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Why is it so hard to sing in F major?

Thanks everybody. The responses were numerous and well thought out. I
look forward
to my next rehearsal!

Here are the responses:

Flat keys are tough. It has to do with where the break falls in most
(the region from C to F is tough) and songs in F are always crossing it in
crucial moments.

Some solutions:

-Do the piece (assuming it is a cappella) in F-sharp. It will usually
Or try E, though that often doesn't work as well. Remember that pitch is
really relative anyway.

-Try having the choir members stand in quartets (mixed up, I always call
rather than in sections. I find this often fixes intonation problems
people can hear more of the harmony.

-Tell the singers to move more air and keep the mechanism released. Look
trouble spots and make sure they are being sung well (skips are often a
problem). Avoid tension; this only makes the problem worse.

Intonation problems are usually a symptom of some other problem. Solve the
underlying problem and the intonation usually improves. The most common
underlying problems in my experience are 1) people don't actually know the
notes well enough, 2) there is a problem with the vocal mechanism (not
air is the most common one, tension is another), or 3) a badly shaped vowel
that does not have enough overtones.

If you address these, you may find that your group can sing in tune even in
major. I would say that mine manage it about 75% of the time...though I
find it easier usually to transpose!

I'm curious: what age is the group?

Good luck.



Check your vowels. Pure, unaltered, unified vowels do it for both my
groups... In any key.

Phil Micheal
Director of Music
Jefferson Ave. Presbyterian Church (A great place to be!)
Detroit, Michigan USA
church website:


No, Tina, I don't have a solution to this problem, but here's something to
think about. Much music originally composed in the key of "F" during the
Renaissance probably "sounded" in the key of "E", since the pitching in
those days was often closer to AA5 (about an A-flat by today's standard)
than AD0. Always remember that AD0 is only a relative number! Thus, you
can sing Renaissance music in the key of "E" (where "F" might have
or F#, if you really want it to sound in Renaissance "F."
PS--If you forward this info to Choralist in a compilation, I do NOT want
hear from folks who need to inform me that music composed in "F" actually
should be transposed up a minor 3rd to A-flat. I already know that, IF the
music was used in a church with organ. However, if the music was sung with
viols, you can be sure that the music was NOT transposed up a 3rd. Strings
could not be stretched that far without breaking, and key signatures of the
time did not really extend beyond two flats (3 flats are seen very rarely).

Kathy Bowers
St. Louis MO


The key of F is usually a problem because of the diatonic notes within this
key involves most singers break points.
I have also had great success in raising the key to f#.
Good luck,
David Rhyne
University of Miami


It must be acoustical. The "a" that orchestras use is a hard pitch to
zero in on.
My solution for F is to give the intial pitches up a half step, when
there is a problem. Then the singers stay put. But the problem is the
Frances Fowler Slade
Music Director, Princeton Pro Musica
Director of Music, All Saints' Church, Princeton
609-921-3216 fax 609-921-2615



I believe it's basically a matter of where the piece lies in relation to
the "vocal break." If I may be so brash. let me recommend my article,

"Choral Flatting: Sometimes It's a Matter of Register Transition." The
Choral Journal 29 (February 1989): 13-18.

Best wishes,

Mel Unger


The natural passagio (break) of most altos/baritones is between 'A' and
'b-flat'. The break for Sopranos/Tenors is between 'b' and 'c'. The
untrained voice will not want to stay on a note that is uncomfortable to
produce -so the voice gravitates sharp or flat as the case may be to find a
comfortable tessitura.

There is no known reason or rule that says you MUST sing a piece in a
specific key. Find the key that fits your voices. It may change from
to night; from week to week and from rehearsal to concert- as energy and
"awakeness" has a great deal to do with pitch and support.

James Hohmeyer
Music Society
Midland Center for the Arts
Midland, Mi


Yes: natural breaks in the voice.

Baritones have one at around A.
Tenors at E and F
Altos at A or close
Sopranos at E or F

There you have it. All the notes of F major chord and the leading tone.

Difficult to sustain notes around such vocal passagios, esp. for young

Just sing in F#!



Apparently (Sir) David Willcocks at King's Cambridge always performed short
unaccompanied pieces in F up a semitone - in F# (if any lister has
recordings of Away in a Manger, Infant Holy etc, perhaps they might check
this?) - I've found choirs hold F# as a key better than F - why this is,
not sure. All psychological (F is the first key we learn on the "flat"

Paul Ayres
electronic mail paulayres(a)
telephone and facsimile 020 8632 1854
12 Bennetts Avenue, Greenford, Middlesex UB6 8AU

Hello, Tina,

Yes! I agree with you completely about the key of F causing flatness. For
years I have pitched music in the key of F# and watched it stay in tune,
have been fascinated by the phenomenon.

I believe it has something to do with the various passagios in the human
voice. If we admit that most voices "break" around Eb-E-F-F# and
it seems obvious that when singing in the key of C or F, there will be a
natural tendency to slide back from the effort necessary to make the upward
steps through the passagio. Therefore, the voice follows the path of least
resistance, sagging in pitch and ending a piece a half-step flat.

I learned to avoid the key of F when I was an elementary school child (I
a very wise teacher), practiced using F# and C# in my many years of
elementary and high school, and continue to do the same with my community
choir to this day.

I hope this gives some food for thought. I've often wondered if there are
doctoral dissertations on the topic...

Marilyn S. Jones, Ph.D.
Founding Artistic Director
The Livingston County Chorale


Well, in Washington Cathedral we have that problem, but we attributed that
the fact that the Cathedral is an "E flat" building, according to Paul
Callaway organist and choirmaster of the Cathedral from 1939-1977.

We have been known to move into F# - and that helps. I'll be interested in
other folks' observations.

Margaret Shannon
Program Annotator & Editor, PRELUDE
Cathedral Choral Society
Washington National Cathedral


A lot of it has to do with key "color". Remember that choirs tune true
intervals ratherthan equal temperament, and thus every key has a little
different color. It's also partially due to where the passagio lies in the
voice - for some reason, pieces in F major tend to hit the soprano passagio
in a bad spot.


B-flat sucks???

All joking aside. Singers tend to sing flat B-flat (fa) and E (ti) in F
Major. Consequently, the whole thing tends to slip downward. I practice
decending major scales with my groups paying careful attention to ti and
It is a constant battle of will.


Dr. Douglas Jones
Klein High School
Klein, TX


Tina -- I've had the same experience -- I think it has to do with some
vocal issues -- especially the register shift for many sopranos and tenors
right around top space E, which also happens to be the leading tone in the
key of F -- taking the piece up a half step forces them to sing the E sharp
in their upper register approach -- E major avoids the issue as well. E is
a note that just doesn't lie well in many voices.

Clayton Parr
Director of Choral Activities
DePaul University, Chicago


I don't think this phenomenon is unique to the key of F. I have been in
several different Chamber Groups and every one seems to have at least one
"bad" key for that particular group. Our solution has always been to sing
piece in the key that fits best with our voices - never a problem if the
is a cappella. And remember, the present key of "F" wasn't always where it
is now--it was closer to "E"!
A 440 is a modern invention.

Kathy Shaw

The best answer I have come up with has to do with the half-step between A
and Bb. In both men's and women's voices, there tends to be a secondary
of lift there, and it is very easy to sing the A in a mix that has a little
too much heavy mechanism in it, causing it to be lower than it needs to be.
Somehow it also pulls down the 4th, Bb, too. So coping mechanisms include
asking the singers to sing in a lighter weight through that range, using
vowels which are a little brighter, plus consciously singing the third very
high. It can be done!

micki gonzalez



The phenomenon you have witnessed is common to many of us, I believe. This
especially true of "younger voices" (high school and young college
I know of no studies that give complete answers, however.

Ideally, all our choirs should be able to sing in tune well in all keys,
right? Yeah, sure! Whenever I encounter this problem, I first work on
accurate intervals, proper breath management, energy, lazy vowels, etc. ...
all the usual suspects. If we meet with limited success, I try pitching
piece in either E or F-sharp for a while to see if it stays there. Often,
don't tell the choir I'm changing the pitch center, although many will
it out because it "feels different" to them.

By the way, aside from the idealistic principle of being able to sing
well in tune in all keys (and modes), this shifting of the pitch level
not cause any grief from a historical point of view. In most (especially
early twentieth century) editions of music from the Renaissance and
you can't tell what the original pitch was anyhow. PLUS, an "A" back then
wasn't the same AD0 that we use today!

I'm sorry I haven't given you a real explanation, but I thought this might
helpful nonetheless.

Best wishes.

Rowland Blackley, D.M.A.
Director of Choral Activities
Ashland University
Ashland, OH 44805
(419) 289-5114


Most male voices gravitate to E from F due to the average range of male
voices. High E being the top usually and some basses able to sing a low E.

That is one possible reason.

Joseph Gentry Stephens


Tina Harris
Sierra College, Rocklin, CA

(Additional material that came in after the compilation)

Hi Tina,

Interesting question, and I'd be interested in the replies -- can you post
a compilation?

I have a couple of theories, none of which has much scientific substance
but are based on personal experience and anecdote:

(1) AD0 is a relatively late phenomenon. Things that were written in F
in earlier centuries (esp. the 16th and 17th) were likely based on pitches
that were a little lower or a little higher than our moder-day F. I work
with some of the finest professional singers in the country, and we often
drpo pitch in pieces in F as well!

(2) Some people say that, because there's only one flat in the signature,
it's easy to sing the E's too low because of the tension with the B-flat. I
don't know. I also have a strong intuitive hunch that, because pianos are
tuned in equal temperament, people are used to hearing a B-flat on a piano
that is always lower than it really needs to be sung in "just" (untempered) intonation when singing a cappella. The fifths on a piano have
to be small in order to temper the entire instrument, creating problems for
the a cappella singer who is not used to singing in pure (large) fifths and
pure (smallish) major thirds.

How to fix it?

(A) Transpose everything to F#. This has never failed me.

(B) If you don't transpose, then when you are singing in F major, the 2nd
and 6th tones of the scale (G and D) must be kept high. Also, it's all too
easy to sing a B-flat a little under, and then to sing the A below that too
low in a descending passage, starting a vicious cycle. The whole step
between F and G is very large, and between C and D, at least in that key.

Let me know what you find out. Thanks.

Jonathan Miller
Founder and Artistic Director
Chicago a cappella
2936 N. Southport Ave., Suite 210
Chicago, IL 60657-4120 USA
773-296-0165 ext. 25

I just read your compilation on "the dreaded key of F."
A word of background: I have been a vocal coach and teacher for over
thirty years and have done extensive research in vocal physiology.

I am convinced that in practice the "breaks" in the voice vary much
more greatly than has been assumed. In many vocal texts it is stated
that the breaks in the tenor voice happens at b or c. This assumes
that a seven foot tall, 280 pound tenor has the same acoustical
mechanism as a 5 foot tall 110 pound tenor. My experience makes me
quite doubtful.

It is the experience of my own studio that the breaks in voices of
all part types vary as much as a major third. If a tenor voice breaks
at c, there will be a secondary break at about the f above that. If it
breaks at Eb, the secondary break will be at Ab. Sounds like Rameau,
doesn't it?

(Certain teachers, myself among them, advocate classification of the
voice in keys, i.e. "Tenor in C." This allows more accurate prediction
of what the voice will be capable of in performance after training.)

As for the pitch problem, vocal production is usually the culprit. The
post about "pure vowels" is also important, though what is really
important to the singers' ears is that the vowels sound the same,
"pure" or not, pitch will hold up if the sound is the same.


Duane Toole

Computer Tooles Company
Resources for Churches & Musicians
13237 Dawnwood Court
Midlothian, VA 23113
The "real answer" didn't get included:.... but there is an electrical
buzz in almost all spaces that
causes a note between Bb and Bnatural to act as a dominant pedal point
-- pushing a chorus's
tuning down to a flattish E. Check the florescent lights, computers,
amplifiers around you,
some buzz dreadfully.


I must admit that we hardly ever sing in the key of F or in F mode when we
can get out of it, especially when performing a cappella early music or
music. Usually we sing in F# and the piece stays in tune more.

I suspect the culprit here is the B flat: it tends to flatten more and more
as the piece goes on and brings down the entire diapason of the piece. I
feel that B flat is closer to A than to B natural, it doesn't lie precisely
between the two notes, and this makes it instinctive to fall constantly
downwards. Singing in F# requires more vocal force and possibly keeps the
singers' diaphragms on high alert. Singing in E includes sharpened leading
tones which might pull up melodies preventing flattening.

Of course, professionally trained singers can sing in any key properly, but
many of us teach or conduct children or amateur singers, music lovers,
church choirs and the like and small factors like choosing the proper tonal
center in which to sing, especially feasible in modal textures, can be
essential for a successful performance.

All my best,
Joan Yakkey
Via Cairoli, 78
50131 Florence, Italy
tel. 011 +39.055.576611

Tina Harris

on July 6, 2006 10:00pm
Perhaps, It has something to do with the number 6 and it has nothing to do with difficulty at at. the number six VI has always been a mistery. Used to discribe evil. References to the mark of the Beast. Thats just a speculation. A guess. Maybe it is a cosmic intervention that we can't control. And it stops us from singing in that key... Maybe.
on April 19, 2007 10:00pm
I theorize the reason is much more simple than everyone is suggesting. The tonal color difference between E, F, and F# are the culprits. The color of F is very muted and dull. It has as smoky quality which gives it an ambiguous nature. E and F# are both very vibrant keys. F# is especially noticeable. E has a crisp nature. These qualities make them easy for the musician to hear and maintain in their mind. The difference in the pitch colors act as the obstacle.
on May 7, 2008 10:00pm
All the suggestions about transposing may pose a problem to the person with perfect pitch. At least, he/she should be warned ahead of time, "We are transposing up F#,".
Also, transposing seems inconvenient for accompanists and instrumentalists.