Singing in Tune – Listening

Tuning Fork

If you have ever sung in a choir or directed a choir, I’m fairly sure at some point there will have been a discussion on tuning.  This is particularly an issue for A Cappella or unaccompanied choirs, but applies equally to choirs which are accompanied.

What is tuning?

It may seem obvious to many, but it is important first to understand what is meant by being in tune.  In tune with what?  My business partner, who is more of a technical IT wizard than a musician (and he freely admits this) has a piano in his lounge.  In many respects its quite a nice instrument and probably getting on for 100 years old.  But it doesn’t get played much apart from by me occasionally, and Robert even more occasionally!   Through neglect, or indeed just being left unattended in the corner for many years the piano is not currently tuned to concert pitch.  However, despite this, the piano is actually tuned on a reasonably regular basis and as such it has 88 notes all of which have been tuned relative to each other.

The problem is, because of the age of the piano and the state it’s in, it can no longer be tuned to Concert pitch – that is A=440.  For anyone confused by this terminology, basically thats the pitch of notes which is in normal accepted use. So if you go and play a C on any instrument which is tuned to A=440 they will all sound the same pitch.  It turns out that Robert’s piano is actually tuned to A=428.4 or something similar because the strings and the frame cannot cope with anything higher!  Ironically there is actually no such note so it’s not just half a tone out it really is in a pitch of it’s own.  However, that said, relatively all the notes work together so you could still play it in the normal way and, unless you have perfect pitch or were trying to accompany another instrument, a lot of people might say it was fine!

Singing in tune

The most important factor helping towards singing in tune is listening to the note being given before you start.  This is particularly relevant to unaccompanied choirs and more so if you only get given the key note rather than the one you are actually starting on.  But even with accompanied choirs it’s imperative to listen to the piano or accompaniment before you start singing to make sure you have really got the note you need to start on.  I will talk about how to pitch the note correctly in another post.  Once you start singing, do not stop listening to the accompaniment and those around you.  This will help you to maintain the tuning. Make sure you know how your part relates to the accompaniment so you can be constantly checking it’s still correct and still in tune.

Listening to each other

As with the analogy at the beginning of this article, singing in tune is not necessarily always about having perfect pitch. Yes it’s ideal to remain at the same pitch throughout a piece, particularly if you are singing unaccompanied. But more importantly if the pitch is dropping then its just as important to all remain in a relative pitch so that the chords still sound right, albeit slightly flat.  There is nothing worse than one or two people in a choir (the smart ones who think they are clever with perfect pitch) trying to force the correctly pitched note onto everyone else.  If this worked, and suddenly the entire choir went back to the original pitch it would be fine. But it doesn’t work.

Think about it, if you are stood next to someone with perfect pitch who is trying to sing a note slightly sharper than everyone else stood around you, what would you do. Follow the one person who is different or the 3 other people around you all singing the same as you?  Singing in tune is all about listening to the people around you. But as well as that it’s about listening to yourself.

What can you do about it?

You are you own best (or worst) critic.  Constantly analyse what you are doing when you sing.  If there is a piano, can you hear it? Can you hear how your part relates to the piano part?   A lot of tuning issues can stem from actually knowing the line in the first place.  Are you singing the correct notes?  If not, there is every chance that not only are you singing the wrong note, but this is also having an effect on everyone else and the tuning as a whole.  Always listen carefully to those around you as well as the accompaniment if there is one and make sure you are pitching your note accurately.

The other important thing to do is listen to the conductor. It is their job to know when the pitch is changing either going flat or sharp and they should be able to identify the issues.  If the conductor tells you it’s going flat, he or she should also try to give you some idea of why and tell you how to try and fix this.   A lot of the time when pitch is falling it’s because singers are tired, the posture is incorrect or simply they aren’t listening to each other.

You can also work on tuning outside of a choir rehearsal either on your own or with someone else.  If you are on your own and have access to a piano or other tuned instrument, try just playing a note and then singing that note to make sure you exactly match the note from the instrument.  Something else to consider is then taking that note from the piano, and going to sing a song by yourself then go back to the piano to see if you are staying in tune.   It doest have to be an entire song, in fact to start with it’s best to just sing a few notes, for example a scale and see if you are returning back to the note you started with.

If you’re not then try doing the same thing but playing along on the piano, or get a friend to accompany you.  If you can sing in tune with an instrument, you can sing without. It’s just a case of listening and adjusting your own voice accordingly.  Remember tuning is more about relating one note to another. You don’t have to have perfect pitch in order to sing in tune. You simply need to know where each note is relative to the previous one.