I overheard a bit of a conversation about pitching at tonight’s singing. This prompted a longer conversation with Marsha on the drive home: we know that the pitch at which we sing a tune is lower than the notated pitch, but by how much?
When I got home, I looked through some notes I had made a year ago when I decided to check actual sung pitches on vintage recordings of traditional Southern singings. Here’s what I found:
- 38b Windham: Notated in E minor, sung in D minor by Alabama Sacred Harp Singing Convention, 1942 Lomax recording.
- 45t New Britain: Notated in C major, sung at around A major on “Original Sacred Harp”, 2007 Bibletone re-release of on older recording (1960s).
- 47b Idumea: Notated in A minor, sung in E minor, by Lookout Mountain Convention, 1968.
- 49b Mear: Notated in G major, sung in E major on “Fasola – 53 Shape Note Folk Hymns,” 1970 Smithsonian recording.
I had also checked the pitch on one contemporary traditional Southern singing:
- 39t Detroit: Notated in E minor, sung halfway between D and D# minor on “In Sweetest Union Join,” United Sacred Harp Musical Association, 2003.
So as a rough average, traditional sung pitch is about a third below notated pitch — but actual sung pitches could range from a minor second below notated pitch, to a fifth below notated pitch.
Update: Marsha checked the entire “In Sweetest Union Join” recording and found most songs pitched a major or minor third below notated pitch, though one song was pitched above notated pitch (!), and one song as low as a diminished fourth below.