Saturday, March 04, 2017

Musical Scales May have Developed to Accommodate Vocal Limitations

For singers and their audiences, being “in tune” might not be as important as we think. The fact that singers fail to consistently hit the right notes may have implications for the development of musical scales as well. That’s the suggestion of a study from the University at Buffalo. Click here to read the full article.
At issue is not whether singers hit the right or wrong note, but how close they are to any note. It’s what researchers call micro-tuning, according to Peter Pfordresher, a UB psychologist and lead author of a new paper with Steven Brown of McMaster University published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology.
The researchers studied three groups of singers of varying abilities: professionals, untrained singers who tend to sing in tune and the untrained who tend not to sing in tune. They weren’t listening for whether the singers were hitting the right notes, but rather how close they were to any note.
Pfordresher and Brown found the groups did not differ in terms of micro-tuning, although they were very different aesthetically.
“Our proposal is, maybe scales were designed as a way to accommodate how out of tune, how variable singers are,” Pfordresher says. “We suggest that the starting point for scales and tuning for scales was probably not the tuning of musical instruments, but the mistuning of the human voice.”
The space between Do and Re, for instance, is heard by playing two adjacent white keys on a piano keyboard and provides that kind of liberal spacing.
“When you look around the world, you find there are a couple of properties for scales,” says Pfordresher. “There’s a tendency to have notes that are spaced somewhat broadly, much more broadly than the fine gradations in pitch that our ears can pick up.”
This broad spacing helps all kinds of singers, including the nightingale wren, a bird whose virtuosity has been the province of poets since antiquity. Pfordresher says earlier research by Marcelo Araya-Salas found that flexibly tuned instruments like violins and trombones were more in tune than the wren’s song.
Written by Bert Gambini and published in UB Now on February 27, 2017.

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