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Monday, November 22, 2004


My sense of harmony is mediocre; it’s my weakest musical faculty. Still, I thought that the esteemed advocates of alternate tuning Kyle Gann and Devin Hurd would be interested in knowing (if they didn’t already) that some popular harmony singers have been on the case for decades:

“We realized that there was more to singing harmony than just what the piano played. You can’t get beautiful overtones if you sing the notes a piano plays; you’ve got to tweak the vocal notes, making them a bit sharp or flat in certain places. Then, you must go for those chords with a distinctive coloration in them, like major sevenths and flatted ninths. Some of those ‘far out’ chords can make such pretty sounds when you sing them. It can make your hair stand up when a chord rings. We sang those chords because they harmonized and made overtones in our ears.” -- Ross Barbour of the Four Freshmen, who were a huge influence on Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.

“Good vocals are much more in tune than the keyboard. The keyboard is out of tune by virtue of Bach’s tempered scale; it allows for modulation, but it doesn’t really present any given key in tune. A good vocal ensemble finds that finer tuning. Even though they may have instruments in the background, the three or four voices that are finding each other find those correct mathematical relationships. Therefore, you get a kind of stability that we call ‘ring and lock.’ When the Beach Boys hit a good major chord it locked, and sounded just beautiful.” -- barbershop vocal arranger David Wright

Both quoted in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice: Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’” by Charles L. Granata
This isn't the same type of alternate tuning that Kyle talks about. It is the just intonation described since before equal tempered keyboards where developed. It is common for orchestral musicians to flat the thirds of major triads, sharp the thirds of minor triads, and sharp the sevenths of major seventh chords. It is cool to see that Brian Wilson was aware of these things.
Thanks for the clarification and amplification. I was aware that Kyle advocates more adventurous tunings than the traditional tuning described in the quotes, but I had thought that he does so in the context of describing the traditional tunings as well. The information about orchestral ensemble is interesting!
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