Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Intonation II - overview and "what is good intonation?"

As I started to outline potential posts in this series I came up with a ridiculous number--only some of which may actually happen before the summer hiatus! One of the problems is that so many areas overlap--you can't talk about vowel without talking about vocal technique or your idea of an ideal sound. So some posts will end up relating to others. The nature of the beast, I think.
 
So to begin by asking, "what is good intonation?" "What are your standards?"
 
I think all of us will have differing ideas, depending on our experience (how we're trained, who our models are) and the level of our ensembles.
 
Our ears (or more accurately, our brains) will adjust perception of what is acceptable--in a very average (or slightly below average) choir, the range of pitches perceived as "in tune" will widen. On the other hand, in an advanced group, especially if they sing with much closer tolerances of pitch, small deviations from what is now established as "in tune" will be very noticeable. So the consequence of singing with narrower tolerances in pitch is that deviations are heard more easily! It's a risk I'm willing to take, however!
 
That rather wide tolerance of deviation from a central pitch is also, however, what creates the sort of "gray" lack of color one hears in many amateur choirs (or amateur bands--that sort of washed out sound in a large group of flutes, none of which are zeroed in on the center of the pitch). The lack of a clearly focused pitch means that overtones are not re-inforced and the sound doesn't project nearly as well. Having heard the Swedish Radio Choir up close (and prepared them for a Brahms Requiem, among other works), they have the ability with just a few added singers (48 when I prepared them) to sing the Brahms with a full orchestra and yet be heard clearly. The combination that makes it possible is 1) big, trained voices who sing with full "singer's formant" 2) great ensemble and ability to unify vowel and 3) minimal vibrato (but they do sing with it!) and absolutely focused, unified pitch.
 
My experiences with Swedish choirs, plus a long interest in early music, mean that I look for less vibrato than some, but singers still singing with full singer's formant, and clearly defined pitch. Additionally, if you are to tune with either "just" intonation or earlier tuning systems (quarter-comma meantone) with very pure thirds (lower than the thirds on the piano), you have to use less vibrato to hear the difference (too much vibrato blurs the two types of thirds).
 
That means I want a narrow definition of what a good unison is and how much tolerance there is for chords to be in tune. Of course, that changes with style--if I conduct the Verdi Requiem, I'll expect more vibrato and the consequent widening of what is allowed in a unison on one or multiple parts. Some research shows that with vibrato, humans perceive the mean frequency as the center of the pitch. One study of modern performances of Schubert's Ave Maria showed a mean variation of plus or minus 71 cents (100 cents is a half step) and more variation in a Verdi aria. Of course, there is also a difference between the perception of a solo singer with orchestra and a group of singers. If you're like me, you've heard some performances of the a cappella quartet in the Verdi Requiem where you couldn't recognize the chords!
 
So, opening salvo! 
 
Next, on to tuning systems.
 
If you want to hear what my groups do (hard to discuss sound without hearing--and being able to say, "Oh, THAT'S what he means!" by the amount of vibrato or something else), here are two examples with my Collegium Singers:
 
Handel Dixit Dominus from last Thursday: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jz4ZVusFsTo
and
Victoria Requiem from the Berkeley Early Music Festival last summer with just 14 singers from last year's group: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUBIxg6ZpKE
 
In the Victoria, in particular, because it's a small group (3 each on soprano, 2 on other parts) singing with very minimal vibrato, you'll see that small deviations in pitch are more noticeable. In the Handel, because of the virtuosic nature of the vocal writing, my singers have freer range in terms of vibrato, although there may still be some who think I'm restricting vibrato more than their taste -- and taste does enter into it!
 
As always, feel free to comment, argue, etc.
on April 26, 2013 7:08pm
Hi Dr. Sparks, 
 
First, I want to say that I really enjoy your insightful blog posts here on Choralnet. Second, I'm glad that you shared the two video examples for the use of vibrato within different choral literature styles. All that being said, I have always wondered about intonation, how I help my choir tune ("just" or otherwise), and how the tuning of the first chord can affect the tuning of all chords within a piece. 
 
I direct a church choir of 24-28 singers, with 8 music educators (2 per vocal section), and I have a paid accompanist. I believe I'm quite lucky since I am at a small Lutheran church of only 180 members. My church choir always resists singing a cappella pieces, whether it be because I program a cappella works in foreign languages or because they prefer the addition of instruments. I program a cappella piece with the primary goal of working on intonation. I have used the baby grand piano in my choir rehearsal room and in my sanctuary to tune the chords (2 years ago when I started the job), but since September 2012 I have challenged myself to tune chords according to the overtones. In my church the acoustics are rubish so sometimes tuning to overtones is tough, but I accomplish the tuning by choral formation and timbral/vowel unification. 
 
Over the past 10 years and my vast experience in choral music, I have seen many undergraduates complete their degrees and accept positions as directors of choral music within public school systems, but they have never eperienced tuning with a pitch pipe or a tuning folk with the natural occurance of overtones. Instead, my experience as an observer has been that they do not know how, because they lack experience, and so they tune their thirds and fifths to the pianos in their classrooms. 
 
My church choir is about to perform John Leavitt's REQUIEM this upcoming sunday and for the past 2 1/2 months that we have rehearsed I ran my warm-ups with a tuning folk and am slowly guiding my choir to independence from the piano. 
 
I guess the short of it is twofold: 1) As I've gotten more use to tunings chords with the natural overtone series I have experience a great dislike of tuning to pianos, even when they are well tuned themselves, and 2) In a somewhat dry acoustic is training the choir to tune with a tuning folk good or bad? I only ask the second question because I've been thinking that the acoustics of the rehearsal space and sanctuary space could drag down the pitch if I use the tuning folk all the time and step completely away from the piano. 
 
 
Hope this all makes sense. And again, thank you for your wonderful articles on Choralnet. 
 
 
Best, 
Alan Davis
on April 29, 2013 12:54pm
Thanks, Alan. Lots of good questions. I won't attempt to answer all in this reply, but will deal with some of these issues later in the series.
 
However, for some quick responses: I'll talk Thursday about how I use overtones to teach a choir about tuning, but it isn't something I use all the time. Mostly I try to teach them where the 3rds belong and will usually demonstrate myself, vocally (i.e., they sing the chord minus the 3rd--making sure the root and 5th are in tune and unified!--and I sing the third to demonstrate where I want it--then the section singing the 3rd comes back in). However, I don't usually use a tuning fork in rehearsals, but will give the root ont the piano and certainly NOT play the 3rd. 
 
That means I rarely want the full chord played on the piano. For example, a number of years ago I did O nata lux of Lauridsen, which I did at an ACDA conference, as did another choir. It opens with a D major chord with a 9th, and the basses as well as sopranos sing the F# (so the chord's in first inversion). I only gave only the D (can't remember if it was with pitch pipe--likely--or piano) and we'd learned to tune it with pure intervals. The other choir gave the full chord on the piano, which to my ear led to an opening chord that wasn't in tune.
 
But that's what my ear accepts as correct. I don't know if others perceived the two choirs as being better or worse in tune.
 
Of course, if you do a piece with keyboard, you have to match what the piano or organ does. It's possible on final chords sometimes to sing a pure third with piano, since that sound will die away fairly quickly.
 
I remember reading somewhere (but can't now remember the source) of an early treatise that tells the organist to leave out the 3rd if it is not in tune and I've done that with my organist in Collegium Singers. For example, we'll be doing the Monteverdi Vespers next fall, for which we'll tune to A=466 in quarter-comma meantone. The quarter-comma meantone tuning will give us very pure thirds. Since we're doing a new Bärenreiter edition edited by a musicologist on our staff and the edition was just released, we did a little "release party" and my singers sang a short excerpt. However, the organ is now tuned with Valotti and at A=415, so the thirds were not very pure, particularly given the transposition, so I just asked her not to play the 3rds for final chords (those that are held for a period of time at the end of sections). It was a quick and dirty solution for this occasion.
 
More on some of your questions later!