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My piano is nearly 100 years old, and can no longer stay in tune. Repairing it would cost much more than the piano is worth, and I'm not ready to spring for a new one just yet. So for now I am stuck playing it. It's somewhat in tune with itself — within an octave is usually OK, spread two octaves and you'll notice a problem — but it's somewhere around 2.5 semitones lower than it should be.

I know that opera singers, for example, can damage their voices by singing out of tune. Is anything similar for the ear? Specifically, will constantly listening to this off-key piano as I play it harm my ability to recognize notes in tune or to play by ear? Is it long-term or can I easily recover? And what evidence is there to support this?

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Opera singers damaging their voices by singing out of tune? Don't you mean to say they damage their reputation? – oberdada Jun 19 '13 at 23:09
@oberdada Nope. If you're wondering how/why, that might make for a good question. – Matthew Read Jun 19 '13 at 23:33
up vote 13 down vote accepted

An Anecdote:
This is totally anecdotal , but I have always liked to tune with a tuner and make sure that I was right at 440. After doing this for a year or so, I could usually feel if my group was higher or lower than 440, but it wouldn't bother after a minute of adjusting.

For me, I have always understood playing in tune as a sort triangulation between:

  • Relative pitch
  • A Weaker sense of of absolute pitch
  • Muscle Memory

Being consistent with correct pitches helps with the absolute pitch aspect of this "triangulation".

Practice Makes Permanent:
I have always regarded "practice makes perfect" as a load of malarkey. All practicing does is ingrain things and make you better at doing them. If you practice do something something wrong, you get better and more used to do it wrong. Therefore I would recommend that you can tune your piano.

But, still be flexible:
That being said, you can take this too far very easily. Another valued trait in a skilled musician is flexibility. So although I would say it is better for your ear to play on a tuned piano as much as possible, you don't want to go to the other extreme and be unwilling or afraid to practice on an instrument or situation that is not perfect.

Lastly, Pitch is learned:
In a sense, equal tempered tuning is "wrong" according to overtones. But to most western ears it sounds right. This is also true of some world music that uses alternate scales. So this might a source of evidence that playing something that is out of tune for extended periods of times (Say, at least a month) is probably not a good idea.

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Perfect practice makes perfect permanance. – Michael May 3 '11 at 19:16

People with perfect pitch often find out-of-tune notes very disturbing even when played alone. People with relative pitch don't, unless they're played played together with in-tune pitches.

I honestly don't understand why people with perfect pitch hate out of tune music, even when the intervals are correct. I don't have perfect pitch, and I'm glad I don't.

The exact pitch of a note doesn't matter, A 440 is just a choice people made to simplify tuning. There's a need for a standard tuning (for obvious reasons).

Given that A 440 is just an arbitrary choice (440 is not a magic number to our ears), I believe that perfect pitch would be extremely rare and inefficient if there were no standard tuning.

I think it's probable that people with perfect pitch can be negatively affected by always hearing out-of-tune music (especially if their ear is still developing), because the way they developed perfect pitch was through hearing the same exact pitches for an extended period of time (probably in their early childhood).

For people with relative pitch (who aren't trying to develop perfect pitch) tuning doesn't matter, and I shouldn't affect their aural skills at all. If the instrument is not in tune with itself, it's going to be unpleasant, but it's not going to affect your aural skills. In fact it might help you memorize the smaller intervals, and get better a tuning.

P.S : one of my friends is a guitarist who has perfect pitch, but he's not that good at it. It takes him a second or two to guess a note, and gets it right about 80-90% of the time. I used to test him buy playing notes that he would try to guess. One time, I gave him a few notes and he was off a semitone on most of them. The reason, he said, was that he'd been playing his guitar without tuning it for a while and it slowly became a little flat, and his ear got used to it. My guitar however was in tune, so the notes sounded a little sharp to him.

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+1 for mentioning that 440 is arbitrary. It's a standard simply because it's easy to produce; older instruments were tuned to other tunings. – Garan Jun 22 '13 at 4:03
I always get annoyed when people play a music that I know well and add in their own twists by changing the intervals in some parts of the song (and even with the original artist who played their song slightly differently in live and studio recording and I'm familiar with one but not the other), it just feels wrong, even when done deliberately. I'm sure people with perfect pitch experience similar thing with out of tune musics, probably worse, they sound different than expected and so everything sounds wrong, which is really annoying. – Lie Ryan May 20 '14 at 4:36

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