Monday, February 05, 2018

Why being ‘pitchy’ can be in the ear of the beholder

Sometimes when I watch TV singing talent shows like The Voice or X-Factor I think that the singer is out of tune, but the judges don’t seem to notice.

cleaning ear

At other times the judges point out that a singer is ‘pitchy’, but I think they’re perfectly in tune. What’s going on here?

being ‘pitchy’

TV talent shows have introduced the term ‘pitchy’ to mean that a singer is slightly out of tune at certain points. They are ‘off pitch’ and don’t quite hit the note from time to time and it notices.

Singing talent show judges are usually professionals who work in the recording industry. We assume they have finely-tuned hearing when it comes to singers.

But sometimes they point out that a singer is ‘pitchy’ when I don’t think they are. And at other times I’m squirming in my seat at someone singing consistently flat, but the judges don’t seem to notice.

It’s not only TV judges. I can play one of my favourite tracks to a friend and they can scrunch their face up as they perceive the singer to be hitting bum notes. Or they can play something to me and I hear it as badly out of tune.

What’s going on here?

do you hear what I hear?

As far as the TV shows are concerned, there can be a big difference between hearing a person singing live in the studio and sound being broadcast into my living room. But even if that were the case, you’d think that a whole performance would seem ‘off’, not just the occasional note.

Maybe the judges have better ears than I do. Perhaps they notice tiny differences in pitch that I just can’t detect. But then how come I sometimes think someone’s out of tune and they don’t? Am I just hearing something different to them?

The conclusion that I’ve come to is that perceiving singing as ‘on pitch’ is not absolute.

Someone can have their performance auto-tuned so it’s perfectly in tune, but we still might perceive it as being ‘off’ or just not very pleasant.

what we hear when someone sings

There are so many elements that come into play when we’re judging a singer’s performance. I don’t only mean judging in a competitive sense, but when we bring our judgement to bear to decide whether we enjoy somebody’s singing or not.

There is gender, timbre, lyrics, song style, performance, vocal range, emotional content, etc. etc.

Somebody may be singing slightly off key, but if all the other factors are spot on we won’t notice.
Different people also give different weight to different elements of a singer’s performance. For some people the lyrics are paramount, for others it’s clarity of tone. For some it’s the emotional content, for others it’s the warmth of the vocal timbre.

There is also the possibility that we have a hearing problem of our own. Certain pitches may be dulled or emphasised which will give a distorted view.

not everyone will agree

It’s rare that everyone will agree that a singer is spot on pitch-wise. As we’ve seen above, it’s not just pitch that we’re judging a singer on in any case.

When the majority of people hear a voice as pitch-perfect and generally pleasing then a star is born. It doesn’t happen often, which is why the ‘x factor’ is so rare.

Most of the time singers’ voices are like Marmite: some people will love them whilst others will be left cold.

It’s usually obvious when somebody is singing badly out of tune. The rest of the time, when somebody accuses you of being ‘pitchy’ take it with a pinch of salt. It says much more about them and their own singing tastes and less about your ability to sing in tune.

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Chris Rowbury



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Chris Rowbury


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