Tone Quality and Intonation

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Earlier this week, Tim Sharp posted an entry on ChoralNet’s blog with this title. ChoralNet’s daily digest is one of the few regular emails I sign up to, and most days I get a ‘Hm, looks interesting – might pop over to that’ moment. This time, though, I had a real ‘ooh goody, gotta go there now!’ moment when I read that title.

As ever, though, Tim wrote the blog post he wanted to write rather than the one I wanted him to have written. Not complaining – it’s a good post and well worth going over there for a read – but still it remains that the main reason you become a writer is because other people insist on writing to their own agendas instead of yours. So, this post is about what I thought he was going to say when I read that title.

Tim makes the point that tone quality and intonation are central elements of choral craft that make the difference between an ordinary and a transcendent musical experience, and that there’s a difference between spotting there’s a problem and having the skills to deal with it. What I thought he was going to add was that tone and tuning are often the same thing. Problems in one will often manifest in the other, or problems with both may result from the same underlying cause. If you hear a breathy tone at the start of a phrase, you know that by the end of the phrase the tonal centre is likely to be heading south. Sort out the vocal support and you help both dimensions at once.

You quite often hear conductors beating up on their choirs about tuning, while the vocal quality is giving a very clear message that the intonation problem results from vocal production issues. A heavy, slightly nasal tone will sound flat as the voice gets towards its mid-range and higher because a low soft palate is inhibiting the singer from accessing their headvoice. Or if sopranos start to disconnect from the texture and head towards the stratosphere, then bringing some warmth into the tone will solve the sharpness at the same time as the shrillness.

And as I posted about just last Thursday, clarity of tone quality is a pre-requisite for refined listening when it comes to the very basics of tuning. Without some sense of consistency of tone, it is very difficult to know what to tune to.

This all means that we can usually sort out tuning problems by helping choirs sing more beautifully. This is great for their egos. It’s miserable to be told you’re singing out of tune, but it’s motivating to be taught vocal skills that will help you make a better sound. And a spot of self-belief is good for both tone quality and intonation.

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