve by at least 50%. You can see the exact explanation in this video:

The Werbeck method has many exercises for better hearing and intonation, from “ng” to imagining the tone.


No, not a photo of yourself in this case, rather, an audio selfie. To find out where any particular problems lie, be they in individual songs or in general, record your singing and analyze the results. Do you sing too flat, too sharp or both, combined with good intonation?

Although it is difficult, especially when you hear your first recording, the only way to battle problems is to face up to them and work on them. Don’t be hard on yourself when listening to your recording – keep in mind that this is the situation at this present moment in time. With a lot of work and practice (which I will get to in a moment), the situation will almost certainly improve. In any case, I record myself on my tablet regularly at home, and almost every electronic gadget these days has a voice recorder on it so there are no excuses!

Breath, breath in the air

In every single singing method – from Werbeck’s to Lilli Lehmann’s to Brett Manning’s – everyone stresses the utmost importance of breath control.  If you don’t have it, you won’t be able to sing and you most certainly won’t be able intonate properly.  The crux lies in breathing with the diaphragm.  There are a plethora of breathing exercises in every singing method, including the Werbeck method.  Find some that suit you and work on them.  One very basic exercise that can help you “get in touch” with your diaphragm is to lie down and breath with a book on your stomach.  If the book goes up and down, you’re breathing with your diaphragm.

The key is in keys

When you practice the same exercises in the same musical key for a long time, your sensitivity to others ‘keys’ and tones becomes weakened. Try occasionally do exercises for one tone higher or lower, and work in different scales (most exercises are in the major scale). Why not change into a minor key, work in a chromatic scale or an unusual key such as the Dorian or Lydian? Eventually your sensibility to tones will increase.

Altogether now

One of the most effective ways of improving intonation is singing with other human voices, especially in a choir – your voice intonates better with other voices than with an instrument, and even better with voices in the same register and with similar timbres i.e. a female with a female voice, a male with a male, a child with a child. You will almost always find that “perfect” voice – just listen and join in!

Or as Werbeck said: “If children are placed in the center of the sound, fitting them in with the other children’s voices and patiently working with them, their latent musicality will wake up in almost all cases..this is not only a theory, but it is a proven fact!”

Practice, practice, practice or the misconception of overnight success

In almost every post that I write about singing, I mention that the path to perfection takes a long, long time and a lot of practice. The same goes for intonation. Unfortunately, even though we live in a time of “quick fixes”, there is no short cut to improving intonation. Or, as Dr. Noa Kageyama wrote in his article regarding the misconceptions of overnight success, “A secret trick that will improve your intonation by 212%”:

One, the constant barrage of overnight success stories and testimonials of seemingly effortless achievement seduces us into believing that if we aren’t seeing such results, that we are either doing something wrong, or that the strategy itself isn’t going to work for us. So, we keep looking for the next big miracle diet/drug/exercise tool/make money at home strategy that might finally be the one that works for us. Ultimately, this constant switching from one thing to the other fails to get us any closer to where we want to go.

Two, we forget or fail to notice just how many years of blood, sweat, and tears it actually takes to become an “overnight” success, and instead of concluding that we need to keep on going when we hit the proverbial brick wall, we instead begin to doubt ourselves and come to the conclusion that perhaps we do not have the ability or talent to achieve our goals. Sadly, this leads many of us to give up when the light at the end of the tunnel might be just around the corner.

The reality is that there are no shortcuts to true mastery and excellence.

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