Review: Tonal Energy tuner app

I’m going to say it right now: I’m not a giant fan of digital tuners. In my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), I wrote

Playing into a tuner isn’t a good way to train the ear. Even if a cellist could play every single note into a tuner with perfect results, this progress would vanish once the tuner was turned off, because truly internalized tuning must be done with the ears, not the eyes. The tuner, in other words, is only useful for tuning the open strings of the cello, not for anything else. (p. 15)

There are plenty of great musicians whose playing I respect who would disagree with this, but I stand behind my statement that playing into a tuner doesn’t improve your intonation. If it did, there would be a lot less bad intonation in the music schools of this world.

This said, I kept hearing about a fantastic tuner app called Tonal Energy. It was voted one of the top five tuner apps by Bulletproof Musician readers. It was only available for iPhones at the time, and I use Android devices, so I didn’t get to try it for a long time.

The day finally came, however, and I bought the app. A technology-loving student showed up at my office hours right after I opened it for the first time, and we spent the next hour playing with it.

Tonal Energy does a few things that most tuner apps do, such as measure your pitch in Hz and cents, but it also offers the choice of equal temperament, i.e. “piano tuning,” or what it terms “just/pure temperament.”

For just intonation, you can choose what key you’re in. This sounds brilliant, but I had some mixed results. For example, if I want to play in E-flat major on the cello, I have to make the E-flat rather sharp so that it sounds good when played against the open G string. Tonal Energy couldn’t quite master this, because it registered this E-flat as too sharp. You can mess around with the settings so that A doesn’t equal 440Hz if you really want to make it work with your E-flat, but this doesn’t take into account that maybe I want to play other chords in addition to the ever-troublesome E-flat.

The second tab of the app offers drones (my preferred method for intonation practice, by the way). You can still measure your pitch with a smaller version of the tuner, and you can have your metronome going at the same time…

…which brings me to my next point. I’m definitely loving Tonal Energy’s metronome, and have now deleted all my other metronome apps because they don’t do as many things. Tonal Energy lets you play in a variety of time signatures, and even thoughtfully gives you two beat options for 5/8 and three for 7/8, plus a range of divisions and subdivisions of beats. I’m not throwing away my Dr. Beats quite yet–Tonal Energy doesn’t have its full range of functions, and certainly isn’t half as loud–but I was impressed.

If it were only for the functions I’ve just described, I don’t think I’d bother spending my $3.99 on this app when there are so many free apps that do pretty much all the things I need in a pinch when I’m travelling and don’t want to lug Dr. Beats and a digital tuner around with me. But here’s the thing that makes Tonal Energy so, so cool.

Tonal Energy Analysis

See this? That’s an analysis of your frequency in decibels at the top. At the bottom, you can measure how many overtones you’re producing. In the middle, there’s a recorder so you can record your sound, then play it back to yourself–and watch your overtones while you do so.

Oh. My. Gosh.

When I was a student, I really admired one of my classmates for her ability to produce an incredibly beautiful resonance. When I asked her what her secret was, she said “Well, I guess I just always listen for overtones.”

At the time, to my shame, I was only dimly aware of what the overtone series even was. My friend’s throwaway remark provoked my fascination with ways we can produce a bigger, richer tone (of which intonation and vibrato are a part). And yet, this isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to impart to my students, many of whom arrive in my studio with a relatively small tone.

With Tonal Energy, finally I can show them something measurable about the quality of their sound. I’ve started using it in the studio, after spending hours experimenting with different types of sound production in my own practice. I looked at what the app did when I adjusted my intonation to play deliberately out of tune, what it did over bow changes, how I could get it to make different shapes by using different types of vibrato. I had some pretty serious fun with this thing.

Now, I still don’t think the digital tuner has any place in teaching us how to play the cello in tune. There’s no substitute for listening to your instrument’s resonance, and to the resonances of the other instruments in an ensemble. But I have to admit that I’m pretty sold on having the ability to measure the quality of my sound. Most of my students now have this app, and I’m already hearing an improvement (now objectively measurable!) in their ability to pull the bow and vibrate consistently and resonantly.

This app is a game-changer.

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