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Mouthpiece Placement and Intonation

The Issue

The most common tuning problem that I see is poor mouthpiece placement. Although to many players it may seem obvious to pull out or push in the mouthpiece, there are times when this simple idea can get away from us. As a technician who plays saxophone, one of the most valuable performance related ideas I have learned is how to assess mouthpiece placement. There is more to mouthpiece placement on the neck than I had ever considered before I spent years tuning saxophones – mouthpiece placement and intonation are closely related.

Often when players or technicians come to me with intonation difficulties, it is after a neck cork has been changed or the key heights have been changed. Later in the article, I will outline how to find a new balance through understanding key heights and their relationship to mouthpiece placement.

From this article, I hope that you gain an understanding of how moving the mouthpiece on the neck cork affects the instrument as a whole. There is a delicate relationship between the notes played with the left hand and the notes played with the right hand as well as an interplay with the instruments key heights and ultimately its tone. Where you place the mouthpiece on the neck cork is both a result of and an effect of these variables.

One thing you can do as a player or as a technician assessing or tuning an instrument is to understand the relationship between mouthpiece placement, intonation and key heights. Knowing this will help you understand the real limitations of the instrument you are playing, more quickly assess your students’ instruments or an instrument you are considering purchasing. If you are an instrument repair technician, this information is essential if you choose to change, or intelligently leave the same, the key heights on an instrument you are working on.

To be sure that we are all on the same page: Pulling out the mouthpiece makes the saxophone longer and the pitch lower; conversely, pushing in the mouthpiece makes the instrument shorter and the pitch higher.

Intonation Balance

Now, let’s consider how mouthpiece placement affects or does not affect different notes on the saxophone. Mouthpiece placement will not affect the relationship between the first octave and the second. That is, if a note plays a proper octave on the saxophone and you push your mouthpiece in, the pitch of that note will increase in both octaves nearly equally. However, that is not to say that all notes are affected equally when the mouthpiece is pushed in or pulled out.

Consider that pressing keys on the saxophone effectively changes the length of the instrument. For instance, when the note G [1 2 3, 0 0 0] is played, a shorter portion of the tube is used than during the note D [1 2 3, 4 5 6]. As each note uses a different length of tubing, moving the mouthpiece will equal a higher percentage of change on shorter notes such as G and a lower percentage of change or effect on longer notes such as D.

A common scenario that causes some players or technicians stress is: The notes A, B, and C are all sharp, and the palm keys are sharp as well. Then add to that some normal problems that seem to happen with any saxophone, and the result is an instrument that appears to be all over the place in regards to intonation. So, a player might complain about notes being sharp such as D and E in the second octave, high C# being extremely sharp, and notes like A and above including the palm keys are sharp. Really what the player is saying is the short notes are sharp, and the D and E are chronically sharp like they are on every saxophone.

Although there is a fix for the second octave D and E being sharp, it has little to do with the mouthpiece placement. That might be a good topic for a future article. Let’s look at this situation where everything from second octave A and above is sharp, in addition to D and E. With all of these notes being so sharp, there are still a number of noted which don’t appear sharp such as low D and E, everything from low C down. Without really studying the tuner, a player may assume that they cannot simply pull out the mouthpiece to fix this intonation as it would make the lower end of the horn flat.

In this situation, however, the player needs only to pull out his or her mouthpiece on the neck to solve the problem. Pulling the mouthpiece out on the neck will make the shorter notes like A and above less sharp (flatter) more quickly than it will lower the notes G and below. The end result is a balancing of the shorter and longer notes on the saxophone. In that instance, the palm keys were also sharp and pulling out the mouthpiece will help this problem in relation to the other notes as well

Why Moving the Mouthpiece Affects Some Notes More Than Others

As we discussed, when buttons are pressed on the saxophone, the length of the instrument is functionally changed. Some notes use a longer portion of the tubing while other notes use a shorter portion of the tubing. For this discussion I call notes which use a longer portion of the tubing “long notes,” and notes that use a shorter portion of the tubing “short notes.” Do not confuse this terminology with high notes and low notes.

Now, consider how mouthpiece placement effects a short note such as Palm D and how it affects a long note such as Low D. For the purpose of discussion, let’s say the length of tubing used to make a Palm D is 10 inches, and the length of tubing used to create the long note Low D is 20 inches. Now, let’s say the mouthpiece is slid 1 inch farther on the neck. The note Palm D will basically change 10% while the note Low D will change 5%.

What About Key Heights?

Just as mouthpiece placement affects the balance of the saxophone’s intonation, key heights have a direct effect on where we place the mouthpiece on the neck. This is one way which key heights affect the intonation balance of the saxophone. Key heights affect the intonation on the saxophone not only by lowering the pitch of the note that comes out of the tone hole but also by changing mouthpiece placement and thus affecting the balance of the saxophone. I submit that changing the key heights has its greatest effect on intonation in this indirect way through mouthpiece placement. That said, if the work you do or have done greatly changes the placement of the mouthpiece on the neck, of course you can expect a change in intonation. With only the information above, you should be able to predict what that intonation change will be simply by looking at the new mouthpiece location in relation to the old mouthpiece location.

Take an example of a saxophone where the key heights throughout the instrument are very high. That instrument will play sharper in general. In response to this, a player will pull the mouthpiece out on the neck to bring the pitch of the instrument down. Conversely, if the key heights on the saxophone are very low, the pitch of the saxophone will be flatter in general. In response to this, the player will push the mouthpiece farther on the neck to raise the pitch. Therefore, changing key heights on the saxophone will result in moving the mouthpiece on the neck.

Putting It All Together

As we discussed, mouthpiece placement has a varied effect on different notes on the saxophone depending on the functional length of the instrument when the note is played. Considering that the saxophone has an end which is a bell and several tone holes which are somewhat fixed in their location, it’s reasonable to conclude that there is an ideal location for any mouthpiece on an instrument. This news is both good and bad.

The ideal location of the mouthpiece depends on the length of the instrument and the key heights. Since the length of the instrument and its tone holes are not easily adjustable, and there does seem to be an ideal mouthpiece location, it stands to reason in theory and practice that there is a somewhat ideal key height to fit properly in this three piece puzzle. For this reason, in the Sax ProShop, we leave key height set-up until the end of an overhaul and it is done by playing. You can read about our method, the balanced venting method, here [ADD LINK]. I am unsure of how many readers will be able to adjust key heights on their own. Nonetheless, if you were considering a saxophone and assessing its intonation, it will be good to know how key heights relate to tuning.

Adding to the previous example of the saxophone that was sharp from A and above, as well as the palm keys, our solution was to pull the mouthpiece out as this will lower the pitch of the shorter notes at a faster rate. It’s possible that pulling the mouthpiece out may cause all of the notes to be a little flat when they are balanced. In this instance, one could open the key heights to compensate for this. Doing so would raise the pitch of all of the notes somewhat evenly so the mouthpiece would stay in the same location. The end result is a saxophone that no longer plays sharp from the notes A and above, is balanced, and no longer plays flat in general.

In the interest of keeping this short article concise, other aspects of set-up of the saxophone which may affect key heights and mouthpiece placement have been left out. However we would be remiss to not at least mention the overall tone of the saxophone. When changing key heights, tone usually trumps intonation. Key heights directly affect the tone of the saxophone. Lower key heights will cause the instrument to sound stuffy and feel resistant, whereas higher key heights will cause the instrument to be more free-blowing and eventually, less focused. No matter what words are used to describe the effect of key heights, their effect on tone is undeniable. You can test this by playing a note and slowly lowering your keys with your fingers. You will hear the tone get flatter and stuffier while you feel the added resistance while you play.

As most instruments are fundamentally well-designed, problems involving key heights are seldom insurmountable. However, considering the relationship between key heights, tone, and mouthpiece placement may allow you to arrive more quickly at a reasonable solution.

For instance, considering the instrument where A and above was sharp, let’s add to this scenario a common issue: The instrument in general is stuffy and resistant. Opening the key heights in general will help the problem stuffiness and will also raise the overall pitch of the instrument. In response to the raised pitch, the player will pull the mouthpiece farther off the neck which will lower the pitch of the instrument and specifically the shorter notes more quickly. As discussed the short notes will drop in pitch more quickly than the long notes. The end result will be an instrument that plays more in tune with a better tone and is more balanced.

I suggest testing the ideas mentioned above. Push the mouthpiece very far on to the neck and play a C scale in the first octave while looking at it tuner. Note the intonation relationship between the short notes G, A, B, C, and the longer notes F, E, D, and Low C. Now pull out the mouthpiece on the neck as far as you can and play the same C scale while looking at a tuner. You should notice that the entire C scale in general is flat, however the shorter notes especially A, B, and C are more flat in relation to the previous mouthpiece location than the longer notes such as Low D and Low C. Now that you’ve seen two extremes, move the mouthpiece to a point somewhere between these extremes that seems to play the most in tune and in balance.

To be clear, this is the method I suggest to determine an ideal mouthpiece placement on your instrument. Play a range of notes such as a C scale when the instrument is warm. Note the overall intonation and move the mouthpiece in a way that logically balances the longer notes with the shorter notes. After you’ve done this a couple of times, you can choose one very short note such as second finger C, one very long note such as Low C, and a note in the middle such as G with which to use as a primary guide for placing your mouthpiece.

– Thanks to Curt from MusicMedic for his insight.

Show some more cork, man.

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