We’re a Little Temperamental

Tuning, or temperament, means more than just matching pitch!

Have you ever wondered why sometimes, even when you’re singing the right notes, sometimes things can still sound a bit wonky? The answer is probably in the temperament!

Every choir director knows the experience, especially when attacking a piece as spare and dependent on interlocking harmonies as Fauré’s glorious Requiem and very chromatic Cantique de Jean Racine.


Everyone is singing the right notes, but the chords just won’t lock in and shimmer. Things sound both accurate and dull or blunted. Not quite flat or sharp, but off, especially when singing early music, 21st century cluster chords, or against a fixed pitch instrument such as a piano or organ.

Pitch is related to size: larger instruments, or longer piano strings, make lower notes. However, when that piano string vibrates, it doesn’t just vibrate as a whole. It also vibrates in halves, thirds, fourths, and so on right up to infinity. Our brains are designed to automatically integrate all these spin-off notes into a single pitch — the fundamental.

In fact, the way we hear these harmonics isn’t really as pitch, but as color: it’s what gives us the ability to easily tell the difference between a flute and a violin playing the same note. While all instruments playing a certain pitch will create the same harmonics, the relative strength of each of those individual harmonics varies, resulting in an overtone series of pitches where different harmonics are accented or de-accented.

When you stack those “harmonics” up from lowest to highest, you generally end up with 12 semi-tones that span an octave. The thing is, those 12 semi-tones that make up the steps between an octave aren’t equally spaced. They’re almost equally spaced but not quite.

When we’re singing, or playing a wind instrument, or a string instrument, we can compensate for these tiny differences — sometimes literally just four percent between one semitone and another. But fixed pitch instruments cannot make those adjustments — so we compromise, and even out the 12 steps, to space them evenly. This is called Even Temperament, while the natural order of things is called Just Temperament. With Even Temperament, the reality is that some keys and chords lock in better than others.


But what if you could adjust the temperament chord by chord?

This is a step beyond what composers like Copland explored in terms of ambiguous tonalities that allowed them to use key as well as harmony as a dimension of composition. Playing with intonation adds another and the resulting colors sparkle and waver in ways that are both haunting and beautiful.

Below is a fascinating video about the remarkable young composer Jacob Collier who has used technology and his vocal gifts to master using all of these dimension at once — the ideal example of which is his setting of “In the Bleak Midwinter” which also follows, along with one of his newest releases, a remarkable arrangement of “Moon River.”

During every Great Bend Chorale term, when we move from the “learning notes” phase into the “polishing” phases, these details of intonation and color, and how we employ them to wring emotion and meaning out of the work, are what make a performance really sing.

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