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Choir Effect

December 5, 2005

‘Tis the season for choral singing. Bob Hirshon has this story about a mystery hidden in the melodies.


The mystery of choir singing. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.


This professional choir sounds beautiful, but physicist and conductor Harald Jers of the University of Cologne has found an ugly secret lurks in the beauty. He attached a microphone to the nose of each chorus member, so he could record them separately. It came out like this:


Out of tune—and completely out of character for this professional solo singer. In fact, Jers says all the singers were out of tune individually, but somehow the choir as a whole remained in tune.

HARALD JERS (University of Cologne):
Our guess is that there must be something that the voices should sound a little bit worse but that the sum of the whole choir is better in the end.

How do the ugly tones add up to a beautiful one? It’s a music mystery he hopes physics can solve. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.