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

Major thirds

As promised, here and there, now and then, I'm finally beginning to document some ideas about intonation.  
Next, minor thirds.   Then perfect fifths. 
William Copper
Replies (14): Threaded | Chronological
on January 24, 2014 7:36am
Very interesting Mr Copper! An intersting complementary reading on choral tuning would be Choral Intonation by Per-Gunnar Alldahl...
on February 17, 2014 7:45am
Greetings Guillaume, 
Would you know where I could find/get this book?
Thank you!
on January 24, 2014 2:36pm
Thanks, Guillaume,  I did a brief search by Alldahl's name, didn't find the book.  I'd like to take a look.
Now posted Minor Thirds, Fifths tomorrow.   Then, I think, the sixths. 
on January 25, 2014 8:29am
Nice article!  We used Pythagorean Tuning to stay on pitch while rehearsing Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium" and it was very effective. Also, my daughter, a cellist, uses Pythagorean tuning, but has to adjust to harmonic tuning when working with a piano.
on January 27, 2014 6:24am
Yes, very interesting!
But how do you *make* your contraltos understand, or better yet, *realise* that their F# is low in the D major chord? 
I SING the correct F# for them so they can hear it, and they continue to sing it flat.
I make them attack the F# as a 4-3 ritard (sol-fa#) and they still sing it flat. 
I construct the chord basses first, then sopranos (same note), then tenors (fifth) to finally and gloriously sing the major third *in context* ==> FAIL. 
They *do not* hear it. 
Any clues?
on January 27, 2014 7:30am
You might need the "lawnmower" excercise!
You're actually neuroscientifically correct, they literally cannot hear it because of a "category boundary" in their hearing - everything within two boundaries falls into the category "F#", never mind what exact flavour. We need these categories, actually, in order to understand speech, because a person from Texas will not use the same vowel sound as someone from Boston, when saying the word "thing" for example! So to have human speech be intelligible at all, we need the capacity to form pretty wide categories :-)
So you need a trick to bust apart the category boundaries, and having them do impressions of sound effects, rather than sing notes is a good start. Most people can do a good impression of a plane taking off, or a lawnmover changing pitch a very little bit in the distance. Have them make lawnmower sounds until they can travel up or down about a semitone in 8 to 10 seconds. 
Next problem is that when you sing the correct note, actually that doesn't give them a map to get from where they are at to where you want them to be. Starting at their exact note and "sliding" up to your better version does two useful things. First, to match their note *exactly*, you have to think about it carefully - they may hear you do this and start to "get the knack". They might then later be able to match your note *exactly*. Second, the slide gives them a much better scale for the distance they need to alter by. You can't ask someone to move over 10 inches if they've never seen a tape measure, and without a feeling for the length of their own stride in relation, they just actually don't know what or how much to move. There's a perspective question that doesn't get answered unless you have experience of wandering about in the space. This is what the lawnmower was for.
Good Luck! Since you can hear the difference, eventually they will also learn how, for sure.
Marion Wood
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 31, 2014 6:21am
Thank you very much for your complete explanation!
Curiously, I've already tried -not the lawnmower- but the "low-flying plane passing by" excercise, which is basically the same thing. Oddly enough, very few were capable of "sliding" the notes, the majority singing the "discretely". These are people in their 60's and many have lost much of their flexibility and openness. 
"Next problem is that when you sing the correct note, actually that doesn't give them a map to get from where they are at to where you want them to be"... ohh!! this phrase is so clever! THANK YOU! I'll try what you suggest next rehearsal. 
As for your "sliding" technique, I can see what you mean by your analogies of "scale of the distance to be altered", "tape measure", etc... but now I'll tell you what my "reference scale" is: Physical Memory and not hearing memory. 
Good thirds (not to say perfect thirds) produce a *physical sensation*. In french we say "petillant", like the bubbles in Perrier water. I make the *other* 3 voices sing the tonic and fifth and *I* sing the third (major or minor) until it "bubbles" and then have them sing the third with me until it's perfect and they can *feel* the correct tuning. 
But that doesn't last. Next rehearsal it's all fogotten. I think it also has to do with age since they can't either "unflatten a flat note", i.e. Bb-Ab-G-A#-Bb...
In any case, Thank you!
on January 27, 2014 12:41pm
Hi, Carlos and Marion,
I'm not sure, but I think you might be on opposites sides: Carlos, the pure F# in a D major chord is noticeably flatter than the piano F#, so perhaps your singers are closer than you think?  I believe, but could be wrong, that the more naive a singer is the more likely to sing a pure third rather than a tempered third, 14 cents higher.   I've certainly been in many choirs (as a bass) where the poor tenors are told to sing their thirds higher, when I can hear they are singing a perfectly good harmonic third!
Marion, the lawnmower exercise sounds cool, I'll try it one of these days.
William Copper
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 28, 2014 11:39am
Hi William, Carlos,
I would be delighted to hope that the Altos are singing "pure" thirds, but have more often found that because a semitone is not visible on the page, any downward step tends towards about 2/3rds of a tone and lands a good deal lower than it should.  A 4-3 suspension might actually be quite a difficult approach.
To be fair, our voices tend to like parallels much more than we realise, so any semitone downward step that's in parallel with a wholetone downward step (eg 3rds or 6ths) actually needs a bit of concious effort to get small enough. Of course this happens all the time, and in particular 4-3 above another part that is singing 2-1 occurs frequently in common cadences (V7 - I and iic - vi).
My hope would be that Carlos can arrive to a position where he can suggest an alternative major third - just, tempered, or even wildly sharp just for the fun of it, and have his altos sing it succesfully :-)
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 31, 2014 6:27am
What do you mean by this: "semitone is not visible on the page"?? 
Thank you !
on February 8, 2014 1:41pm
Hi Carlos,
Simply that the scale distances between notes all look the same. I tried the experiment of marking up an imslp score a choir were planning to photocopy, and one of the things I put in (apart from useful arrows like 'find your note from the basses', 'listen to the trumpets here') was to mark all the semitones. I quite often marked upward whole tones as well, especially when there were enharmonic changes or leading notes. 
Just being able to see these things on the page made a sufficiently radical difference to the pitching accuracy that I now add these kinds of annotations when ever it is practical to do so. Even a musically literate choir often don't really bother to keep track of the half steps until *after* there is a problem! When they see them coming it seems to improve the situation. 
Great that you already tried the low-flying-plane :-) have you tried it within the chord? ie having the plane fly-through between the 5 and 1 who are trying to keep constant? 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 31, 2014 6:23am
Hi William, 
I understand perfectly what you intended ti say, but, having majored in early music, I am very well acquainted with "perfect" thirds. 
I would agree with Marion when she says that they "land a good deal lower that it should". 
Thank you!
on January 29, 2014 1:21am
Marion's last point is a good one: playing with intonation is a valuable exercise regardless. 
This "intonation repair tool" is a commercial little package oriented to instrumentalists, but it recommends exactly what you say.
I'm not endorsing it (nor criticizing it) just mentioning.  I have absolutely no connection with its makers, but I bought a copy.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on February 9, 2014 4:51am
Hmmm... if it's consistently off and they don't seem to be able to fix it, is it possible that it's actually a vocal production tuning problem, rather than a hearing tuning problem?  If you have any altos who are nudging a 2nd soprano classification in your alto section, an F# would be hitting the ede of their break.  (And, thus, of course, the longer you spend trying to tune, the more stressed their voice gets, and the harder it is for them to tune.)  When I'm singing in a group and our section is being berated for our tuning, it is inevitably because the passage in question sits right on the break for most of us.  If the director bothered to ask, we could tell him, but directors usually are pretty worked up at that point, and no one wants to attract attention to themselves by pointing this out.  
You could also try moving your sections around in the room.  Minor miracles are often achieved by moving people around within sections, or switching two sections positions.  Unless someone has a serious hearing problem, people usually do tune well naturally.  The problem occurs when people are trying to balance out the tone color of the particularly loud person next to them, or they can hear a whole lot of the tenors, but not much at all of the bass section...  The accoustics in the room may be doing your altos a disservice.  It's entirely possible that from their position in the room relative to the other voice parts, they actually sound quite correct... if only you could seat the audience right in the middle of their section.  Try switching sections from side to side, or flipping rows from back to front, in case you have one stubbornly out of tune singer who is pulling their compatriots along with them.  
-M. Furtak
Applauded by an audience of 1
  • You must log in or register to be able to reply to this message.