Atonal questions for choral conductors.

Well, the QUESTIONS aren’t atonal, but you know what I mean! :unamused:

I’m in the process of re-engraving (this time in Dorico, after earlier handwritten, Finale, and Sibelius versions) an atonal choral piece SATB that I wrote back in 1964. On reviewing it I am second-guessing my original notation in several places, because of difficulty in recognizing odd intervals, such as augmented seconds and diminished sixths. When there are whole-tone scales going up, I tend to use sharps, and when going down flats. But sometimes it gets more complicated than that.

So I have questions for choral conductors whose choirs are comfortable with reading such music:

  1. Do your singers tend to read by interval as opposed to actual note-names?
  2. Do they get confused if there are, say, a D-flat and a D-sharp in the same measure?
  3. Are they bothered by the use of enharmonic equivalents for B, C, E, and F, if that makes the interval easier to figure out?
  4. Do they tend to try to “think in C” when there is no key signature?
  5. Are your altos and tenors (especially) comfortable with chromatic scale passages both up and down?

(I often wish there was a way in music notation to indicate “that black note right there, regardless of what you want to call it.” That would make life so much easier!)

To give an example of the kind of issue I see in my piece, picture a passage for sopranos starting on middle C and going from there up to F#, Bb, C, and Eb. Would it be better to use a Gb for the F#, because it’s an easier interval?

Another example: Sopranos again, starting on high Eb top space, or D# the line below that. Then down, whole-scale-wise all the way to the Eb on the bottom line, and then jumping back up the whole octave to the top note. Right now I am using a D# for the top note because it’s easier to read the whole step from the second to the third note of the scale going down, that is, C# to B, but when I get to the bottom I do call it Eb, because the whole step from F to Eb is easier to read than from F to D#. But then the leap up to the original note looks funny, because a leap from the low Eb to the high D# doesn’t LOOK like an octave. How would your singers prefer to see such a passage notated?!?

Thanks in advance for any help on this.

  1. It depends. Rather than simple intervals, it helps to use ones that are temporarily key-related. The exception to this is when a note is returned to more than once, it becomes an aural memory of its own, so is best notated the same each time.
  2. No. (Although depends on context - D flat, D sharp, F would not be read as easily as Db, Eb, F - see answer to 1.)
  3. Definitely not. Enharmonics are much better if they make more contextual sense.
  4. Maybe at the start, but IME singers are pretty aware of a ‘key of the moment’ and will aurally find one even if there is nothing obvious.
  5. Altos and tenors generally more comfortable with anything, but will again try to find the aural context, unless (or even if…) it is a soli melodic passage.

To further complicate matters… I think that if you write C F# Bb C Eb or C Gb Bb C Eb you’ll get a slightly different pitch for the F#/Gb. Both would be read relative to the C.

For the WT scale. I would write it in seconds and leave the leap as D# to Eb. It at least pushes the problem to a noticeable point.

In most ensembles the conductor will have to point some of this stuff out, as well as vertical relations between parts (which also bear on the spelling).

One other thing…
Tuning atonal choral music takes careful attention to where slight pitch shifts are happening (they will happen if everything is tuned nicely). This often needs deliberate action along the lines of ‘tenors have to listen to the basses when you get to your Eb in b.6 - don’t force the basses down’.

Using the term “black note” is referring to a keyboard. Fine for those who play one; and perhaps difficult for that person to think like someone who doesnt play a keyboard instrument. One might say the same about the physical properties of a string, woodwind or brass instrument. Faced with an A, the violinist thinks in terms of the options for string/finger combinations.

To give an example of the kind of issue I see in my piece, picture a passage for sopranos starting on middle C and going from there up to F#, Bb, C, and Eb. Would it be better to use a Gb for the F#, because it’s an easier interval?

My reaction (thinking in equal temperament) would be to realise that the Bb is also an A#. A# makes the second interval a major third, and then thinking of it as a Bb makes the third interval a major second. Alternatively, I could imagine the whole passage as a diminished seventh, with a sharpened A. Actually, I dont myself find C to Gb an easy interval to imagine!

Sometimes it is helpful to indicate an enharmonic pitch in parentheses to make the progression clearer from a different perspective.

This musing tells me that there are lots of ways to conceptualise a passage like this and that one way of notating it will make it easier for some, and more difficult for others. Perhaps this is not very helpful to you, but an intelligent conductor can help the choir to find these alternative viewpoints.

An interesting exercise is given by the beginning of Basil Harwood’s tune to Thy hand O God has guided. The first three notes are (descending) A F# C#. The following D locks this firmly into D major. But now, imagine them as the three notes of an F# minor chord, and the C# sounds entirely different. This is another problem that we inherit from our long-standing tonal traditions!


Enharmonic spellings that make sense linearly are especially important when dealing with voices. You can clarify most intervals with auxiliary notes, as david-p said, though these aren’t something you can immediately to pull off in Dorico yet. This goes even for tonal music, in fact, in chromatic mediant modulations or common-tone modulations.

Thanks to all, especially Steve. I had not thought at all about the relationship between the voices, only how the part would look to each voice. Thinking about how the tenors hear what the basses are doing, etc., will help a great deal in resolving some of this.