I’ve been doing some experiments with expanding my student’s ears to include alternate intonation systems, particularly trying to avoid the wonky thirds on the piano and hear and lock truly in tune fifths. It’s been a challenge to my ears and to my vocabulary to help them hear and understand the difference.
Why I Don’t Mind Auto-Tune
If you listen to pop music now, it’s hard to find anything competently produced that doesn’t use some auto-tune software to improve the intonation of the singer. As a rule, I don’t have a problem with that. Using current technology to improve the overall production has been the rule for decades. In the eighties, world-famous pop stars would do 50 takes for every 2 measure phrase. If a producer can get the right performance faster and fix slight intonation problems later, that’s clearly preferable.
Further, there is a certain variation in pitch center that we accept in live performance that we’ve been trained not to accept in recorded versions. How many times have you walked out of a concert grinning at a fabulous performance, but been unable to rewatch it on video? I’ve experienced this enough times to know it’s real. Many performers sing perfectly well in tune for live performances or for acceptable variance of a generation ago, but not for current pop music. So tweak it in the studio!
I should point out that I don’t think my acceptance should apply to recordings of educational ensembles. In that case it can become a crutch to overcome failures from the director or students to comprehend accurate intonation. If you haven’t learned to sing in tune, you shouldn’t sound in tune on a recording.
Why I Mind Auto-Tune
But I think it’s been a challenge to my students for a different reason than any previous generation trying to learn good intonation. What’s changed?
Growing up, I was exposed to all sorts of singing – pop, classical, jazz, Broadway, etc. And I think even the best singers don’t always agree with the piano. Listen to Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, and you’ll hear slight “inaccuracies” that to me represent a sophisticated approach to pitch beyond what can be heard on a piano. Even in slickly produced pop music, you can hear just-tuned thirds sung on top of keyboards. Maybe the singer doesn’t agree with the pianist, but they are singing in tune.
I believe that some of my current students have never listened to current music that hasn’t been polished to pristine equal temperament. They literally have never been exposed to an alternate concept of intonation.
So when I get confused faces as I sing the difference between a just-tuned third and and equal-tuned one, I must be mindful that they may have never heard one before!