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Bad intonation

What Vocal-technical reasons are there for bad intonation and recommend remedies for each problem with reference to the tuning ot the scale.
Replies (20): Threaded | Chronological
on July 30, 2010 9:09pm
That's a rather broad question, Nicol!  But I'd say that the primary reason is improper breath support, leading to muscular tension and fatigue, and the secondary reason a lack of ear training or the ability to hear poor intonation.
But for those interested in really fine tuning, perhaps the worst thing is the use of a piano at all times, leading to the use of equal tempered intervals rather than pure intervals.
All the best,
on July 30, 2010 11:23pm
Play a note in speaking range on piano, and ask a person to sing that pitch.  If the person produces a pitch that is so off, he might have either no / very undeveloped pitch recognition ability, or no / very undeveloped vocal ability (the ability to produce the pitch he imagined).  If he have undeveloped ability, he can train them. If he have no ability, it would be cognitive or physical disorder and it is very difficult or impossible to get better.
For normal and healthy people, so-called bad intonation occurs most likely because they don't have ability to fully control their instruments (body). It is same reason, why beginning instrumentalist has shaky notes and wrong notes. 
For more trained singers, bad intonationoccurs in rather higher or lower ranges where relaxing, breath support, vowel modification, open-throat, raised-soft pallet, and ability sing passagiowellwould be issues. So, check these.
For advanced singers, it is always beneficial to learn when pure, equal, and Pythagorean tuning are appropriate, and to learn how to adjust to most appropriate pitch considering usual singers tendency (going flat). 
In general, our ear prefer Pythagorean scale in melody. In harmony, we prefer pure temperament. Music is dynamic, and advanced musicians must be able to produce fine-tuned pitch.
on July 31, 2010 5:57am
In my experience, poor intonation in a choir has two principle causes:
1.  The choir is insecure about the notes.  If this is so, they tend to sing tentatively and therefore out of tune.  The first step to good intonation is being able to mentate the line accurately.  If your brain knows what pitch is supposed to be sounding, your larynx will produce it accurately.  Unless No. 2 is operating.
2.  There is vocal tension.  Any tension in the mechanism prevents the larynx from moving freely into the position it needs to produce the pitch that the singer is mentating.  John Howell mentions one common cause of vocal tension:  improper breath pressure--either too great or too little will cause issues.  Other common sources of tension are keeping the tongue too far back (very common in choral singers, because they can hear their individual voice better if their tongue is back), jaw tension, tension in the neck, or lip tension.  Releasing any of these is likely to improve intonation.
Because poor intonation usually arises from vocal tension, it needs to be addressed with care in rehearsal.  It's almost easier to make it worse, because you start focusing them on the issue, they become concerned, buckle down to work--and create more tension.  I will therefore frequently deal with the underlying cause without mentioning the intonation problem:
"Sopranos, let's sing that line again.  When you make the leap from D to the G, remember to get louder on the D [getting louder on the bottom note of a leap often helps the larynx shift more cleanly] and move a little more air through an open space on the G."  (Space and vowels are obviously also contributors to good intonation.)  If this corrects the problem, I might say something like, "Good!  And notice that it was more in tune!"  This makes the goal healthy, correct singing, with good intonation as a natural outgrowth of that.
If group intonation is poor--the pitch slides and the whole group ends up flat or sharp--it is often a combination of factors.  Usually, there's tension and breath issues involved, but there's probably also an issue of the vowels being mismatched. Choosing good ones with good, balanced overtones and making sure they match from singer to singer and from section to section will do a lot to improve group intonation--not to mention what it does for balance and blend.  Group sharping usually results from tension:  I find it often happens when I take a piece faster or try to give it more vitality.  The singers will try to accomplish this through vocal tension--you'll see everyone tip forward a bit and raise their eyebrows. 
One last observation:  avoid treating poor intonation as though it's the result of the singers' laziness.  They're not going flat because they're people of weak character or because they're not working hard enough.  If you say that or even suggest it through your language ("Come on, people, let's WORK at this!  Just sing higher!"), all you do is create more tension, which will only make the problem worse.  The more you go after it, the more tension, the worse it gets.  By now, everyone--including you--is convinced that the choir can't ever sing that passage in tune--so they won't.  We've all been in situations where the conductor worked repeatedly on intonation in a particular part of a work, only to have it go more and more out of tune.  When you realize that tension is an underlying cause, it becomes clear why getting the whole group frustrated about it isn't likely to improve the situation.
Keep getting your singers to sing with a healthy, balanced tone, and you will find that you have relatively few intonation problems to address.  Healthy singing is, by its nature, usually in tune.
David Schildkret
Professor of Choral Music
Arizona State University
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 9, 2010 12:42pm
Hi, Nicol.
The ear is most likely the challenge.
Remind that the voice is like a siren in this regard: pitches cannot be fixed as in a valved instrument.
They can change minutely or maximally with no effort. We are entirely reliant on the ear for tuning.
The "siren" has no glitches and so the voice. (Some would drag into 'registers") Don't go there, please!
It may seem silly, but gliding up and down can help to maintain flexibility.
You do not specify whether you are talking about individuals or a choir.
INDIVIDUAL - Have the singer glide from a higher and a lower pitch than the one you play , preferably on a
keyboard where the sound is continuous. have the subject glide until matching the pitch. Once they can come
close to duplicating the pitch, move more quickly from one pitch to another. Awareness of the scales is helpful
as soon aspossible. Eventually, heve the singer sing short notes so that there is not time to correct.
Some are tone deaf, we must accept.
GROUP -  Have them do the glide thing, as well.
Have them sing a scale, Db for instance and try to sharp little by little so as to arrive on D natural.
Do the reverse. Descending, from D arrive at D#. I suggest that you not allow straight singing, it is too fixed and inflexible.
You need to keep the "siren" loose so that the ear can send the signal with success.
Sometimes improvement may be achieved by raising the key a half or whole step of a given composition.
Was this helpful?
on January 11, 2011 5:38pm
Robert et al.
While I don't agree that poor intonation is as huge a problem as presented here, I do have one suggestion.  Have all of your singers practice fairly simple barbershop singing IN QUARTETS, not in chorus, and sensitize them to listen for the "ring" of chords that indicates matched overtones and difference tones without actually having to learn about them and think about them.
But beware, the results might not match your definition of "in tune" if your definition is to remain absolutely stable with reference to some reference pitch.  Really good barbershop quartets do tend to drift a little, since the singers are CONSTANTLY making microtonal adjustments to their intervals to make the chords "ring," and over time that can result in a little bit of inadvertent modulation. 
Robert Shaw's warmups, dividing halfsteps into smaller and smaller intervals, were wonderful ear training, and would also be well worth using.  No singer can make those microtonal adjustments if they have never been made aware of them, or experienced making them.
All the best,
on January 15, 2011 11:06am
I reduced several sources on the topic to this brief list of reasons. This is my quick reference for consideration in proactive planning to build good intonation and in reactive response as pitch problems occur in the rehearsal. 
❏  Poor tone production
❏  Vowel color is not uniform
❏  Lack of physical involvement
    • Sluggish or inactive pace
    • Fatigue or boredom
❏  Acoustics of room
❏  Piece is too high
❏  Faulty concept of interval or key
    • Scooping or smearing a note
    • 1/2 step vs. whole step unclear
    • Under- or over-shot interval
on January 15, 2011 11:09am
NOTE: I put my solutions to this list in my book Making More Sense of How to Sing (Meredith Music, 2009). Solutions in the book address each of these reasons.
on January 22, 2011 5:44am
practice make perfect... dont stop to believe that you can do it...
dont stop to practice and makesure yourself that you can sing...
and the first think is, find a good voice teacher...
on May 25, 2011 9:20am
Hello Robert,

I agree that the problem with poor intonation is that "Many people just haven't really worked with the whole mind to ear to voice connection because they haven't ever REALLY listened to their singing with a critical ear for pitch." 

Today, the musical sound that most people are exposed to (Country, Popular and Rock Music) is always out of tune.  In fact these musical styles ignore vocal production and intonation and focus on dissonance, and sliding pitches.  It is no wonder that singers are pitch challenged today since their earliest musical training is what they hear on the radio and TV.  If you haven't learned to perceive accurate pitch and "hear" pitch relationships in your mind, you will be unable to sing on pitch, and in tune.

Accurate pitch production requires the skill (vocal muscle memory) of reproducing sound that you have first "thought."  Since most singers haven't learned to "think" sound and use what I call "Pitch Imaging", they can't expect to be able to move their voice to sing in tune with the rest of the choir.  Most singers are followers and depend on what they hear around them instead of what they "see" and "hear" in their minds.  I believe this stems from the practice of teaching young singers to sing by rote instead of teaching them to read and respond to music notation.  A strong music reader will use the notation as a memory Que to trigger vocal muscle memory that will aid in accurate pitch production.

Since a child's "musical ear" is trained to respond to the sounds around him (like learning to speak), if the sounds they are exposed to are out of tune, then the child will tend to be pitch challenged.  Many children become "non-singers" simply because they don't develop an oral point of reference.  They don't learn to compare pitch because matching pitch with your voice by listening to a pitch model is an abstract activity.   All musicians have to be taught that tones are high or low.  Even piano students have to be taught that the keys on the right end of the piano are "high" and those on the left end are "low".  Children don't just understand pitch intuitively.  They have to be taught just like you have to teach color variations.  I think it is much easier to make a visual comparison of color than an oral comparison of sound because it is much easier to "see" the color in your memory than to "hear" pitch in your mind.   Pitch is relative and infinitely variable making an oral point of reference an abstraction.  For the "non-singer", learning to match pitch is like learning to shoot hoops in the dark.  You have to listen for the swish to know if you are shooting the ball in the right direction.

It is for this reason that I developed MusAPP, a software product that uses musical, audio/visual biofeedback to teach singers to visualize or "see" pitch relationships.  With the aid of the computer, we can listen to the singer via a microphone and instantly represent his pitch visually.  We use music notation and a pitch pointer to show the singer how close he is to the target pitch (within a few cents).  Through repetition, the student will develop musical skill (vocal muscle memory) and learn how it feels to sing on pitch and in tune.  MusAPP is still under development, but you can learn more about our project at   If you would like to help test MusAPP, you may contact me through the my website and I will add you to the Beta Test list.

Clarence Prudhoe

on May 27, 2011 7:38am
Hi, Nicol.
To this long list of well-explained causes of poor intonation, I would also add improper registration.  Many singers (particularly inexperienced ones), are reluctant to change registers because of the change in tone quality that they hear inside their head.  (Many beginning singers [particularly altos and basses] find the sound of their head voice unpleasant at first, and so they avoid it.  So they tend to push their chest registers higher than they should, and this tends to make them sing a little flat.)  If you're hearing flatting in your choir, listen carefully to the tone and ask yourself if it is too "chesty," heavy or lacking in focus.  If it is, adding more "head quality" and/or focus to the sound should help the intonation.  
Good luck.
Chuck Livesay
on May 27, 2011 12:55pm
Clarence et al.  I find it interesting that a thread that started almost a year ago and was revived for a while 5 months ago still seems to be generating posts.
However, I have to question your statement that, "the musical sound that most people are exposed to (Country, Popular and Rock Music) is always out of tune.  In fact these musical styles ignore vocal production and intonation and focus on dissonance, and sliding pitches."  That is so patently untrue and prejudiced that it cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.  The word "always" means always, and even a single exception disproves your thesis. 
Many of us work daily with amateur and untrained singers, and while they MIGHT be able to imitate the pop singers you seem to hate, they certainly do NOT do so on a regular basis.
But I also note that you are promoting a product on ChoralNet, and that the moderators have allowed you to do so.  Fair enough.  But while your rhetoric may make good advertising copy, it won't endear you to professionals who might be interested in your product.  Anything good in what you wish to offer is brought into question by your rhetoric.  You are putting down particular vocal STYLES, which is your privilege, but you cannot logically reason from that premise to your conclusions.
All the best,
on May 27, 2011 4:24pm
Only one reason I know of, the majority of the choir is not producing a technically correct singing sound.  Therefore, they are muffling their sound and cannot hear the pitch accurately.  
on February 17, 2014 4:08pm
Greetings Robert, 
I read with awe this sharp diagnostic of bad intonation causes, which I'm suffering with my choir.
My question is short: What woud be a good method/list of excercises to correct these problems vthrough a worlshop? 
Thank you very much in advance
on February 18, 2014 3:15am
We have to teach our singers to hear.   ...Not simply to listen...but to HEAR.  
When we teach our singers to hear, we are teaching them what to listen for, to interpret that data and to make the appropriate adjustments.
The don't WANT to sound bad.  :)
It doesn't come naturally.  It takes time.  It happens every single day we are in front of them.  One important step of many is to record them often and to have them evaluate themselves.  Putting it into their hands after you've taught some basic concepts about blend, intonation, and tone quality makes a huge difference.
I do that (and more...) with my 6th, 7th and 8th graders and it works wonders!
Dale Duncan
Music in the Middle with Mr D
My Sight Singing Program for Middle School Teachers:
My YouTube Channel with teaching tips and actual teaching examples:
on February 18, 2014 8:04am
With all due respect, those of us who use the term "listen", are, of course, teaching what to listen for, or as you put it: "hear". Let's not catagorize directors by terminology usage.
I agree with you on recording, evaluation and mastering the concept of blend, intonation and tone quality but, these are things I teach when I ask my singers to "LISTEN."
on February 18, 2014 2:24pm
....and what do you then make of Dr. Robert Shaw when he opines that singing in tune is a result of attitude?
on February 18, 2014 5:59pm
I have no problem, Stuart, with Robert Shaw's approach to in-tune singing. Attitude certainly plays a part in achieving this goal.
Whatever the approach, if it works.......if it produces the desired results.......then I am open to it.
on February 19, 2014 3:23am
I am not categorizing directors at all.  There are so many ways to get to the desired result, and mine is only one way!  I speak from my own 22 years of experience working with middle school children.  For me, they respond well to acknowledging the difference between "listening" and "hearing"...especially when we present the idea in a clever or funny way that makes sense for them.  There are so very many interesting and fun ways to present the concept of "listening" vs. "hearing" to this age group.  
The goal is to help our young, inexperienced middle school children wake up and sing beautifully...however you approach it!
Best regards,
Dale Duncan
My blog for middle school teachers:
My sight singing program for middle school:
on February 19, 2014 7:35am
I should not have made the statement about catagorizing. For that, I apologize.
My point was simply that "hearing" is the result of "listening" and when I would direct my singers to "listen", it was for them to "hear" that perfect pitch within their section........achieved through matching volume, vowel sounds, and consonant execution.
As the King's Singers pointed out in one of their teaching videos: "We spend a lot of time making our sounds similar, one to another."
I think we are on the same page, Dale, and I appreciate your reply. We just use different terms.
All the best.
on February 20, 2014 7:33am
Always warm up the choir. Otherwise the time you think you are"saving" will be spent in chasing down intonation problems that wouldn't otherwise be there.
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