Do singers have temperament?

“Harpists spend 90 percent of their lives tuning their harps and 10 percent playing out of tune.”

-Igor Stravinsky

do singers have temperament?

I remember being particularly interested about learning two revolutionary concepts in high school and then again in first-year music history courses as an undergrad: Greek modes and tuning methods. Both were completely foreign to my musical knowledge prior to high school, despite having studied music intensively from a young age. But why? Why just talk about major and minor scales? Why minimize these monumental theories of musical history to a 1 hour lecture in a two credit class? Would they not have a practical impact on my musicianship later on in life? Wouldn’t most students find these numbers and patterns in music just as fascinating (if not more) than other elements of history? Many years and pondering later, those questions have led me to the following observation: I clearly take issue with certain keys. Not due to some elitist opinion nor technical ability, but the way that performers (myself included) interact with them. More on this later…

First, let’s look at the modes. 

A mode is an organization of tones based upon their intervallic relationships, similar to that of a raga in Indian classical music or a pathet in Javanese gamelan music. Throughout western musical history, we have recognized numerous categorizations of modes: Octoechos, Greek, Church, Modern diatonic, etc. 

One specifically fascinating aspect of the developing modal concept through the ages was that of emotional response or elicitation. I will use my good friend, Guido D’Arezzo (c.990-1050), as an example: he proposed the following modes (8-mode system) and emotions were associated:

I. Dorian ——————-serious

II. Hypodorian ———–sad

III. Phrygian ————–mystic

IV. Hypophygian ——–harmonious

V. Lydian ——————-happy

VI. Hypolydian ———–devout

VII. Mixolydian ———–angelical

VIII. Hypomixolydian —perfect

Cool, right? Proposing that a certain collection and organization of pitches would elicit an emotion from those who hear it? Pretty powerful stuff.

Today, modern western modes* include the following:

I. Ionian (major scale – C to C on the white keys)

II. Dorian (D to D on the white keys)

III. Phrygian (E to E on the white keys)

IV. Lydian (F to F on the white keys)

V. Mixolydian (G to G on the white keys)

VI. Aeolian (natural minor scale – A to A on the white keys)

VII. Locrian (B to B on the white keys)

*While the nomenclature remains Greek, it is important to note that the modern modes’ organization and function do not follow that of their similarly named ancient Greek modes.

So what’s my problem? No one seems to care about modal, emotional affect in 2015. Perhaps it occurs in music therapy courses and practices or compositional degrees in certain countries, but certainly not in the North American collegiate system for a performance major. 

Second, let’s mention tuning and numbers.

As you well know, Pythagoras was a theoretical badass. p_pytBeginning with his concepts of just
intonation or “harmony of the spheres”, a mathematical explanation of pitch relationships is born. Millenia later, we know exact frequencies of notes (check out this cool site that quickly charts it for you), we’ve identified all commas in the tuning systems, and thus have a bajillion ways to tune our instruments: just, equal, linear, Kirnberger, Werckmeister, Young, microtonal, you name it. Amazing advances in the world of music theory and performance. Cities, regions, states, countries, and even hemispheres have adopted different ways and opinions of what is appropriate, and it keeps it interesting. (I love listening to Beethoven 7 at A=438 and the Orgelbüchlein organs tuned to A=430 on Kirnberger III.)

So finally, what’s all of this have to do with singers?


Having worked with choirs of all levels for over half of my life, I am not sure that *most* singers can conceptualize modes and keys beyond basic intervallic relationships and use of solfege. And why should they? Singers have completely transposable instruments…

…or do they?

What if physiologically we are built to sing better at certain frequencies or pitch organizations? Are we naturally tempered? I have yet to find a choir that can sing a piece in C major or a Phrygian chant in tune. Not once. Ever. G-flat major – you bet! But C major? Not a chance. You know how sometimes we choir directors modulate up or down a half or whole step and the tuning is better…? Perhaps this phenomena may have more to do with us physically rather than our abilities to understand music theory.

Is it our classification of what A4 is supposed to be? Is it because we aren’t taught modes early enough in our music education? Is mi to fa is simply too challenging to sing? (ha) Have our bodies and vocal ranges changed so dramatically over the past 50, 100, 500 years that tuning issues have now caught up to our singers like they once did with our orchestral instruments?

Whether any of these questions have any grounding or not, I try my best as a composer to avoid keys and modes that I believe singers have difficulty achieving – emotionally, theoretically, visibly (‘annoying’ key signatures such as C# versus Db), or due to range. Moreover, I simply hope that those concepts of modes and tuning I learned so long ago cause me to do what I do with intention and hope for some sort of desired response…

In the meantime, go out and Try one of the following today:

  1. Go out and listen to a particular mode and ponder how it made you feel.
  2. Re-tune your instrument to something out of the ordinary and play something. How did it affect you? *Even for singers – pull out the app on your phone and sing an aria a cappella but to A=430.
  3. Try composing or performing in a key that is out of your usual preference. Do it again.

Happy musicking! 



One thought on “Do singers have temperament?

  1. Wonder how temperament (or lack thereof) affects modes. do or can spontaneous microtonal adjustments make modes work?

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