A Longitudinal Study of Intonation in an a cappella Singing Quintet

Sara D'Amario, David Howard, Helena Daffern, Nicola Pennill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The skill to control pitch accurately is an important feature of performance in singing ensembles as it boosts musical excellence. Previous studies analyzing single performance sessions provide inconclusive and contrasting results on whether singers in ensembles tend to use a tuning system which deviates from equal temperament for their intonation. The present study observes the evolution of intonation in a newly formed student singing quintet during their first term of study.

A semiprofessional singing quintet was recorded using head-worn microphones and electrolaryngograph electrodes to allow fundamental frequency (fo) evaluation of the individual voices. In addition, a camcorder was used to record verbal interactions between singers. The ensemble rehearsed a homophonic piece arranged for the study during five rehearsal sessions over four months. Singers practiced the piece for 10 minutes in each rehearsal, and performed three repetitions of the same pieces pre-rehearsal and post-rehearsal. Audio and electrolaryngograph data of the repeated performances, and video recordings of the rehearsals were analyzed. Aspects of intonation were then measured by extracting the fo values from the electrolaryngograph and acoustic signal, and compared within rehearsals (pre and post) and between rehearsals (rehearsals 1 to 5), and across repetitions (take 1 to 3). Time-stamped transcriptions of rehearsal discussions were used to identify verbal interactions related to tuning, the tuning strategies adopted, and their location (bar or chord) within the piece.

Tuning of each singer was closer to equal temperament than just intonation, but the size of major thirds was slightly closer to just intonation, and minor thirds closer to equal temperament. These findings were consistent within and between rehearsals, and across repetitions. Tuning was highlighted as an important feature of rehearsal during the study term, and a range of strategies were adopted to solve tuning related issues. This study provides a novel holistic assessment of tuning strategies within a singing ensemble, furthering understanding of performance practices as well as revealing the complex approach needed for future research in this area. These findings are particularly important for directors and singers to tailor rehearsal strategies that address tuning in singing ensembles, showing that approaches need to be context driven rather than based on theoretical ideal.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Voice
Early online date24 Aug 2018
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 24 Aug 2018


  • intonation
  • pitch drift
  • singing ensemble
  • ensemble communication

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