On Tuning and Musical Meaning

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Do you ever have the experience in rehearsal where people are singing the right note, but it's sitting just a shade too high or too low for the chord to gel? If you spend any time at all working a cappella, I bet you do (if you don't, you lead a charmed life).

I’m not talking about your regular, run of the mill tuning issues here, caused by tiredness, habit or faulty vocal production. I’m talking about a specific kind of fault where an ensemble that is basically in tune horizontally doesn’t always nail the vertical tuning.

Now, you can address this problem at an analytical level, asking people to nudge their note up or down a bit to get it into true. But this approach has drawbacks:

  • It focuses attention on the note itself rather than the harmonising which is the point of the adjustment
  • It makes people anxious (which is also a great way of narrowing down perception)
  • It assumes that people have the fine control to make these adjustments at will

The last one is the source of considerable mis-communication between musical leaders with finely-tuned ears and less experienced members of their ensemble. Pitch perception has a tendency to 'snap to grid' in the same way that language perception does. That is, the reason we can understand people talking in different accents, and we can understand music played in different temperaments, is because we accept a range of variants of a sound as 'the same' within a certain system of meaning.

Almost by definition, indeed, if someone is singing the right note with just slightly dicky tuning, this is because the grid they are perceiving the notes through has too coarse a granularity to make the distinction their director is asking of them.

So a more direct and efficient approach can be to clarify the meaning of the notes within the harmony. This is especially the case with 3rds and added notes which play such a strong role in defining the colour/feel/expressive flavour of a chord. Exploring what a note is doing expressively - making the chord pensive, yearny, perky, giving it swagger, adding crunch, stroking the listener, warming the sound - focuses the attention on holistic impressions, and allows the singers’ musical intuition in on the act.

(This entire post comes out of the need to get the 3rd of a minor 7th chord to live more plaintively and sympathetically between the root and 5th.)

At the 2009 Phenomenon of Singing Symposium, Wendy Nielsen spoke of the way that pitch is something that conscious thought should not be interfering with, in the same way that when you’re pregnant, you don’t think:, ‘Hmm, second trimester - this week I’ll make toenails and the spleen’. One note is, after all, as easy to sing as another note. If people appear to be struggling with what a note is, it may well be that the real problem is that they’re not getting why it’s there.

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