Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A cappella Pop Quiz #3

In case you missed them, here are quizzes one and two.
Class is in session!
Today, we'll talk about some musical elements you may not be familiar with. As always, you should encourage your entire a cappella group to take this quiz, and compare the results. knowing the answers might very well help your group reach greater heights.
Pop Quiz #3- Some Elements of Music
1) What is Solfege and how was it developed?
2) What are Overtones?
3) When a piece of music is called a “standard,” what does that mean?
4) What is the “Blues Progression?”
5) What is Dubstep and who are some dubstep artists?
6) What is Audiation?
7) What is the difference between perfect pitch and relative pitch?
8) Define one of the following terms: Ostinato, Riff, Loop
9) What is a metronome?
10) What is “Extended Technique?”
Answers: (Don't peek!)
1) Solfege is the musical language used to describe notes on a staff, even before the musical staff had been invented yet. You probably know it better as: “DO RE MI FA SOL LA TI DO.”
Those are not the only syllables in the solfege system. The syllables you are familiar with only apply to the major scale. (or the natural minor scale if you start on LA) Some other syllables include: “ME FI SI TE LI RA.”
The solfege system is the most popular classification of musical language, but it is not the only one in existence. Choral directors sometimes substitute the solfege syllables with numbers, hand signs, or even letter names.
Solfege began as the first way to read music, even before the musical staff was invented. The director would point to spots on his hand and, depending on where he pointed, the choir would sing a specific note. This practice dates all the way back to the medieval ages.
The first solfege syllables were not as we know them today. “DO” was called “UT.” It was changed to “DO” after the latin word for God, Dominus.
2) Overtones are frequencies produced whenever a sound occurs, that are both higher and lower than the fundamental sound. Every time we sing, we produce overtones. These are very difficult to hear, and require training to listen specifically for them.
Overtones are important for three primary reasons in choral singing. The first is that they fill out the sound. A choir who achieves a perfect blend can strengthen the sound of the overtones, thereby creating a fuller chord without having to sing extra notes. The most common genre to practice overtone singing is a barbershop quartet, who relies on locking in and amplifying the overtone series to sound like a bigger ensemble than they really are.
The second reason overtones are important are with sound engineers. The overtone series must be understood, if you want to perfect a recording. Sound engineers can amplify these overtones by increasing the volume of our high, middle, and low frequencies. To ignore the overtones we naturally produce is to miscalculate the levels at which you should record.
The third reason is that we, as singers, produce overtones with every sound we make, so it is a natural part of our singing process, and therefore, should be understood. If you want to hear overtones right away, try the following exercise:
Hum any note and close both your ears so you can hear yourself better. While humming that same note, open and close your mouth by making different vowel shapes, fairly quickly. In addition to the note you are humming, you should be able to detect an extra sound that moves up and down, in accordance with your vowel shapes. These are the overtones you produce.
3) A “standard” is any tune, in any style, that is considered “common knowledge” by musicians who specialize in that genre. By “common knowledge,” I mean that you should know how to play or sing the tune off the top of your head, without needing music.
Barbershop has standards, known as the “Polecat Songs.” These are twelve songs that all “serious” barbershop musicians should know by heart. Bands have standards such as “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Classical Choirs have standards such as “The Hallelujah Chorus” and several Christmas carols.
The most common genre to include “standards” is jazz music. Because the evolution of jazz music was developed primarily by ear, standards are tunes that were shared by bands all across the country. As the history of jazz progressed, the list of tunes grew. Today, there are over 1,000 songs considered to be jazz standards. These include “All The Things You Are,” “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” and “Birdland.”
Does contemporary a cappella have standards? I believe so. Doesn’t everyone know “The Lion Sleeps Tonight?” “For the Longest Time?” “It’s So Hard To say Goodbye to Yesterday?”
4) The “blues progression” is a progression, or sequence, of twelve chords that form the backbone of thousands of songs. It is more commonly referred to as the “Twelve-Bar Blues.” It looks like this:
The “I” stands for the “I” (roman numeral ONE) chord. The “IV” is the four chord. The V7 is the five chord with an added seventh note.
Why are blues progressions important? Because they can be the easiest progression to improvise over, especially with voices. See:
5) Dubstep is a sub-genre of techno music, or electronic dance music. Dubstep recordings rely heavily on a louder, more rhythmic bass line, and a half-time feeling of percussion, as well as samples from other recordings. As the evolution of Dubstep progressed, the more popular percussive rhythms evolved into a “four to the floor” style, where the accent would distribute evenly over four beats without syncopation. The most popular dubstep artists today is Skrillex, though I’m sure someone will comment and argue that Skrillex is not a dubstep artist.
The reason Dubstep is important to understand is because the popular a cappella group, Pentatonix, has gone on record as saying Dubstep, in addition to other genres of electronic music, was the main influence in their arranging style. If you want to be more like Pentatonix, you have to understand the underlying musical factors behind their inspiration.
6) Audiation is a term coined by popular music educator and psychologist Edwin Gordon, whose educational method, the Music Learning Theory, is considered to be one of the five most important music education methods in elementary music classrooms today. (The other four are Kodaly, Orff, Dalcroze, and Suzuki)
Audiation refers to the concept of “inner hearing,” or, in simpler terms, being able to know whether you are on pitch, how far away from the tonic note you are, and internalizing the beat.
Gordon explains the concept of Audiation like this:
“Although music is not a language, the process is the same for audiating and giving meaning to music as for thinking and giving meaning to speech. When you are listening to speech, you are giving meaning to what was just said by recalling and making connections with what you have heard on earlier occasions. At the same time, you are anticipating or predicting what you will be hearing next, based on your experience and understanding. Similarly, when you are listening to music, you are giving meaning to what you just heard by recalling what you have heard on earlier occasions. At the same time, you are anticipating or predicting what you are hearing next, based on your musical achievement. In other words, when you are audiating as you are listening to music, you are summarizing and generalizing from the specific music patterns you have just heard as a way to anticipate or predict what will follow. Every action becomes an interaction. What you are audiating depends on what you have already audiated. As audiation develops, the broader and deeper it becomes and thus the more it is able to reflect on itself. Members of an audience who are not audiating usually do not know when a piece of unfamiliar, or even familiar, music is nearing its end. They may applaud at any time, or not at all, unless they receive clues from others in the audience who are audiating. Through the process of audiation, we sing and move in our minds, without ever having to sing and move physically.” (Gordon, 5-6)
6) Perfect pitch is a cognitive process in which the musician can hear, and replicate, a perfect frequency, most commonly 440Hz, which is an “A.” Though scientists are not entirely sure how it works or why some of us have it, one thing is clear: Perfect pitch is something you are born with. If you don’t have it, you never will.
Relative pitch is similar to perfect pitch, in that the musician can recall any given pitch at will. However, the process of obtaining the pitch is different. Musicians with perfect pitch can replicate the exact frequency the sound produces. Musicians with relative pitch can replicate the note by either internal memory or muscle memory. Relative pitch is something you can train yourself to have. It is a skill, not a talent.
18) They are ALL THE SAME THING!!! All three terms describe a musical phrase, repeated over and over again, and outline a harmonic progression. Classical musicians call this an “ostinato.” Rock and Jazz musicians call it a “riff.” Techno musicians call this a “loop.”
19) This should be an easy one. A metronome is an electronic device that keeps perfect time. Why did I include this in the quiz? Simple. If your group isn’t practicing with a metronome every rehearsal, then your group will never achieve perfect time.
20) Extended technique refers to the musical practice of making sounds that are uncommon for your instrument. For a piano player, extended technique can be as simple as banging on the piano for percussion, or brushing the strings inside the piano. (Ben Folds Five does this on their track, “Smoke.”) For a vocalist, extended technique refers to anything other than singing normally, with good vocal technique. This includes making weird sounds with your mouth, or using weird syllables to imitate instruments.
Extended technique should expand the scope of your sound production. I believe that vocalists are sometimes too concerned with sounding perfect that they ignore the possibilities of what the human voice can really do. I urge every group to experiment with extended technique in one of their arrangements to create something unexpected and new.
Berhard, E. Calculations of harmonics from fundamental frequency. Retrieved fromhttp://www.sengpielaudio.com/calculator-harmonics.htm, on December 11, 2012.
Gordon, E. (1997). Learning sequences in music. Chicago: GIA
McNaught, W. (1893). The history and uses of the sol-fa syllables. London, England: Novello
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest for the A cappella Major


  1. Just a comment: it's not in fact established that perfect pitch is something you are born with. One theory is that absolute pitch is developed during a "critical period of auditory development", after which it cannot be obtained (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absolute_pitch#Nature_vs._nurture). If perfect pitch were an inborn trait, it would be difficult to explain why speakers of tonal languages are more likely to possess it. Regardless, I think the main point is that by the time you would want to consciously obtain perfect pitch, you can't, regardless of how exactly it comes about.

  2. Excellent point. I have not studied the phenomenon myself, and through my research, no one has been able to give definitive proof of why it exists. The whole point was to stress that it cannot be developed, so in that aspect, you are right on the money.