Singing in tune
There are at least three ways for a singer (or instrumentalist) to tell if their intonation is correct.
A system used by many singers, in lieu of any other, is to estimate the width of the interval between their current note and note about to be sung, and then to change pitch according to their sense of what this interval sounds or feels like.
This turns out to be the least reliable system. The slightest underestimation or overestimation of the ‘width’ of the interval, especially if this inaccuracy is compounded over the next series of intervals, will lead sooner or later to the singer being noticeably out of tune with the accompaniment.1 This system is too relative. Errors creep in one after another after another.
A more absolute system is to always sing into the currently sounding chord. There is always a chord happening in the accompaniment. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is more disguised, but if the singer can become aware of the presence of that chord, she can dissolve her tone into that chord and thus be perfectly in tune with the chord.2 In more modern pieces there are still chords, except that the chords are more dissonant. None the less, they are present.
The third way of singing in tune is the most reliable. It is to maintain an overall sense of the key of the piece which would thereby include all the notes in that key.
This is harder at first to cultivate. Here is how I go about it. I create a simultaneous cluster made out of all the notes in the scale of the key. Usually I create an eighth note cluster, one octave from the tonic to the next higher tonic. For example, if the key is C Major, and I’m working with a soprano (or the soprano section of a chorus), I play the eight note cluster c-d-e-f-g-a-b-c (from middle C to the octave above middle C). If I were working with a bass or choral bass section, I would do the same cluster one octave down.
Continuing with the example of C Major. I play the cluster, and hold it, and invite the singer(s) to sing just the tonic note in that cluster (middle-c if a soprano). I then replay the cluster and ask them to fine-tune their pitch until it dissolves into the cluster, I.E. it reaches a point where they cannot distinguish their voice from the sound of the cluster. To hear their voice separately from the cluster is to be out of tune with the scale.
I repeat this procedure for each ascending note of the scale. Though the singer is changing from one scale note to the next, the cluster in no way changes sound.
I have used the word dissolve a couple of times. Here is a general explanation of the principle involved.
An example. A clarinet and a bassoon have different tone qualities – until they sound the same note. When they are in unison on the same pitch we hear only a single tone quality, one different from the clarinet’s and different from the bassoon’s. The sound is more as if coming from just one instrument; we could name the instrument the ‘clarinet-bassoon’. The same goes for a clarinet and a flute playing in octaves, or a bassoon and a French horn playing in unison. There are many other such combinations among the instruments of the orchestra. In a similar manner, the goal for the singer is to have their note blend in so completely with the sounds around it that one hears something new tone-quality-wise (for instance a the ‘soprano-piano‘ instrument).3
Here is an exercise I use to achieve this blending of voice with accompaniment.
The singer holds a single note, starting quite softly; softly enough that her sound dissolves into the sound of the other instrument(s). Next, in a very controlled manner, the singer gradually increases the loudness of their note, but at all times with the goal of still feeling that their sound has dissolved in the general pool of sounds. Even at its loudest, the note should be so clearly mixed in with the accompanying sounds that the singer remains almost unaware of the separateness of their own sound.4
When working with a chorus, I use the same technique: every individual singer dissolves their voice into the pool of sound created by all their section members en masse. Sometimes I will ‘build this up’ by starting with just one singer, adding a second, adding a third, etc. The goal is to remain a single sound, with no hint (even with different rates and widths of vibrato) to suggest there is more than one singer. The result is a surprisingly pure and rich sound!
1 Let me give you an exaggerated example. In acoustics, each semitone (for instance C to C-sharp) is divided into 100 smaller units or “cents”. Consider a person singing a chromatic scale upwards starting on middle C. To get to the exact pitch of the C#, the interval between the C and the C-sharp must be 100 cents. If it is five cents short (95 cents), the pitch of the C# is going to sound fairly correct (it is off by 5 percent of a semitone). But let’s see what happens if they continue singing half steps that are just 95 cents wide. The C is in tune. The C# is five cents flat. The D is ten cents flat. The D# is fifteen cents flat. A difference in fifteen cents is very noticeable to the average listener’s ear. If they go on to E and then F, the “F” will be 25 cents flat and by the end of an octave the final “C” will be twelve times five, or sixty cents flat. Ten cents more than a quarter tone.
2 If the chord is tonal, then it is helpful for the singer to know whether the note they are singing is the root note, the third, the fifth (or the seventh) of the chord. If none of these is the case, then the singer should be finely aware of the exact out of tune-ness of their note relative to the nearest note in the accompaniment.
3 A timbre that is that neither one nor the other but the combination of the two.
4 From the pianist’s point of view, it is often the case that they are trying to sound less like a piano and more like a human voice (singing legato).
Coaching an instrumentalist for an orchestra audition
In today’s incarnation, “Irving” is a bassoonist rather than a pianist. He is about to audition for a local orchestra. The required excerpt for the audition is the opening of the second movement of Scheherazade.
I listened to him play the solo through. The notes were there, but overall it lacked a sense of the presence in his imagination of the other instruments playing at the same time, and the effect that would have on how he sounded the passage.
He had played the same solo a year or so earlier in an orchestra. So I asked him “what instruments were accompanying you during the solo?”
He thought about and said “the woodwinds?”
I said, “No, it is actually four solo double basses.”*
He played the solo again, but this time I played on the piano the chords played by the four double basses. This caused a sudden change in his playing. One thing that happened was that he fine-tuned both the pitch and the feeling of his notes to better fit in with the chords. In tonal music, no note has a single, abstract, or ideal pitch. It varies in small amounts to best fit in with the harmonic context in the form of the chord that is sounding at that moment. Each chord in turn has a certain feeling, which if recognized and felt fine tunes the timbre or tone quality of the bassoonist’s note.
No longer was his playing an island to itself, it had a broader context. The trick, I said, is to make these modulations to the sounds even when you are playing by yourself without the other instruments, which can only be heard in your head. The person auditioning you is listening to see whether this broader musical context shines through the notes that you play.
“How do I do this,” he asked?
Let’s start with knowing when in the solo the chord in the basses changes. He didn’t know. I said: let’s play through it again, this time listening specifically for the changes in the chords. It shouldn’t be too difficult to do because, based on how he had played the passage when I played the chords at the piano, he was already subconsciously responding to them.
Next I asked him if the first chord in the basses seemed to last a surprisingly long time before changing. If so, what beneficial effect did that harmonic inflexibility have on the effect of the solo? He said that it made the bassoon solo seem more “frozen and static.” I agreed.
Was he, I asked, aware that this first chord contained only root notes and fifths and lacked the third of the chord, the note that which would determine whether the chord was a major chord or minor chord. It was incumbent on the bassoonist to make that choice clear to the listener, and to be especially aware of when the bassoon made up for the deficit of the third by momentarily playing the third himself.
Later in the session I wanted to demonstrate, in a more general way, how the ‘color’ of a note depends on the chord to which it belongs. And how this color could change, depending on whether he was playing the root, third, fifth or seventh of the chord.
I had him hold a single note for as long as he could, while I surrounded his chord with first one chord then another. I started with the three major chords and the three minor chords that contained the note he was holding. Then I went on to seven-chords that contained his note. Then I gradually shifted to chords that didn’t contain his note, which therefore caused his note to be dissonant – but always dissonant in a specific enough way to create a definite and peculiar color to the dissonance.
Though he held the bassoon’s pitch relatively constant, he instinctively changed the timbre and the intonation to reflect the way his note fit (or did not fit) in the chord.
* albeit an odd orchestration, but an inspired choice given the shape and mood of the solo.
Bach’s counterpoint – who’s on “top”?
The amazing thing about Bach’s counterpoint is that the musical meaning of a piece does not change if you transpose one or more voices to different octaves or simply rearrange the order of the voices from highest to lowest. The voice that is originally on top does not have to be on top for the counterpoint to have the same effect. It is as if each voice in a Bach fugue is transparent to all the others. No voice, regardless of its pitch range, is opaque in that it blocks or occludes any other voice. The voices shine through each other. Figuratively speaking, every voice is on top.
Being the top voice loses its automatic prominence to the ear. All of them, in effect, are on top, or none of them are.* You can think of it either way.
It is a mistake to concentrate our attention when playing on the top voice, or to whichever voice currently “has the theme.”
Of almost no other composer is this true. In a Beethoven sonata, for instance, only rarely can you move the right hand notes into the bass and the left hand notes into the treble and have a result that ‘works’ as well musically, that aesthetically resembles the un-switched version. In Beethoven, depending on which octave a note sounds in, it creates an impression of sound that is different than the same note sounding in a different octave. Each octave range has its own sound-personality.
One of the ways of determining the unique properties of the musical space of a great composer is to experiment subjecting the piece to certain specific types of distortions and then noting the results sound-wise. One such attempt at distortion is the rearrangement of the voices described above. Here are some others:
– how much can you change the tempo of the piece without distorting the meaning of the piece or its character?
– how much can you change the rhythm of the melody without changing the essence of a melody?
– how much of the essence of the music is changed by changing the instrument or instruments playing it?
– to what extent will the integrity of the piece be ruined by starting to switch around parts (what comes first, what comes second, etc.)?
The answers to these questions will be obvious to the ear, and will vary from one composer to another. They reveal to us what some of the basic, “geometric” properties of that composer’s “musical space” are.
These experiments are similar to those in the mathematical subject of topology, where a common question is to ask how much one can distort a shape and still have it retain certain basic properties.
*This is why Bach’s fugues for organ work as fugues even though it is often the case that each voice sounds in several octaves at once because of linking an eight foot stop with a four foot stop and/or a sixteen foot stop. The same applies to Bach on a harpsichord when ‘couplers’ are used to cause a note to sound in more than one octave at once though we are only pushing down one key.
“Chorale-ing” – the inner illumination of a passage
Transforming a passage into a chorale for harmonic clarity.
This is an excellent skill for the pianist to develop, though it depends on a well developed sense of harmony and the ability to recognize a chord in the piece even when all its notes are not sounding together.
What does doing this achieve?
Playing becomes more assured and more “informed,” as if you are simultaneously playing a passage and explaining it to the audience, only the “explanation” is not verbal or conceptual. It lies in the very sound of the notes.
Two basic skills are required:
- Identifying what chord is ‘controlling’ the current notes in a piece (see “details” below). The chord is like a magnet which is surrounded by a magnetic field that causes nearby objects (note) to realign themselves. We need to determine the ‘domain’ of the chord: how far does it’s control and influence extend over the notes (what notes are under its spell). Where, in a measure or measures, does that control begin; where does it end.
This skill entails knowing which notes to weed out because they are still under the influence of the chord. They are not notes that belong to the chord (chord tones), but rather tones of embellishment (passing tones, appoggiaturas, neighbor notes, etc.).
The last part of this first skill is creating a version of the chord that specifically has four notes (sometimes more) and lies in the range of a vocal chorus (within an octave and a half to two octaves of Middle C).
2. Taking the chord just created, and “voice leading”* it to the next such controlling chord (and so on). By repeating this and ‘voice leading’ from one controlling chord to the next, we can turn a passage into something like a Bach Chorale.**
These two skills are most often taught in music theory classes at college, where unfortunately they are approached conceptually, with pencil and paper, but not at a piano.
Details of using this method:
It is a basic tenet in music that there is ordinarily something simpler and more basic that underlies the notes that are sounding. Sort of a distilled version – a more basic idea or concept of what is going in all the notes. If you find that more basic idea, you will be able to think of the previous totality of the notes as literally an embellishment on the notes of the more underlying entity.
Underlying all the notes of a melody, even when unaccompanied, are certain chords that go well with the melody – which make sense when sounded with the melody. In that sense the chords represent a more fundamental aspect of the notes that are sounding one after another.
How does one find these chords?
If, by no other means, then by randomly playing in the left hand, one chord and then another. Your tonal intuition will be able to tell you that some chords go well with the melody, others go just OK with the melody, and some just sound silly or awful with the melody. Eventually your ear will find the chord that goes best with the melody, the one that seems to best elucidate its character.
As you play through the tune, you may find that a left hand chord that worked well with melody up to a certain point in the melody stops working well. This is the time to find another chord that takes over for the first chord. Knowing these boundary lines between the sway of one chord and the sway of the next is a very important part of the process we are describing.
You don’t need to know anything about formal harmony to do this. Simply experiment randomly with chords, and using your aesthetic judgment as to whether a chord is a good or a bad match for the current group of melody notes.
Why chorale-ing is good.
I can best describe it by analogy.
By abstracting the piece into its underlying chorale, your role switches from that of a single member of an orchestra to being its conductor. No longer are you playing just the notes assigned to your own instrument, and tuning out the notes from the other instruments. You become the conductor who understands the music as a whole so that you are able to guide the various players and form them into a good ensemble.
While playing, by bringing back into your present consciousness the memory of what the chorale sounded like, and fitting the sounds of the individual notes that you are playing into that chorale, all the notes you play will suddenly seem more translucent: every one transmitting its meaning in the whole.
“Chorale-ing” is a good term because of the suggestion of a pun on ‘corral’ (the process by which the cowboy rounds up a dispersed group of individual animals and herds them into a smaller, more defined, more concise, space, where they can be dealt with all at once).
If you would like specific examples of applying these principles to a particular passage from a piece you are playing, let me know and I will provide it for you. In the meantime, I will try to find out if there is a way of printing music notation into a blog. If anyone happens to know this, please let me know (I am using WordPress).
* A simple but acceptable definition of voice leading is: a process that makes the change from one chord to another sound as smooth as possible to the ear.
** You can find a model of a chorale in the “chorale” movement” of any of Bach’s 215 Cantatas or Passions.
Changing the loudness of one note in a chord
By controlling the relative loudness of each note in a harmonic chord, we are doing what a composer does while writing a symphony, and decides which instruments should play which notes in a chord: more instruments on this note, fewer on that note.
More prominence or less prominence given to the extension of the chord into a higher octave. Rarely does the composer put the same number of players on each of the notes in a chord.
When we do this ‘orchestration’ at the piano, the cause, and the effect are more subtle. Yet the result does mimic orchestration. This is because if we play a particular note twice, once softly, and once loudly, though the primary difference in heard in terms of dynamics, there is a secondary change, which we can notice if we focus on it, in terms of the relative loudness each overtone of that note has as compared with the loudness of each of the other overtones.
Acoustically, this is what gives rise to what our brain interprets as a change of ‘timbre’, or ‘tone quality’, or instrumental quality: that which makes an oboe playing middle C at mezzo forte sound different than a violin playing middle C at the same loudness. This change of timbre is somewhat noticeable when listening to a single note, but when it is multiplied over the various notes of a chord, the difference in the overall timbre of the chord changes more noticeably. Even when we play all the notes of a chord with equal intensity, the result is not what we might anticipate. Each note in the chord is under the “spell” of the harmonic progression. If a note happens to be the ‘third’ of the chord, it will have a relative predominance of effect over the root and fifth. This explains why if we are, for example, in C major, and have a V chord going to a I chord, we can omit the fifth in the I chord. Even though we have left just the root(s) and third(s) there will be no doubt as to whether the chord is a I chord or a vi chord, since both C E G and A C E share the C and E in common.