Sunday, November 29, 2009

Singing out of tune isn’t always a bad thing

There was an article by Alex Petridis in The Guardian last week in which he claimed that:

“singing out of tune can convey emotions that being in tune can't”.

fingers in ears

La, la, la, I'm not listening! by Jennoit

It made me wonder, in these days of Auto-Tune, whether singing out of tune is always such a bad thing.

There’s more to singing than just being in tune. Getting the notes right is just one small part of singing. Singing is about expressing feelings. It is a means of communication.

imperfection is being human

The norm in much of recorded music these days is studio-based Auto-Tuned perfection. This was maybe a laudable aim in the beginning — tighten up a few off notes here and there to make the song sound better. But now it is so common and so artificial that we crave some ‘real’ singing!

Humans are imperfect creatures. It is what gives us our individuality. If we all sound the same – perfectly in tune all the time – then we may as well just use machines to do our singing for us.

When listening to a choir, it is the small imperfections, differences in vocal quality and tiny errors in tuning that give the overall texture and richness of sound that we all love.

being entertaining

In the current UK series of The X Factor, there were a couple of impish Irish twins called John and Edward (Jedward). They can’t sing in tune at all, and yet they were voted in week after week, much to the confusion of some of the judges. But after a few weeks, even Simon Cowell reluctantly admitted that he was beginning to ‘get’ them and could understand how entertaining they are.

Sometimes a song is just one small element of an entertaining act. It’s the context that decides whether we expect singers to focus on being in tune, or whether it’s part of a greater entertaining experience.

tuning is in the ear of the beholder

Sometimes I watch a singer on TV and I wince because I think they’re terribly out of tune. Yet other people in the room don’t see the problem. It can also happen the other way round: my friends think a singer is just off, whilst I just can’t hear it.

There are objective ways of measuring whether a singer is off pitch, but we listeners aren’t that accurate and often hear people in different ways. Remember your Mum not understanding how you could possibly listen to that whiny, out of tune young singer? And sometimes a particular singer in your choir always sounds off key, but it’s the quality and texture of their voice that’s throwing you and not their pitching.

revealing your soul

There’s a beautiful Georgian healing song that’s been doing the rounds of community choirs for some years. Every time I’ve heard it it’s been slow and beautiful, but somehow a little too polished: Batonebo.

Then one day I came across a recording of a bunch of old Georgian men sitting in their village. They slowly (and not very surely!) stunble into the song, each one slightly out of time with the others and hardly anyone in tune. But it is one of the most moving renditions of the song I have ever heard.

The song was just a vehicle for these men to reveal their souls. We often forget this when we just stick to the notes or when we give a ‘performance’.

who are we singing for?

Most singing (and definitely most choral singing) in Western culture is done for an audience. The songs are ‘performed’ rather than just being sung for the sake of pleasure and expression. As soon as we are in performer role we begin to worry about how we are being received. Are we getting it ‘right’? Will they like us? Are we as good as other singers?

It’s in situations like this when too much attention can be paid to being in tune rather than trying to express the soul and heart of the music. We’re in danger here of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

we want expression, not perfection!

Many choral directors lose sight of the human side of music-making and treat their singers as just a bunch of instruments. Their focus is on creating the best possible realisation of a particular piece of music regardless. They fret about the tiniest details and get really bothered about vocal blend and being in tune.

I don’t believe that we should be here to just service the music at any cost. It’s all too easy to lose sight of why we are making music. I’ve written more about this in the post We are not here to serve the music.

more people are out of tune than you think

Although we live in an age of doctored and synthesised vocals, some of the most famous and well-loved singers throughout history have not had the most beautiful voices. We love them for their personality, humanity, imperfections, honesty and soul, not for their note perfect renditions of songs. Singers such as Bob Dylan, Edith Piaf and Tom Waits spring to mind.

but if you still want to sing in tune ...

Of course, we all aim to be in tune and if we can naturally sing accurately it’s just another tool we have to express our feelings through song.

If you find it tricky and want some hints on how to sing in tune, you can check out my recent series of posts to Learn how to sing in tune (after first figuring out How do I know if I’m singing in tune?).

which do you prefer?

Do you have any examples of wonderfully expressive singers who technically sing out of tune? Or maybe you prefer a perfectly in tune choir? Do let me know.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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