How Much Do Wrong Notes Matter?
There was an interesting discussion a while back among Barbershop Harmony Society Music judges about how much wrong notes should (a) affect our scores when judging and (b) be a focus for our evaluations. There was a general sense that the odd wrong note wasn’t too big a deal – especially with groups of middling attainment, where the occasional duff note rather goes with the territory. Gross or persistent errors, meanwhile, would have a greater impact on scores and would therefore become a higher priority issue to deal with in feedback afterwards.
So far, all fine and obvious. But it got me thinking about two things – the different dynamic in choral versus one-a-part ensembles, and what wrong notes tell us about musicianship.
First, then – it made me realise that wrong notes tends to be a more systemic issue for groups with one singer per part, and there are several reasons for this. To begin with, choral groups have a director out front who is both in a position to hear note errors, and has responsibility for dealing with them. And with several people on a part, you’re just less likely to find persistent notes errors, because people notice when others around them aren’t singing the same as they are, and they check with each other to see what’s going on, so things self-correct over time. And if the singers don’t have the mutual awareness to notice their lack of agreement, you’ll get mud rather than an identifiably wrong note. (This can be a hint to the director: lack of clarity in the sound might be a vocal issue, or it might be a certain haziness about how the music is supposed to go.)
About the only time a choral ensemble presents a clear and unambiguous wrong note is when it is a musically plausible one – say an added or missed accidental – maybe originating from a strong mis-reading that the rest of the section has followed, and which no-one notices because it doesn’t violate anyone’s sense of musical syntax. This is where directors really need to make themselves useful – since part of the job description is knowing how the music is supposed to go.
But the dynamic is different in one-a-part groups. There is that much more responsibility on each singer, since there is nobody else on the same part to keep them honest if they start wandering off the right notes. On the other hand, the impact on the overall sound is much more immediately audible if someone sings a wrong note: instead of mud, you get either an unexpected chord (or non-chord), or a hole in the harmony (one of the most common errors is to sing someone else’s note since the ear tells you it goes with the harmony).
So what wrong notes tell you in this situation is that the singers are just thinking about their own parts, not the overall effect. And with groups of modest skill, this is no surprise. It is a reasonably challenging thing to hold an independent line by yourself in an ensemble (especially some of the chromatic ones that close-harmony styles can throw at you), so if that’s as far as they’ve got, well done for making that huge first step.
But in groups that have aspirations to be any good, wrong notes bother me a lot more, since it suggests a lack of musical awareness at odds with the vocal and communicative skills on display. When my brother was small, he had a book that he knew by heart, including where to turn the pages. He could recite the whole thing in a way that looked like he was reading it, but if you pointed to a specific word and asked what it was, you’d discover that he couldn’t actually figure it out for himself. Wrong notes from an apparently skilled ensemble are a clue that something similar is going on: they’re presenting a highly polished recitation of parts learned by rote, but the persistence of errors demonstrates that they’re not really aware of how it all fits together.
And for me, this isn’t just a matter of technical accomplishment, it affects believability. When you hear a singer sing a wrong word that spoils the sense of the poem,* you suddenly stop suspending your disbelief and see the artifice. Wrong notes have the same effect.
As such, wrong notes can be a small symptom of deeper development needs. The surface issue – a couple of Gs instead of F sharps – may seem trivial, but dealing with the skill deficit that allowed the singer to rehearse them repeatedly is a major undertaking.
*This is a relatively rare event when they’re singing in their first language, but you have to be careful singing in a foreign tongue to an international audience.