Monday, February 13, 2012

The Key of F Bugaboo

(Pictured above: A recently discovered photograph from the 13th century of the Guidonian Hand. It is believed that the figure on the left is the diabolus in musica, while the elusive Key of F Bugaboo may be the figure on the middle finger (appropriately). The figure on the ring finger is believed to represent the ogre who created the first viola out of charred wormwood. Warning, the authenticity of this photograph has not been verified fully by carbon dating or any other method)

Today I am sharing a discussion I initiated on the ChoralNet website, asking for thoughts on the issue of why many choirs seem to struggle when singing in the key of F and whether this issue has merit, or is an urban legend, or whatever else people could say about this topic. I actually brought it up in reference to research I am doing, not for a choir I am currently leading, though I guess they way I phrased it initially may have led some people to think this was a current issue in a choir (not that that really makes any difference in the overall discussion). What is interesting is that the discussion has veered into some other closely related areas, including tuning, historic pitch levels, instruments and pitch-- and after many many contributions there still has not been a definitive answer to this issue. Is this a problem? Not really, it just shows that we have a pretty cool mystery on our hands and I think the discussion and excellent ideas tossed around have been worth it. Here is the thread so far- it's lengthy and may continue to go on and on! I have left people's names on since it is an Internet site with names- hopefully no one is mad that I left their name intact.

Hi all,

The key of F tuning/lack of resonance bugaboo has reared its head again. Has anyone truly analyzed this issue either on ChoralNet or in a paper? In a cappella music, have some of you pitched up to F# or G and what were your thoughts on the result? Does pitching down work, or is it better to raise the pitch? I am interested in both practical experience (even plain old anecdotal) in repitching away from F, PLUS interested in any more scientific knowledge of the reasons behind this phenomenon. Is it pasaggio related? Or other? Is it also a problem with F minor as well? Is there any related issue with the relative, d minor? I'm all ears to hear your thoughts.

Paul Carey

Replies (37): Threaded | Chronological

on February 2, 2012 8:48pm
Hi, Paul. I know some people believe in this, but every piece of music is different, every individual part has its own range and tessitura, and I simply don't believe in this particular "urban legend"! Of course I don't believe that individual keys have different colors, either, and I've never heard any difference in sound when something's been taken up or down--which is often quite necessary in early music.
And your questions are good ones. If it actually exists, is it only for F major, for F minor, for F lydian? And in which tuning or temperament system?
There's also the simple fact that the modern choir is NOT the instrument for which a great deal of choral music was written, those being choirs of all men or of boys and men. So since the voices are different can we really expect any acoustic problems--which may or more likely may NOT exist--to be the same? Nor was there any such thing as "standard" pitch until much later than you might think, so how does THAT affect your thinking. A work written in "F" might have sounded in anything from Eb in Paris to G in Venice at different times.
But I'd be interested in others factual contributions. What has been your experience that made you ask the question?
All the best,

on February 2, 2012 10:38pm
Here is a ChoralNet resource on this topic, though whether it's "truly analyzed" is up to you to decide.

on February 3, 2012 5:40am
This came up the other day. MY accompanist mentioned to a room of mostly non-vocal people at a leceture about tuning temperaments that F major is hard to sing in tune in, and they all looked at her like she's crazy, and the two choral people nodded. According to the temperament lecturer, there's no acoustical, physical (as in physics) reason, which leaves the passaggio as a possible culprit. But I don't believe it. I then asked, if that's true, that there's no difference, why do C major and Db major sound different to me on the piano, and all the pianists nodded (except the lecturer).
I dont' think I've had my choir sing a piece in F major in years - always F sharp. I've tried E on occasion but my basses usually sound gravelly on low E's, and F works better, but E stays in tune. D minor is hard. F and D minor sound "wide" to my ear (whatever the heck that means!) and so someitmes intervals are short-changed by the singers, and the go flat, while F# sounds tight, and also far richer. Makes no sense to the scientists/tuners. I few dozen doctoral dissertations, maybe?
F minor isn't a probelm for my groups. E minor is much harder. In unequal temperament this would all make some kind of sense.
Anecdote: One year my choir was weak (only one year? ha!) so I put the F major peices into F# and also the G major pieces, not usually a problem, into F#. It wasn't until we started running the concert in order tahat I realized my entire concert was in the key of F# major!
Can't wait to see what people write here!

on February 3, 2012 7:06am
Hi, Paul--
I have a [completely unsubstantiated] theory that might explain this phenomenon, having to do with the history of pitch standards. Please note--I am *not* a music historian or musicologist, and I'm writing off-the-cuff without sources in front of me--so I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies contained in the thoughts below, and welcome correction from those who know more about the matter than I do. Someday I'd like to write an article about this when I have my scholarly act if you happen to agree with my ideas, feel free to cite them but give me credit. :)
My general understanding is that, over the last several centuries, pitch has risen. I recall learning, both in college and in grad school, that the pitch standard actually varied quite a bit not only over history, but even from place to place. However, my impression is that the preponderance of physical evidence (surviving instruments, tuning implements, etc.) shows that pitch was roughly a half-step lower in older times.
Here is where I swerve into the thicket of speculation: My theory is that that pitch standard of yore came about precisely because of what was comfortable in the voice. We must never forget that the voice dominated music long before the rise of instruments. If we could travel back in time and hear performances of music written in F major by Lasso, Bach, or Mozart (I acknowledge or course that Lasso would have been thinking in terms of modes, not major/minor tonality; I just use the term "F major" for convenience), AND if pitch were roughly a half-step lower in their times, such performances would strike our modern ears as actually sounding like E major. Their performances of C major music would sound like B major to us. The performances of G major music would sound like F# major to us.
Fast-forward a few centuries to the present day. The pitch standard has risen to A440. Instruments, by and large, kept their design over the years; playing in F major, C major, and G major is no problem for them. They are terrible keys for today's voices, though. The voice has not changed over the centuries along with pitch standards. It is stuck loving the keys that now get called E major, B major, and F# major, despite the fact that they are rotten keys for instruments!
I know loads of fellow conductors who have also found that their choirs do much better in E major, B major, and F# major than they do in F, C, and G.
This is obviously NOT to say that there's no choir out there today that can hold pitch in [today's] F, C, and G. Likewise, this is not to say that any choir is magically going to hold pitch in [today's] E, B, and F# (or in other voice-friendly keys, for that matter--for example, I've heard a recording of Poulenc's Vinea Mea Electa [written and sung in C# major, which to old ears, would sound like D major--a "friendly" key] conducted by Robert Shaw that flatted about a quarter tone).
If I'm right, my theory explains why 1) good keys for the voice contrast so starkly with good keys for instruments/visually pleasing keys, why 2) these keys are half-steps apart [B=good for voices, C=good for instruments and good to read; E=good for voices; F=good for instruments and good to read; etc.], and why 3) you rarely see old vocal music written in forbidding keys.
I would parenthetically add Bb major to the list of keys today's choirs find rotten to sing in but that are decent for instruments. Again, I know lots of conductors who drop Bb music to A or take it up to B; 99% of the time, it holds much better in those keys.
As to your question about extending the problem to minor keys, my experience suggests that it is the *relative,* not the parallel relationship, that holds sway, since relative minor keys are drawn from the exact same set of pitches as their relative major keys. Thus, I find voices tend to do very well in E major/C# minor, B major/G# minor, and F#-Gb major/D#-Eb minor (what was the last time you saw a piece written in D# minor? ;) . I find D minor, A minor, and E minor tough for the voice because they draw from the same pitches as F major, C major, and G major respectively. Bb minor, though, seems to sit well, as it is the relative minor of Db major, a very voice-friendly key (which again, in old times, would have been produced by music written in D major).
I know that much of what I've written here rests on conjecture. But it's the best and most unified explanation I've been able to come up with over the years of observing the key-of-F-bugaboo, as you call it.
-Joe Gregorio

on February 3, 2012 7:44am
Wow, it's been great reading the other posts on here, as well as the resource Allen provided. Clearly there's a lot I don't know about this matter, and I'm obviously not the first one to arrive at the notion that the bugaboo might have to do with a change in pitch standards. I guess I was a little premature in wondering if I was! Thanks for getting this discussion going, Paul.

on February 3, 2012 6:44pm
Hi, Joe and Paul. As someone who has studied the matter in some detail I applaude your conjectures, Joe, but the full story suggests that your conclusions might be a little broader than the facts allow.
First about standard pich. There was none. None. NOT ANY!!!!. The concept didn't even exist. And the modern standard of A=440 hz was not even internationally recognized until something like 1938. And even so, some modern orchestras are known to tune to A=442 or even a little bit higher. The concept of "standard" did not exist before the industrial revolution, and even today is pretty flexible.
So what was there? An infinite variety of very, very local "standards," mostly based on what the organ in the church or at the court was tuned to. In fact every church in town might have had a different "standard" pitch, and the church or court would have instruments made to match that pitch so they could play with that organ, but NOT with an organ at another church.
The inventory taken on the death of King Henry VIII included an inventory of sets of instruments from many of his different palaces and manors, but there is no indication that those instruments could ever have been played together in a big band. Each set was probably custom made to match the pitch in use at each separet location!
And the "half-step lower" fallacy is simply a modern convention so that SOME kind of modern standard for Baroque playing could be agreed on, and it's convenient because A=415 happens to be almost exactly a halfstep lower than A=440 so shifting keyboards can be used. But in fact travelers writings and surviving instruments make it very clear that "standard" pitch varied from as low as A=392 or even lower in Paris to A=466 or even higher in Venice. Flutes were often made with up to 4 different interchangeable middle joints so they could be played at a variety of pitches. And that's just for the Baroque, and doesn't even come close to applying to earlier centuries. And just to make life interesting, Bach's Germany was dealing with at least FOUR semi-"standard' pitches: High and Low Choir Pitch and High and Low Chamber Pitch. All at the same time!
I attended a lecture by a scholar who had traveled all over--in England I think--and measured the organ pipes in many different churches, a number of which appeared to be completely original. And his surprising conclusion, perhaps with tongue slightly in cheek but perhaps not, was that each organ builder had taken the longest planks he had, used them for the low C pipe, and scaled all the rest up from that!!! Not exactly the basis for any kind of "standard"!
Now as to pitch gradually rising over the past few centuries, that isn't quite accurate either. In fact there was a substantially higher band pitch in the late 19th century, to the extent that when someone buys an older band instrument they have to be very careful to make sure it wasn't made to "high pitch" (which was enough higher than A=440 to make them unplayable in a modern band). Some Baroque instruments were built to a lower pitch. Others to a higher one. NO STANDARD!!!
So your assumption that we can count on two pitches, an old one a halfstep below the modern one, just doesn't stand up, and the matter is equally confusing for singing pitches. And here's why: The pitch that music was WRITEN at was not necessarily the pitch that it was SUNG at! There were rules for how to notate music properly, but those rules didn't mean that the music was performed as notated. For a cappella singing, going back into history with church chant, the choir leader would intone the opening of a chant to set the pitch and then the choir would enter. And I'm pretty sure that any choir leader would pick a lower pitch for Lauds or Matins than he would later in the day!! And there was even a fairly confusing convention having to do with the set of clefs that were used ("chiavetti" in Italian) that's supposed to have been a signal to transpose certain music down from the notated pitch--something I've never completely understood.
Since there was NO STANDARD PITCH at all (I did mention that, didn't I), there could have been no such thing as certain keys or modes that were difficult to sing in because those WRITTEN keys or modes may have had nothing to do with the actual pitch level. I know that's really difficult for modern musicians to understand, but it was what our ancestors had to deal with. And how people with perfect pitch dealt with it I have absolutely no idea!
Of course all this is not to say that SOME MUSIC may in fact be written in such a way as to hit individual voices at awkward places in their ranges for SOME SINGERS and therefore do not work as well at the WRITTEN PITCH as they would at some other pitch. Fine. Try them at a different pitch. But not necessarily all music in specific keys at modern pitch, and not necessarily for all voices in specific keys. (Barbershoppers just love the key of Bb, which you seem to think is a rotten key for choirs.) It's a fascinating study, and a really interesting question, but at this point it's probably not possible to make broad generalizations that will stand up in each and every situation.
All the best,

on February 4, 2012 5:23am
Hi, John--
Thanks for raising all of these important points. I only offered my thoughts as conjecture, based on my experience as a conductor and my limited understanding (which I confessed at the outset) of the history of pitch. I agree, it's a fascinating study, and I would love to delve deeper into it to find a stronger explanation for my observation that keys like F, C, G, and Bb tend to be tough to tune, while the keys a half step away from them tend to tune much better. There may be no historical explanation for this phenomenon, but that does not make it less real to me or to the many conductors and choral musicians I know who have experienced it as well.
Incidentally, I stand by my assertion that Bb is problematic. I know several barbershop singers myself, and they happen to loathe Bb. They could be outliers; who knows? I don't know the genre as well as I do the western art music canon. There could be something in the style that renders Bb more friendly to barbershop singing than it usually turns out to be for the average church/community/school choir.
I appreciate your sharing your knowlege about the history of pitch, John.

on February 4, 2012 1:03pm
Hi Joe!
You have presented some information that makes me believe I'm not crazy after all. Candidly, I hear choirs singing in multifple flats sounding better than in other keys. For years, I've been asking people whom I trust, if they hear what I hear in this regard. Only two, Ivan Trusler (deceased), and Richard D. Mathey-both superb choral conductors-agreed with me.
My contention is that singing in three or more flats makes choral music sound better; however, I can't prove it. ONE book, How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Sould Care), which I was hired to review, gave me some hope that I was correct. All I leared about our current topic was slight. At least, the author, Ross W. Duffin, was on to something. Now Joe Gregoio, an EXCELLENT musician, has put forth a reasonable theory. At least, he seems to hear what I hear. That makes me feel GOOD!

on February 4, 2012 8:28am
I thought of two theories.
1) It would be something to do with upper passagio.
2) It is something to do with low F sang by baritone/bass.
I assume many people suspects passagio, so I don't go in here.
So, I would explain 2).
This theory might be completely off as I was thinking and writing this after a post-concert party ;)
In the piece of key of F, F# and G, low "F", "F#" and "G" appear fairly common as each tonic note, because these notes are considered in the safe range.
In the key of "E" and "Eb," it is less comon to see low "E" and "Eb" as each tonic, this is because composers might feel that solid low "E" or "Eb" might not be available.
For a bass section which comprised of mainly baritones, "low E" might be hard to produce, but "low F" is usually no problem to "produce." But this "low F" is not nearly as strong/stable as "F#" or "G." So, I suspect this sharp change of tonal quality by baritons between "F" and "F#" as a possible culprit of the reason why key of F is hard to tune.
So, in short...
In key of Eb and E, baritones usually don't have to sing "low Eb" and "low E."
In key of F, baritones usually have to sing "low F" but this is weak and unstable. So, the whole tonic and the piece are suffered.
In key of F# or G , baritones usually have to sing "low F#," and "low G" but this is no problem since these notes are much stronger and more stable than "low F."
A thought by a baritone singer ;)

on February 5, 2012 10:52am
No theories from me, just anecdote. One particular piece we've sung recently, Tartini's "Stabat Mater" was, in the version we had, in F Major. The three soloists, my son (a voice major singing the second tenor), our bass section leader (sings in the Washington Opera), and yours truly (singing the first tenor), agreed to drop the pitch to Eb Major. Voila! It worked so much better. Now, I hear you say, is it because, Ron, you're not a true tenor, but maybe a second or even a high baritone? Mayhaps, I reply, but I don't have any trouble getting up to the F which is the highest pitch in the original - but it does seem to be straining over time. Oddly, we have found when we're singing a cappella that if it's pitched in F, we drop - right down to E, and on a really bad day, down to Eb. Funny, though, if we start at Eb, there's no drift. Why? Dunno. Just seems to be. So, since I'm not cursed with perfect pitch (but have damn good relative pitch), we'll stick with F if it works and there's no downward drift; and if there is, Eb it is. And that from a day-to-day musician with no theory.

on February 6, 2012 7:39pm
Thanks all for the discussion. I wonder if Simon Carrington might be lurking out there and seeing this discussion. Simon, I bet you have some thoughts on this. Weigh in if you see this!

on February 7, 2012 5:07am
I read a book entitled "Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy" that includes a chapter on how we hear pitches. It includes a long discussion of why we can't stay in tune in F, and if I recall correctly also in C, which apparently is because our inner ears are formed in such a way that we do not hear certain intervals correctly.
I don't recall the details as such (it's one of those books that is fascinating, but needs several reads to soak up completely...I've only read it twice so far, and it's been awhile!), but I remember it made me feel better. It's congenital!

on February 7, 2012 8:06am
Pitch pitch, pitch! Everyone talks about pitch. I haven't noticed anyone talking about tuning systems. I assume that you attempt to have your choir sing in "equal temperament." This is likely the problem: it is an unnatural tuning system. Equal temperament was designed for keyboard instruments which cannot change tuning during performance. In the early years of my career as a choral artist in NYC, this phenomenon was encountered quite frequently. Thanks to Alexander Blachly, the director of Pomerium (a group with which I have been singing since 1997), it is no longer a problem for me as a singer. Nor is it a problem for the choirs which I direct. (Disclaimer: In some spaces, there are accoustical problems that can make a choir's pitch sink.) Pomerium utilizes the tuning premise of "just intonation," in which the half steps and whole steps are not equal, but harmonically pure. It takes some getting used to and constant adjustment, but Pomerium produces some incredible sonorites, both overtones and resultant tones because of it.
Dr. Blachly can explain it better than I, but I will give it to you, as I perceive it, in a nutshell. G is a large whole step higher than F. (Often, this note is sung flat.)Major thirds are tuned a bit lower than modern ears are accustomed, minor thirds a bit higher. The third in an F chord or scale (A) should sound warm (a bit low). Half steps occuring naturally in the scale are wide. These two premises work together. B-flat should sound high in relation to A, and be a perfect fourth higher than F. (Fourths and fifths are actually not perfect in EQ tuning. Harmonically pure ascending fourths and fifths are wider than in EQ.) C should sound a perfect fifth higher than F. Sixths are like thirds, a bit lower in just intonation, as are sevenths, which quite often function as the third in the subdominant and dominant, respectively.
So, in order to achieve great tuning in just intonation, one must constantly be recognizing the function of the notes in play. This can change while such a note is held, such as in the opening of Lassus's "Tristis est anima mea." In the first measure, a perfect fifth between the T and B should be achieved, with a warm 3rd in the Q. On the first beat of m2, the B and Q go from root and 3rd of the tonic to the 3rd (minor) and 5th of the sixth chord. (The T note is really a passing tone.) But the next chord, the second beat of the second measure is the important one here: The T should have the same B-flat, the Q sounding a perfect fifth above, with the B singing the major third of the chord a wide half step from the previous note.
Tiny nutshell to get you started: Supertonic, Subdominant and Dominant always high in relationship to Do. (Stretch ascending fourths and fifths, shrink descending fourths and fifths. Sound familiar? Now you know why.) Mi and Ti always low when they are the major third of a chord. Ascending half steps within the key, always high; descending low, warm. Enharmonic notes are usually not actually so; F-sharp is not the same pitch as G-flat: the former is lower than the latter. This is pretty definite in non-keyboard music composed before 1900.
The F major bugaboo, in my ears, is a fallacy. Do string quartets have more problems playing in F major than other keys? How about horn players or any person who plays an instrument on which the pitch is readily altered while playing? If so, I don't hear it. Remember that the vast majority of choral works of the Renaissance, the age of the flowering of choral music, were published in keys with one flat. If there were a bugaboo, I think that Busnois, Lassus, Palestrina, DuFay, Byrd, Gesualdo, et al, would known about it and would have chosen to compose and publish in different keys. Just make sure that in F, really any key (and this tuning works great for music of any period up to and including some of the 20th and 21st centuries) that the supertonic, sub-dominant and dominant are high ascending, low descending and that major thirds are low, minor high, your choir(s) will enjoy singing in better tune, once they shed their modern, unnatural notion of tuning.
There are plenty of web resources to help you, should you choose to explore this very rich experience.

on February 7, 2012 10:27pm
No one ever tells their choir to sing in equal temperment. However, the piano has been the lingua franca for so many choral rehearsals that there are plenty of singers who never discover what it sounds like to sing in tune (more in tune that ET). As you suggested, singers (and string ensembles) will default to pure intervals and achieve a kind of pythagorean/just/floating system of tuning when they are free of the influence of fixed pitch instruments. I sang at Case Western with Prof. Duffin and I'm a huge proponant of the Just Intonation method. If you want to get into the nitty gritty of it all you can read: "Just Intonation in Renaissance Theory and Practice" Music Theory Online October 2006. If you just want to take a look at the practice of teaching singers to unlearn ET you can start using these excersizes.
I use them on a weekly basis with college singers and they immediatly start to show some realization of the 'sins of the steinway' as I put it.
As to the F major issue, I don't think your statement that "Busnois, Lassus, Palestrina, DuFay, Byrd, Gesualdo, et al, would known about it and would have chosen to compose and publish in different keys" is a valid point because:
1) one flat in this period is a common signature but 90% of the time it is transposed dorian mode (g-g 1 flat, mode 1) pieces in mode 5-Lydian (F-F 1 flat) are far less common.
2) the pitch at which those composers notated a composition has less to do with performance pitch and more to do with keeping the notes inside the 5 lines since ledger lines were undesirable. C clefs function so that you can change clefs to keep notes in the staff once the ambitus (compass of one part) begins to go beyond an octave. (this isn't hard and fast but it's generally accepted, ockeghem being an exception)
3) the performance practice for a cappella music was that a choir should always choose the best pitch level for each piece, and experiment in rehearsal untill they find the best pitch level. (von Zabern, Diruta, sistine chapel) It's too bad we've seemed to let this practice fade away.
My vote goes in the passagio camp, but David Janower's post gives me pause to rethink it. What we need here is a British (similar vocal tradition), Italian (don't they have higher voices?), and Russian (lower voices) choir director to confirm or deny that this F major phenomenon exists in their cultures. Perhaps choir competitions should require an F-Major selection on each program.

on February 8, 2012 5:10am
"Perhaps choir competitions should require an F-Major selection on each program."
No,no, a thousand times no! (:-)

on February 11, 2012 8:52am
You agreed with me totally in your second sentence, but I must have been unclear: I do not condone singing in ET. So, learning to teach singers to do so is not on my bucket list. I do not use a piano even to teach notes (well, there are esceptions)- I sing the part/passage to the section if there is trouble learning it. I only use the piano on accompanied works. The first thing I did as Director of the Ithaca Gay Men's Chorus was prepare a completely a cappella concert to get them away from the piano. That actually was for two reasons; tuning and weaning them from their dependence on it. They had not even performed an a cappella set before. I teach them to sing high 4ths and 5ths, and that any ascending half step has to be pitched high. Works miracles.
Period performance practice is what I did almost exclusively (outside of church and recital) as a professional singer in NYC for seventeen years. I still sing with a NYC based, Grammy-nominated choir that specializes in virtuoso Renaissance polyphony- Pomerium. One might say that I have a bit of practible knowledge in period practice.
I have Alex Blachly's papers on JI, and I practice it all the time. (The nuts and bolts don't change from author to author.) That's why my three choirs all sing in tune, even in F major. I even convinced a former conductor of the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra to use it for that huge shift from D minor to B-flat major in the first movement in Beethoven's 9th. He couldn't figure why the B-flat chord was always wonky. I told him he could bring it into tune by pitching the B-flats high and fix it. D and F are already in the D minor chord, so the B-flats were the culprits. That conductor was trained first as a pianist, like lots of them these days. Orchestras and choirs are affected by these musicians after their primary instrument has ruined their pitch perception. The piano has a far reach.
Regarding the "passaggio camp," of course there is merit. E and F at the top of the staff lie in a tricky part of most soprano and tenor voices- the high-middle. Those notes don't look high to them on the staff, so they are not given as much energy as they need, deceptive rascals. Tenors sing in that register all the time, and can therefore bring a choir's pitch down faster than anything. Making sure that the ascending half step into Do and ascending 4ths and 5th into that note and La are high keeps the choir in tune in whatever key, IMHO.

on February 8, 2012 8:27am
Since I started this thread I will jump back in. While, I appreciate the "get away from equal termperamanrt" thoughts, I believe that no one posting here so far is primitive enough to be trying to sing in piano equal temperament. I roll the piano in the corner for almost every rehearsal for a.c. music AND with piano music (until close to a performance with a pianist). Yes, I think it would be great to get some European folks to talk on this. Or also, Richard Sparks, are you reading this? I know you have lots of skills here on this kind of thing!

on February 8, 2012 8:34pm
OK, I've gone on record as not believing in this "F Problem" and not hearing it. Now I'll argue the opposite!
Having directed a very fine college show ensemble for a good many years--4 or 5 at different schools, actually--and in the process worked with a great many different voices on a wide variety of show, pop, and other types of songs, I have a fairly solid opinion. And in fact for several years I taught an "Alternates Class" for students who hadn't made my cast, but who had the potential to do so, and part of that class was to have them sing their "audition songs" for critiques by me and the class. And of course they usually sang their songs in the "written key."
What I heard time after time was that shifting the key as little as a halfstep could make a HUGE difference in how a song lies in a particular voice. It has nothing to do with range per se, and not always an obvious connection with passagio points. Some songs just fit some voices better in a different key than the one they're written in. Every human voice is individual and different, and we stuff them into little classification boxes strictly for our own convenience!
Now that still doesn't mean that I hear or experience the same thing with a chamber or larger choir. In that case you're dealing with a large number of individual voices singing parts written in very different ranges, and it's highly unlikely that they would ALL have exactly the same comfort zones--unlikely enough that it would almost take a religious experience for me to believe it! But there may be SOMETHING as simple as the normal placement of voices in the normal kind of traditional voicing in the conventional voice categories that we use in the particular pitch standard we use that actually has the same effect that I've seen in individual voices.
Or there may not be!
I was rehearsing a John Blow catch with my men this afternoon, and when we took it down a wholestep from the notated key it suddenly came to life! (But I wouldn't want to bet that the key Blow and his drinking buddies sang it at was the notated key at A=440!!!)
All the best,

on February 8, 2012 9:20pm
interesting, John. There's no question that songs feel different when we move them around. I had an odd esperience withmy studentrs today, singing Bach's Ich Lasse Dich Nicht, F minor. Since we are planning to use harpischord at 415, after we sang it in F minor, I then asked them to sing it in E minor. And they absolutely could NOT do it. They coudln't get through the firstpage. Everything sounded completely wrong and they got completely confused. It was bizarre. This isn't exactly germane to the whole question of F major but it sure does bring up questions about pitch. Had they more or less memorized it in F and couldn't adjust? Yet I move pieces around all the time with them. Truly bizarre.

on February 9, 2012 10:05am
David: That is indeed very difficult to explain. But some people clearly do have some kind of ... welll, call it what you like--certainly not perfect pitch in the conventional sense, but some kind of pitch memory (aural) or muscle memory (physical) that kicks in at times.
If you're familiar with the Harnoncourt series of the works of Bach, probaby started back in the '70s and using the choir of King's College on some albums and the Vienna Choirboys on others, there was a perfect example of this. The first album out, I believe, was the St. John Passion, with King's College. And on the opening chorus--and ONLY on the opening "Herr, unser Herscher" chorus, the boys were singing sharp. I thought at the time and still think it likely that they had rehearsed at 440, and then at the recording sessions were expected to sing at 415, and they had trouble adjusting. Clearly that would never have been a problem for Bach or Handel or their choruses, because they had no choice but to be used to dealing with different pitch standards.
And I assume that anyone who regularly does tranpose choral music in search of the "perfect" key is neither blessed nor cursed by any singers with perfect pitch that is locked into the A=440 spectrum. That kind of flexibility--which has never bothered me at all since I don't have that sense--can drive them absolutely CRAZY!!! Arthur Squires, one of the original tenors in New York Pro Musica, has that kind of pitch, and could only get around it by learning to read all 9 movable clefs and using them to consciously transpose his music into other keys. (Arthur was also one of the first people we met when we moved here, and is retired as a University Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering. He was tapped right out of grad school to take part in the Manhattan Project during WW II, and only later performed with Pro Musica.)
All the best,

on February 9, 2012 9:34am
I will resonate with John's comments about the difference that a key can make for a particular solo voice. As a mezzo, I have most of my classical songs in two keys, high and low, and sometimes the high key was best, sometimes the low key was best, and I ended up transposing (before Finale) one of Mahler's songs into a key between the high and low key that I possessed (also the key that Janet Baker used) and that was the most fitting for my voice. It didn't have to do with range of my voice as much as just where any individual piece sat. I could effectively sing the pieces in both high and low keys, but there was usually (not always) one key that seemed to be a better fit.
I can imagine that there are choirs who do sort of have a gravitational pull to particular keys for particular pieces. When I started wth my choir, I would give them starting pitches in another key at times, based on what I had heard about the key of F in particular, but I haven't felt the need for this for at least a decade.
Nan Beth Walton

on February 11, 2012 9:19am
"Primitive enough," in that context seems a bit perjorative, don't you think? It certainly don't come across as collegial. But, on to the subject.
It seems as if your steed has a bum leg. Do any of your singers play the piano, listen to piano music? If so, they are most likely not to be tuned to Werckmeister III, or any other non-equal temperament scale. (My own piano is tuned to Werckmeister III, buy the way. That, too has it's drawbacks, but it's for my own entertainment.) They are playing their parts to themselves at home, listening to equal temperament (if their piano is "in tune" and you are lucky enough to have dedicated people who actually practice their parts).
I do not play parts to my singers on the piano, they are sung to the section needing instruction. (The organist at the church is finally getting accustomed to this.) The piano is used as an accompanying instrument only for my choirs, which means they hear very rarely it in Medieval, Renaissance or Baroque music, spirituals or anything unaccompamied in my rehearsals. Only when I cannot sing their part back to them perfectly the first time do they hear the piano in my rehearsal of that music. (Even then, I prefer to have another shot at it, rather than have it played to them.) But, lots of them play and most of those that don't have pianos or electronic keyboards used to pick out their parts at home.
So, esteemed colleague, you are as affected by equal temperament as much as the rest of us.
I seem to have missed something; What does being European have to do with tuning?

on February 8, 2012 12:07pm
I once aksed Joseph Shabalala of the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo why he wrote many of his songs in the key of F. He replied, "What is the key of F?" This was not ignorance on his part as his culture uses ancient oral traditions. For him, the key of F simply resonated.
On a separate note, I lead sings in a Quaker Meeting House in Boston. Due to the dimensions of the room, anything sung in the key of F resonates beautifully. Other keys (not all) simply create a dull effect.
Nick Page

on February 11, 2012 9:42am
LOLROTFL! No, seriously. The men's choir I direct is currently singing Shabalala's "Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain," which is published in G-flat major. Because it is a long way between A and B-flat on the top, I pitch it in F for rehearsal. Don't get me wrong, my tenors have lovely high B-flats, but there are 38 (!) of them in the score. Singing high A 38 times in 85 bars is taxing enough, especially when rehearsing. When I go back and give them the F from the piano to start again, it is rare that the pitch has slid down. I attribute that to high 4ths and 5ths and ascending half-steps (within the key). Your point on accoustic influence is interesting. I have noticed that in the Fuentiduena Chapel at the Cloisters Museum in NYC, I have noticed that certain keys have a life of their own. In St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia University, several keys have a flatted return in the room. Maybe my Ithaca choirs are blessed with good accoustics.

on February 8, 2012 1:38pm
I have no basis other than personal experience, but I have found F and C (an sometimes G) major to be tough to tune and always do those selections up a half step (lowering a half doesn't work as well) when possible. It does not seem such a problem in minor keys to my ear. Strange, but true, in my belief.
I remember either Paul Salamunovich or Roger Wagner saying during a workshop back in the late 60's/early 70's that they always piched F and C up a half. Perhaps I was young and more easily influenced then but it became a part of my modus operandi.
Michael Wade

on February 9, 2012 5:54am
This thread has brought to light many fine topics. I had never heard of the F bugaboo, but immediately upon hearing of it I "knew" the answer. First let me say that I am a piano tuner (40 yrs), have extensive training in functional voice production, was a flute performance major in college, and am a certified Kodaly music educator. My life has been the study of frequencies from various vantage points.
Those of you who refer to the passagio are correct in my opinion. I do not see that historical pitch standards, or lack thereof, are relevant. I believe we need to consider the question only in terms of what we today consider the key of F to be. I believe that the choice of tuning temperament, although fascinating, does not shed light.
All voices, SATB, have a physiological "break" between E and F. There is a secondary physiological "break" between B and C. The singers bugaboo is to create the environment where the head function and the chest function can operate in harmony on all pitches, and at all dynamic levels. Achieving this perfect setup is most difficult at the break area, making the key of F more difficult because both the tonic and the dominant are at break areas. When a singer struggles with functional imbalances, there is a change in timbre, caused by imbalances in overtone frequencies. The timbre is a result of overtone frequencies - and so is the pitch. A tone lacking in a rich overlay of overtones will sound flat, and one overburdened with high frequencies will sound sharp. In F, both timbre and pitch are difficult to master on the tonic, and then again at the dominant.
It was actually Albert Tipton, great flute teacher in Texas, who first showed me that pitch=timbre. This is also amply demonstrated in my work tuning pianos, and then again in my singing. My Kodaly education has taught me not to use the piano in teaching music because it interferes with our natural harmonic instincts.
The room acoustics do play a part here. Both the dimensional relationships of the walls and ceiling, as well as construction materials, change the overtone structure of the sound, affecting both timbre and pitch. When I designed my music room, I measured the speaking length of the longest string of my piano, and then had the room built to support the mathematics. Sounds great in here!
Thanks for a intriguing discussion!
Denise Rachel

on February 11, 2012 4:54am
Excellent response, Denise. I find it extremely helpful and enlightening. I have a question, though. If the E-f and B-C breaks affect singing in f major beucase they are so tied to I and V, why don't the effect E major the same way? Is it becuase the break is between those pairs of notes, bringing I and V up E major up (sharp) and I and V of F major down?

on February 11, 2012 10:04am
Where can one see the physiological break between E and F? There has to be video. I have got to see this phenomenon in all voice ranges. It will certainly be enlightening.
I must agree that "pitch=timbre" is certainly applicable to the flute. Just listen to the modern flute. It is nearly always played sharp (to my ear). I find that modern American trumpet playing operates much on the same premise. In separate gigs, I recently worked with a couple of well-known American trumpet players of different generations. The younger one had a brighter tone and his playing hurt my ears it was so sharp. Both played with organ, but the old school player had a less "in-your-face" timbre, and played perfectly in tune with the organ. The younger played a beautifully tuned scale, but constantly higher than the organ. The same occurred in the playing of a local flute teacher, but with piano.
Having just acquired a rebuilt 1899 Mason & Hamlin for the church where I work, I am interested in this pitch=timbre thing. There are some minor voicing issues with it, which our technician, Ken Walkup says will be an easy fix. He is Cornell University's technician also, taking care of the Bechtstein, Bösendorfer, Erard and all of the old pianos acquired by Malcolm Bilson (even his personal collection, I understand), as well as the Steinways. This piano was bought because of its lovely, sustained, singing tone and I don't want it to change. I'll be sure to talk with Ken about it before he comes to do the work next week. I'm so glad I read your post!

on February 9, 2012 9:23am
I have to say that my church choir hasn't had a difficulty singing in the key of F, per se. There have been some pieces where my sopranos have to pull out their best technique to sing well in tune on certain pitches (often E flat or C in the octave above middle C), but they have been able to achieve that, with technique reminders and suggestions. Vowels seem to have a pretty big role in the quality of what is produced on any troublesome pitch, so I address that, as well. I will say that I do spend time at the beginning of every single rehearsal working on singing well in tune for our vocalises and we do sing quite a bit of a cappella music, for the reason that someone mentioned above about the keyboard and equal temperment as not really encouraging in tune singing. We work with one or several instruments fairly often, as well, such as strings or woodwinds, and that has also helped the choir be more observant to how the pitch can vary from key to key, tonality to tonality, as the instrumntalists and I dialogue about particular pitches. I will say that these folks are in the main a rather intellectual group, love challenges, and are willing to work hard. I have one person who would rather not work so hard, but she is also so pleased when the singing is really well done and has come around to joining in the effort (a soprano), and I make certain to praise the efforts of her section when they are successful (everyone working toward good pitch has often produced a really amazing product at the end). From what I read, I imagine not everyone is as blesed as I have been, and I am very, very grateful.
Anyway, I wonder if it is really the key, or the vocal skills and range of our choirs coupled with the demands of a particular piece that make it hard to sing well in any particular key. I wil say that sometimes when I am browsing on youtube, I wil find many instances of a piece that has been transposed, usually for a particular set of voices, and I have enjoyed the transpositions as well as those performances in the original key. It does certainly change the flavor of the piece, when the key is changed, but I can honestly say that I still enjoy the pieces in the transpositions.
Nan Beth Walton

on February 9, 2012 9:53pm
Nan, you raise two more valuable points. The vowel, also a product of properly aligned overtones, has everything to do with the pitch. In functional singing, we strive to produce healthy overtones on every vowel at every pitch, and with every dynamic level. It is more difficult to do this at the "break" points. And your second point - I, too, find that some transpositions totally alter the feel of the piece, sometimes turning it upside down. Unless one's tecnique is flawless, singing a piece even as little as a half step higher or lower can put the "break" point at an inconvenient spot in the melody. This is why I think not every piece in F is a bugaboo piece. Sometimes the melody and the text cooperate in the singer's favor. There is abslutely nothing like singing . . . .
To address an issue raised by Thom Baker. Yes, instrumentalists do have technical difficulties in different keys. Because of the acoustic structure of instruments, not all frequencies are equally successful. Many flutes have a hard time with C# and E, so pieces that center around those tones can be problematical. It is exactly the same as what happens in the human voice because of the structural design of our larynx. I used to know something along these lines about strings, too, but it escapes me now. There seem to be more trumpet concertos in D than in any other key - and I'll bet it has something to do with the mathematics of the tube.
Again, thanks for this marvelous thread.

on February 11, 2012 10:26am
It might not just be the accoustic structure that makes an instrument difficult to play in a given key. (Boy, am I argumentative this morning!) Take the violin. Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mozart, Paganini, Prokofiev and surely more, wrote violin concerti in D major. Ask a violinist to name the most difficult scale to play and they will invariably tell you, "D major." For the violin, as well as most woodwinds, certain keys are preferred because the fingers slide more easily into position than others. Oboists all have a love/hate relationship with the opening solo in Swan Lake (those that can play it, that is). There are often alternate fingerings for notes, which nearly always have to be lipped up or down (at least on the bassoon), in keys in which the normal fingering is impracticable.
With singers, there is the structure of the pharynx to take into account, too. That influences singing nearly as much as the resonator itself. My own voice went from a small, unremarkable, but pretty-enough voice to something capable of true dynamic flexibility and burnished tone when I learned to flex the pharynx open and keep it that way on every note and vowel. As long as I do that, I don't notice a break. My choirs are instructed in this technique. The lowering of the larynx makes the vocal cords relax spontaneously. I think it's because of the "Fight or Flight" thing (and yawning). When the larynx is naturally lowered, we do it unconsciously when exchanging lots of air quickly. Ergo, it happens for an evolutionary reason (if you believe in that kind of thing).
Maybe the open pharynx (which can be opened to many degrees) is to be credited for the in-tune singing of my choirs and not my harping to keep 4ths 5ths and ascending half-steps (within the key) high. If so, the phenomenon is accoustical. Thanks for the insight.

on February 11, 2012 12:11pm
Denise & Thom: As someone who has long had a special interest in musical instruments, including historic instruments and their development, please allow me to refine a few of your comments.
There ARE acoustical problems with certain instruments, although the history of musical instrument development is a history of constant refinement to overcome those problems. Case in point: there were perfectly good reasons why clarinets were built in different keys in the late 18th century (and still are to some extend, and it does NOT relate simply to earier fingering although in the late 18th century it did). The notes of the natural scale of the simple-system instrument had a good, clear sound, but the cross-fingered accidentals had a comparatively dull sound, common to ALL 18th century woodwinds but especially noticeable with clarinets. (And yes, I have a simple-system clarinet of that type and have played it enough to confirm this personally.) Clarinet making has worked for over 200 years to overcome that, but the throat-register notes will still never sound as good as the notes using a longer resonating tube.
But most of the problems with woodwinds are mechanical, not acoustical. There are no difficult fingerings on woodwind instruments. But there are sometimes VERY difficult fingering combinations! The 2nd page of the 1st recorder part to Brandenburg IV is a perfect example of that, and is very difficult to play if the cello pushes the tempo!!
As to why so many trumpet concertos were in D, it's very easily explained. Composers wrote in whatever key the natural trumpets available to them were in, and in many places the trumpets were in fact in D (relative to whatever the local pitch standard was). Purcell's trumpets were an exception, which is why he wrote for trumpets in C (relative to the local pitch standard), but Handel's were obviously in D. The Haydn and Hummel conertos from the late 18th century were written for neither the natural trumpet (no valves) or the valve trumpet (which hadn't been invented yet), but for the KEYED trumpet (picture a saxophone played with a trumpet mouthpiece!). And I believe they are both in Eb (relative to the local pitch standard). And yes, I've played one of those, too. And obviously both those concertos were written for an existing instrument available in Vienna at the time. (Bach's unique F trumpet in Brandenburg II is still a puzzling exception, since no instrument in that key has survived to indicate that there ever WERE any! But his usual instruments in Leipzig were obviously in D relative to the local pitch standard, which is why he lowered the key of his Magnificat from Eb to D when he rewrote it and added trumpets.)
And Thom, I don't know where you got the idea that, "Ask a violinist to name the most difficult scale to play and they will invariably tell you, 'D major.'" I know no violinist who would say that. In fact (although this is really irrelevant) Suzuki teaching locks students into the keys of D major and A major for YEARS! If I had to pick the worst scale key, I'd automatically say Ab Major! D Major is neither more nor less difficult than any other scale on the violin. (And yes, I played violin for years before switching to viola.) The choice of keys for violin relates to whether or not the composer wanted to utilize the sympathetic vibration of the open strings for added brightness (most available in sharp keys) or to suppress it for less brightness (mostly in flat keys). Some keys are easier to finger in than others, admittedly, the most clearcut case being the choice between Gb major (which forces the hand down into half position) and F# major (which allows it to stay in a more comfortable raised 1st position).
I'm also very surprised that you advocate just tuning (which I certainy agree with) but also raised leading tones (which are emphatically NOT just major 3rds!). But perhaps I misunderstand.
All the best,

on February 10, 2012 2:19pm
Hi Paul, I hope all is well with you.
I was really interested in this issue becuase we just started "Mon Coeur" in F, acappella, SSA and my 2nd sops were always flat coming in on a the Bb. After reading this discussion I shifted us up to F# without telling the group and the intonation issue went away completely! My 1sts will have to adjust to an F# as opposed to the F but they should be just fine. I love Choralnet!

on February 11, 2012 7:05am
Not everyone on this planet hears the differences in the "colors" of different keys, but for those of us who do, there are dramatic differences. Not everyone has perfect or relative pitch either - that does not mean that these things are not realities for other individuals. Since I DO hear distinct differences in keys, my opinion of why this works may be biased in that direction, while others who don't feel that difference would not be able to relate to that, but if there is a physiological or scientific reason for it I will not discount that. And, for what it's worth, I feel this in both instrumental and vocal music.
My experiences with numerous choirs has been that most music (accompanied or not) stays in tune in F#(or Gb) rather than F, which, to me, is a flat and dull key. I would agree that the same is true with C# rather than C, and also A or B rather than Bb. I have consistently had the same experience that others have had - moving the piece to F# caused the intonation problem to disappear. Whatever the reason may be, I have found it to be true.
Thank you , Paul, for beginning this conversation!

on February 11, 2012 8:38am
I feel that exactly!

on February 11, 2012 9:26am
Short Response/Opinion: I agree with those who talk about the break/passaggio. I have found that F major is a hard key to sing in tune with. It usually forces the altos to be singing right at their "lower break". Most basses really like the Flat keys to sing in (D Flat and G Flat, especially). It seems to fit well in their voices.
Longer, more complicated Response: John Finley Williamson believed in the concept of "lifts"- a certain note where the voice "lifted" or where the tone color changed or went more toward the head; he believed you could classify voices by what note a singer lifted on. This is different than the traditional "break" that we get from chest voice to head voice. Williamson studied with Witherspoon (or Shakespeakre (i.e. The voice teacher in the early 1900's)) and got it from one of them; I don't know who. Richard Miller, in his book The Structure of Singing, identifies the passaggio for various voice types and the typical note that that voice type would have to "lift" at. Miller identifies a lower passaggio around/above middle c to f or so above for women and an upper one an octave higher with "lifts" a few notes below it at various points depending on the voice type. The e/f/f# area above Middle C is right "in the crack" for most altos and aside from "belting" requires some adjiustment (if it hasn't been allowed to adjust a little sooner). Sopranos can have the same issue on the exact same pitches AND have an adjustment in the upper octave. They usually have another shift around upper e/f/f#; it varies some depending on the voice. Tenors have a passagio somewhere between D flat and up to f# or g (again it depends on the kind of tenor (dramatic/lyric, etc.); Basses on g-to middle c. He specifically spells those out . It is an interesting concept. And the Miller book is a good sstarting place to be aware of "problem areas" in the voice to avoid.

on February 11, 2012 2:35pm
Actually string quartets do work a little harder in F, even if you don't notice the sweat. Great F (and it's octave) is usually the wolf tone on cellos where one is liable to get audible beating between the stopped string and the fundamental resonance of the instrument's belly. Work-arounds include squeezing with the knees, fingering a sympathetic octave above or below, or wedging a cork under the tailpiece; weights attached to retune the tail piece and instruments with an extra sympathetic string tuned to F have also been used.
To me it seems entirely plausible that choirs are dealing with a physical phenomenon. Why is would it be the same pitch for all different voice types? Our local Great-horned Owls always hoot on f' above middle C but will often respond to a transposed imitation, suggesting that they have an efficient mechanism instead of hard-wired absolute pitch. One can't help but notice their body is about the same size as a human skull.

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