Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

Last night (early hours of Monday morning) there was a 30-minute BBC radio programme about tuning and intonation in music, and how it varies between cultures. There was an example of quarter-tones in Egyptian music, and examples of even more exotic (in the sense of non-Western, non-classical) intonation from a Japanese flute.

This was the first part of a two-part series, the second part of which is being broadcast at the same time (12.15am early next Monday morning on BBC radio 4).
You can re-hear the first part on

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/rams/outoftune.ram

Btw, this will probably only be available on-line for the remainder of this week.

Trevor

Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

Does it give "Unaccompanied singers in sessions" as another example? πŸ™‚)

Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

A good friend of mine, cellist by trade - with perfect pitch to boot, is convinced that Irish singers, in particular in the Sean Nos tradition, use an intonation system that is "off" - but a self-contained and consistent off-ness.

I haven’t done much research on this, but is it accepted that Sean Nos or ITM in general built on an atypical, non-"western classical" tuning system? Or, as John seems to imply, are singers just always out of tune.

-Curious Q

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whoops, my question marks have been acting up today. here’s the varmint now: ?

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Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

You’ll have to listen to the programme to get all the details, but basically intonation throughout the world’s cultures is a matter of horses for courses.
The problem with western "classical music" is that it has been forced into the mould of 12 semitones to the octave, and this has been reinforced by the standard keyboard (harpsichord, piano, organ etc) over the centuries, and so the "educated" classical ear finds it difficult to comprehend notes that aren’t part of the 12 semitones and to hear them as other than "out of tune".
A good example must surely be those quarter tones that are found in some types of Irish music - those notes between F and F#, and between C and C# - which sound "out of tune". This may have caused problems for transcribers in the early days and could account for some anomalies in the transcriptions.
Trevor

Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

In a house concert a few years ago, Kevin Crehan said that a slightly "flat" high B was highly characteristic for traditional Irish fiddle music. I thought that was ingenious: instead of everyone complaining about too short pinkies and bad intonation, let’s make it a sign of quality! πŸ™‚

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Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

Interestingly, 5ths on the piano are slightly flat compared with the perfect 5th that fiddles tune their strings to, which is why I find it a pain to play a cello work with a piano until I get used to the piano’s idea of intonation again.

Regarding the "flat" high B, it will be more in tune with one of the harmonics of the open G and so should be more resonant. A true B will be sharper than that harmonic and may not be quite so clear. This is why some pro string quartets tune their G strings very slightly sharp so as to get the resonance with the high Bs and still have them as perfect 5ths with the A. Such tuning means that the cello and viola Cs are also tuned very slightly sharp, and this gives more resonance with the open E strings of the violins. All very abstruse recording studio stuff πŸ™‚

If you listen to Martin Hayes playing "Martin Rochford" on his "Live in Seattle" cd I get the impression - it may be my imagination of course - that some notes are played distinctly flat (the high F, for example). The effect to my ear is increased warmth in the tone.

Trevor

Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

It’s a great programme, thanks for posting that link Trevor

"untamed instruments are fine to have around, but rather like untamed animals you wouldn’t necessarily let them in your house"

*grin*

A pity they didn’t have a look at Indian tonal systems - the flute playing of Deepak Ram, for example, both enthralls and confuses me, and I would love to find out more about it. Maybe next episode πŸ™‚

Btw, concerning Irish singers: it might not be a good idea to tell them any of this…

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Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

Thanks for the link Trevor. Interesting program, though I was itching for something more technical. Maybe that’ll come next week, with the discussion of the piano.

This is a subject that has fascinated me ever since someone pointed out to me that on my all-time favourite fiddle track, Martin Byrnes playing The Blackbird accompanied by Reg Hall, the fiddle and piano were out of tune with each other…

A couple of years ago I tried to summarize, somewhat incoherently, a few thoughts on tuning in ITM when the subject came up in a discussion on another forum. The page is still there at

http://www.rogermillington.com/siamsa/brosteve/untempered.html

It’s pretty rudimentary, but might provide a couple of ideas for readers who’ve never thought about this subject to chew on. Also contains a link to a very useful page with an explanation of tuning systems, the "comma", and the tempered scale.

Cheers
Steve

Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

I heard that programme too. They didn’t touch on the Sean Nos Irish tradition but they interviewed Natasha Atlas who sings Arabic music, (Arabic Sean Nos!) at least it’s Middle Eastern. she was talking about how she sings B natural, B sharp and Bflat notes all in the same song and someone she met couldn’t believe it - they seemd to think it was awful and not on. But it’s all very accepted in the style of music she sings (and blimey o’reilly what a voice she’s got!). I’d like very much to get more into this subject but I think it’s going to go over my head a bit. I read Brother Steve’s article which makes a lot of sense…and it is known that a lot of the old style Irish trad musicians, fiddlers play off key a bit so if you follow the technical reasoning about the fiddle that would make sense. I’m not sure if I agree about the whistle’s being out of tune deliberately. I also think they sound awful if they’re not in tune with other instruments - wherever possible we loosen the fipple (or is it the chiff?) and can tune up with the other instruments. I can’t cope with it when the upper and lower registers are out of tune with each other too. I might adopt a different position on this now I’ve read all the above stuff…………..

Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

I’ve been told by someone who conducts them, that even pro wind players in the big symphony orchestras have to work hard to play in tune with each other and the rest of the orchestra.
Trevor

Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

A couple more snippets to do with tuning.
A piano tuner will often tune the top octave of a piano a tad sharp to give it more brilliance and penetration. At those high frequencies the human ear is less sensitive to changes of pitch, which is why a violinist may not necessarily be too concerned about going slightly off a note at the far end of the fingerboard.
A choirmaster would rather his choir sang a little sharp rather than flat if they’re going to wander off key. At any rate, it shows they’re breathing properly.
Trevor

Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

Steve, I like your 2001 article, and I think it’s important and interesting enough that it shouldn’t be allowed to disappear into the void. Perhaps you could port it into this website as part of this or another thread?
Trevor

Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

The BBC programme - well spotted, Trevor. Good to see a growing heightening of awareness of microtonality! There. See. I said it! Pulling and pushing the pitch has always been around in every kind of music all over the world. I honestly think musicians are starting to notice it more now….

Having said that, in some sessions there seems to be a fine dividing line between pitch variance and ‘way out of tune’!

Jim

Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

Nowt to do with Irish music, Trevor, but keyboards didn’t reinforce the 12-semitones-to-the-octave business until quite recently. Harpsichords were (and are) re-tuned from one temperament to another for different pieces frequently, as the combination of key and temperament is part of the composition’s character in early music. You can easily buy tuners these days that have Werkmeister I-III, Valetti, meantone and a bunch of other temperaments built-in. Early organs were never tuned in equal temperament. I’ve read in a musicological journal somewhere the suggestion that even as late as Chopin, equal temperament was only one option for pianos and not necessarily the preferred one. As Jim says, it’s nice that we’re starting to realise equal temperament wasn’t handed to us on a stone tablet from on high as some governing principle of the universe. Good link, Trevor - thanks!

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Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme) - second part

Don’t forget that the second part of this BBC programme is due to be broadcast early next Monday morning at 12.15am GMT (although it’s actually in the Sunday listing) on BBC Radio 4. This should be obtainable over the internet if you’re outside the UK, and a few hours after the broadcast you should be able to listen to it on a BBC website page which will probably be very similar to that listed previously.
Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be possible to download the soundfile onto the computer, so what I do is to record it from the audio out port of the computer onto a tape recorder (and now more recently a minidisc recorder).
Trevor

Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

"Steve, I like your 2001 article, and I think it’s important and interesting enough that it shouldn’t be allowed to disappear into the void. Perhaps you could port it into this website as part of this or another thread?"

Trevor I’m not sure quite how that could be done. It’s long, and as I said a bit of a ramble, and in fact I’ve learned a bit more since I wrote it. But if you think we should start a separate discussion on the use of untempered intervals in ITM, particularly fiddle music… why not start the ball rolling, or let me know and I’ll attempt it.

Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

Steve, I think untempered intervals in the ITM context is well worth a separate discussion. Perhaps the thing to do would be for you to rewrite your article in the light of what you have learned since the original version, and then it could be used as the starter.
Trevor

Re: Out of tune (BBC Radio Programme)

I heard the second part of this BBC series last Sunday night.
A lot of it was about how modern composers are experimenting with microtonality, and eastern microtonal music which is influencing them.
There was a vivid (sic!) illustration of what happens in just temperament if you wander outside of a very restricted range of keys (a range very similar to what we play in ITM, byw). The presenter played on his synthesiser a C major chord in just temperament, which incidentally sounded far better than it would have on a piano in equal temperament. Then, on the same keyboard he played a chord of F# major - and it was foully and unpleasantly out of tune. It was this sort of thing that induced J S Bach to move away from just temperament and to compose his collection of 48 preludes and fugues in all possible keys to show that it was possible.
Trevor