What’s in a choir’s tone – harmonics, emotions and everything in between.

I used to sing under a conductor who, during warm-ups, would like to say things like, “Get more overtones in your sound.”  I still don’t know what that means, or how I was supposed to make that happen, but I think this director – who, by the way, was an amazing musician – was trying to highlight the importance of music’s natural property.

Or, maybe he was trying to talk politely about our tone.  Remember that Zappa quote?

A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians. 

The shoving around of air molecules will beget relational movement (sympathetic vibrations) in the surrounding air molecules at predictable, mathematical ratios.  The following is a graphic representation of this phenomenon – the overtone series –  identifying each overtone by its pitch class and its relationship to the fundamental. (Every pitch that “sounds the same” is in the same pitch class. This goes for pitches that are an octave, or multiple octaves apart, as well as for enharmonics).

overtone series

Digging a little deeper, this legion of sympathetic vibrations will, among other things, act to give an instrument or voice its timbre. This is probably my choir director’s desired result, though the likelihood of this concept bearing fruit with the average choral amateur is hard to say.

A human creating a musical sound is an incredibly complex process.  It factors in conscious actions (as in posture and physical awareness), unconscious, involuntary, or partially involuntary actions (breathing, engaging the vocalis muscle), and subconscious baggage (how you feel about your voice, what mean things others have said about your voice, fight or flight responses, or the internalization of a multitude of unexplained directions such as Support! Blend! Don’t spread! Raise your soft palate! or, Get more overtones in your sound!).

So what can choral leaders control as they look out at an average amateur ensemble?  How, in a maximum of two hours of face time a week, can a director work on getting their choir to sing better, sing more in tune, and get them to read more accurately, all while crashing through a season’s worth of repertoire?  My experience has led me to rely on the overtone series as a guide to addressing pitch and tuning, through which one can subtly confront the technical, emotional and experiential needs of the average amateur choral ensemble.

In our last episode, I talked about trying to match pitch using one’s ears, combined with the physical sensation experienced when locking in to a pitch.

After the unison, the next step in the series is the octave. Mathematically, the frequency of the pitch one octave above the reference pitch – also called the fundamental – is exactly twice the frequency of the fundamental (for example, the ‘A’ above ‘A 440’ has a frequency of 880 Hz), the ratio of this relationship is 2:1.

Pick a drone that is at the bottom end of the comfortable range for your voice. Play it and the octave above it simultaneously. Just as before, hear the drone in your ears as you breathe – standing or sitting tall, relaxing the jaw, shoulders and neck – with your eyes closed (if that helps). Sing in unison with the higher pitch, using the I-found-my-keys “Ah.”

Octave 1

Then, to feel the space between the fundamental and the octave above, sing a long slide (known as a portamento) from this pitch to the pitch that is an octave above it and hold that for a moment. Stop singing, inhale again, and sing the upper octave, followed by a portamento down to the fundamental. Try not to allow the portamento change your ‘Ah’ vowel.

When you are comfortable navigating the space between the fundamental and the octave above, play only the fundamental as a drone. Once your breath and ears are set, sing the octave above the fundamental on that same, ‘ah’ vowel.  As before, continue until you can sustain the feeling of the octave in your ears and body.  You may feel a greater expansiveness with the octave than with the unison.

Octave 2

Sidebar: In all the examples throughout these discussions, I’ll use ‘C’ as a drone or fundamental. Don’t read too much into this – it’s only for convenience.

When satisfied with your results, change the pitch of the drone and begin again.


2 thoughts on “What’s in a choir’s tone – harmonics, emotions and everything in between.

  1. I’m not sure about your comment that enharmonics fall into the same pitch class. Technecally D flat is fractionally flatter than C sharp unless you are using a tempered instrument. That degree of flatness compared with a well tempered instrument doubles when you come down to D double flat. It is for this reason some Barbershop arrangers insist on correct chord spelling over ease of horizontal reading.

    David Wood

    • David – thanks for the comment. I tried to be as specific as I could with this statement, noting that on the piano, B#, C natural and Dbb are in the same pitch class as they all relate to the same sounded pitch. I completely agree that these three pitches are not nearly the same in a just intonation choral situation, and I take chord spellings very seriously when writing. Thanks again ~ fp

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