On Tune-Up Chords

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tune-upI had an email from my friend Annie from Bristol Fashion last week with one of those questions that looks at first like a small, specific question, but actually opens up to not a quick a answer when you start to look at it. She said:

Why don't choruses use a two note tune up at the beginning of a song? It's done in most 4tet's, so is it frowned on in barbershop circles/competition for a chorus to do it, if so, why? If it means that the first chord is true and sets the rest of the song up then isn't that a plus?

So, there are several things to talk about here: (a) what is a tune-up, and what is it for? (b) is it to be approved of or frowned upon? (c) what’s with the difference between chorus and quartet?

Annie refers to a two-note tune-up, to which I presume she means one where everyone starts on the unison key note, then moves out to a 4-part tonic chord. This is probably the most common one used in British barbershop, although there are other forms of tune-up. If the song starts on something other than the tonic chord, you might swipe from this to the start chord, for instance. Or you might omit the unison and just sing the key chord (and/or the start chord).

In all cases, though, the point is, as she says to help secure the start of the song. And there are different views on how valuable a tool it is for this end. I’ve heard Barry Clinton, for instance, recommend them for any situation: if there’s the slightest possibility you might have an insecure start, he suggested, do a tune-up. The advantage it gives, in this view is both musical (getting the tonal centre clearly and audibly established and agreed upon within the group) and psychological (it gives the singers confidence by removing the doubts they had about the start of the song).

On the same occasion that Barry was encouraging tune-up chords, though, John Grant was discouraging them. The thing is, he said, that if you struggle to start a song in tune, you’re just as likely to struggle to start a tune-up chord in tune. Conversely, if you can sing a tune-up chord well, you’ve got the skills to start straight into the song just fine. Both the apparent musical and psychological advantages are undermined if the tune-up chord is wobbly or late-to-tune, so it ends up just being a distraction for both singers and audience.

As in many debates, they both have a point. Clearly (as in John’s position) singing a tune-up chord can’t substitute for developing you inner hearing to internalise the sense of key. Though it may (as in Barry’s position) be a useful tool in helping develop it.

And indeed, many ensembles treat the tune-up chord as something they use as a stepping stone on their journey towards more secure musicianship. And I suspect that how it’s used will make the difference between it being a development tool versus a crutch that the ensemble never either masters or gets beyond. The primary thing is to get the ear out ahead of the voice. Use the tune-up as a discipline to focus the mind on the key note before singing, rather than an opportunity for the brains to catch up with the voices after the singing has started.

I should imagine that the best use of a tune-up chord is the imaginary one: where you mentally project the tune-up rather than singing it out loud. You’ll probably need to have learned to sing it out loud first before you can do this, but this will be acting more clearly as a prequel to relying on the inner ear.

And then there’s the question of different practices in quartet and choruses. I don’t think there’s any particular prejudice about which ensembles should use tune-ups in either the barbershop judging system (Annie’s specific question) or the wider singing world. There’s a consensus that if you sing better with one, then it’s a good idea, but if they don’t help you and/or you do fine without them then don’t bother. It could be that in practice more quartets than choruses use them because they feel more in need of the confidence-boosting function: you are that much more exposed when there’s only one of you on a part.

And indeed, the chorus habit (not that prevalent in British barbershop, although some of the bigger Sweet Adelines choruses are taking it up) of blasting out a tonic chord through the announcement and applause that heralds their performance is quite obviously more about confidence than tuning up. As an audience member I find it something of a distraction – I’m bothered by the juxtaposition of the regular frequencies of pitch and irregular frequencies of noise – but I’m prepared to believe that the buzz it generates within the singers helps them perform with more panache so that overall I get the benefit.

So, I hope that helps answer your question, Annie.

Well thank you so much for such a detailed answer Liz. Much appreciated.

As a relatively new person to barbershop, it surprises me constantly that there are so many small, some may say insignificant things that produce such an amazing sound. I for one always just launched into a song....pitch.....what was that then, and how would it make any differenct to what I was singing. Well of course if you are singing on your own, I guess it doesn't really matter, so long as you are singing a capella. Bit of a problem though if you start adding voices AND harmony as well.

Along with tuning up there are tall vowels to contend with and all that breathing technique stuff........well thank goodness it's all got us where we are today. Convention........here we come!

Thank you again and look forward to seeing you again.

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