It’s a phrase we use all the time, not least on Radio 3, where our drivetime show is literally called In Tune. But that begs the question; what does being ‘in tune’ really mean? It seems obvious: being out of tune as opposed to in tune is the contrast between Florence Foster Jenkins’s exquisitely appalling attempts to sing the Queen of the Night’s Act II aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute and the way any professional soprano sings the same aria, with those high Fs pinging gloriously in the right place. It’s the difference between the gleeful massacring of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by the Portsmouth Sinfonia – riotously out of tune – and how the Hallé Orchestra might play it, with decorous in-tune-ness.


And yet intonation is a more slippery concept than it seems. According to the immutable pitches of piano keyboards and digital sequencers, each semitone of the scale has an absolute value. That’s because of the theory of equal temperament, which splits the octave into 12 equal parts. Thanks especially to the dominance of sequencers in the world’s pop music, this way of hearing has become the dominant mode of musical perception on the planet. But equal temperament is an acoustic fudge, because it irons out the complexities of the harmonic series to fit those 12 notes into semitone-sized straitjackets.

And that’s not how our favourite string players or vocalists actually perform. String quartets are subtly altering the size of the semitones they play according to the ever-shifting harmonic and melodic tapestry of Mozart, Beethoven or Haydn. As Arnold Steinhardt, the leader of the Guarneri Quartet said, ‘the difficulty in string quartet intonation is to determine the degree of freedom you have at any given moment’. That ‘freedom’ means expressively bending and shaping their tuning to be in tune not with equally tempered abstraction, but with the emotional and acoustic context of the music.

Which means that to play music that feels in tune to them, and to us, string quartets have to perform, according to the piano, out of tune. That’s the same paradox that singers like Maria Callas and Ella Fitzgerald (one of the best jazz singers in the world), Bessie Smith and Tom Waits demonstrate: their voices, their vibrato and their expressive intensity sound perfectly in tune, but they are actually singing in between and around the notes – less dramatically than Florence Foster Jenkins, but the difference is one of degree, not of kind.

The feeling and the acoustic reality of being in tune is about something much bigger and more meaningful than only getting the notes right, merely fitting in with the compromised calculus of the piano keyboard or the digital sequencer. Like our music, our emotions aren’t truly equally tempered: they are messily in between and in sympathy with the people and the contexts of our lives. To be truly in tune, our music has to resonate with that same expressive wildness.


Top illustration by Maria Corte Maidagan


BBC Radio 3 Presenter Tom Service
Tom ServiceColumnist, BBC Music Magazine

Tom Service is a familiar voice to BBC Radio 3 listeners, the station on which he has presented Music Matters since 2003 and his own programme The Listening Service, in which he breaks down how music works. He is also a monthly columnist for BBC Music Magazine. For many years, Service wrote for The Guardian, where he was chief classical music critic.