IIt’s an expression we use all the time, especially on Radio 3, where our driving show is literally called Allowed. But that begs the question; what does being “in tune” really mean? It seems obvious: being out of tune versus being in tune is the contrast between Florence Foster Jenkinsthe deliciously dreadful attempts to sing act II of the queen of the night aria from by Mozart The magic flute and the way any professional soprano sings the same aria, with those high Fs ringing gloriously in the right place. It’s the difference between the merry slaughter of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by the Portsmouth Sinfonia – totally out of tune – and how the Hallé Orchestra could play it, with decent accuracy.
And yet, intonation is a more slippery concept than it seems. According to the immutable pitches of piano keyboards and digital sequencers, each semitone in the scale has an absolute value. This is because of the equal temperament theory, which divides the octave into 12 equal parts. Thanks in part to the predominance of sequencers in world pop music, this way of hearing has become the dominant mode of musical perception on the planet. But equal temperament is an acoustic fudge, because it irons out the complexities of the harmonic series to fit those 12 notes into semitone-sized straitjackets.
And that’s not how our favorite string players or singers actually behave. String quartets subtly alter the size of the semitones they play according to the ever-changing harmonic and melodic tapestry of mozart, Beethoven Where Haydn. As Arnold Steinhardt, the leader of the Guarneri Quartet, said, “The difficulty in string quartet intonation is determining how much freedom you have at any given time.” This “freedom” means expressively bending and shaping their tuning to be in tune not with an equally tempered abstraction, but with the emotional and acoustic context of the music.
Which means that to play music that suits them, and us, string quartets must play, according to the piano, out of tune. It’s the same paradox as singers like Maria Callas and Ella Fitzgerald (a die best jazz singers in the world), Bessie Smith and Tom Waits demonstrate this: their voices, vibrato and expressive intensity are perfectly tuned, but they actually sing between and around the notes – less dramatically than Florence Foster Jenkins, but the difference is of degree, not of kind.
The feeling and acoustic reality of being in tune is about something much bigger and more meaningful than just getting the right notes, simply fitting into the compromised calculation of the piano keyboard or digital sequencer. Like our music, our emotions aren’t really tempered in the same way: they’re messy in between and in sympathy with the people and the contexts of our lives. To be truly in tune, our music must resonate with that same expressive wildness.
Top illustration by Maria Corte Maidagan