One of the biggest differences between classical music and other forms, such as jazz and rock, is the approach to pitch. In classical music, partly because it is based on the traditional orchestra, maintaining the correct pitch, staying strictly in tune, is mandatory.
Classical musicians spend thousands of hours practising to ensure that they are always in tune. Those that fail to achieve this also fail to find jobs and develop careers.
There can be some room to manoeuvre at the very top end of the performance pyramid. The great opera singer, Maria Callas, for example, tended to sing slightly around the pitch to enhance the musical intensity. Her great competitor, Joan Sutherland, never did; she was always “perfect”. It is why this writer greatly prefers the singing of Callas, which was surely one of the wonders of operatic tradition.
In other types of music, the approach to pitch is very different. Moving above and below the note has been commonplace in jazz, whose roots are in blues, a form in which nuance of pitch is common.
Listen, for example, to the playing of the saxophonist Sidney Bechet, one of the first important jazz soloists. He consistently slides up to notes, starting below the pitch then moving up to become in tune. It creates a sense of musical seduction, of sly sultriness. To audiences of the time it must have sounded very new.
Not all jazz musicians employ different ways of playing with pitch and tuning. Trumpeter Louis Armstrong tended to play in tune most of the time, preferring instead to get variation by altering his timbre: swells, the distinctive “growling”, crescendos and diminuendos. The great tenor saxophonist, Stan Getz, almost always played perfectly in tune, which he exploited to get the smooth sonority that became his trademark.
Tenor saxophonist John Coltrane tended to play deliberately sharp (above the note) in order to cut through and create the sense of pained extremism that characterised his aesthetic. That it was deliberate was evident by the fact that he would go back into tune when it suited his musical mood.
The greatest exponents in jazz of playing around the note were saxophonist Sonny Rollins and trumpeter Miles Davis. Sonny Rollins tended to use his pitch variation while playing fast lines, rather than in his long notes. It helped give his improvisations their distinctive perambulating quality.
It was Davis who took pitch variation to a level that has never been surpassed. He created his unique, plaintive sound by moving above and below the note, enabling him to evoke different emotions. That there have been few plausible imitators of this approach is evidence of how difficult it is to absorb this into an instrumental technique.
To move effectively around the pitch, at least on an instrument, requires knowing exactly where the note should be. Otherwise it will not work. It will simply sound out of tune, untrained.
But there are exceptions. With popular music singing the situation is a little different. The pitch can be varied without necessarily having the skill to know how to stay in tune. All that is required is to sound sufficiently expressive. Indeed, some pop singers have built careers sounding horribly out of tune: the execrable Neil Young and, to a lesser extent, Bob Dylan being examples.
In tune, though that’s no virtue
Ironically, the digital technology of pitch tuning that is now routinely used in the studio, and sometimes in live performance, to make singers sound in tune is one of the reasons that popular music has developed a sameness and lack of expression. As all performers are put “in tune” they are becoming harder to tell apart. The very technique being used to make the music more commercial is probably making it less saleable because it sounds less human.
Not all classical music is rigidly in tune. There are compositions written with microtones; and George Gershwin’s famous Rhapsody in Blue has a clarinet line in which pitch bending is prominent, indeed essential.
But for the most part the technical strictures of classical music make perfect tuning essential. If the violins in the string section, for example, were to play around the pitch, the results would be cacophonous. The only room for any variation is the soloists, and then only slightly.
It means that for certain types of human expression, it is necessary to listen to performers in other musical forms. The out-of-tune ones.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.