Sunday, March 08, 2009

Singing the same note – differently!

The other week I was teaching songs by ear at a workshop as I normally do. There were a couple of women who seemed to be having a hard time catching on to their part. They were all over the place and seemed to be singing at random. Then it clicked: they weren’t able to find the right starting note from my voice. But when I sang the note to them at the pitch I wanted them to sing at (i.e. very high in my own range) they were spot on. I wish I’d picked this up earlier in the workshop!

But what does this mean: ‘singing at the pitch I wanted them to sing’? And why do some women get confused by my singing voice and others don’t? Do men have the same problem when women are teaching them by ear? And what on earth does ‘octave’ mean any way??!! This post is an attempt to answer some of these questions.

Pitching from the other side of the fence

You will have noticed that men generally have lower speaking voices than women. We become used to this from a very early age. This is usually the case with their singing voices too. This is such a familiar thing that we don’t really notice it.

We can understand each other’s speech with no problems. It doesn’t matter whether someone has a low or a high voice, the meaning carries across. But when the meaning is communicated by the pitch of the voice (e.g. when singing, or when speaking a pitch-based language such as Chinese), then all sorts of misunderstandings can occur.

If, as a man, I sing a note to a woman somewhere in the middle of my range, then she often automatically compensates for the fact that men’s voices are lower than women’s by responding with a note that is in the middle of her range. She will not be singing exactly the same note (i.e. at the same frequency), but she perceives that it is the ‘same’ in some sense. When I sing higher in my range, she also sings higher in her range. And when I sing lower, then she will sing lower too. We probably won’t ever be singing at the same pitch/ frequency.

Similarly, if a woman sings a note in the middle of her range to a man, then usually the man will respond with a note in the middle of his range. He will automatically make an adjustment for the differences between men’s and women’s voices. He won’t attempt so sing exactly the same note/ pitch/ frequency, but a note that he perceives to be the ‘same’.

So far so good. But some people don’t make these automatic adjustments. They try to match the exact pitch of the person singing to them. This means that men will try to sing very, very high (and usually fail) when trying to match to a woman’s voice, and women will try to sing ever so low (and usually fail) when trying to match with a man. This can be the source of a mistaken belief that someone can’t ‘sing’.

This is not too much of a problem when women sing very high notes in their range, or men sing very low notes, because we know that trying to match them is doomed to failure. But when we are dealing with middling notes, then confusion can arise. Do they want me to sing exactly the same note as they are singing, or do they want the equivalent note in the middle of my range?

This becomes even more complicated because some people think that just because they perceive two notes to be the same, then they actually are the same! If a man and a woman are singing a melody in unison together, then it can appear to the singers that they are singing exactly the same notes, whereas they will actually be singing an octave apart (more on the idea of the octave later).

In fact, when a man and a woman sing exactly the same note at the same pitch, it can feel very, very strange and unfamiliar!

Singing with the opposite sex

When I first sang in a small group with women, I found it very hard to stand next to a woman and sing. If I had to match her pitch, it felt at first like I was singing really, really high, but she was singing low! It took me a while to learn to feel comfortable and to perceive that we were actually singing the same note.

You may have come across this if you sing in the tenor section of a community which is often mixed men and women. I often find myself as a choir leader having to give out two starting notes: one low in my range for the women (who then sing low in their range), and one at the absolute pitch, high in my range, for the men. Then the men and women end up singing exactly the same note, but often perceive it to be different!

You might also find something strange when singing harmony with a member of the opposite sex. For example, a female alto and a male tenor might sing together. In absolute terms his harmony will be below her melody, but he may well perceive it to be higher than hers. This is because he will be singing high in his range, whereas she will be singing low in hers. And vice versa for the woman. It takes a while to get used to!

The same note sounding different!

To make matters even more complicated, two people of the same gender, singing exactly the same note (i.e. identical frequency) can appear to be singing different notes! This is something to take into account when considering the blend of voices in a choir.

For example, in a female harmony trio, the woman singing the middle part can sometimes appear to be lower than the person singing the lowest part because of the quality, texture and placement of her voice. This is connected with the concept of tessitura that I mentioned in last week’s post (what part do I sing?). Although two women may be singing the same note, for one it might be slap bang in the middle of her comfortable range, whereas for another it may be at the very lowest limits of her range and be rather uncomfortable to sing. This can make the two singers sound very different, even if they are singing the same note.

What is an octave?

Some community choir leaders whose choirs don’t use written scores and who don’t assume any musical knowledge on the part of their singers, often feel the need for some shorthand to creep into their rehearsals. If everyone understands “the harmony is just a third above” or “we need to have more of a crescendo at that point”, then it can save a lot of explanation. Jargon is simply a shorthand agreed between a particular group of people, and can be very useful. However, we can’t assume that everyone knows the same shorthand terms!

Many choir leaders use the term ‘octave’ as a shorthand. Personally I find this one of the most difficult concepts to explain to non-musical folk, even though it makes things much, much easier when talking to the tenors for example! If someone is pitching in the wrong place, it’s great to be able to say “No, you need to sing an octave up” or “The women will be singing in the lower octave for this part”.

All sound, including the singing voice, is made up of sound waves. We refer to a note as being ‘high’ or ‘low’ (although when considering a piano, for example, this could equally be called ‘left’ or ‘right’) depending on how often (or frequently) the sound waves hit your ears. Technically, the higher the frequency of a note (the faster rate at which the sound waves hit your ear), the higher it sounds. Similarly, the lower the frequency, the lower the note sounds.

Frequency can be measured in terms of number of vibrations or oscillations or waves arriving per second. In music, however, we tend to refer to pitch instead of frequency, although it is actually the same thing.

Any note that is double the frequency of another is said to be one octave higher. In music, such notes seem to have such a special relationship to each other that they are given the same name. For example, a note that is an octave higher or lower than a note called ‘C ‘ is also called ‘C’. Similarly, a note that is one or more octaves higher or lower than a note called ‘B flat’ will also be called ‘B flat’.

The reason that notes an octave apart have such a special place in music is that they appear to sound like each other (which is why they are given the same name). However, this is a factor of the musical tradition that one comes from. In Corsica, for example, because of its traditional harmony singing tradition, the interval of a fifth (that is, five notes apart in whatever scale you are singing in), as well as the octave are said to be the ‘same’ note because they appear to sound the same.

I’m sure many of you will have had the experience of singing in perfect harmony with a melody only to have a momentary doubt that you are, in fact, singing the melody by mistake because they fit so well together. For a brief moment, it appears that you are singing exactly the same notes!

The octave is therefore a very difficult concept to explain to those with no musical background. I have heard myself say things in the heat of the moment like: “It’s the same note, only higher”. Which is, of course, nonsense when you think about it!

The perfect match

So next time you are teaching or being taught by a member of the opposite sex and are finding things problematic, take a moment and think about where you might pitch your voice to get the ‘right’ note. Don’t make assumptions. My own choir are now used to being led by a man and pretty much all of the women make automatic adjustments (though there can be the occasional difficulty with the tenor part!). So when Michael Harper, a counter tenor, came to run a workshop and sang every part at the correct pitch, it momentarily freaked the tops out who were trying to sing somewhere in the stratosphere before they realised what was happening!



Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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