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Intonation: Intonation and the key of F major

Dear List,

Many people suggested particular works that seem to cause intonation
drift; many, but not all, in the dread key of F. Many people also had
reasons. First the list of works, then the list of reasons, then the
briefest of analyses about "Matona Mia Cara", suggested by Daniel
Gordon. If I misspelled a name or attributed a work or comment to the
wrong person, I apologize compiling this many responses is quite a job!

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585): If ye love me (4)
- Lynn Atkins, Westminster Choir College
- and Ray Rhoads, Reading Area Community College
- and Christopher Borges
- and Douglas Bachorik
Randall Thompson (1899-1984): Alleluia (3)
- Mary Lycan
- and Micki Gonzalez
- and Cecil Rigby
Anton Bruckner: Locus iste (2)
- Bob Reeve and Micki Gonzalez
Orlando de Lassus (1532-1594) Matona mia cara
- Daniel A Gordon, Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam
Sergei Rachmaninov: Vespers, Bogoroditse Djevo ("Ave Maria")
- Christopher Borges
Sergei Rachmaninov: Vespers, 6th movement
- Susan Quinn, Holy Heart HS and Quintessential Vocal Ensemble
John Farmer (1560-?) : Fair Phyllis
- Margaret Anne Butterfield, Wilmington Friends School
Randall Thompson "The Last Words of David" the last 4 bars
- Jonathan A Palant, University School, Hunting Valley OH
Randall Thompson (1899-1984): Tarantella
- Patricia Warren, Christe Lux Mundi
Richard Wayne Dirksen: "A Child my Choice"
- Margaret Shannon, Cathedral Choral Society
Benjamin Britten: Hymn to St. Cecilia
- Susan Noble
Aaron Copland: In the Beginning
- Susan Noble
- Walter Wells, Arts & Humanities Library, Pennsylvania State Univ.
Hugo Distler: Singet frisch und wohlgemut
- Gary McKerchner, Wisconsin Chamber Choir
Old Joe Clark - 3-part treble by Mary Goetze
- Polly Murray, ChildrenSong of New Jersey
E Fred Morris: Benediction
- Cory Alexander, Central Florida Community College
Felix Mendelssohn: Die Nachtigall
Theodore Dubois (1837-1924): 7 Last Words (ending)
- David W. McCormick
Moses Hogan: I Know the Lord's Laid His Hands on Me
- Christopher Borges
Robert Pearsall: In dulci jubilo
- Patricia Warren
Richard Farrant: Lord for thy tender mercies sake
- Ray Rhoads
Roger Wagner: Danny Boy
- Ray Rhoads
? : Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair
- Ray Rhoads

Several people also sent along observations about why intonation drift
happens, or in what situations it happens, or how it can be fixed:

Vocal production, passaggios:
Susan Noble - Offhand I can't think of anything that tended to go
sharp, rather than flat, so vocal production could be an issue, too.
IMO, bad production is more likely to lead to flatting than to sharping.
James Feiszli - I believe the answer lies in vocal production
and the fact that for many singers (esp. women) the key of F places much
of the music directly on their lower and upper passaggios (a above
middle C and e above that). Singing in F minor seems to be no problem,
further ratifying my theory.
Daniel Gordon - I believe the phenomenon has to do with the equal
tempered tuning and the fact that vocal breaks often line up on F and C.
As a tenor, I know that I have to do something a little different with
the high f-# than with f natural. F-natural requires me to support
quite a lot, but I flip into a quasi-falsetto on F-# when I sing early
music or modern works.
Micki Gonzalez - I have heard for years that F major is an issue,
mainly for basses and altos who have a slight lift around A to Bb and
have tuning issues because of it. I know for myself that it took a lot
of work to sing A440 in tune, because as a vocal student I tended to
sing it too heavily and with not sufficient point, which, I have
learned, must be easy to do because of the lift there.
Marilyn S. Jones - It seems to be caused by the vocal register
shifts in each voice-the difficulty in negotiating the passaggio as it
occurs in each vocal range. Thus, when basses and altos ascend a
chromatic scale and encounter "breaks" on eb, e, f & f#, they have
difficulty "sliding" easily into the next part of the voice. They have
another break around a#, b, c and c#. Similarly, sopranos and tenors
encounter their passaggio around b, c, c# and d, and again around eb, e,
f, and f#. Notice how crucial those notes are to the keys of F and C,
and it will become clear why there is difficulty singing in those keys.
Patricia Warren - I am totally convinced that the tuning problem
with F major is a combination of passaggio problems, tempered-tuning
problems due to constant accompanied singing, and the psychoacoustic
'color' sensation of F major. The first two can, of course, be
addressed through pedagogy in rehearsal. I've often wondered if one
could address the the issue of why F major's "color" sounds "flabby" by
working on an F-major piece with strings without keyboard. For
instance, one could learn the Mozart Mass in F a cappella, and then
rehearse it early on with just the strings, and add the keyboard last.

Intonation misinterpretations, misunderstandings, or piano-based habits:
Patricia Warren - see just above
Susan Quinn - I have done quite a bit of research on choral
intonation. My major instrument is violin and I conduct my high school's
string orchestra plus 6 choirs in total. My Masters paper was on Choral
Intonation. With regards to just tuning, the third of a perfectly in
tune major chord should be sung low (384 cents) to the piano equal-
tempered third (400 cents). Many choirs try to memorize the perfect
tuner A, and violinists like myself definitely have an A 440 in their
heads. With the tonic triad of F major being the audiated resting tone,
intonation depends on this chord behaving. The third MUST be placed
carefully within the perfectly tuned outer notes. It helps if the root
is the loudest note, the 5th tunes to this and the third is the softest
note for tuning purposes.
- William Copper (parenthetically): it was the Banchieri Singers
from Hungary, performing at the ACDA Eastern convention, that got me
re-interested in issues of intonation. They did exactly as Susan Quinn
describes, and their intonation was exquisite.
Cecil Rigby - Singers many times seem not to hear or know the
difference between a leading tone and subtonic 7. I wouldn't be
surprised if pieces that rely heavily on subtonic 7's have more "tuning
drift," as you call it. Second in cause in my thinking are lazy thirds.

Whatever it is, changing the key helps fix it:
James Feiszli Raising or lowering the pitch by 1/2 step gets them
off that spot in their voices.
Gary McKerchner - My experience suggests that F is 'molto
tragico'. Witnessed by weeks of rehearsal on a touring "Singet frisch
und wohlgemut' of Hugo Distler. Slammed that puppy into F# and it went
Daniel Gordon - I find that it happens often in Renaissance
literature. Technically speaking, those pieces aren't in the key of F,
but are oriented around the pitch, F. Still, I believe most Renaissance
pieces currently centered on F, tune up better in F-sharp.
Margaret Anne Butterfield - my choir had particular difficulty
singing "Fair Phyllis," not with the piece itself, but staying in the
key (F!). After rehearsing it in the keys of the adjacent half steps,
they were finally able to sing it in the original key
Lynn Atkins - (re If Ye Love Me) I have always had to shift the
key from F to F-Sharp.
Marilyn S. Jones - I have found that shifting both keys (C and F)
up one half step just about solves the flatting problem.
Patricia Warren - (re Tarantella) I've solved that problem by
teaching it (separate from the preceeding section) in F#, then
practicing finding the opening chord from the interlude.
Christopher Borges - (re If Ye Love Me, I Know the Lord's Laid His
Hands on Me, and Bogoroditse Djevowe) ...we have not kept in tune and
thus usually sing in F#.

Specifics of the chorus or the particular work:
Susan Noble - re Britten: Hymn to St Cecilia My own personal
theory is that the difficulty in this case was due to its being a mixed
chorus instead of all male (and possibly to its being an American group
as well, since the choral tradition is rather different here).
Susan Noble - re Copland: In the Beginning. I don't think there
are many groups that can deal with those key changes! Not only do you
need a chorus with first-class intonation, but the soloist also has to
have both an exquisite ear and the musical sensitivity to know when to
"correct" before or after a choral section.

And more:
Wallace de Pue - While you're at it, see if you can determine the
reason why compositions in keys bearing multiple flats or sharps,
especially flats, three or more, make choirs sound better than keys with
less than three sharps or flats. No one I have ever asked could solve
that mystery for me.

In addition to all the above, my additional hypothesis is that tonal
drift is often caused by incorrectly navigating places where intonation
must change (often on the 2nd or 6th scale step). Supporting this, a
brief look at one piece.

Tonal analysis of Matona Mia Cara by Orlando de Lassus

This work is indeed centered on F. It does not seem to have strong
passagio or vocal production issues, but it does have many places where
tonal misinterpretation will cause intonation drift downwards. I
looked at two places in detail, one at the beginning and one at the end.

Measure references use the version (bless them!)

Measures 2-3 (and similar places where repeated):
Soprano, measure 2, must sing a very low supertonic (the G), in
tune with the Eb root of the chord, which must be in tune with the fixed
subdominant pitch of the work, Bb. However, the tenor, measure 3, must
sing a high supertonic (G), in tune with the C root of the chord in the
bass. Right here, if the tenors sing the same G as the sopranos had
just sung, and the basses tune to the tenors instead of vice versa, the
chorus pitch will sag by about 16 cents. Do that a few times, and you
will be singing in E major.

Measures 99-100 (even more dramatic, because the tuning change must
happen during a tied note, a suspension in the tenor part):
Alto and Soprano, measure 99, must sing the high supertonic G,
tuning to the tenor root of the chord, C. Then, the Bass and Soprano on
beat 3 must sing a pure tonic F to which the alto and tenor must tune
low for a consonant minor triad (a low A and D respectively). The Bass,
measure 100, should proceed to a high supertonic G (for a dominant-of
-dominant chord, in classical theory) while the Tenor MUST CHANGE
INTONATION on the suspended D from a low to a high intonation across the
bar line. Otherwise, the bass would tune to the tenor, and another 16
cents in pitch is lost!

William Copper
on November 30, 2006 10:00pm
And what I learned in grad school which I have found to be dead on:

A. Key signatures have affect on pitch and intonation (as it affects tessitura).
1. Problematic keys to avoid in a cappella (with related minor key)
a) G(e) Transpose down.
b) C(a) Transpose up.
c) F(d) Transpose up.
2. These keys go sharp with energetic choirs, flat with less energetic choirs.

I might add that I have found that high school tenors really do not like the key of G because of tessitura issues.