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Is there a tendency to sing flat when singing out of tune?

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I haven't observed this phenomenon. Sometimes people are a little sharp, and when they are, I say so. –  Alex Basson May 26 '11 at 11:27
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It is roughly 6 times more common to use "little flat" than "little sharp" (I know this not scientific:) –  iddober May 26 '11 at 12:02
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@Alex: I think the OP wonders if singing out of tune too low is more common than too high. Not if the expression "a little sharp" is used or not. –  Gauthier May 26 '11 at 12:11
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@idober Google's result numbers are magical estimates with only a slight basis in reality :P but good question, I've noticed myself that singing sharp is much more rare. I'd like to see an answer with some scientific backing, if there is any! –  Matthew Read May 26 '11 at 18:37
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No-one mentions sharp, because (a little)sharp sounds good! You have to be seriously sharp before things start sounding out. –  DRL May 29 '11 at 1:26

6 Answers 6

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I would not be surprised to hear that singers are more commonly corrected in that direction, but it's certainly not impossible to be "a little sharp." A few reasons this might be perceived:

  • There is generally a correlation between tension and higher pitch, be it tension in the diaphragm or larynx or whatever; when people sing higher in pitch, they generally need to exert more effort for whatever reason. Usually with proper vocal production this goes away, but until then, when singers get tired or aren't giving as much effort as they need to, the pitch can sag.

  • The ear can much more easily detect errors of flatness of pitch. If someone is singing or playing a little sharp, it usually manifests itself as an aural brightness rather than a clashing out-of-tune note. High school trumpet players are notorious for tuning sharp without realizing it, because it makes their sound stand out a little from the rest of the section without sounding "bad" compared to the rest of the ensemble.

So, what everyone has said about tendencies of singers to go flat still applies, but keep in mind that a lot of this behavior you notice has to do with the fact that sharp pitches usually sound like a change in tone, making them harder to identify than notes that are flat.

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+1 I liked this answer because it dealt specifically with perceptions of flat/sharp - in that sense, more relevant than my answer! –  Mich Sampson May 26 '11 at 15:59
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+1 When choirs sing a cappella, they tend to go flat because the throat muscles have to contract to sing higher, and it takes more energy and concentration to sing faster. –  Michael May 26 '11 at 23:45
    
+1 Each note name is a tag assigned to a "range of frequency", better to be a little at the sharp end of that range, than the flat. –  DRL May 29 '11 at 1:25

In contrast with many here, I do think that an untrained singer will tend to go flat more often than sharp. This is usually a technique thing; a collapsed soft palate and improper posture will decrease breath support and drop the pitch of the note. It also closes off the airways which will reduce the natural overtones of the human voice, which makes the note sound duller and lower. Lastly, a lot of difficulties are in high-note singing; if a note is at the extreme high end of your range, it requires even more attention to technique to get there and stay there, and if you don't keep the support, the note will trend flat.

However, improper technique can also cause notes to go sharp. A tight throat and "pushing" will generally tighten the vocal chords and force or pinch a note sharp. These are just as common in novice singers, and in combination with the previous you can get a shotgun effect of roughly equal sharp/flat, But, back to my original point, I think that in most group singing, you'll get more notes trending flat than sharp, unless the piece is fast and/or difficult, in which case your singers will tense up and pinch sharp.

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I know more karaoke singers go slightly sharp than slightly flat, whereas the opposite seems to be true for choirs.

I always let them know if they are too sharp (well, if they're friends, and not someone who might flatten* me in a fit of rage)

*geddit:-)

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I've heard singers (especially choirs) go flat more than I've heard them go sharp.

There's a standard piece of advice that a lot of choir directors give: "Make your ascending intervals big and your descending intervals small." Obviously, this isn't meant to be taken literally (or else everyone would go sharp all the time); it's meant to compensate for a tendency to go flat.

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I don't believe that people are inherently more likely to be a little flat than a little sharp. There are various situations in which untrained singers may be more likely to go flat or sharp, however, and I've put a few possibilities below as a taster. If you are consistently being told that you are little flat, you may want to examine in particular whether you are keeping your soft palette up (to allow for a more resonant, less dulled sound).

  • When singing a descending pattern, untrained singers are more likely not to support the sound as they descend and therefore the sound may drift flat.

  • When singing an ascending pattern, or notes that the singer finds high, untrained singers may be more likely to push the sound from the throat and therefore sound sharp.

  • If when singing a long note, the singer presses down on the sound rather than letting it spin and be energised, then it is likely to head flat.

  • When repeating a note a number of times, if the singer does not re-energise the note each time, it is likely to drift flat.

  • If the singer often practises at home with an old, slightly flat piano, then they may have a tendency to sing flat (it's what the muscles become used to...)

  • If in general the singer uses darker vowels, or a lowered soft palette (so they are not getting much resonance), they may sound flatter.

And I am sure there are lots more...

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My theory would be that if you can't master the song your vochal chords and all that won't achieve the desired note and be a little down, most likely you wont overshoot the note because 1: Your body will try to hit the note on the spot; 2: Your body may not handle the strain very well of a higher note.

So if you aren't in tone, you'll probably be on the one that pushes your body the less...

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