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Intonation XI - Tonal Memory--A Two-Edged Sword

John Goldsmith's two guest posts (here and here) demonstrate a wonderful way to train your choirs to remember and audiate patterns, shifts of tonality, accurate half and whole steps, scales, etc. He creates ways to train the tonal memory in a positive way, which will help your choir in reading as well as to sing better in tune. It's a learnable skill.
Tonal memory can work against us as well, however. Singers have impressive abilities to memorize where pitches are.
On the positive side, Robert Fountain used to do an exercise in tonal memory with an Eb Major chord (from the bottom up: root, 5th, root 3rd), asking his choirs to be able to produce it from memory at any time. I've known other conductors who've worked on that kind of memory (not perfect pitch, but to develop a memory for a particular chord or pitch).
When I'm working on a piece intensively, I almost always find that if I don't think about it, but simply begin singing it, I'm almost invariably in the correct key (I don't have perfect pitch). My choirs can often do this as well.
But it also takes little time to memorize pitches incorrectly. An example:
With my PLU choir I did John Gardner's wonderful and dramatic, A Latter-Day Athenian Speaks (published by Oxford, now available only on rental, it's a fabulous--and difficult--a cappella setting ca. 13 minutes long). We'd been working on it, preparing for a January-Term tour to the mid-west and east coast. The end of the piece has a dramatic double-choir fugue and, even though we'd been singing it well in tune through the rehearsal process, when we got to the first performance, the choir (with all of the energy and excitement that goes with a first concert) drove that section of the piece a half step sharp. After that, we always sang it sharp. I'd rehearse it with some reference pitches from the piano and they'd lock it in, but in concert they'd be a half step sharp within very few bars. In essence, they now memorized going sharp there, heard the opening of the fugue that way, and no matter what I did, that's what was going to happen.
The power of tonal memory is just that strong.
It's one of the reasons that you have to be very careful not to allow your choir to flat or go sharp early in the learning process--it quickly becomes a part of how they hear the music and tonality. It's a reason to listen carefully early in the process. It's also why rehearsing well, not trying to do too much too soon, or using Robert Shaw-style countsinging/rehearsal techniques, etc., can make a huge difference in whether your choir stays in tune or goes flat (more usual than sharp, of course).
It's also the reason why, if your choir has been going flat in a particular key, if you suddenly raise the pitch by a half-step, they may be able to keep it in tune: you've moved out of the tonality where they've memorized going flat. They can now approach it with a fresh sense of where those pitches belong.
It's not about listening! Sometimes we say, "Listen!" . . . well, how could they go a quarter-step flat, exactly together, unless they were listening to each other?!
I'll write next about some ways to rehearse to avoid these kinds of problems. The use of the piano in rehearsal is a part of that.
There is, of course, more to say about intonation, but I won't go on posting too much longer about this topic. If you have specific intonation issues you'd like me to address, drop me a line (you can google my address at UNT or write through ChoralNet) and let me know what you'd like to ask. I have a few more things to write about intonation as well.
And looking ahead, let me know if there are other topics of interest for a blog series after the summer break.
My own blog has some earlier posts on programming, working with orchestra, etc. You can find it here:, and you can look at the list of blog posts by topic on the right hand side of the blog.
Until Saturday!
on May 30, 2013 3:31am
A wonderful and thought-provoking series! I have to think especially hard about whether I agree with this explanation, or whether further experiments are in order:
It's also the reason why, if your choir has been going flat in a particular key, if you suddenly raise the pitch by a half-step, they may be able to keep it in tune: you've moved out of the tonality where they've memorized going flat. They can now approach it with a fresh sense of where those pitches belong.
When flatting settles a half-step lower, it seems that keys related to the new pitch by either two flats or sharps are stable, while dropping the pitch an extra semitone doesn't work much better than trying to repitch. Temporarily hopping a third away though sometimes helps in resetting the original tonality afresh. I'm thinking about how to approach The Dove descending breaks the air, but even this non-diatonic work has some important whole-tone relationships...
on May 30, 2013 4:26am
Hello Richard,
      Here is a question about remembering and audiating tonal patterns.
I have been directing a community choir in France for the last two years. They started from zero and have worked very hard to reach a quite acceptable level. I have been surprised to find that their tonal memory seems to be almost entirely tied to the text. They seem to remember pitches by the words instead of remembering a melody or series of pitches. I find this interesting as I myself find it easy to remember all the voices of anything we sing but often find myself looking for words. I will remember dynamics, phrasing, etc before I get the text down. My singers on the other hand will have trouble singing a phrase on oo or du du or anything that is not text, this inspite of the fact that they are making good progress with solfège and usually sing with good intonation. They have learned to accurately sing whole and half steps and to audiate and move an exercise up and down by half steps. I am pretty sure this depends on their thinking si-do or do-re, in other words using words to remember. 
     I would be curious to know if this is typical of people who have never sung in choirs and do not have any formal music training or if it is peculiar to this group. I don't remember remarking on it with any other choirs I have directed. 
on May 30, 2013 9:11am
I teach elementary general music and direct three elementary choirs. I've noticed that they go to words first and notes second, while I do the opposite. I think it's because it is easier for them to read words than to read notation. I've also noticed that as they become more proficient at reading notation, they use it more and more. My younger students want word sheets, my older students want music, and can't stand word sheets. I've also noticed that the stronger readers memorize more slowly than the weaker readers. It might be part of that tonal memory being discussed here.
These are just an informal observations. I haven't done any methodical research.
on May 30, 2013 9:28am
Another help for tonal memory is explicit identity of intonation, in diatonic settings anyway.   A sixth degree tuned high rather than the normal low, like a conductor's raised eyebrow, can communicate a great deal: a tonal movement to the dominant (sharper keys or tonal centers); while a second degree tuned low rather than the normal high communicates a movement toward the subdominant (flatter keys or tonal centers); the two tunings in each case are 22 cents apart, plenty big enough to hear.
As to future blog requests: I'd love even more about vowels ... common in discussions but always, to my remembrance, anecdotal.   I'm not sure I really believe your earlier description of an experiment with the single singer with an 'uh' sound changing the overall tuning of a choral 'ah'.    Call me Doubting William.   It's relevant to a composer, though, since we don't always write homophonically, and polyphony with text usually brings conflicting but simultaneous vowels. 
on May 30, 2013 4:54pm
Hi all,
I have a bit of a different take on this.  I believe the negative situations described above have little to do with "tonal memory".  To me, tonal memory relates to ear/audiation issues. In my view, what is going on in these instances is that the singers are employing "muscle memory" to sing each new note, resulting in these kinds of repetitive and unsavory tuning issues.
Once the initial note learning phase is over, I believe singers habitually stop using their ears to find the correct pitches, instead relying on how each note "feels" in the voice.  Each pitch, vowel shape, dynamic, etc. is produced with a specific amount of muscular tension and that is what too often becomes the recall device.  Instead of audiating, say, a rising perfect 5th, the singer applies the memorized amount of muscular tension and increased air supply that was necessary when they first learned the notes.  So, from then on, every time they sing that interval, the correct interval size is determined by feel rather than by careful aural analysis.
The problem with singing that way is two-fold.  First, wrong tunings (and, some times, even wrong notes) can become institutionalized because they are found by feel and not with the musical ear.  Very hard to break them from those habits if they are singing from muscle memory.  And every time a new layer of expression is layer upon the original pitch structure, less of the singers brain is available to focus on listening as they strive to do all that multi-tasking.
The other, and, for me, more problematic aspect of the muscle memory approach to producing pitches is that each pitch then becomes subject to variables of barometric pressure, personal illness, and fatigue.  The amount of effort (or "the feeling") required to produce that rising P5 can result in a significantly different pitch.  In other words, the singer
is tricked -- by changed physical conditions -- into thinking that they produced the correct pitch because they used the same increase in tension/breath that they used yesterday.  But in reality, because they are tired, or sick, or feeling blah on a rainy, low pressure day, they either actually used less effort, or more effort was needed to counterract the conditions. Either way, that increase is insufficient and results in a smaller leap.  This works the other way around too.  They learn how the notes "feel" when they are having a bad vocal day and then on another day when all is well -- boom! -- that fifth is now sharp because there are now fewer vocal impediments and LESS effort was necessary to sing that interval in tune.
My solution to this phenomenon is to keep the singers as off balance as possible, from a muscle memory standpoint, by rarely singing a piece in the same key on successive days. When transposed, they quickly hear that NONE of their muscle memory is working and have no choice but to invite their ears back into the game.  For me, this solves nearly every global tuning issue my choirs have.  It's obviously easier to do his with unaccompanied pieces, but I have forced myself to learn to transpose at the piano up or down one or two half steps on all but the most challenging piano parts (I don't have the luxury of an accompanist until my dress rehearsal).
Just last night my most advanced choir performed a piece that was written in G major and whenever they rehearsed in G, including at the dress rehearsal, their tunings were pretty rough.  So, without telling them in advance, I gave the pitches for Ab major in the concert.  (You should have seen the look on the face of the one perfect pitch kid!). The result: amazingly improved intonation resulting from the muscle memory disorientation that required them to actually LISTEN!  Rare is the concert that doesn't have me doing this for at least one piece.  And I just as often transpose down as I do up.
Wow, this got really long.  Sorry about that!  Just some brain droppings on steamy May afternoon.
Warm regards,
Patrick Taylor
Greenwich (CT) High School
on May 30, 2013 10:59pm
I've had a positive experience that may relate to tonal memory, though I'm not sure if that is the reason for our success.
I teach at Pierce College Puyallup, a community college.  The choir is non-auditioned has around 60 members ranging from first-time-in-choir, to having been a big-shot in their high school choir.
Over the past couple of years I've taken some of the music we do and put it all into finale and put solfege syllables in place of the text.  This is movable-do solfege and we also purchase and eventually use the real copies of music.  
We learn all of the notes, as well as dynamics, phrasing etc., singing only on solfege (the choir hates it)
Then we hand out the real music and sing with words (the choir cheers at this point)
We've NEVER had intonation problems with a piece that we did this way.
Other music by the same choir in the same quarter that we didn't do this way, whether because I didn't have time, or because it didn't suit itself as well to solfege (frequent modulations and such) would still have intonation problems.
Perhaps singing it on solfege solidified the tonal memory because the solfege helped them memorize where the actual pitches were?
on May 31, 2013 6:30am
@Richard - I can only say that moving the pitch up a half step (after the choir has been flatting in the previous key) has often worked with various choirs of mine and also choirs where I've done a brief clinic - I've moved pieces to different keys sometimes, because it seemed a better place for my choir and more stable tonally - that's primarily been done without a "method" - i.e. I've experimented enough to have a sense, given my choir, of where it will work better -
@Carol - it's been awhile since I've worked regularly with a group such as yours, but what you say makes sense - those who can't yet read notes grab onto what they *can* read, i.e. words - I'll say a bit more about solfege below
@Susan - similar to Carol's comment! reinforcement that perhaps that's typical of choirs made up of lots of non-readers!
@Doubting William - (William and I have had some conversations via email as well) - just to make sure I'm understood, I don't do this exercise (asking one singer to sing an "uh") with the full choir - this is with 3-5 singers standing in front of the choir - in that case the divergence of vowel (and pitch) is much more obvious - I do this to demonstrate to the choir how vowel affects pitch - then I will do it with the full choir, but with half of the choir singing "ah" and half singing "uh" - William did an experiment with recordings of singers doing "ah" and "uh" and combining them, showing no difference in pitch - my response is that I suspect that vocal placement (forward/back, dark/bright) may have a big effect, especially for the relatively untrained singer - the "uh" will be placed further back and be a bit darker, which can lead to flatting - the professional singer, on the other hand, can sing a vowel relatively brightly or darkly without it affecting pitch - I have to think more about this, too
@Patrick - I should have spoken to this, since I also believe that muscle memory has much to do with it - I also agree that muscle memory can "read false" depending on time of day, how warmed up (or not) the singer is, etc. - muscle memory may well have had much to do with my choir singing the Gardner and going sharp: they may have "felt" it in muscles what it felt like to sing that particular section and now replicated that (but only when in performance) - I DO believe, however, in a strong sense of tonal memory as well - another personal example: back when the Johnny Carson Tonight Show was on, if I'd been watching regularly, when it was just coming on I could almost invariably "hear" in my mind the opening theme song in the right key - this wasn't with my singing it, but hearing it (audiating!) internally - I can say the same about other TV show themes (which probably says I watch too much TV!) - on the topic of singers working "by feel" I agree - that's one of the reasons why John Goldsmith's exercises are helpful: they train the choir to audiate (i.e. hear in their head) the shift from one key area to another - can they also move their muscles to a pitch area without making sound? Yes, but I think it teaches them to hear internally (audiate) the pitches and THEN reproduce those pitches with their voice - if I have time, in a future post I'll say a bit more about the external conditions (barometric pressure, tiredness of singers, etc.) as well, since it's an important one - your solution of changing keys regularly in rehearsals is an interesting one - I occasionally do that, but more often want my choir to learn to lock in to a particular key - your last example is similar to what I described in moving the pitch AFTER the choir has learned in another key (and perhaps not been stable) - they then hear in a fresh way and without the issues (vocal, muscle memory, or otherwise) that affected them in the "old" key - I know that Weston Noble was once preparing the Nordic Choir to do Bach's Singet dem Herrn, which is written in Bb, but was probably done during Bach's time at a pitch close to a half-step lower - Weston rehearsed the choir in Ab almost exclusively and then raised the pitch to A major just as they began performances . . . and apparently had no flatting problems - one can speak (as William did) also about sharp keys and flat keys and their affect on pitch - that may play in here, too - like Patrick, I, too, have sometimes done pieces in a lower key - it isn't always about transposing up
@Kenneth - yes, a good topic should be solfege (although I'm far from an expert) - because most of my current singers are from Texas and the UIL requirements are to read with moveable do solfege, I will sometimes have my choir either read or rehearse with solfege (although I don't print out musc without text) - solfege offers several advantages, among them: singable vowels and the singer learning where various scale degrees "belong" pitch-wise - much as with count-singing, however, I tend to use occasionally as a tool, rather than as part of my regular teaching/rehearsal pattern - that has to do with my background and what, over the years, I've found works for me - it may be to my detriment!
Again, personal experience: I came to college not really reading, but having always learned by ear - I'd taken some piano lessons the summer before I started and knew note names and key signatures, but not to the point where it was  automatic - I had to work really hard to catch up since I was so far behind the other singers and instrumentalists in my theory and sightsinging classes (by the way, Joan Conlon was my freshman year ear-training teacher!) - we used moveable do solfege (although with do-re-me minor, not la-ti-do) - this was very helpful for me initially, since it did give me a reference point for where pitches were in relation to Do - however, I never became truly proficient with solfege (I later worked a bit on fixed-do solfege as well, after an experience with a teacher trained that way), so can't, for example, read syllables as fast as many of my students do (although I can read far better than they can!) - but I also believe that solfege (unless you're incredibly well trained) doesn't help much with really chromatic music or 20th/21st century music - I learned to read . . . by reading - I sang in virtually every grad student's recital (Bruce Browne was one of the DMA students at the UW at that time, for example) and simply got to the place where I had enough experience to just read - with some friends I also got together regularly to read madrigals (wine was also involved!) - I believe strongly that one learns to read by reading - it's one of the reasons I'll almost always let my choir read the music we're doing, unless it's so difficult that's just not possible - I encourage them to read however it works best for them, given the difficulty of the music: compete with words, with solfege, on neutral syllables - and if they get lost, find their way and jump back in, not giving up - I want them to have that experience - I also encourage them to sing in a good church choir (around here, many of them can get a position as a paid section leader), which will force them to read and learn a lot of repertoire - if you know Nancy Telfer's sightreading series, I think she makes some excellent points about reading with text
Now this has gone on too long and become a post!
Thanks to all for bringing your own experience and expertise to the table!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 31, 2013 11:40am
Bravo, Richard.   You are one fine fellow, however you got to this point!
on May 31, 2013 4:29pm
A lot of how I got to this point is here. We all stand on the shoulders of others and I've been blessed with many fine teachers and influences!